Shooting an Elephant
This book has sat sat on the bedside table for at least a year. It has been my in-between reads book. By that I do not wish to imply any shortcomings in its content, quite the opposite. It is a book which holds other writing to account. Even this small paragraph has been altered because of it, and no doubt should be altered again, perhaps even entirely erased.
The directness and accuracy of Orwell’s prose is arresting. Few writers work with such constant self-awareness and discipline, he is insect like in his diligence. Is that metaphor new enough? Arresting enough to qualify as useful? I will leave it in. (There is a danger of having nothing except a blank page when setting high standards.)
Beyond the stylistic merits of his writing, Orwell’s observations hone in on gritty details that bring places and people lifelike character. The reader is not spared the truth of bodily processes, and in the same vein Orwell does not spare himself from re-creating times and places where he has been miserable or acted shamefully. He has turned around and gone backwards, examined events carefully and then presented what he finds unflinchingly. I admire this. It is enviable. It is naked, undistracted by casual overfamiliar phrases that glut the media and mouths of many politicians. So many words have become blurry and overfamiliar, very little is new or unexpected, so many ideas don’t require any effort to engage with them, they are puffy, flabby and patronising.
Orwell’s analysis of public schools and boy’s weeklies still resonates as an acerbic comment on the structure of society and the fodder produced to fog the imagination of the masses, these may now be filmic or televisual but the stereotypes of class and sex are still utilised repeatedly and subverted rarely in much mass-fiction.
Such a book should stay permanently on the bedside table as a guide and inspiration. It should not go back on the bookcase. However, there is an impatient crowd of books, writers who I hope have come across Orwell too.
Orkney, November, 2018
Books by Gabrielle Barnby:
The Oystercatcher Girl – a beautifully understated story of deception and forgiveness, love and redemption.
The House with the Lilac Shutters and other stories – utterly original story-making of a very high quality.