You stroll towards the train station in Calella, sun glimmering on white facades, buy a ticket and embark on an adventurous pilgrimage. The train glides through the picturesque scenery, in one’s vision the canvas of rich golden sandy beaches and the crystal-clear blue sea, along with the shrubs and olive trees that lushly converge into a vast greenery. One of the most superb sights you will ever glance upon, in the distance not too far removed from befitting a mirage, you see Barcelona jutting out on the coastline.
The ancient Catalonian metropolis is simply stunning. You step off the train into the city filled with a vast array of glamorous shops and cafes. As you browse the stylish boutiques, the cool, conditioned air whispers welcome relief from the Catalan heat. The La Senyera flag of Catalonia is proudly unfurled from old Romanesque and Gothic buildings.
Homage to Catalonia
Plaça De George Orwell or George Orwell Square is at first glance seemingly average, interspersed with a few cafes and random shops, parked bicycles, mopeds and children playing under trees that offer respite from the sun. Then it hits you when you see it … Big Brother watching you! The sign that reads “zona vigilada”, which translates as, “guarded zone” with the symbol of a surveillance camera glaring cold and emotionless. Across to the other side of the plaça lined with amber-coloured buildings, you gaze across and see a wall plaque that reads:
Plaça De George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), Motihari, Bengala 1903 – Londres, 1950, Escriptor.
A surge of emotion streams. As a left-leaning youth, you hold the realisation of how much Orwell means to you. Sure, the writer had his many flaws and, like us all, was far from perfect, but in a multitude of ways his literature has shaped young people’s thoughts though the years, not only on authoritarianism, but also compassion and morality.
One stand-out quote from Orwell’s 1939 book Homage to Catalonia is “Ask a Spaniard for a cigarette and they will give you the whole pack”. This book is as important to the conversation around war as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
The Spanish Republicans fighting against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War alongside Orwell, when learning of his upper-middle-class background may have assumed he was one of the bourgeoisie, but Homage to Catalonia shows truly how Orwell transcended the boundaries of class. It reveals, also, how much compassion and admiration he had for those fighting to uphold humanist values against the shadow of a repressive, regressive, and brutal ideology. Catalonia was the province most opposed to Franco’s fascist rule.
There are striking similarities between the war in Ukraine and the Spanish Civil War; both essentially proxy wars against a broader rise in fascist authoritarianism not just restricted to the actual theatre of conflict. Perhaps if Orwell were around today he would have volunteered to fight alongside Ukrainian resistance fighters against Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic and fascistic regime. As is widely acknowledged, Orwell’s work is just as relevant in this fractured era, perhaps even more so.
The Road to Wigan Pier
Growing up in Skipton whilst reading The Road to Wigan Pier you could imagine the cobbled streets and the terraced houses near Sackville Street and the strong sense of Northern community. Inequality was as bad then in the 1930s as it is now, with the North-South divide in England being comparable to East and West Germany. The quintessential journalist in the most literal sense of the term, Orwell posed as a homeless person to live through the lens of deprivation and poverty. The Road to Wigan Pier dives into the dire conditions of the North of England in the 1930s. The statement “… tinned food has killed more people than the machine gun”, works on multiple levels.
Many people wilfully misinterpret and misrepresent Orwell’s work and fail to understand his vision of democratic socialism by quoting from his futuristic dystopia 1984. Many people on the right conflate his concept of ‘Ingsoc’ with socialism and use it to talk down socialist and egalitarian thought. Such criticisms fundamentally misunderstand the rhetorical conceit employed by Orwell in criticising state propagandist discourse. Orwell understood very well the authoritarian traits of Stalinism on the left and Fascism on the right; drawing attention to their shared deployment of the same inhumane and oppressive devices.
In reality, Orwell’s aims were profoundly humanitarian and in the same democratic socialist tradition as Tony Benn. (Many conservatives you speak to even respect the fact that Tony Benn gave up his aristocratic title, being the first peer to do so) For a time, much of the world seemed to be headed in a progressive democratic socialist direction with FDR’s new deal in the USA and Clement Attlee’s Labour government establishing the NHS and providing social housing for millions. Presently, we have strayed far from the path of collectivism due to Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s now deeply embedded neoliberal politics. We are left with an accelerated hyper-individualist, hyper-normalised capitalist world that, for many, is proving to be profoundly anomic.
Orwell gives a glimmer of hope for the future, a compassionate, far-sighted individual we should hold in high regard – truly an epoch-defining voice that should be listened to even more as we witness the sharp rise of nationalist authoritarianism at home and abroad. You might argue that Orwellian patriotism – a patriotism that vows and advocates to improve the material conditions of one’s own society is more powerful and enduring than the shallow, divisive, propagandist nationalism all too prevalent today.