Reading ‘1984’ by torchlight seems appropriate. I’m presuming that the book is familiar to my readers, so I don’t need to explain why this seems appropriate. It’s the first time I’ve read a book whilst “in character”. Let us call this the “Method School” of reading. It wasn’t a creative idea that led to my method. It happened because of a 40w bulb and my 5ft 2in height. Anyway, it set off a trail of memories. Long, long ago, before the invention of emails, and during an extremely cold winter, when ice was everywhere, I was a student of literature It was the early 1980’s and I studied in Brighton. I read in bed, under a high-tog duvet, with my sheepskin coat on top, by torchlight, and I held the book in gloved hands.
It is now though, in 2014, that I feel I really appreciate the intelligence and vision of this book. Having read some biography of Orwell earlier this year, I am aware that at the beginning of his career the writer thought of himself primarily as a poet. I believe that he was a poet in my highest understanding of the word. I see the poetry in the potent imagery of his books. I see the poetry, for example, in the recurring image of clear, unpolluted streams and healthy fish:
“Somewhere near at hand, though out of sight, there was a clear, slow-moving stream where dace were swimming in the pools under the willow trees.”
It is through such images, in his books, that Orwell presents the lost ideal of the British countryside. In his books he presents to us the un-messed with world and the un-messed with mind. The world of freedom. If I could pop back to Brighton, in 1983 or so, to read that essay I was writing on ‘1984’, I might find that I was discussing the image of the stream as a symbol of humanity. The stream of consciousness. No doubt, as a student of literature, I would have backed this up with the authority of literary critique. However, it is, as I said, a long, long time ago, and if I did follow that line of thought in my essay, and if I did read other perspectives on it, I am no longer able to reference it, because I have certainly forgotten on the surface of my mind.
I believe that Orwell was a poet. Firstly, he was a poet in the same way that all those who speak out against oppression, in any media, are poets. He used words powerfully, so that they struck at the heart of truth. Therefore, he was also a poet in the literary sense. A poet in prose. He had the power to use words to show the truth and illuminate the dark. “Art is nothing to do with politics”, an acquaintance once said to me. It is a famous view point (Art for Arts Sake). There are different kinds of art. We have the choice to debate such matters. Throughout history, we see, again and again, the forces of repression try to destroy art and culture if it doesn’t represent their own view point. A few examples are Sophia Town, South Africa, and the notion of “degenerate” art during the Nazi era. The forces of repression impose their own symbols. They try to stamp out the truth.
One of the first concepts that was brought to my attention as a student of literature, was that “I like this” and “I like that” are not useful. Instead we were encouraged to research books in a “scientific” manner. We were told to approach the text without emotion and opinion. And we placed the text in the context of history and developments in other disciplines. It is useful to learn this technique of looking at things from different perspectives. However, even those who have this training often slip back into the small-talk of likes/dislikes/the weather/ cliches and prejudices. The message I get from 1984 is that the place to start to see the truth is with the streams (of every kind). They need cleaning up and then let’s see what kind of fish turn up.
Other inspiration this October: the Jilly Edwards textiles exhibition at Touchstones, Rochdale. I was one of the lucky people who attended Jilly’s talk and a viewing of a selection of her sketchbooks.