George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls, Oxford University Press, 2013, 356pp, £25 (hardback)
A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting, Richard Burton, Infinite Ideas, 2013, 608pp, £30 (hardback)
In the words of an old Kris Kristofferson song, George Orwell was ‘a walk- ing contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.’ A toff down the pit in The Road To Wigan Pier; an old Etonian drawn towards the working-class; an avowed socialist with a lifelong suspicion of middle-class socialists; a man of the left with fundamentally old Tory beliefs. Likewise, Orwell claimed to dislike public schools, but sent his son to one; declared an antipathy to Scots, but lived in Scotland; claimed he was an atheist, but one with an af- fection for the Book of Common Prayer, who asked to be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Periodically a hero to both Com- munists and USA neocons, Orwell has been hailed as both a cultural and political secular saint and denounced by left-wing intellectuals as a writer with an anti-Soviet agenda. Likewise, Orwell’s two most famous novels – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – have been embraced as both left and right-wing political critiques. Robert Colls has written an illuminating, closely argued and often argumentative book about the nature of Orwell’s Englishness. Littered with rhetorical questions, the book attempts to define the self-contradictory nature of Orwell, man and writer. But Colls, whose previous books include Identity of England (2002), admits early on that despite his intellectual and cultural omnipresence, Orwell remains ‘almost impossible to pin down,’ speculating his book may be ‘trying to prove an absence,’ by attempting to capture an intellectual will-o’-the-wisp.
Born Eric Blair, in India, in 1903, even the duality of his name was em- blematic of something more profound in the character and slippery nature of the inventor of ‘Doublethink.’ Adopting the name ‘George Orwell’ in 1933, Colls speculates that it’s ‘not at all clear that Orwell and Blair are the same man,’ and that ‘he never did rid himself of the basic split in who he was and who he wanted to be.’ Orwell’s relationship with the poor was sim- ilarly marked by contradiction and ambiguity. Despite being inextricably linked in public consciousness to the plight of the English working-class through his groundbreaking study, The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell dis- played little or no interest in their plight before visiting the north. His book likewise doesn’t offer polemics or political solutions, but is rather a study of the condition of the working-class in industrial England. A class out- sider, Orwell’s old Etonian credentials frequently surface as he lives with the working poor or accompanies miners down the pit, as when he dwells on the fact that many of the working men he comes to admire also smell. Orwell is similarly appalled at finding a full chamber-pot. And while Colls commends Orwell for knowing the difference between a terraced house and a back-to-back property, he also notes his ignorance of and seeming indifference to the cultural lives of the working-class, from friendly so- cieties to banjo bands to boxing clubs. (As Colls remarks, there was no room for either George Formby or Gracie Fields in Orwell’s often stern anthropological study.) Rather, Orwell casts a cold, almost Stalinist eye on the men who toil underground and their long-suffering wives and children. Similarly, there seems little love or unalloyed joy among the working-class in Orwell’s occasionally flinty social study. But Colls also believes the con- tradictory Orwell still saw in working-class culture the proper foundation stone for ‘ethical socialism.’ In a sub-Lawrentian passage, drawn from his time spent in Agnes Terrace, Barnsley, Orwell seems to suggest that an inchoate, utopian socialist blueprint lies embedded in the humble rhythms of working-class life, or in the politics of the personal: ‘I have often been struck by the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working-class interior at its best. Especially on winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in shirt sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sew- ing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat …’ While tinged with sentimental- ity, Colls convincingly argues that such passages indicate Orwell’s belief that ‘hope lay with the proles,’ that his time in Wigan and the industrial north of England in the 1930s profoundly affected and shaped his politics for the rest of his life.
In terms of understanding Orwell’s ambivalent attitude towards English- ness and his fellow countrymen, Coming Up For Air (1939), remains a central text. George Bowling, the novel’s central character and anti-hero, is almost an echo chamber for a certain type of bruised, disappointed Eng- lishness and, Colls suggests, perhaps also an Orwellian self-portrait. The frustrated, mild-mannered, middlebrow insurance worker undergoes what we would now call ‘a mid-life crisis’ in dull suburbia. Appalled by his life, he goes in search of his edenic past in Lower Binfield. Bowling is a fat man burdened with heavy responsibilities and a disintegrating selfhood. Orwell switches from an exploration of the emotionally warm working- class to the uptight middle-class of England, in a novel Colls views as partly his ‘reconciliation with his own England.’ Bowling, in a country and time where class is finely calibrated and ingrained in all levels of society, represents an almost classless existential dreamer, journeying towards the foreign country of the past. In fact, Bowling often reads like a fictional cipher, a conduit for a series of interior monologues about the nature of English life and manners, including an indefinable essence which he feels has been lost forever. For Colls, ‘Bowling is Orwell’s means of reconciling with mass, class, country, and the south of England …’ Using his skills as a social historian, Colls contextualizes the many George Bowlings of 1930s England; how he would have fitted into that society, financially and cultur- ally, while also exploring the nature of middle-classness, in all its com- plex, class-bound gradations. Bowling, like Orwell, fits into no neat class or social stereotype. He’s not gentlemanly, but not common or vulgar either – rather, a less deceived, sharp-witted observer from a position of spiritual or intellectual independence. Drawing a parallel between Bowling and his creator – ‘Bowling the thin man on the inside is much nearer the existential Orwell – the man who is trying to come to terms with himself’ – Colls sees Coming Up For Air as an attempt at regional or class reconciliation. A par- ticular strand of Englishness comes up for air in the stream-of-conscious- ness meanderings of the spiritually and culturally lost insurance man, who cannot help but embody aspects of Orwell’s personality. Significantly, this would mean Orwell being less prescriptive and more flexible towards his fellow countrymen. Colls: ‘In short, he was going to have to trust the peo- ple as they were and not as he would want them to be.’ But the clear-eyed Bowling would later be supplanted by an even more extreme example of the suffering, less deceived individualist in a much starker social setting, in the figure of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which envisages a country following the dissolution of Orwell’s individualistic, maverick concept of Englishness.
In books and essays such as Coming Up For Air, The English People and The Lion and The Unicorn, Orwell often defines Englishness in terms of social and cultural specificity – what Colls itemizes as ‘open fires, home cooking, village cricket, solid junk, common toads, moral conventions, ideal pubs’ – or even, in Decline of the English Murder, the type of horrific but homegrown homicide details which made the News of the World es- sential Sunday reading across the country. On a more philosophical level, Colls views Animal Farm as ‘the story of what happens on a badly run English farm when a lot of gentle-minded English animals try to be free of of the farmer and his men.’ Likewise, although Orwell’s publisher, Fred Warburg, viewed Nineteen Eighty-Four as an attack on ‘Socialism and so- cialist policies in general,’ the novel can also be seen as Orwell’s vision of an England stripped of its essential quiddities. Orwell’s old-school Toryism respected the essence of England and its people. (Winston Smith famously comments: ‘If there is hope, it lies in the proles.’) Ultimately, Colls opts for ‘Tory Radical’ as the best thumbnail description of Orwell, whose political views were more humanist and culturally attuned than theoretical. Used as a political stick by both left and right-wing thinkers for more than half a century, Orwell continues to cast a long cultural shadow, up to and includ- ing Danny Boyle’s opening of the 2012 London Olympics, where the for- mer Eric Blair was one of the presiding spirits. Reviewing George Orwell: English Rebel in the Guardian, fellow Orwell biographer D. J. Taylor, in a half-admiring, half-picky notice, called it ‘an arresting and provocative piece of work.’ It’s all that and more. Robert Colls’s book represents a thought-provoking and illuminating addition to Orwell studies.
I began writing this review of Richard Burton’s lovingly detailed and surely definitive life of poet Basil Bunting in Newcastle’s Literary & Philosophical Society (established 1793), where the late author of Briggflatts was a mem- ber, like his doctor father, Thomas, before him. A senior society member still recalls the poet enjoying his lunch on the long table in the library’s Sir James Knott Room in the early 1960s, in the period when Bunting worked as a sub-editor at the city’s Evening Chronicle (where he would occasionally admonish the young journalist and aspiring poet Barry MacSweeney for getting the tide times at the Lindisfarne causeway wrong.) But as Burton’s doorstop of a book proves, a library was hardly the typical milieu for a poet who seemed a natural, instinctive adventurer for most of his life. Even without the poetry, Bunting’s life would make for a great yarn. The book’s index alone is indicative of the poet’s scatter-gun existence, which often reads like a racy, picaresque novel, taking in everywhere from Canada to the Canary Islands, from Paris to Rapallo, the USA to his beloved Persia. (Reviewing Burton’s biography in the London Review of Books, poet Michael Hofmann compared Bunting to Tintin, or perhaps Walter Raleigh.)
Born Basil Cheesman Bunting on March 1, 1900, in Scotswood-on-Tyne, this bard of Northumberland enjoyed a cosmopolitan, impulsively reckless existence, marked by many highs and just as many poverty-stricken lows. The numerous vertiginous twists and turns of the Bunting story include everything from time in prison as a Quaker-educated, pacifist conscientious objector during the First World War to literary friendships with Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Ernest Hemingway and Ford Madox Ford, plus time in New York with poetic trailblazers William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, a generally ‘good’ Second World War, with Bunting forsaking his pacifist instincts to become a squadron leader and a military intelligence official covering much of the Middle East, to expulsion from Persia by Mossadeqq in 1953. Bunting also enjoyed brief careers as spy, diplomat, balloon opera- tor, sailor, Times correspondent and artists’ model. But his often penniless final years also included time in bleak urban accommodation in Washing- ton New Town, back in his native North East. And the literary second act sparked by his poetic masterpiece, Briggflatts, was arguably a lucky fluke. The necessity of going away while yearning for one’s home was a key feature of Briggflatts, which was at least partly written on the poet’s daily train commute between his home in Wylam, along the Tyne Valley, and his poorly-paid subbing job in Newcastle.
Bunting hated literary biography and urged friends to destroy all his let- ters. His life included two marriages, the first of which ended in acrimony, with accusations of physical and psychological abuse by the poet, and a second, more fulfilling relationship, to a Persian woman called Sima Al- ladadian, whom Bunting married while she was still only fourteen. But Burton, whose only fault is a taste for sweeping literary generalisations (his subject was ‘arguably the world’s most celebrated living poet’ in the 1960s and Seventies, ‘Bunting often reaches the heights that Yeats and El- iot reach and he always soars above contemporaries like Auden, MacNeice and Spender’) has done the poet proud in tracking and tracing the zigzag- ging life of the author of Briggflatts, the poet’s verse ‘autobiography,’ using its structure as the ‘spine’ for his narrative, the book’s chapters following the patterning of the poem’s five sections and coda. The result is an unprec- edented storehouse of Buntingesque detail. Like Villon (also the title of his 1925 poem), Bunting was a lifelong maverick, spending time behind bars, following the example of his fifteenth-century French poetic hero. While Bunting has not always been embraced by either the reading public or the literary establishment – he was rejected several times by Eliot for Faber and Hugh Kenner felt compelled to quote large chunks of Bunting in a criti- cal book published within three years of the the poet’s death in 1985, for fear his work was unfamiliar – his place in the history of twentieth-century literature now seems secure.
Mining numerous literary archives on both sides of the Atlantic and speak- ing to old friends of Bunting, including poets Tom Pickard and Colin Simms, Burton builds up a comprehensive portrait of a complex, contradic- tory, often irascible and self-mythologising poet, whose work combines a forthright, Poundian abrasiveness with the sparest of lyrical touches (‘Pens are too light./Take a chisel to write.’) For students of Bunting and modernist literature, the book provides a wealth of source material. Northumberland’s most famous modern poet was for a time at the epicentre of the modernist movement, rubbing shoulders with Pound, Yeats and Ford Madox Ford. Pound included fifty pages of Bunting’s work in his Active Anthol- ogy (Faber and Faber, 1933), and the two men for a time enjoyed a close friendship, as revealed in their correspondence about Bunting’s ‘Chomei at Toyama,’ while a couple of unpublished rude verses the latter wrote for his American friend’s amusement recall a similar taste for bawdy shared by Eliot and Pound:
I wish to the Lord that the bloody old crock Would leave off his trousers and get a stiff cock.
But as Burton points out, Bunting’s links with the author of The Cantos have not always been to his advantage. After Briggflatts afforded Bunting some literary celebrity in the mid-1960s, reviewers tended to emphasize his Poundian links. Francis Hope noted the ‘Poundian jokes’ and ‘Poundian rhetorical simplicities’ in ‘The Spoils,’ Al Alvarez speculated that Bunting never escaped ‘the aegis of ol’ Ez’s style,’ while Cyril Connolly attributed some of the poet’s alleged ‘obscurity’ to Poundian influences. But a more subtle notice by Thomas Clark in Poetry magazine recognised the influ- ence was ‘less a matter of technique than of attitude, a toughness of regard that makes possible the expression of bitterness as a description of realities and not simply as a complaint.’ Despite falling out for a number of years, Bunting’s literary friendship with Pound endured until the latter’s death in 1972. Bunting immortalised that friendship in ‘On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos’ in 1949: ‘There they are, you will have to go a long way round/ if you want to avoid them.’ Burton relates a moving reminiscence by Denis Goacher of an emotional Pound attempting to read his old friend’s poem while in St Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1954, from a typed copy Bunting had sent him: ‘He couldn’t finish it because he was so upset. It is not often that one poet gives another poet as great a compliment as that.’
Yeats famously described Bunting as ‘one of Ezra’s more savage disciples’ – a phrase that has echoed down the years, again not always to Bunting’s advantage – and their relationship in the Rapallo of the late 1920s and early 1930s was problematic. But the great Irish poet did honour the ‘savage disciple’ by once reciting a word-perfect version of ‘I am agog for foam’ (1926) from Bunting’s First Book of Odes. Bunting even witnessed an emergency will made by Yeats, who also gifted a Wendy-house to the younger poet’s daughter. There is also an anecdote about Yeats befriend- ing Bunting’s mother, who allegedly read the great poet’s horoscope, but Burton speculates this may be a case of embellishment of an already richly various life. Time and again, it is the lavish detail of Burton’s biography which will make his book indispensable to future literary scholars. While there has been one previous biography, Keith Alldritt’s Basil Bunting: The Poet as Spy (1998), which Burton claims sacrificed ‘accuracy to imagina- tive narrative,’ plus biographical material in critical works by Richard Cad- del, Victoria Forde and Carroll F. Terrell, A Strong Song Tows Us is the first book to pull together the multifarious strands of an action-packed, highly complex literary life. It includes a chapter-long close reading of Briggflatts, the 1965 poem inspired by Bunting’s childhood sweetheart, Peggy Green- bank. But the work for which Bunting is best known – ‘one of the few great poems of this century’ (Thom Gunn), ‘the finest long poem to have been published since T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets’ (Cyril Connolly) – almost didn’t happen. Pound’s shadow may fall across the page, but passages such as the poem’s famous opening – ‘Brag, sweet tenor bull,/descant on Raw- they’s madrigal,/ each pebble its part/ for the fells’ late spring’ – underline the distinctiveness of Bunting’s poetic achievement. And yet, in common with the happenstance marking much of the poet’s life, were it not for the intervention of teenage, working-class, tyro-poet-on-the-dole, Tom Pick- ard, and fellow young, wide-eyed writers and supporters clustered around the Morden Tower reading room in Newcastle’s medieval wall, who helped kick-start Bunting’s depressed muse, Briggflatts may never have been writ- ten. Fired by his untutored poetic disciples, who literally sat at his feet at readings, Bunting interwove a rich tapestry of influences, ranging from Scarlatti’s sonatas to the Lindisfarne Gospels, from Celtic heritage and Vi- king Eric Bloodaxe, plus such literary touchstones as Wordsworth, Horace, Whitman and Spenser, to carve out an extended love letter to history, to his ‘acknowledged land’ of Northumberland and indeed to a lost love. The story of Bunting’s most famous poem is just one tale in a lavishly detailed, meticulously reached biography, which is unlikely to be bettered.