As I Please

in Tribune

9 February 1945

George Orwell

EVERY time I wash up a batch of crockery I marvel at the unimaginativeness of human beings who can travel under the sea and fly through the clouds, and yet have not known how to eliminate this sordid time-wasting drudgery from their daily lives. If you go into the Bronze Age room in the British Museum (when it is open again) you will notice that some of our domestic appliances have barely altered in three thousand years. A saucepan, say, or a comb, is very much the same thing as it was when the Greeks were besieging Troy. In the same period we have advanced from the leaky galley to the 50,000 ton liner, and from the ox-cart to the aeroplane.

It is true that in the modern labour-saving house in which a tiny percentage of human beings live, a job like washing-up takes rather less time than it used to. With soap flakes, abundant hot water, plate racks, a well-lighted kitchen, and—what very few houses in England have—an easy method of rubbish disposal, you can make it more tolerable than it used to be when copper dishes had to be scoured with sand in porous stone sinks by the light of a candle. But certain jobs (for instance, cleaning out a frying-pan which has had fish in it) are inherently disgusting, and this whole business of messing about with dishmops and basins of hot water is incredibly primitive. At this moment the block of flats I live in is partly uninhabitable: not because of enemy action, but because accumulations of snow have caused water to pour through the roof and bring down the plaster from the ceilings. It is taken for granted that this calamity will happen every time there is an exceptionally heavy fall of snow. For three days there was no water in the taps because the pipes were frozen: that, too, is a normal, almost yearly experience. And the newspapers have just announced that the number of burst pipes is so enormous that the job of repairing them will not be completed till the end of 1945—when, I suppose, there will be another big frost and they will all burst again. If our methods of making war had kept pace with our methods of keeping house, we should be just about on the verge of discovering gunpowder.

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TO come back to washing-up. Like sweeping, scrubbing and dusting, it is of its nature an uncreative and life-wasting job. You cannot make an art out of it as you can out of cooking or gardening. What, then, is to be done about it? Well, this whole problem of housework has three possible solutions. One is to simplify our way of living very greatly; another is to assume, as our ancestors did, that life on earth is inherently miserable, and that it is entirely natural for the average women to be a broken-down drudge at the age of thirty; and the other is to devote as much intelligence to rationalizing the interiors of our houses as we have devoted to transport and communications.

I fancy we shall choose the third alternative. If one thinks simply in terms of saving trouble and plans one’s home as ruthlessly as one would plan a machine, it is possible to imagine houses and flats which would be comfortable and would entail very little work. Central heating, rubbish chutes, proper consumption of smoke, cornerless rooms, electrically warmed beds and elimination of carpets would make a lot of difference. But as for washing-up, I see no solution except to do it communally, like a laundry. Every morning the municipal van will stop at your door and carry off a box of dirty crocks, handing you a box of clean ones (marked with your initial of course) in return. This would be hardly more difficult to organize than the daily diaper service which was operating before the war. And though it would mean that some people would have to be full-time washers-up, as some people are now full-time laundry-workers, the all-over saving in labour and fuel would be enormous. The alternatives are to continue fumbling about with greasy dishmops, or to eat out of paper containers.

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A SIDELIGHT on the habits of book reviewers.

Some time ago I was commissioned to write an essay for an annual scrapbook which shall be nameless. At the very last minute (and when I had had the money, I am glad to say) the publishers decided that my essay must be suppressed. By this time the book was actually in process of being bound. The essay was cut out of every copy, but for technical reasons it was impossible to remove my name from the list of contributors on the title page.

Since then I have received a number of press cuttings referring to this book. In each case I am mentioned as being ’among the contributors’, and not one reviewer has yet spotted that the contribution attributed to me is not actually there.

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NOW that ‘explore every avenue’ and ‘leave no stone unturned’ have been more or less laughed out of existence, I think it is time to start a campaign against some more of the worn-out and useless metaphors with which our language is littered.

Three that we could well do without out are ‘cross swords with’, ‘ring the changes on’, and ‘take up the cudgels for’. How lifeless these and similar expressions have become you can see from the fact that in many cases people do not even remember their original meaning. What is meant by ‘ringing the changes’, for instance? Probably it once had something to do with church bells, but one could not be sure without consulting a dictionary, ‘Take up the cudgels for’ possibly derives from the almost obsolete game of singlestick. When an expression has moved as far from its original meaning as this, its value as a metaphor—that is, its power of providing a concrete illustration—has vanished. There is no sense whatever in writing ‘X took up the cudgels for Y’. One should either say ‘X defended Y’ or think of a new metaphor which genuinely makes one’s meaning more vivid.

In some cases these overworked expressions have actually been severed from their original meaning by means of a misspelling. An example is ‘plain sailing’ (plane sailing). And the expression ‘toe the line’ is now coming to be spelled quite frequently ‘tow the line’. People who are capable of this kind of thing evidently don’t attach any definite meaning to the words they use.

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I WONDER whether people read Bret Harte nowadays. I do not know why, but for an hour past some stanzas from ‘The Society upon the Stanislaus’ have been running in my head. It describes a meeting of an archaeological society which ended in disorder:

Then Abner Dean of Angel’s raised a point of order, when
A chunk of old red sandstone took him in the abdomen;
And he smiled a kind of sickly smile, and curled upon the floor,
And the subsequent proceedings interested him no more.

It has perhaps been unfortunate for Bret Harte’s modern reputation that of his two funniest poems, one turns on colour prejudice and the other on class snobbery. But there are a number that are worth rereading, including one or two serious ones: especially ‘Dickens in Camp’, the new almost forgotten poem which Bret Harte wrote after Dickens’s death and which was about the finest tribute Dickens ever had.

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