Tuesday, July 29, 2008

When DID Orwell start a diary?

From tomorrow (Wednesday 30 July), the diaries of George Orwell, the famous British author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, will begin to appear online and be freely available. The Orwell Prize website, which is taking this initiative, says it is to mark the 70th anniversary of the day Orwell began writing a diary in 1938. Orwell’s diaries have never been published in collected form, nevertheless the Orwell Prize website should know better - Orwell was certainly keeping a diary already in 1936, as evidenced by his Road to Wigan Pier Diary.

The Orwell Prize calls itself ‘the pre-eminent British prize for political writing’ and awards annual prizes for a book and for journalism. This year the book prize was won by Raja Shehadeh for Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape; and the journalism prize was awarded to Johann Hari of The Independent.

The Orwell Prize website is run in conjunction with the Orwell Trust, Political Quarterly and Media Standards Trust. It gives much information about the Prize, as well about Orwell himself. It also provides a few photographs of his publications and manuscripts (including diaries). The site has now announced that tomorrow, on Wednesday 30 July, it will officially launch ‘an exciting new addition, which will be a must-read for all lovers of Orwell and a valuable historical resource’. As of today, Tuesday, it gives no further information other than to provide links to two news organisations which have published teasers about the forthcoming ‘addition’.

The Guardian’s Browser blog reveals that the Orwell Prize will begin publishing Orwell’s diaries as a daily blog, 70 years after he began writing them. This is the first time the diaries, it says, which cover Orwell’s thoughts on everything from communism to cookery, will be published in full. But, the Browser asks, ‘does a blog by a dead person count as a real blog?’ Not sure I care about the answer to that one.

The Times teaser is more confusing: ‘The website for the Orwell Prize . . . is to mark the 70th anniversary of the release of George Orwell’s diaries by running them as a blog. It begins with Orwell’s first entry in 1938. ’ Personally, I don’t understand the reference to an anniversary ‘of the release of’ the diaries; and, surely, the ‘release’ and ‘the first entry’ cannot have been on the same day! The Times makes up for the confusion by having found a cute short extract from Orwell’s 29 August 1939 entry: ‘It appears from reliable private information that Sir O. Mosley is a masochist of the extreme type in his sexual life.’

I am not clear as to when Orwell started writing a diary, nor when he finished. There appear to have been no published editions exclusively devoted to his diaries. However, what are called his two war-time diaries were published in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (in the second of four volumes). These are discussed at some length by L J Hurst who also looks at the links to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, within which the main character Winston also keeps a diary. See also the Orwell Today website for more on Winston’s diary

Hurst begins his essay as follows: ‘George Orwell’s war-time diaries were a book that failed. Their failure provides an interesting study of how Orwell thought and wrote because the Second World War provided him with much of the material for his last two novels, and one might have expected his diaries to record the development of his ideas, but those developments are more conspicuous by their absence.’

However, also within The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, in volume one, is The Road to Wigan Pier Diary. A one sentence introduction in the book, says it was a typescript found among Orwell’s paper, and, along with other notes, formed the basis of The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological analysis of pre-war living conditions in the industrial north of England. This was written in the first three months of 1936, more than two years before 30 July 1938, the date being celebrated by the Orwell Prize website.

Some have argued, it seems (Bernard Crick in George Orwell: A Life), that the diary was not a real day-to-day diary but something that was ‘worked up afterwards’, and perhaps this is why the Orwell Prize website is ignoring it. However, Robert Pearce, writing in 1997 for The Journal of the Historical Association, argued cogently, with many examples, that Orwell treated his journal writing as a personal record not intended for publication, and therefore WAS a real diary. The full text of Pearce’s essay, entitled Revisiting Orwell’s Wing Pier, is available online for a price.

Here is a sample of Orwell’s diary from 13 February 1936: 'Housing conditions in Wigan terrible. Mrs H tells me that at her brother’s house (he is only 25, so I think he must be her half-brother, but he has already a child of 8), 11 people, five of them adults, belonging to 3 different families, live in 4 rooms, ‘2 up 2 down’. All the miners I meet have either had serious accidents themselves or have friends or relatives who have. Mrs H’s cousin had his back broken by a fall of rock - ‘And he lingered seven year afore he dies and it were a-punishing of him all the while’ - and her brother-in-law fell 1200 feet down the shaft of a new pit. Apparently he bounced from side to side, so was presumably dead before he got to the bottom. Mrs H adds: ‘They wouldn’t never have collected t’pieces only he were wearing a new suit of oilskins.’

And here’s another sample, from 12 June 1942, when he was working at the BBC: ‘The only time when one hears people singing in the BBC is in the early morning, between 6 and 8. That is the time when the charwomen are at work. A huge army of them arrives all at the same time. They sit in the reception hall waiting for their brooms to be issued and making as much noise as a parrot house, and then they have wonderful choruses, all singing together as they sweep the passages. The place has a quite different atmosphere at this time from what it has later in the day.’

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