Fifty Orwell Essays



  Title: Fifty Orwell Essays

  Author: George Orwell

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  Language: English

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  Date first posted: January 2003

  Date most recently updated: January 2010

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  Production notes:

  Author's footnotes appear at the end of the paragraph where indicated.

  All essays in this collection were first published during George

  Orwell's lifetime, and have appeared in a number of Orwell essay

  collections published both before and after his death. Details are

  provided on the George Orwell page at

  Italicised words are shown in upper case.

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  A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

  Title: Fifty Orwell Essays

  Author: George Orwell


  The Spike (1931)

  A Hanging (1931)

  Bookshop Memories (1936)

  Shooting an Elephant (1936)

  Down the Mine (from "The Road to Wigan Pier") (1937)

  North and South (from "The Road to Wigan Pier") (1937)

  Spilling the Spanish Beans (1937)

  Marrakech (1939)

  Boys' Weeklies and Frank Richards's Reply (1940)

  Charles Dickens (1940)

  Charles Reade (1940)

  Inside The Whale (1940)

  The Art of Donald Mcgill (1941)

  The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941)

  Wells, Hitler and the World State (1941)

  Looking Back on the Spanish War (1942)

  Rudyard Kipling (1942)

  Mark Twain--The Licensed Jester (1943)

  Poetry and the Microphone (1943)

  W B Yeats (1943)

  Arthur Koestler (1944)

  Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali (1944)

  Raffles and Miss Blandish (1944)

  Antisemitism in Britain (1945)

  Freedom of the Park (1945)

  Good Bad Books (1945)

  In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse (1945)

  Nonsense Poetry (1945)

  Notes on Nationalism (1945)

  Revenge is Sour (1945)

  The Sporting Spirit (1945)

  You and the Atomic Bomb (1945)

  A Good Word for the Vicar Of Bray (1946)

  A Nice Cup of Tea (1946)

  Books vs. Cigarettes (1946)

  Confessions of a Book Reviewer (1946)

  Decline of the English Murder (1946)

  How the Poor Die (1946)

  James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution (Second Thoughts On Burnham)(1946)

  Pleasure Spots (1946)

  Politics and the English Language (1946)

  Politics vs. Literature: an examination of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (1946)

  Riding Down from Bangor (1946)

  Some Thoughts on the Common Toad (1946)

  The Prevention of Literature (1946)

  Why I Write (1946)

  Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947)

  Such, Such Were the Joys (1952)

  Writers and Leviathan (1948)

  Reflections on Gandhi (1949)


  It was late-afternoon. Forty-nine of us, forty-eight men and one woman,

  lay on the green waiting for the spike to open. We were too tired to talk

  much. We just sprawled about exhaustedly, with home-made cigarettes

  sticking out of our scrubby faces. Overhead the chestnut branches were

  covered with blossom, and beyond that great woolly clouds floated almost

  motionless in a clear sky. Littered on the grass, we seemed dingy, urban

  riff-raff. We defiled the scene, like sardine-tins and paper bags on the


  What talk there was ran on the Tramp Major of this spike. He was a devil,

  everyone agreed, a tartar, a tyrant, a bawling, blasphemous, uncharitable

  dog. You couldn't call your soul your own when he was about, and many a

  tramp had he kicked out in the middle of the night for giving a back

  answer. When You, came to be searched, he fair held you upside down and

  shook you. If you were caught with tobacco there was bell to. Pay, and if

  you went in with money (which is against the law) God help you.

  I had eightpence on me. 'For the love of Christ, mate,' the old hands

  advised me, 'don't you take it in. You'd get seven days for going into

  the spike with eightpence!'

  So I buried my money in a hole under the hedge, marking the spot with a

  lump of flint. Then we set about smuggling our matches and tobacco, for

  it is forbidden to take these into nearly all spikes, and one is supposed

  to surrender them at the gate. We hid them in our socks, except for the

  twenty or so per cent who had no socks, and had to carry the tobacco in

  their boots, even under their very toes. We stuffed our ankles with

  contraband until anyone seeing us might have imagined an outbreak of

  elephantiasis. But is an unwritten law that even the sternest Tramp

  Majors do not search below the knee, and in the end only one man was

  caught. This was Scotty, a little hairy tramp with a bastard accent sired

  by cockney out of Glasgow. His tin of cigarette ends fell out of his sock

  at the wrong moment, and was impounded.

  At six, the gates swung open and we shuffled in. An official at the gate

  entered our names and other particulars in the register and took our

  bundles away from us. The woman was sent off to the workhouse, and we

  others into the spike. It was a gloomy, chilly, limewashed place,

  consisting only of a bathroom and dining-room and about a hundred narrow

  stone cells. The terrible Tramp Major met us at the door and herded us

  into the bathroom to be stripped and searched. He was a gruff, soldierly

  man of forty, who gave the tramps no more ceremony than sheep at the

  dipping-pond, shoving them this way and that and shouting oaths in their

  faces. But when he came to myself, he looked hard at me, and said:

  'You are a gentleman?'

  'I suppose so,' I said.

  He gave me another long look. 'Well, that's bloody bad luck, guv'nor,' he

  said, 'that's bloody bad luck, that is.' And thereafter he took it into

  his head to treat me with compassion, even with a kind of respect.

  It was a disgusting sight, that bathroom. All the indecent secrets of our

  underwear were exposed; the grime, the rents and patches, the bits of

  string doing duty for buttons, the layers upon layers of fragmentary

  garments, some of them mere collections of holes, held together by dirt.

  The room became a press of steaming nudity, the sweaty odours of the

  tramps competing with the sickly, sub-faecal stench native to the spike.

  Some of the men refused the bath, and washed only their 'toe-rags', the

  horrid, greasy little clouts which tramps bind round their feet. Each of

  us had three minutes in which to bathe himself. Six greasy, slippery

  roller towels had to serve for the lot of us.

  When we had bathed our own clothes were taken away from us, and we were

  dressed in the workhouse shirts, grey cotton things like nightshirts,

  reaching to the middle of the thigh. Then we were sent into the

  dining-room, where supper was set out on the deal tables. It was the

  invariable spike meal, always the same, whether breakfast, dinner or

  supper--half a pound of bread, a bit of margarine, and a pint of

  so-called tea. It took us five minutes to gulp down the cheap, noxious

  food. Then the Tramp Major served us with three cotton blankets each, and

  drove us off to our cells for the night. The doors were locked on the

  outside a little before seven in the evening, and would stay locked for

  the next twelve hours.

  The cells measured eight feet by five, and, had no lighting apparatus

  except a tiny, barred window high up in the wall, and a spyhole in the

  door. There were no bugs, and we had bedsteads and straw palliasses, rare

  luxuries both. In many spikes one sleeps on a wooden shelf, and in some

  on the bare floor, with a rolled-up coat for pillow. With a cell to

  myself, and a bed, I was hoping for a sound night's rest. But I did not

  get it, for there is always something wrong in the spike, and the

  peculiar shortcoming here, as I discovered immediately, was the cold. May

  had begun, and in honour of the season--a little sacrifice to the gods

  of spring, perhaps--the authorities had cut off the steam from the hot

  pipes. The cotton blankets were almost useless. One spent the night in

  turning from side to side, falling asleep for ten minutes and waking half

  frozen, and watching for dawn.

  As always happens in the spike, I had at last managed to fall comfortably

  asleep when it was time to get up. The Tramp. Major came marching down

  the passage with his heavy tread, unlocking the doors and yelling to us

  to show a leg. Promptly the passage was full of squalid shirt-clad

  figures rushing for the bathroom, for there was Only One tub full of

  water between us all in the morning, and it was first come first served.

  When I arrived twenty tramps had already washed their faces. I gave one

  glance at the black scum on top of the water, and decided to go dirty for

  the day.

  We hurried into our clothes, and then went to the dining-room to bolt our

  breakfast. The bread was much worse than usual, because the

  military-minded idiot of a Tramp Major had cut it into slices overnight,

  so that it was as hard as ship's biscuit. But we were glad of our tea

  after the cold, restless night. I do not know what tramps would do

  without tea, or rather the stuff they miscall tea. It is their food,

  their medicine, their panacea for all evils. Without the half goon or so

  of it that they suck down a day, I truly believe they could not face

  their existence.

  After breakfast we had to undress again for the medical inspection, which

  is a precaution against smallpox. It was three quarters of an hour before

  the doctor arrived, and one had time now to look about him and see what

  manner of men we were. It was an instructive sight. We stood shivering

  naked to the waist in two long ranks in the passage. The filtered light,

  bluish and cold, lighted us up with unmerciful clarity. No one can

  imagine, unless he has seen such a thing, what pot-bellied, degenerate

  curs we looked. Shock heads, hairy, crumpled faces, hollow chests, flat

  feet, sagging muscles--every kind of malformation and physical

  rottenness were there. All were flabby and discoloured, as all tramps are

  under their deceptive sunburn. Two or three figures wen there stay

  ineradicably in my mind. Old 'Daddy', aged seventy-four, with his truss,

  and his red, watering eyes, a herring-gutted starveling with sparse beard

  and sunken cheeks, looking like the corpse of Lazarus in some primitive

  picture: an imbecile, wandering hither and thither with vague giggles,

  coyly pleased because his trousers constantly slipped down and left him

  nude. But few of us were greatly better than these; there were not ten

  decently built men among us, and half, I believe, should have been in


  This being Sunday, we were to be kept in the spike over the week-end. As

  soon as the doctor had gone we were herded back to the dining-room, and its

  door shut upon us. It was a lime-washed, stone-floored room, unspeakably

  dreary with its furniture of deal boards and benches, and its prison

  smell. The windows were so high up that one could not look outside, and

  the sole ornament was a set of Rules threatening dire penalties to any

  casual who misconducted himself. We packed the room so tight that one

  could not move an elbow without jostling somebody. Already, at eight

  o'clock in the morning, we were bored with our captivity. There was

  nothing to talk about except the petty gossip of the road, the good and

  bad spikes, the charitable and uncharitable counties, the iniquities of

  the police and the Salvation Army. Tramps hardly ever get away from these

  subjects; they talk, as it were, nothing but shop. They have nothing

  worthy to be called conversation, bemuse emptiness of belly leaves no

  speculation in their souls. The world is too much with them. Their next

  meal is never quite secure, and so they cannot think of anything except

  the next meal.

  Two hours dragged by. Old Daddy, witless with age, sat silent, his back

  bent like a bow and his inflamed eyes dripping slowly on to the floor.

  George, a dirty old tramp notorious for the queer habit of sleeping in

  his hat, grumbled about a parcel of tommy that he had lost on the toad.

  Bill the moocher, the best built man of us all, a Herculean sturdy beggar

  who smelt of beer even after twelve hours in the spike, told tales of

  mooching, of pints stood him in the boozers, and of a parson who had

  peached to the police and got him seven days. William and, Fred, two

  young, ex-fishermen from Norfolk, sang a sad song about Unhappy Bella,

  who was betrayed and died in the snow. The imbecile drivelled, about an

  imaginary toff, who had once given him two hundred and fifty-seven golden

  sovereigns. So the time passed, with dun talk and dull obscenities.

  Everyone was smoking, except Scotty, whose tobacco had been seized, and

  he was so miserable in his smokeless state that I stood him the makings

  of a cigarette. We smoked furtively, hiding our cigarettes like

/>   schoolboys when we heard the Tramp Major's step, for smoking though

  connived at, was officially forbidden.

  Most of the tramps spent ten consecutive hours in this dreary room. It is

  hard to imagine how they put up with 11. I have come to think that

  boredom is the worst of all a tramp's evils, worse than hunger and

  discomfort, worse even than the constant feeling of being socially

  disgraced. It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all

  day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel, only an

  educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure

  confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face

  their poverty with blank, resourceless minds. Fixed for ten hours on a

  comfortless bench, they know no way of occupying themselves, and if they

  think at all it is to whimper about hard luck and pine for work. They

  have not the stuff in them to endure the horrors of idleness. And so,

  since so much of their lives is spent in doing nothing, they suffer

  agonies from boredom.

  I was much luckier than the others, because at ten o'clock the Tramp

  Major picked me out for the most coveted of all jobs in the spike, the

  job of helping in the workhouse kitchen. There was not really any work to

  be done there, and I was able to make off and hide in a shed used for

  storing potatoes, together with some workhouse paupers who were skulking

  to avoid the Sunday-morning service. There was a stove burning there, and

  comfortable packing cases to sit on, and back numbers of the FAMILY

  HERALD, and even a copy of RAFFLES from the workhouse library. It was

  paradise after the spike.

  Also, I had my dinner from the workhouse table, and it was one of the

  biggest meals I have ever eaten. A tramp does not see such a meal twice

  in the year, in the spike or out of it. The paupers told me that they

  always gorged to the bursting point on Sundays, and went hungry six days

  of the week. When the meal was over the cook set me to do the washing-up,

  and told me to throw away the food that remained. The wastage was

  astonishing; great dishes of beef, and bucketfuls of broad and

  vegetables, were pitched away like rubbish, and then defiled with

  tea-leaves. I filled five dustbins to overflowing with good food. And

  while I did so my follow tramps were sitting two hundred yards away in

  the spike, their bellies half filled with the spike dinner of the

  everlasting bread and tea, and perhaps two cold boiled potatoes each in

  honour of Sunday. It appeared that the food was thrown away from

  deliberate policy, rather than that it should be given to the tramps.

  At three I left the workhouse kitchen and went back to the spike. The,

  boredom in that crowded, comfortless room was now unbearable. Even

  smoking had ceased, for a tramp's only tobacco is picked-up cigarette

  ends, and, like a browsing beast, he starves if he is long away from the

  pavement-pasture. To occupy the time I talked with a rather superior

  tramp, a young carpenter who wore a collar and tie, and was on the road,

  he said, for lack of a set of tools. He kept a little aloof from the

  other tramps, and held himself more like a free man than a casual. He had

  literary tastes, too, and carried one of Scott's novels on all his

  wanderings. He told me he never entered a spike unless driven there by

  hunger, sleeping under hedges and behind ricks in preference. Along the

  south coast he had begged by day and slept in bathing-machines for weeks

  at a time.

  We talked of life on the road. He criticized the system which makes a

  tramp spend fourteen hours a day in the spike, and the other ten in

  walking and dodging the police. He spoke of his own case--six months at

  the public charge for want of three pounds' worth of tools. It was

  idiotic, he said.

  Then I told him about the wastage of food in the workhouse kitchen, and

  what I thought of it. And at that he changed his tune immediately. I saw

  that I had awakened the pew-renter who sleeps in every English workman.

  Though he had been famished, along with the rest, he at once saw reasons

  why the food should have been thrown away rather than given to the tramps.

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