The Orwell Essays, A Selection of Prize-Winning Journalism
“Waspish, indiscreet, comical and utterly outrageous”. Unable to resist the lure of the Sunday Express crit on the back cover, I handed my £10.80 to Madame Waterstone (£12 minus 10% for being a member of the Society of Authors, God bless them), took the tome home, and devoured it in an afternoon. Some books are like this – page-turners, easy to read, compulsive, unputdownable; others are quite the opposite – difficult to grasp, only digestible in small portions that need to be chewed over, easily set aside, and difficult to pick up again. And that does not necessarily mean that the former are all good and the latter all bad; neither does it mean that the former are all trite and the latter all profound. It more likely has something to do with a writing style being simpatico to an individual. You the reader might not agree with what the writer is saying, but in some sense you both speak the same language.
I knew very little about Brian Sewell, who died in 2015, beyond the fact that he was an art critic with a voice so posh that he was parodied on BBC comedy programmes like Dead Ringers. I could not help reading his essays and hearing them in the cadences of his precisely articulated, received, cut glass pronunciation. You might say that his deliberately antiquated voice was in itself a representation of his often reactionary views. It was certainly their ideal vehicle. In an essay entitled Febyuree (whose mispronunciation he profoundly regrets), he bemoans the fact that BBC announcers and newsreaders have the accents of “far provincial slums”. By “far”, I presume he means far from London. He talks of “the mean whine of the South-East”, “the ugly, adenoidal thickness of the Liverpudlian”, “the ugly brogues of Birmingham and Bradford.” Of Radio 4, Ian McMIllan and Simon Armitage are “poor speakers laden with dreary northern tones”. It is significant, I think, that he makes no reference to the accents of Glasgow, Belfast, or Cardiff. That is because his outlook is not British, it is profoundly English.
All of this, of course, goes against the grain of what Mr Sewell denotes as “political correctitude”. But it’s all small beer compared with some of the issues he takes on. Perhaps the most “utterly outrageous” of his essays is Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth, an attack on womanhood’s (alleged) attitudes to abortion, animal experimentation by cosmetic companies, and the fur industry, which makes John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women seem a paradigm of feminist enlightenment. Sewell’s essay first appeared on 18/11/97; I doubt if any newspaper would have printed it now.
I think it would be fair to say that Brian Sewell delighted to surprise, by going against the populist grain. He has an apologia pro Enoch Powell; the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens would be a “cultural disaster”; fox hunting (perhaps rather surprisingly for a man clearly passionately concerned about animal welfare) should be left alone.
It would be easy to assert that Brian Sewell, both in what he said and in the manner that he said it, was a snob. Yet this would not be a fair accusation. The essence of the snob is not that he cherishes an ideal of excellence, but that he cherishes his own membership of a persistently exclusive club. In Education, he describes his doorstep encounter with an uneducated young street hawker who asks for help to get a job on the newspaper for whom Mr Sewell wrote. Sewell did not dismiss him. He said, “Write me a letter telling me everything about yourself…” To be honest, that’s more than I would have done. I would have told him to write to the editor.
Mr Sewell is caustic about Mr Blair, who he thought confused mendicants with criminals. I don’t think he would have thought much of Blair’s “education education education” trope. I dread to think what he would have made of Her Majesty being compelled, in her most recent speech in the Palace of Westminster, to use the expression “levelling up”.
I didn’t agree with everything, or even much, that Mr Sewell had to say. But that did not stop me from relishing the book, the style, the precision of language, the constant surprise of the unexpected. I was much reminded of Bernard Levin’s journalism, his ability to take something on head-on, his clarity of thought, and his passion.
But the main attraction in The Orwell Essays lies in their fearlessness. Mr Sewell was not afraid to express views which now, twenty years on, would probably have had him “cancelled”. Of course we can read expressions of views that are obnoxious, on social media, any day of the week. But nowadays the Fourth Estate and the mainstream body politic avoid controversy like the plague. That is why BBC programmes like Any Questions and Question Time have become so unutterably bland. The Cancel Culture thrives on Fear. Everybody keeps their head under the parapet. We need more people like Brian Sewell to say, with good manners, clarity and distinction, exactly what they think.