Book Review: Why I Write

Title: Why I Write

Author: George Orwell

Published: 1946/2004

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview

Why I Write is an extended essay by George Orwell, that discusses a range of topics. Orwell begins the essay with outlining his motivations for writing. Famously, Orwell wanted “to make political writing into an art”. (Hence Animal Farm and 1984…)

Orwell gives the historical and political background to England, writing during the context of World War Two, with the rise of Fascism across Europe. He discusses the ‘Nation’ and why it fails as a concept in England – mostly, he argues, because England has forever been a country of equal wealth, thus we can never be regarded as a common entity.

Orwell also discusses socialism in the practical and ideological sense. In simple terms, economic socialism believes all commodities and ownership should be regulated by the state, rather than private companies and individuals. In theory, this should reduce the inequality that capitalism naturally produces, when wealth is in the hands of a few. Socialism also promotes equality, freedom, and opportunity for all.

Additionally, Orwell focuses on the influence of the media in shaping political opinion and includes the construction of language in this. The use of language is deliberate and its connection to politics is undeniable – it influences political understanding through the construction of events. Orwell argues, it has a strict purpose, “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable” – any of this starting to sound very relevant?…

Orwell ends the essay with a set of writing rules to avoid creating false meaning, which is often fostered by political rhetoric.

Orwell’s writing rules
Source: Rough House Media

Above all, this essay makes the imperative case for socialism, set in the context of World War Two. Although miles apart from today, the sad endurance of his argument reigns true.

Review and analysis

I’ll say it straight away – I loved this essay and wanted to commit every sentence to memory. Orwell has the capacity to say everything with such coherency that I always almost think about giving up on the ambition to be a writer… Will there ever be a greater communicator than Orwell?

It was the relevance of this essay that made me enjoy reading it so much. Although it was written a long time ago, and in an incredibly different context, the message for political change is something that transcends time. Orwell argues for the necessity of socialism, something I also believe in, but he does so in such an eloquent and damning way, that I think even the most staunch Conservative could get behind him… (possibly!)

Orwell outlines the reasons for why the general public are against socialism and identifies this as its failing point, if socialism can never be mainstream, then how is it ever going to achieve change? I found myself making stark similarities to today’s political climate in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, the most ardent champion of socialism in the Labour party for a generation, was unable to win a General election (twice) – but the party’s membership was the largest its ever been.

Labour Party Rally
Source: Labour List

In the last election (2019) Labour had a massive defeat and was criticized for failing to get the masses on its side, as the election was overshadowed by Brexit. This and voters’ opposition to socialism resulted in another Tory majority. Orwell argues that people are opposed to socialism as they perceive of it as taking away from their livelihood (in the form of paying more taxes). People think in terms of individualistic economics, rather than the greater good. And what has changed there?

Orwell also includes a four point program for political change, which has striking similarities to Corbyn’s Labour manifesto’s.

On his agenda is nationalization, limitations of income and a minimum wage, educational reform and the dismantling of private education, and an alliance of equality with India. The last point is an anomaly, given that Orwell is writing before de-colonization, this was the only thing I had a problem with. He isn’t radical enough about India and destabilizing the Empire – as he disagrees that India should have free reign from Britain. But again, context is key. This kind of paternalism enforced on other nations, was still in mainstream thought at this time.

As well as outlining the merits of socialism, Orwell describes the failures of capitalism in its creation of unequal wealth, which is unable to allow the progression of the masses. This results in vast, historic, class inequality in Britain, and negates the idea that Britain is a, ‘nation’ of solidarity, but in fact, a country hugely divided by wealth and opportunity.

Orwell goes on to outline the problems with achieving political change and the inherent obstacles that are in the way – most notably, privilege. This is embodied within the origins of mainstream politicians, journalists and lawyers that run the country. Thus, it appears, we are still raging the same battle, which is depressing, but just goes to show how Orwell’s ideas transcend generations.

Furthermore, the failures of socialism are also discussed, the main one being the lack of mass appeal. Which I have always thought is ironic, as socialism is about the masses. However, Orwell makes a valid point in that unless socialism becomes the political mainstream, change will never happen. Centrist Labour policies are essentially a continuation, and thus, socialism needs to be at the centre of any Labour agenda (RIP Corbynism…)

Finally, I found the link Orwell makes between language and politics fascinating. He argues that, “present political chaos is connected with the decay of language…” in the sense that language can distort truth, and influence the political consensus. He brings to light how the language of nonsense and “fluff” can be used by politicians to distort reality and detract from blame.

Lack of understanding is therefore deliberately constructed to deliver false meaning. (*Coughs* Boris Johnson… *Coughs* Matt Handcock…) Which becomes pertinent when thinking about our mainstream, Conservative politicians we have the pleasure of sharing evenings with in the UK, for our daily COVID-19 briefings….Just listen to one of these, and Orwell’s argument about language and politics will be demonstrated.

Too often politicians use the language of buffoonery which alienates their responsibility of answering the question and facing up their reality of failure. Therefore, the public are left in the dark and truth is obscured.

This is a classic Orwell essay, with a message that reigns true. Which is both worrying on the one hand, but on the other, pays homage to the efficiency, clarity, and enduring message of Orwell’s thought. It transcends historical and political contexts and puts forward the type of change we still need today.

“it is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free.”

Book Review: Hiroshima

Title: Hiroshima (1946)

Author: John Hersey

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis and history

As one of the first Western Journalists to arrive in Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, John Hersey was soon commissioned to write a feature. As a war correspondent, Hersey already wrote for Life magazine and The New Yorker. His masterpiece, initially published in a long essay format, became an instant success, whereby changing the American perspective of the tragedy.

…”they were the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power, which (as the voices on the short-wave shouted) no country except the United States, with its industrial know-how, it’s willingness to throw two billion gold dollars into an important wartime gamble, could possibly have developed.”

This was one of the first works to embody the ‘New Journalism’ emerging in the mid-twentieth century, as Hersey combines non-fiction with storytelling type prose. Following the experience of six survivors and how their lives intertwined with each other, Hersey demonstrates how techniques of fiction writing can be adapted to suit non-fiction purposes. It is told as a story, but the content is so poignant and revealingly told, there is no escaping the reality.

During the end of the Second World War, the US released nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. Estimates for the death toll vary but are in the region of 129,000-226,000. Many died instantly, but many would suffer in the years after from emerging cancers, infertility problems, cataracts, and the impact of keloid scaring.

A pacific war had been going on between Japan and its allies and the US decided to release the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to force Japan into surrender. The dropping of the first ever nuclear weapon, instantly killed 70,000 and the city was destroyed. The impact would go on for decades to come.

The book focuses on the experiences of six people who lived through Hiroshima. It features two doctors, a Protestant minister, a widowed seamstress, a female factory worker and a German Catholic priest. The structure of the book is chronological and follows the unfolding of the events, each told through a different perspective. Hersey constantly jumps back and forth between characters, but demonstrates how their lives were connected in the final section. Each section, containing a different perspective on the experience, adds another dimension to the horrific imapct of the bomb.

Review

It is hard to coherently review a book like this, as I feel like no number of words or thoughts could process this reading experience.

I remember first learning about Hiroshima when I was in secondary school, I was in an R.E (religious education) lesson, and we were exploring the morality behind humans having the powers of destruction. I remember my teacher telling us, humans are often the creators of their own destruction, he wasn’t wrong. As someone who didn’t live through this, it can be hard to understand the fear, anxiety and astonishment behind these events. But this book offers a valuable insight into the lived experience of survivors and I now feel more educated.

The use of different narrators who all experienced the same event was interesting. At first I found this confusing and slightly hard to follow, but then reading on, I realised that it all connected, as the people featured all knew each other in different ways. I think having a multitude of different perspectives is essential when re-telling an experience like this. As after all, historical events are experienced differently by the individuals that lived through them, it would be reductive to write a book documenting the event through the eyes of just one or two survivors.

Hersey importantly doesn’t shy away from describing the sheer brutality of the impacts of the bomb on the people that lived in the city. He describes the health implications gruesomely, but this is essential, in order to fully comprehend the impact. Some descriptions were enough to make my stomach churn, but then reality kicks in when you remember this actually happened to people, through no fault of their own. Hiroshima impacted the ordinary civilians, and it is so important that their experience is put to the forefront.

Hersey also doesn’t completely focus on just the experience of the bomb, he details the immediate aftermath and then the long term impacts. This allows the long term impact to be protruded into the reader’s understanding and reveals the complete picture of this tragedy.

Despite its very immediate impact, the after affects were something individuals had to live with for the rest of their lives. Not just physically, but mentally. Each survivor featured, had to try and re-build their lives after such a horrific experience. What is shown, is that although they were lucky enough to survive, they could not escape the health implications nor the mental strain of living through such a bleak moment in history. Life went on, but they could never forget.

I was hesitant to read this book, as I like to read to escape reality. But nonetheless, I am very glad I read this. Like most people, I only ever comprehended Hiroshima in terms of the figures and facts, and as a historical event, but this book and the perspectives it provides, really hones in on the humanness of tragedy.

It is not a book to take lightly, but nonetheless an essential one. It is easy to read, once you get the hang of the alternative perspectives, and very enlightening. It is a hard read, but one that everyone should have a go at if they want to be more informed of the lived experiences that were the sheer horrors of Hiroshima.

My top 3 non-fiction reads

Non-fiction isn’t a realm I delve into enough. But I do aim to read more non-fiction this year. But I thought I would share with you my current top 3 non-fiction reads.

The Shepherd’s Life: A People’s History of the Lake District, James Rebanks, 2015

I read this book in 2019, as the Lake District is one of my favourite places to explore. This book was so interesting for the alternative insight it offered – one that was not through the eyes of tourists, but through the farmers that tend the land we so love and admire.

James Rebanks offers a personal insight into his life and the history of his family on a small farm in the Lake District. He talks about the impact of tourism and the dying art of farming in the UK. He structures the book through the changing farming seasons and often offers an insight into the everyday beauties he witnesses on his doorstep.

He also talks about his personal battles with wanting to branch out into the world of academia as a young student, who is expected to take over the farm for the next generation. This ongoing, generational expectation is one many farmers and landowners still have to battle with.

It made me rethink our relationship to this popular landscape and not only appreciate it for its beauty, but for the hard work and commitments that go on behind the communities that make it. I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. (5/5)

This is London: Life and Death in the World City, Ben Judah, 2016

This is the book that made me want to consider branching into investigate journalism. As a regular London tourist/day tripper, I often gave little thought to the people who live in London with constant struggle. This book gives a voice to those who are often forgotten amidst the central tourist hot spots that we all go and see.

In an incredible, exploratory work of investigate journalism, Ben Judah speaks to those who have felt marginalized, kicked out of, and not respected in the city. He goes beyond Leicester Square, Regent Street and tourist London. He speaks to ordinary people, hears what they have to say, and pays homage to the variety of experience of living in the big city.

Judah gives a voice to the immigrants who have often been forgotten and marginalised, to the sex workers trying to make a living and to those who are living on the streets. It serves as a brutal reminder of the many problems the city faces, which are often invisible in day to day, and tourist life. (5/5)

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank, 1947

This is something that everyone should read. I have read it countless times, but it is an account I always turn back to.

Everyone knows Anne Frank and her story. Many go to visit the house in Amsterdam on tourist weekends to the city, but many may not have actually spent the time to read her diary in full.

Written as a thirteen year old in hiding, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, Anne writes about the struggles of family life in isolation, the fears of no return and more often than not, ordinary teenage struggles. It is eye opening and serves as a reminder to the horrors of that time in history, but also, a testament to staying positive in times of desperation. Despite living through a horrific experience, Anne always tried to remain positive and see the beauty in life,

“I’ve found that there is always some beauty left — in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.”

Her account offers something that the history books cannot rival. An honest, down to earth account of life as it was lived during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation of Holland. One that despite its countless tragedies, acts as a homeage to the spirit of humanity and togetherness in times of need.

It was also a book that inspired me to keep my own diary, which I have done for many years. Anne’s voice and the way she writes and sees things, makes you realise that she would have gone on to be a brilliant writer. It also makes you feel like you’re connected to that sliver of history which she describes and documents so well. An essential read.

Going back to Orwell: 70 years on

The Essays of Orwell: Books Vs Cigarettes 1946

Before thinking about writing this post, it hadn’t occurred to me that today is the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death, until reading something published by the BBC. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about his life, his writing and political outlook.

Who was George Orwell?

Known most for Animal Farm and 1984, Eric Blair, writing under the pen name, George Orwell, has come to be one of the most famous author’s of the twentieth century. Born in Bengal, Orwell would go on to win two scholarships at two prestigious English schools, Wellington and Eton.

After completing his education, Orwell became an Imperial Servant. This was the beginning of the period in which Orwell was manifesting his political outlook, in 1928, he resigned from the post, as influenced by rising anti-imperialist sentiment.

After this experience; Orwell tried to immerse himself in the realities of deprivation; he donned rags as he went to London’s East End and the poorest areas of Paris. Which later, formed the book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). This is often cited as Orwell’s first socialist memoir and insight into poverty. Later publishing, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) which is an even greater exploration of these themes. Wigan Pier deals with the conditions that working-class individuals were experiencing in Lancashire and Yorkshire, before the outbreak of World War Two.

Orwell is remembered primarily because of 1984, but during his time, he was a prolific figure in the more radical politics of the day. He was first of all, a self confessed anarchist, then came out as a socialist in the 1930s, against the rising tide of fascism. After being rejected for military service during the Second World War, he began working for the left-wing magazine, Tribune in 1943.

In this post however, it is not his novels I want to talk about, but rather, his essays. Having read 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London, Animal Farm and The Clergyman’s Daughter, I thought I knew Orwell quite well, until I started to discover his essays. This post in particular, will be discussing one essay, titled, “Books Vs Cigarettes” which Orwell published in 1946 in the Tribune.

Books Vs Cigarettes (1946)

Writing in 1946, after the end of World War Two, this essay is in response to the idea that reading is an expensive and inaccessible past time. This idea is often thwarted about in our own society, with the assumption it is a privilege that people in 9-5’s cannot afford. Orwell is therefore, critiquing the assumption that reading is a luxury activity.

Orwell in a convincing argument, states that mundane habits such as smoking and drinking, will cost the average person (per year) more than it would to sustain a reading habit. He details his own spending, Orwell was a heavy smoker himself, which cost him more than he spent on books per year.

Take this framework into today. The average Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify subscription probably amounts to being able to buy 1-2 new paperbacks per month. Or even better, when buying secondhand, probably 3-5, or even more, depending on the price. Orwell makes the point that there are far more expensive habits which are permitted among the populous, but reading is discounted as being a costly luxury.

Orwell also emphasizes the importance of buying second-hand books and borrowing from local libraries, friends or family which I think is important to point out. Reading doesn’t have to be an expensive habit, nor does it have to revolve around you owning the material you are consuming.

Additionally – Orwell goes on to highlight that the value of reading should not be purely in monetary terms, as one book can have a lifelong impact. (Indeed, 1984 itself is often sighted as a book which has changed the outlook of many readers, myself included.)

The impact of reading one book is worth more than its monetary cost, due to the longevity of the ideas it can plant,

“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s attitude to life…”

George Orwell, “Books Vs Cigarettes,” 1946.

Final thoughts

Thus, in sum, Orwell argues that in fact, reading is one of the cheapest forms of, “recreations” and it is wrong to assume books are “less exciting” or not so worthy of spending time on. I feel this point is significantly applicable to now – with evenings easily absorbed by Instagram or watching YouTube on the loop. Reading is in fact, one of the most worthwhile past times, which does not have to cost you an arm and a leg.

On the anniversary of Orwell’s death; perhaps this should serve as a reminder that books are powerful and some books certainly leave their marks; on the way we think, view the world, and form opinions; in the most permanent of ways.

Furthermore, reading is not a luxury but a form of “recreation,” which is often brushed under the carpet in an age of so many other forms of entertainment. What would Orwell think? We can only guess.

I will be attempting to read as many of Orwell’s essays this year as I can, to try and understand the way he thought, and how this influenced his writing. I will keep you updated!

References

https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell/Animal-Farm-and-Nineteen-Eighty-four

Link to the article: https://orwell.ru/library/articles/cigar/english/e_cigar

This is interesting too, was published by the BBC today: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/would-george-orwell-have-had-a-smartphone/p080x74t

Book Review – Minimal: how to simplify your life and live sustainably

Image: Amazon

Author: Madeleine Olivia

Rating: 5/5 stars

Publisher: Ebury Press, Penguin Books

I’m kicking off 2020 with my first review being non-fiction… Shock horror! But seriously, I loved this book and I think it can be applicable to anyone and everyone.

I started following Madeleine Olivia online many years ago, when she just had a few thousand followers. I began watching her on YouTube as I loved her food content and general outlook on life, which shines through so much in this book. An initial disclaimer – I am not a vegan but am interested in making sustainable changes where I can.

Synopsis

We are facing an urgent climate crisis and we must all take action now. However, it can be difficult to know where to start when bombarded with overwhelming facts and statistics every day. We all want to make a difference, but what can we do?

Minimal makes simple and sustainable living attainable for everyone, using practical tips for all areas of everyday life to reduce your impact on the earth. Leading environmentalist Madeleine Olivia shares her insights on how to care for yourself in a more eco-friendly way, as well as how to introduce a mindful approach to your habits. This includes how to declutter your life, reduce your waste and consumption, recipes for eating seasonally and making your own natural beauty and cleaning products.

Learn how to minimise the areas that aren’t giving you anything back and discover a happier and more fulfilled life, while looking after the Earth we share.”

Review:

First of all, although I read this book on Kindle, I have seen it in print and everything about its design is beautiful and as perfectly minimalist as I had imagined. There are cute illustrations for each section which really add a nice touch. There is also space (if you have a physical copy) to add in your own thoughts and potential changes to your lifestyle, where appropriate.

What I loved about this book was that is was not just a straight up vegan bashing bible, it is so far from it. It is a book which covers all aspects of everyday life; from home and de-cluttering, to mental health and the importance of digital detoxing. Madeleine importantly champions that making any changes, little or small, can make a difference. The value is in everybody‘s effort and collectively, and this can make a big difference. Additionally, she crucially points out that making an error does not make you a bad person,

“And small misgivings such as using a plastic cup or buying fast fashion aren’t going to ruin the world alone…”

Madeleine Olivia

Madeleine’s book covers all physical and mental aspects of life and how to simplify and make them more sustainable (if you can). Chapters include topics such as opting to travel more mindfully and slowly, by using trains instead of planes, to the importance of establishing an effective bedtime routine that can benefit our mental health, it is a book that everyone should read. I went into the book worrying that it wouldn’t apply to me, but in every section there were things I learnt and have taken away.

I have already started a Depop page for selling my old clothes, rather than throwing them away. I have plans to buy some reusable vegetable bags, and I have vowed to myself that the next time I need to buy something I will look secondhand rather than jumping to find it brand new.

Madeleine’s book was a joy to read from start to finish. Every section was informative, yet personal and insightful, and contained a reminder that even the small things do make a difference. It provides a refreshing outlook on being more mindful, which I have found to be lacking in conversations about sustainability and veganism. Often, I have found it hard to engage in the debate when it is presented as so polarizing. But in this book, Madeleine has crafted a resource which is open to all and something anyone and everyone can turn to if they want to simply be more informed, or to start making changes.

I most of all loved the sections about travelling mindfully and not being in a rush to see anything and everything, but taking the time to take everything in,

“But on this journey we have to remember to stop and just stay still. Take a moment to just soak it all in.”

Madeleine Olivia

As a nervous flyer I am glad that finding other means of travel is now the new sustainable option! I loved the section on fast fashion; it really opened up my mind to the sheer amount of waste involved and what a difference it can make if we all chose to look in second hand shops first. Above all, I loved the focus on mental health, and how minimalism (digitally and physically) can be used as a tool to champion positive mental health and well-being.

Throughout my life, I have been a sucker for consumerism and buying new things. I find myself always on the look out for a new top, or another pair of socks I don’t need. I forget what I have in the cravings for something new and shiny. However, this has meant I have hoarded a lot of stuff over the years and now feel (slightly) overwhelmed by the process of becoming more minimal. However, Minimal, has provided me with the inspiration and guidance to embark on this journey.

Wonderful! This is a book I will be returning to again and again.