Sunday, 20 January 2013

Eric Arthur Blair: The Death of Idealism

Eric Arthur Blair - tallest figure - poses with the POUM militia. His wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy Blair crouches beside him.
Tomorrow, Eric Arthur Blair will have been dead for 63 years. Better known to most as George Orwell – prolific author, journalist and thinker – Blair contributed a great deal to our national literary consciousness, even adding a few new words and phrases to our language along the way. But I’m not here to wax lyrical about George Orwell – there are plenty of writers who are in a better position to do so – instead I want to illustrate what the man and his work means to me. My favourite George Orwell work is “A Homage to Catalonia”. Published in 1938, the book details its author’s involvement in the civil war in Spain, a conflict which was still raging at the time of “A Homage…”’s release and one which was continuing to set the tone for the dark years that would follow in the continent’s history. As someone who is fascinated both by the Spanish Civil War and by Orwell’s politics, I decided to read the book ahead of a one month trip that would be spent exploring Portugal and Spain. I had – rather naively – viewed the Spanish Civil War as one of the last truly great ideological struggles; a crusade to which idealists with strong views and the moral character to back them up flocked from all over Europe. Reading the book, I began to doubt this assertion. I began to doubt whether any conflict in the history of mankind could ever be defined as a “truly great ideological struggle.” Without giving too much away, the book follows an idealistic Orwell as he heads to Barcelona and joins up with the POUM socialist militia. Using Orwell’s own experiences of the alternate horror and tedium of life on the frontline, the book becomes a stunning piece of proto-gonzo journalism. Through the author’s eyes we are able to witness the two totemic Republican powers – the anarchists and the communists – grow increasingly distrustful of one another. In a piece of narration that is almost too convenient to be true – although not, I would imagine, particularly convenient for Orwell himself at the time – the author returns from the rugged frontline at Jaca in search of some much needed r’n’r in Barcelona, only to discover that the city has been torn in two by fighting between the anarchist CNT and the communist UGT factions. Orwell – although then more ideologically more aligned to the anarchists – takes up arms with his comrades in the communist POUM, defending their headquarters from the chaos unfolding around them. I won’t give away too much more; “A Homage to Catalonia” is a wonderful book and I urge you to read it for yourself. For me, it permanently altered the way in which I view politics and even the way I approach the study of history. To say it has influenced my life would be an understatement. There is far more in Eric Arthur Blair’s back catalogue to amaze and excite readers – just as there are far more expansive pieces of writing on the civil conflict in Spain – but as a starting point, a reader cannot go far wrong with “A Homage to Catalonia”.

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