As I Please

in Tribune

20 October 1944

George Orwell

READING recently a book on Brigadier-General Wingate, who was killed early this year in Burma, I was interested to note that Wingate’s ‘Chindits’, who marched across Upper Burma in 1943, were wearing not the usual clumsy and conspicuous pith helmets, but slouch hats like those worn in the Ghurka regiments. This sounds a very small point, but it is of considerable social significance, and twenty or even ten years ago it would have been impossible. Nearly everyone, including nearly any doctor, would have predicted that large numbers of these men would perish of sunstroke.

Till recently the European in India had an essentially superstitious attitude towards heat apoplexy, or sunstroke as it is usually called. It was supposed to be something dangerous to Europeans but not to Asiatics. When I was in Burma I was assured that the Indian sun, even at its coolest, had a peculiar deadliness which could only be warded off by wearing a helmet of cork or pith. ‘Natives’, their skulls being thicker, had no need of these helmets, but for a European even a double felt hat was not a reliable protection.

But why should the sun in Burma, even on a positively chilly day, be deadlier than in England? Because we were nearer to the equator and the rays of the sun were more perpendicular. This astonished me, for obviously the rays of the sun are only perpendicular round about noon. How about the early morning, when the sun is creeping over the horizon and the rays are parallel with the earth? It is exactly then, I was told, that they are at their most dangerous. But how about the rainy season, when one frequently does not see the sun for days at a time? Then of all times, the old-stagers told me, you should cling to your topi. (The pith helmet is called a ‘topi’, which is Hindustani for ‘hat’.) The deadly rays filter through the envelope of cloud just the same, and on a dull day you are in danger of forgetting it. Take your topi off in the open for one moment, even for one moment, and you may be a dead man. Some people, not content with cork and pith, believed in the mysterious virtues of red flannel and had little patches of it sewn into their shirts over the top vertebra. The Eurasian community, anxious to emphasize their white ancestry, used at that time to wear topis even larger and thicker than those of the British.

My own disbelief in all this dated from the day when my topi was blown off my head and carried away down a stream, leaving me to march bareheaded all day without ill effects. But I soon noticed other facts that conflicted with the prevailing belief. To begin with some Europeans (for instance sailors working in the rigging of ships) did habitually go bareheaded in the sun. Again, when cases of sunstroke occurred (for they do occur), they did not seem to be traceable to any occasion when the victim had taken his hat off. They happened to Asiatics as well as to Europeans, and were said to be commonest among stokers on coal-burning ships, who were subjected to fierce heat but not to sunshine. The final blow was the discovery that the topi, supposedly the only protection against the Indian sun, is quite a recent invention. The early Europeans in India knew nothing of it. In short, the whole thing was bunkum.

But why should the British in India have built up this superstition about sunstroke? Because an endless emphasis on the differences between the ‘natives’ and yourself is one of the necessary props of imperialism. You can only rule over a subject race, especially when you are in a small minority, if you honestly believe yourself to be racially superior, and it helps towards this if you can believe that the subject race is biologically different. There were quite a number of ways in which Europeans in India used to believe, without any evidence, that Asiatic bodies differed from their own. Even quite considerable anatomical differences were supposed to exist. But this nonsense about Europeans being subject to sunstroke and Orientals not, was the most cherished superstition of all. The thin skull was the mark of racial superiority, and the pith topi was a sort of emblem of imperialism.

That is why it seems to me a sign of the changing times that Wingate’s men, British, Indians and Burmese alike, set forth in ordinary felt hats. They suffered from dysentery, malaria, leeches, lice, snakes and Japanese, but I do not think any cases of sunstroke were recorded. And above all, there seems to have been no official protest and no feeling that the abandonment of the topi was a subtle blow at white prestige.

.     .     .     .     .

IN Mr Stanley Unwin’s recent pamphlet, Publishing in Peace and War, some interesting facts are given about the quantities of paper allotted by the Government for various purposes. Here are the present figures:

Newspapers . . . . . . . . . . . . 250,000 tons
H.M. Stationery Office . . . . 100,000   ”
Periodicals (nearly) . . . . . . . 50,000   ”
Books . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22,000   ”

A particularly interesting detail is that out of the 100,000 tons allotted to the Stationery Office, the War Office gets no less than 25,000 tons, or more than the whole book trade put together.

I haven’t personally witnessed, but I can imagine, the kind of wastage of paper that goes on in the War Office and the various ministries. I know what happens in the B.B.C. Would you credit, for instance, that of every radio programme that goes out on the air, even the inconceivable rubbish of cross-talk comedians, at least six copies are typed—sometimes as many as fifteen copies? For years past all this trash has been filed somewhere or other in enormous archives. At the same time paper for books is so short that even the most hackneyed ‘classic’ is liable to be out of print, many schools are short of text-books, new writers get no chance to start and even established writers have to expect a gap of a year or two years between finishing a book and seeing it published. And incidentally the export trade in English books has been largely swallowed up by America.

This part of Mr Unwin’s pamphlet is a depressing story. He writes with justified anger of the contemptuous attitude towards books shown by one government department after another. But in fact the English as a whole, though somewhat better in this respect than the Americans, have not much reverence for books. It is in the small countries, such as Finland and Holland, that the book consumption per head is largest. Is it not rather humiliating to be told that a few years before the war a remote town like Reykjavik had a better display of British books than any English town of comparable size?

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