On June 24th I found myself, serendipitously, on the battlefield at Bannockburn. I’d forgotten it was the 703rd anniversary of the battle. I’m not inclined to celebrate battles but, finding myself in theatre, I paid my respects to King Robert mounted on his huge steed, and read the quotation on the plaque beside the high flagpole with its huge saltire, flapping in a westerly gale.
We fight not for glory, nor for wealth, nor honour but only and alone freedom which no good man surrenders but with his life.
In 1940, Winston Churchill, or George Orwell, could both have said just that, or something like it. The previous day I had read Churchill & Orwell, The Fight for Freedom by the American Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas E. Ricks (Duckworth Overlook, 2017). A thumping good read, I’d say. It’s a clever idea – if an unlikely one – to interweave within a single volume the lives and thoughts of two men whose personalities and politics could hardly have been different. Churchill was implacably opposed to socialism and during the 1945 general election campaign he opined that socialism could only be imposed upon British society by means of a Gestapo; Orwell wanted to create a specifically English form of socialism and to overturn the English ruling class of which Churchill was a member. Churchill remarked that he had not become prime minister to oversee the dismantling of the British Empire; Orwell since his Burma days conceived of the Empire as a corrupt system of exploitation. Churchill and Orwell never met, but it seems they had a respect for one another. Churchill admired 1984; he thought it a remarkable book and read it twice. The last article Orwell completed and published before he died was a review of Volume Two of Churchill’s Second World War memoirs, Their Finest Hour. Orwell recognised Churchill’s qualities as a war time leader, particularly in 1940. He also admired Churchill’s ability as a writer, and in a more general sense, his humanity.
So what common theme links these two disparate characters? It is their defence of democracy and the liberty of the individual. This, argues Thomas E. Ricks, is the reason why Orwell and Churchill remain so important to us today. Democracy and liberty continue to be under attack.
It seems to me that they shared other common features. Both were distant from their fathers. Both were dispatched to English preparatory schools where they were miserable. Churchill described his early educational experience in My Early Life, and Orwell in Such, Such Were the Joys. Both went to public schools, Churchill to Harrow and Orwell to Eton (where he was briefly taught by Aldous Huxley). Churchill was rebellious and educationally backward; Orwell was, and remained, an outsider. Neither attended university; instead, both headed off in directions contrary to their ultimate destinations. Churchill joined the army and Orwell the Imperial Police in Burma. Both were men of enormous physical and moral courage. Churchill put himself in danger so frequently that he really ought not to have survived. Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War and sustained a gunshot to the neck from a Fascist sniper on 20th May 1937. He too ought not to have survived. Orwell’s description of this episode is as vivid as Churchill’s description of his part in the British army’s last cavalry charge, at Omdurman on September 2nd 1898.
Both were heavy smokers. Eventually, both became, and remained, journalists and authors. Stylistically, their writings have much in common. Churchill is wordier and more flamboyant; Orwell is pared down and sparer. But they both share a dislike of abstraction and redundant phraseology. Churchill liked “short words and vulgar fractions”. He berated his subordinates for loquacity and asked for reports to be confined to a single side of paper. Orwell expressed similar sentiments in his essay Politics and the English Language. While both could relish beautiful language and vivid imagery, you could never imagine either of them choosing to attend a creative writing course on a literary retreat. Always their language subserves another purpose. This is because both were, at heart, politicos. Churchill might write about painting as a pastime, and Orwell Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, but their writing was never for writing’s sake. Churchill was never a novelist. His one attempt, Savrola, rather embarrassed him. And although Orwell wrote novels I don’t believe he was truly a novelist in the sense that Dickens, another writer with a political conscience, was a novelist. I think Orwell was primarily an essayist who happened to write two longer pieces which made him world famous. Animal Farm uses the allegory form and 1984 the novel form but it’s the political message that really matters, just as Churchill’s writings during his wilderness years of the 1930s are dominated by his warnings about the rise of Nazism.
Perhaps what binds Churchill and Orwell most closely is their shared love of England, or their individual conceptions of England. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941, Churchill was overwhelmed with relief because he knew that the USA would enter the war and that, therefore, England would survive. The closing paragraph of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is deeply nostalgic of a sleepy old England that I daresay some Englishmen would not have recognised. In The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell admits he might be treading on toes when he conflates England with Great Britain, but he proceeds to do so. Well, everybody has their blind spot. On February 14th 1947 he wrote a piece for the left wing periodical Tribune about Scottish Nationalism. An extract from it appears in Seeing Things as They Are, Selected Journalism and Other Writings, (Harvill Secker 2014). Orwell’s hopes for the dissolution of Empire stopped somewhere north of Carlisle. Yet I like to think that his criticism of the proscription of the Gaelic language in Scottish schools suggests he was embarking on a journey.
Then there are the differences. Churchill was always a lover of luxury who said his tastes were simple – nothing but the best. Even when he was at the front during the First World War he had Clemmie send him supplies of delicatessen and enormous quantities of booze. He was prone to bouts of melancholia – his “black dog” – but on the whole his outlook always remains optimistic; he has a conception of “broad sunlit uplands”. Can the same be said of Orwell? Orwell’s world is often grim. It smells bad. Orwell seems to have had a heightened sense of smell and his olfactory world is deeply unpleasant. In this, he follows in a long tradition of scatological English satire going back to Jonathan Swift. 1984 is utterly dark, a dystopian nightmare without remission. Orwell when he left the Imperial Police deliberately descended into a world of abject poverty in London and Paris, and later in the north of England. His career choices, if such they can be called, must surely have contributed to his poor health and premature death at the age of 46. A croft house in Jura in winter could hardly have been the ideal sanatorium for a man with advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. He was treated in Hairmyres Hospital in Lanarkshire and subsequently in London. It was a tragedy that he turned out to be allergic to streptomycin and that treatment had to be stopped.
But what really binds Churchill and Orwell together is their attitude to a man neither of them met, Adolf Hitler. Churchill nearly met Hitler in a Munich hotel in 1932. The meeting was arranged but it is said that Churchill’s criticism of Hitler’s anti-Semitic views caused Hitler to cancel the meeting. Orwell was never likely to meet Hitler, although it was highly likely he, like Churchill, was on a list of people to be executed in the event of a successful Nazi invasion of Britain. In his review of Mein Kampf, Orwell confessed he felt no personal animosity to Hitler, and indeed saw something attractive about him, but he added that if he had ever met him he would have tried to kill him. Both Churchill and Orwell recognised what Chamberlain and Lord Halifax never recognised, that Hitler was not a man you could negotiate with; he had to be resisted.
The one battle I feel happy about celebrating is the Battle of Britain. Battle of Britain day is September 15th. Nowadays it is rather overshadowed by the commemoration of 9/11. 15/9/40 was the day Goering sent his entire Luftwaffe across to southern England. Churchill watched the aerial battle unfold from the HQ of No. 11 Fighter Group at Uxbridge under the command of the New Zealander Keith Park. At one point the entire resource of Fighter Command was engaged and there were no reserves. It was a close run thing. This was the day Churchill borrowed Shakespeare’s notion of “the few” from Henry V’s Agincourt speech and used it in his own “Never in the field of human conflict…” Then he took a four hour siesta.
It is sobering to consider what might have happened in 1940 if the British Government had not listened to Churchill, but rather to the substantial body of opinion from the English upper class, and had sued for peace. Judging from the way Hitler dealt with the rest of mainland Europe, he would have installed a Vichy-style puppet government in Whitehall, taken over command of the British fleet, and hence the whole of the British Empire. Joseph Kennedy, the US Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, would have been vindicated in reporting back to FDR that England was defeated. Perhaps the US would have become even more isolationist. What would the world have looked like now?
Probably something like 1984.