Monday, October 20, 2003

Orwell, Toads and the Inevitability of Spring

Although he is best known for his "novels" Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell wrote dozens of excellent essays in his short career. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say he is one of the finest essayists in English along with Hazlitt, Arnold and Swift.

The best known of these are "Politics and the English Language," "A Hanging," "The Prevention of Literature," and "Shooting an Elephant".

One of my personal favorites is a less well-known piece entitled "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad." It is interesting because it reveals Orwell as a nature lover. It was written within a year of the end of the Second World War and much of the dreariness and privation of a wartime economy still held true. It is this war torn landscape that provides the backdrop for the nightmare world of Oceania. Hardly a time or place for a pastoral reflection. Still, Orwell argues convincingly as to why we should take time out to appreciate nature.

"I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets."

Yet, the recent scars of war are never very far away:

"As for spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters. The spring is commonly referred to as `a miracle', and during the past five or six years this worn-out figure of speech has taken on a new lease of life."

And the political is always the primary concern for Orwell. In another essay explaining his motives for writing he tells us:

"And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."

In a world where even the personal is political (much more so now than in his day) it would probably do us all well to remember that there are some things that government, corporations and the masters of Madison avenue cannot control.

"At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can't stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it."


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