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Homage to Catalonia Audio Download – Original recording, 11 Feb 2013
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George Orwell's classic account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, dramatised for radio by Mike Walker. Produced by Kate McAll.
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Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print
Never use a long word where a short one will do
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous
These rules pretty much describe Orwell's own writing style, which is simple and straightforward, yet elegant and engaging. He was a man who lived a very full and somewhat eccentric life, giving up a career in the Burmese police force to wander around Britain as a Tramp and to live in poverty in Paris. He was very connected to working people and so understandably was drawn to the socialist side against Franco's Fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9).
This is a remarkably detailed account of an ordinary foot soldier's life in wartime - comparable to Robert Graves' `Goodbye to All That' about his time in the trenches in WW1. Orwell doesn't have the big picture of how the war is going or what the strategy is but can see the hopeless organisation and pitiful logistics of the Socialists. He's cold, hungry, ill clothed and badly armed but it's remarkable how cheerful he and his comrades remain. I would guess that this is an almost universal account of the nonsense of war from a soldier's point of view.
In the second part of the book he goes on leave to Barcelona and gives an account of the complex political rivalry between the socialist factions. As an account of the home front this is less successful as the political infighting seems ridiculously petty and un-affecting compared to the soldier's life. Eventually however the group to which Orwell belongs (POUM) losses the political fight and becomes a banned organisation so that he has to flee Spain to avoid arrest.
In many ways this is bang up-to-date - I can well believe that anti-government groups in, say, the Arab spring are very much like Orwell's socialists - fervent for their cause, but badly equipped and divided politically. To that extent this is a very modern book that has some universal truths about revolution and political change and which is well worth reading.
Nowhere does this show itself so clearly as in two of his great autobiographical, journalistic writings, Down and Out In Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938. This book recounts Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Like many on the left Orwell went to Spain to fight Fascism. Which in Spain took a different form from Germany and Italy. The democratically elected government in Spain was left leaning. An alliance of various right wing groupings (supported by the arms from Germany and Italy) attempted to overthrow that government. Although there were several right wing groups with their own agenda, they were more united against the left than the multiplicity of left wing groupings were between themselves. Primarily, though Russia supported the left, what the Communist Party was supporting was State Capitalism. Some of the other leftist groups, notably the ‘Trotskyist’ Marxist P.O.U.M (the militia Orwell fought alongside when he first went to Spain) and the Anarchists, were fighting for a bottom-up workers’ revolution.
Initially trying to get papers to go to Spain to fight for the Republic, Orwell did approach Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. (Those Britons intending to fight for the Republic needed supporting documents from a British left organisation). Pollitt however did not consider Orwell ‘sound’. This meant Orwell got his papers from the ILP, the Independent Labour Party. Practically, this meant that he was assigned to a militia which was predominantly P.O.U.M . Had the CP given him papers, he would have entered the war with P.S.U.C , the ‘official’ Communist Party (Stalinist) line. And his experience would have been a vastly different one. An ‘official’ CP line was put out, and widely reported in the Press, that the P.O.U.M were fifth columnists, and were in fact a front for the Fascists. P.O.U.M and the more left wing trades union groupings (F.A.I; C.N.T – Anarchists) were of course nothing of the sort, but were interested in winning a revolution, as well as a war.
Except for the small revolutionary groups which exist in all countries, the whole world was determined upon preventing revolution in Spain. In particular the Communist Party, with Soviet Russia behind it, had thrown its whole weight against the revolution. It was the Communist thesis that revolution at this stage would be fatal and that what was to be aimed at in Spain was not workers' control, but bourgeois democracy. It hardly needs pointing out why 'liberal' capitalist opinion took the same line.
The experience of the P.O.U.M. militia, and later, in Barcelona, were for Orwell a transforming experience. The contrast between a top down imposed line, and a bottom up without-hierarchy, though at times frustratingly inefficient, seemed to connect with Orwell’s own desire to seek the truthful, human encounter, rather than the party line.
To be perfectly honest, the complexities of that war, some 80 years ago, still seem difficult to understand, and it is very clear (as Orwell suggests) that information and misinformation was deliberately put out on all sides. Ancient ideological enmities between particular left groupings do seem to get stuck in fighting each other.
Where I like and trust Orwell is that he wrote this book from his direct experience. A small corner of that war, and from within an organisation which was fairly quickly made illegal. Orwell’s relationship is always with the people he is alongside, not with official lines.
This is at times a remarkably confusing account of warfare. That is not to criticise Orwell - because that is the nature of war, from within the battlezones, minute by minute. Add to that the fact that the Spanish Civil War, and interpretations of what was happening still leads to shouting between different factions and believers on the left, and between different scholarly accounts and interpretations.
Orwell was fighting on a front line, near Huesca, where very little was happening as the lines were quite far apart. Paradoxically, it was when he was in Barcelona for a few days leave, looking forward to getting away from the cold and the rats and the lice, that everything kicked off, and the workers, united, will never be defeated broke down because the various Republican factions pressing differences opened out into naked conflict
“I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan”
Orwell also reminds us that we are ALL partisan and have agendas. Perhaps that is something which is refreshing about him – he describes what he sees, he also applies his investigative, journalistic look to the stories that were told by others with more obvious agendas and party lines to promote.
“I went back to my post on the roof with a feeling of concentrated disgust and fury. When you are taking part in events like these you are, I suppose, in a small way, making history, and you ought by rights to feel like a historical character. But you never do, because at such times the physical details always outweigh everything else. Throughout the fighting, I never made the correct ‘analysis’ of the situation that was so glibly made by journalists hundreds of miles away. What I was chiefly thinking about was not the rights and wrongs of this miserable internecine scrap, but simply the discomfort and boredom of sitting day and night on that intolerable rood, and the hunger which was growing worse and worse – for none of us had had a proper meal since Monday”
In a way, it is Orwell’s ‘inability to make the correct analysis’ which seems a deal more honest than black and white analyses
The structure of the book intersperses Orwell’s own experiences on the ground, with his particular explanation and analysis of causes and events.
The elderly version on my shelves (I have been re-reading this) also comes with a later essay, published in 1953, some fifteen plus years later than the events he was describing, where he looks back with the hindsight of history, and sees more of the patterns.
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Contents. When looking for a book to read about the Spanish Civil War I found this with a comment it was well written.Read more