Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from Orwell.

coronavirus and Orwell
Design James Walker.

George Orwell wrote that moments of extreme crisis create ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to reboot social values. We are facing that situation now. Could this be an opportunity to reboot society or will we just binge watch loads on Netflicks…  

In Socialism and the English Genius, George Orwell suggests that England is comprised of two nations: the rich and the poor. He argues that inequality in England ‘is grosser than in any European country’ and that our class-ridden country is ‘a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly’. Only during ‘moments of supreme crisis’, when ‘emotional unity’ is required, can these two halves of Britain unite.

For Orwell, this moment of change came during World War II as people surrendered ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’ for the common good. The war also exposed the folly of private capitalism in that ‘land, factories, mines and transport owned privately and operated solely for profit – does not work’ in such conditions. This, he argued, was because during war capitalism ‘has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it’.

Orwell was a classic socialist in the mould of Aneurin Bevan and therefore identified a basic problem with the economic system: How could someone earning £100,000 a year ever find any commonality or empathy with someone earning £1 a week. He saw peacetime as a once in a lifetime opportunity to readdress this balance. A recent ONS Wealth and Assets survey found that the top 10% of earners finished 2018 with 45% of national wealth, while the poorest 10th held just 2%. Orwell would be horrified. Peacetime has intensified the problem.

We are now being presented with another moment of ‘supreme crisis’ as coronavirus brings life as we know it to a grinding halt. Replacing war with coronavirus, Orwell could have wrote:

‘Coronavirus is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, coronavirus brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual. It is only because they are aware of this that men will die on the field of battle.’

The main agent of change brought about by coronavirus is complete lockdown. We’ve had no choice but to give up ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’. This enforced solitude is our moment of ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to rethink our attitudes towards work, capitalism, poverty, health, community, the climate, globalisation, etc etc etc. Or we could just binge watch the arse out of Netflicks.

The meta-narrative of the past few years has been about taking back control of our borders, now we need to do something more radical: We need to take back control of our lives. Moments of ‘emotional unity’ enable this to happen. It is only in dire circumstances that people pull together – although it might not feel like this when you go food shopping.

Everything we have been told is impossible has become possible: homeless people have been housed, a Tory government is implementing a loose form of socialism, and the air is breathable now that aircraft sit twiddling their thumbs at Gatwick. A brave new world awaits us. Fight for it. We might not get this chance again.

A version of this blog was originally published by Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature on Monday 13 April.

War and Trease

Young Dickon from Bows Against the Barons joins us in Issue 11
Young Dickon from ‘Bows Against the Barons’ joins us in Issue 11.

Geoffrey Trease changed the landscape of children’s fiction by treating his younger readers as mature and thoughtful individuals. Up to 1945 it was an unacknowledged preconception that children lacked experience. As Margaret Meek commented in her analysis of his work “the successful author presents children with an organised illusion which fits their stage of development, a world in which the experience is relevant”.

In his debut novel Bows Against The Barons (1934) Trease showed that harsh winters left the likes of Robin Hood starving and frail and that life wasn’t always merrie in the emerald forest. It would lead to George Orwell complimenting Trease as “that creature we have long been needing, a ‘light’ Left-wing writer, rebellious but human, a sort of P.G Wodehouse after a course of Marx.”

trease and orwell

Given the social context of the first half of the 20th century it was impossible to cocoon children in a bubble of innocence. WWI meant that everyone knew at least one relative who had been killed, the influenza pandemic of 1918-9, at a conservative estimate, wiped out at least 20 million people, and then the 1930s delivered the Wall Street Crash that meant mass unemployment and uncertainty. Trease’s self-proclaimed desire “to correct the old Henty bias with a partisan counterbalance on the Left” meant that Robin Hood could only be a role model to people if he was truly of the people; starvation affects us all.

It may have been the right time to prod the bubble of innocence but bursting it was a different matter. The novel was published by a left-wing press and contained an inside illustration of a mutilated corpse that inevitably caused offence and resulted in many parents refusing to buy it. Those that did purchase a copy ripped the illustration out before handing the book over to their kids.

Bows Against the Barons. Photo James Walker.

Trease’s means of coping with harsh realities was to head out into the countryside and lose himself in the landscape. This would inevitably result in a book, Walking in England (1935). For a while he ran a guest house at Castle Cottage in Somerset. At the time he was making a decent living from freelance but this was taking up so much of his time he didn’t have time to write his own novels and so employed a part-time secretary who took down his words in shorthand and then typed them up. It was a logical solution for a man bursting with ideas but not enough time to transfer them to paper, but it does seem to go against the very essence of writing. Be it pen to paper or fingers to keys, writing is a tactile process, a relationship between body, mind and technology. The absence of any of these elements feels like a completely different mode of expression. But I digress…

Freelancing brought about another problem: isolation from people. A writer requires stimulus and so Trease joined two organisations; the Abingdon Labour Party and an amateur dramatic society. Despite being a political person, he found the Labour Party difficult in that no party could ever be right on every issue. There was also something disingenuous about politicians whose job was to “safeguard themselves in ambiguity whereas a writer uses words to express truths”.

Pen is mightier than the sword according to Trease.
Pen is mightier than the sword according to Trease. Issue 11.

Drama offered socialisation as well as another platform for his writing. In The Land of The Mogul (1938) detailed the adventures of the East India Company and made it abundantly clear that Britain had gone to India not for Empire or God but to trade profitably. Another harsh truth. But it was a one-acter called After the Tempest which would gain him national recognition in J.W. Marriott’s annual volume, The Best One-Act Plays of 1938.

Things were going well for Trease as he hit thirty, but they were about to change. WWII was just around the corner and this would put an end to, or delay, many of his projects. Another script set for success was Colony, set on an imaginary island (a familiar staple of his work) and inhabited by disgruntled sugar workers, it highlighted the problems of colonialism through the abuse of labour. It received critical acclaim, with the theatre weekly Era enthusing it as “a piece of really effective theatre written by a young man who obviously has a political cause at heart; but who, nevertheless, is concerned with creating real characters”.

On the 30 August 1939 Trease signed a preliminary agreement with Unity Theatre (West End) Ltd but 48 hours later Hitler attacked Poland. The contract was cancelled. Nobody was going to put on a controversial play during wartime. Trease’s most successful book Cue for Treason (1940) would suffer a more radical form of censorship. Within two weeks of publication the Nazi’s bombed a warehouse containing all of the books. Soon after, another publication Only Natural (1940) suffered an identical fate. Echoing the sentiments of one of the many stoic characters of his books, Trease remained as determined as ever: “I knew I had to go on writing. All my life I had to write. Even a world war could not stop that itch”.

You can read about Geoffrey Trease in issue 11: Books And Bowstrings by Alan Gibbons and Steve Larder