My Country Right or Left is an essay by George Orwell, first published a year after the outbreak of the Second World War in the autumn 1940 edition of Folios of New Writing, a periodical founded in 1936 (it ceased in 1950).
The first sentence made me smile, I must say:
Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin. It is largely because of the books, films and reminiscences that have come between that the war of 1914-18 is now supposed to have had some tremendous, epic quality that the present one lacks.
Oh, for the days when the present seemed uneventful. But, I'm deviating. To continue: he goes on to remember the First World War, and writes on this kind of 'collective memory', meaning that memories of the time, of the actual moment, may have faded and have effectively been 'boosted' by other people's reminisces. He then admits that, of his childhood days (he was eleven when the First World War began), the most vivid and shocking memory of that period was in fact the sinking of the Titanic (1912, when Orwell was nine). Nevertheless he recalls certain memories of the war, finishing with the rather startling confession that his memories of the latter days of the war were primarily of margarine:
As for the final period, if you ask me to say truthfully what is my chief memory, I must answer simply — margarine. It is an instance of the horrible selfishness of children that by 1917 the war had almost ceased to affect us, except through our stomachs. In the school library a huge map of the Western Front was pinned on an easel, with a red silk thread running across on a zig-zag of drawing-pins. Occasionally the thread moved half an inch this way or that, each movement meaning a pyramid of corpses. I paid no attention. I was at school among boys who were above the average level of intelligence, and yet I do not remember that a single major event of the time appeared to us in its true significance. The Russian Revolution, for instance, made no impression, except on the few whose parents happened to have money invested in Russia. Among the very young the pacifist reaction had set in long before the war ended. To be as slack as you dared on O.T.C. parades, and to take no interest in the war was considered a mark of enlightenment. The young officers who had come back, hardened by their terrible experience and disgusted by the attitude of the younger generation to whom this experience meant just nothing, used to lecture us for our softness. Of course they could produce no argument that we were capable of understanding. They could only bark at you that war was ‘a good thing’, it ‘made you tough’, ‘kept you fit’, etc. etc. We merely sniggered at them. Ours was the one-eyed pacifism that is peculiar to sheltered countries with strong navies. For years after the war, to have any knowledge of or interest in military matters, even to know which end of a gun the bullet comes out of, was suspect in ‘enlightened’ circles. 1914-18 was written off as a meaningless slaughter, and even the men who had been slaughtered were held to be in some way to blame. I have often laughed to think of that recruiting poster, ‘What did you do in the Great War, daddy?’ (a child is asking this question of its shame-stricken father), and of all the men who must have been lured into the army by just that poster and afterwards despised by their children for not being Conscientious Objectors.
|Poster created by the War Office (1914-15).|
Despite this, the war had an enormous impact on shaping the youth, those "just too young" to have fought but where nonetheless prepared: "Most of the English middle class are trained for war from the cradle onwards, not technically but morally", perhaps, he suggests, explaining his generation's fascination with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which Orwell joined in 1937 (see Homage to Catalonia by Orwell, 1938). This he describes as "a bad copy of 1914-18". As for the Second World War, he recalls the period before when it was increasingly clear there would be another war:
For several years the coming war was nightmare to me, and at times I even made speeches and wrote pamphlets against it. But the night before the Russo-German pact was announced I dreamed that the war had started. It was one of those dreams which, whatever Freudian inner meaning they may have, do sometimes reveal to you the real state of your feelings. It taught me two things, first, that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started, secondly, that I was patriotic at heart, would not sabotage or act against my own side, would support the war, would fight in it if possible.
This is a crucial moment: Orwell the socialist, Orwell the pacifist, stating quite clearly he would support the war. What's more, despite this, he believes it is perfectly defensible from his left-wing point of view. He offers some of his defence, for example "There is no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering to him, and from a Socialist point of view I should say that it is better to resist". The most interesting part, for me, is this sentence: "Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism.". Orwell still holds fast to his belief that "Only revolution can save England", and that revolution he believes may begin with the Second World War. He concludes his essay,
I grew up in an atmosphere tinged with militarism, and afterwards I spent five boring years within the sound of bugles. To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during ‘God save the King’. That is childish, of course, but I would sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions. It is exactly the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes.
This essay is fascinating to me, particularly on its theme of patriotism. Patriotism has been overtly and covertly a subject of great importance in the past year. The word patriotism simply means pride in one's country or love of one's country, yet the word, like the flag, is co-opted by the hard right wingers and, in those terms, is not just a love of England but a hatred of other countries. The old, if not ancient, question of immigration, for the hard right, it is a matter of national pride to refuse entry to migrants or refugees. It is a focus on the country at the expense of others, and it is a pride in doing so. How many times I've heard from people in the UK and USA "charity begins at home", an argument to refuse any kind of help for those suffering in other countries, from those who have very suddenly taken a keen interest in talking of helping the nation's homeless (just talking, I must add). This has meant that those left-wingers, right-wingers, those of the centre ground, and those who voted to remain in the European Union are unpatriotic. Take this headline from the Daily Mail for example: "Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people".To simply love one's country and do or hope for the very best for one's country is no longer enough: it must be done the right way (pun intended!). Because of this, it seems now that to describe oneself as a patriot is a somewhat risky business with the association of the hard or extreme right wing views we see in the likes of UKIP, Britain First, the BNP, or Donald Trump. The supporters of these parties or people deny the patriotism of other people from the left wing, through the centre, to the soft or moderate right but as Orwell reminds us very starkly: "Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism." To 'want to get the best deal' (as we hear daily with regards to Brexit) and to want to help others is far from being unpatriotic. I'm grateful to Orwell for the reminder. My Country Right or Left is a brilliant essay.
And that was my 12th essay for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Decay of Essay-writing by Virginia Woolf.