Working out what to read after an immersive experience with a book, is never easy and particularly so after something like “In Other Worlds”. However, I was looking through the stacks and this little pamphlet slid into view; I picked it up earlier on in the year and somehow it seemed the time was right to read it. I’ve dipped into Orwell’s essays off and on over the years and even if I don’t always agree with what he has to say, he’s always a thoughtful and thought-provoking read.

“England Your England” was first published in 1941 as the opening essay of a collection entitled “The Lion and the Unicorn”. In it, Orwell, surrounded by signs of the War and with bombers flying overhead, casts his eye over his country and its inhabitants and tries to make some sense of England whilst looking to its future. The quote featured on the back of the booklet will give you a flavour of the narrative:

England is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family… A family with the wrong members in control.

That latter sentence *does* seem particularly relevant still, but I wondered how the rest of his arguments would hold up. We are, of course 60-odd years on from that point, and the country could be considered to have changed beyond all recognition. Well, yes and no…

Orwell considers patriotism, the relationship between the English and other countries, the state of the Empire, whether there are national characteristics and if we are a homogenous nation. He even berates himself for using the words “England” and “English”, because of course he is considering the UK. Many of his arguments touch on class and the division of wealth, and this is where I think he’s still very much spot on.

What was it that at every decisive moment made every British statesman do the wrong thing with so unerring an instinct?

Although the class system has broken down to a certain extent, we still live in a country where there is apparently democracy, and also a Royal Family, a House of Lords, and the Eton-type public school system which *still* produces so many of those who are supposed to be providing sensible government but don’t.

England is a country in which property and financial power are concentrated in very few hands.

And somehow, despite the decline of the aristocracy, they have managed to survive by absorbing up and coming wealthy manufacturers, financiers and the like (the subject of so many 20th century middlebrow novels about mixed-class marriages!) However, Orwell does not reserve his ire exclusively for the monied and the upper classes; he is equally scathing about those left-wing intellectuals who toe the Soviet party line and refused to believe anything wrong about Russia and what was really happening there. He has strong words about the inability of the English working class to ever do anything as decisive as starting a revolution, and he cites this as one of the differences between this country and, say, the working class of France or Russia (both of which have managed multiple revolutions).

How can you not love a man who said “The only ‘ism’ that has justified itself is pessimism.”??

Despite the fact that some elements of this essay have by necessity become dated, there are many things in it that ring true and leave you wondering if even the superficialities have changed as much as you might think. Football, for example, is still a force for entertaining the masses on a Saturday afternoon, and the reliance on the hope of a win via the pools has simply been replaced by the dream of a lottery jackpot. However, there is a sense that with the current state of the world we are edging away from those slightly bumbling elements that kept England safe from extremism taking hold; the innate belief in the legal system and its fairness; the lack of real enthusiasm for war; the preference for the everyday distractions rather than developing any strong philosophy of life or a belief system of any kind. Orwell refers to “the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in its familiar shape” and I found myself wondering in the modern world if this kind of safety net was being eroded.

“England Your England” is a surprisingly wide-ranging piece of writing for 40 pages, and ends on a note of optimism which was perhaps ill-founded (and which Orwell may have rejected a little later in his life). He states “This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing, class privileges“. Looking around me today, I don’t think, alas, that that is the case. We seem to me to be living in a world just as riddled with inequality as it was in Orwell’s day, where the rich are getting richer, and the poor getting poorer, to paraphrase the old song. OH often comments that there is only one cake to go round and that the greedy lot just want to make their big piece even bigger at the expense of the rest of us, and I think he’s not far off. This was a fascinating little essay to read at this moment in time, and it makes me wish we still had commentators of the calibre of Orwell taking on those in power…

 

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