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George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

I didn’t find this a very well-written or coherent book, but I thought it had one big thing in its favour: it doesn’t treat Orwell like a saint. The world-famous author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) was not an infallible prophet nor a flawless logician. He contradicted himself. He criticized people for saying things that he would later say himself. He often got things wrong.

But who didn’t, particularly before and during the Second World War? And the irreverence shown by Robert Colls towards his subject seemed to me to deepen into hostility at times. Does the South Shields lad Colls have a chip on his shoulder about the Old Etonian Orwell? I don’t know, but all biographies are also autobiographies. If an anti-hagiography is the opposite of a hagiography, then Colls seems at times to be writing one. That’s definitely what John Baxter was doing in his biography of J.G. Ballard, but English Rebel is a better and more interesting book than that.

It’s also much more eclectic. I like books that can quote from the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety at one moment (pg. 224) and from Richmal Crompton at another:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ ’em jus’ a bit, but not so anyone’d notice, and there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves. (ch. 3, “Eye Witness in Barcelona”, pg. 95, quoting “William’s friend Henry” in Crompton’s William the Bad, 1930)

As a summary of politics in the 1930s, that isn’t so far off the mark. It certainly captures the spirit of Communism at a time when many intelligent and educated people thought that Communism was the only and ethical hope for the human race. Orwell agreed with Crompton, not with the intellectuals. As Colls points out, he disliked and distrusted intellectuals while being one himself and moving in intellectual circles.

But there’s another connection between Orwell and Crompton: they were both very good writers, still delighting and diverting readers long after their deaths. Orwell was the greater and more serious of the two, but literary criticism can’t explain either of them. It can’t say why they were such good writers and such pleasures to read. All it can do is discuss their ideas, their influences, their culture and their life-histories. That’s not enough and although Colls is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic or (worse) a literary theorist, English Rebel fails to explain Orwell’s greatness just as surely as every previous biography and literary analysis.

And “Englishness” is not a very interesting topic. England and the English can be, but that’s partly because they’re so varied. You might also that Englishness is unconsciousness. The people who want to analyse it or feel the need to go in search of it are outsiders in some way. Orwell was born in British India, which made him an outsider in one way. He went to Eton on a scholarship, which made him an outsider in another. And he had French ancestry, which made him an outsider in yet another.

But I’ve never seen any critics or biographers of Orwell make much of his Frenchness. It’s there in his features and must have been there in his brain and psychology too, because genetics influences both of those. And that’s where Englishness can get interesting: at the genetic and biological level. You won’t find any of that here and bio-criticism isn’t a big subject anywhere yet. It will be, sooner or later, and that’s when Orwell will be better understood. In the meantime, books like this are here to speculate and make suggestions. And despite his irreverence and hostility, Colls does seem to appreciate the greatness and the moral stature of his subject: “Orwell spent his life fighting those who wanted to ‘control life’ and ‘entirely refashion people’ ‘with an absolute authority which penetrates into a man’s innermost being’.” (ch. , “Life after Death”, pg. 224)

That final quote is from the Jacobins and the Jacobins are still with us, using ever more advanced technology to satisfy some very primitive urges for power and domination. Orwell understood the urges and prophesied the technology. This book isn’t worthy of Orwell, but I’m not sure any biography or critique could be. It’s eclectic and interesting all the same. And it’s got a good index and some photos I’d never seen before.

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Nick Drake Dreaming England by Nathan Trowse-WisemanNick Drake: Dreaming England, Nathan Wiseman-Trowse (Reverb/Reaktion Books 2013)

I picked this book up thinking that it was another biography of Nick Drake. Wrong: it’s a critical study of his music instead. I wasn’t pleased. It’s irritating when interesting topics are slathered in pretentious jargon: terms like “locus”, “hybridization”, “performance of class”, “articulations of authenticity” and “musico-topographical features” do not go well with Drake’s delicate and melancholic music. To use the same jargon: they don’t “resonate”. Or rather, they do: jarringly and crudely. Putting cultural theory to work on Nick Drake is like driving through a bluebell wood in a tank.

A rusty, badly maintained tank. Exhaust fuming, gears grinding, driver drunk, unshaven and unkempt. But this book could have been much worse and if Drake can survive having some of his songs covered by Elton John, he can probably survive cultural theory. The topics remain interesting despite the jargon: Englishness, pastoralism, nostalgia, modernity, the end of empire, the continuing appeal of a singer who died young and a failure. Or so he must have thought. But it was a good career move: Drake died young and became very famous. If he’d lived and got old, he might now be almost unknown. Lots of good musicians never get what they deserve, just as lots of bad musicians get what they don’t.

I’d prefer Nathan Wiseman-Trowse, a “Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture” at the University of Northampton, to have examined that side of Drake’s story in greater detail. His early death, probably by suicide, is central to his cult. And cult is an appropriate word: mythical figures like Adonis and Hyacinth prove the psychological power of handsome youths who go before their time. So do Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. But those two were thunderous musicians, playing rock and filling arenas. Drake’s music was quiet and introspective: acoustic, not amplified; English, not American; for the countryside, not the town. But he was influenced by American music and “Eastern mysticism” and he lived in a very big city while he tried to make his name. That’s where Wiseman-Trowse comes in, trying to unpick the paradoxes, classify the hybridities and problematicize the construction of Drake as quintessentially English.

As he might have put it somewhere. But he puts other things better, as in the chapter on “Melancholia and Loss”, where he discusses Peter Akroyd’s book Albion and its “exploration of English culture”:

For Akroyd, the melancholic strain is to be found in the earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry, focussing on transience, decay, desolation and dustsceawung, or the “contemplation of dust”. It manifests itself through the elegy, the lament and the dirge. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur meditates on the passing of all things, while melancholic themes run throughout the work of John Donne, Thomas Browne and Samuel Johnson to the more contemporary poetry of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. (ch. 4, “Melancholia and Loss”, pg. 96)

Dustsceawung is a beautiful word and I’m glad to have discovered it here. But words, concepts and speculation are all you’ll get from a book like this: I didn’t need to spot an occasional “in terms of” to be sure that Wiseman-Trowse is a dedicated Guardianista. This means that he will regard biological explanations for English character and culture as unacceptable and appalling. Race doesn’t exist, after all. We’re all the same under the skin. Except that it does exist and we aren’t the same. Those old ideas about the English weather influencing the English mind are not ridiculous. The brain did not stop evolving when human beings left Africa and the new environments found by the migrants re-shaped their psychology and sharpened their intellect. Higher intelligence was useful in colder climates and so was neuroticism: people who didn’t worry about the approach of winter were less likely to survive it.

So Nick Drake will eventually be explained by biology and brain-science, not by cultural theory. Will that unweave the rainbow and empty the gnomèd mine? Perhaps it will, but it will also end the ugly jargon and the pseudo-profundity. And Drake himself is beyond caring. That’s part of his appeal and his appeal can’t be killed by cultural theory. Indeed, it’s an important fact about Drake that his music attracts cultural theorists, even as it evades their apparatus. I’d have preferred less jargon and no “in terms of” in this book, but you could see them as a contrast with the subtlety and beauty of its subject. Either way, Dreaming England contains some good photos and some interesting ideas about the music, the man and the myth. It isn’t a biography but there is a lot about Drake’s life here, with a detailed timeline and a discography. It has a good title and index too.

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