22 August 2016

Reading George Orwell

I’ve only read three books by George Orwell, and they’re not the three most people probably associate with his name. He is, perhaps like Shakespeare, one of those writers whom we somehow simply know and can even quote without ever actually having read. I’m not entirely sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it certainly is a thing.

I may well have read a passage or two from Animal Farm (1945) in English classes at High School, but I’ve never read it all. Nor have I read Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). But somehow I can’t seem to recall my ever not knowing about this satirical tale of animals as political allegory for Stalinist dictatorship. All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. Likewise the “newspeak”, “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime”, and “Room 101” of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Big brother is watching you. But thinking about Orwell recently I was struck by the realisation that I’d never really engaged with his works. What seemed strange to me is how in many ways, and considering what little I know of him and his life, he would most fundamentally seem to be my kind of writer. As a Sixth Form and then undergraduate student in my late teens and early twenties I avidly read the political writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Camus, Vaclav Havel, and later, Aung San Suu Kyi. I also read the complete short fiction and personal writings of Franz Kafka. But not so much of Orwell.

The first book of his I read was Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). For a time I contemplated writing my undergraduate anthropology dissertation on some vague aspect or other of homelessness in London society. When not in lectures I often idly drifted about London and occasionally found myself engaging in conversations with various ‘down and outs’ I met on the streets. But nothing came of it, perhaps because I realised to do such a study properly would take more time and greater immersion than would be possible in the timeframe required of an undergraduate dissertation project (plus, asides from the question of what might be the most appropriate methodology; how to ethically reconcile oneself with pursuing “participant observation” of such a topic, as was required of the dissertation module? Should one pose as homeless in pursuit of veracity by being dishonest, or should one be open about being an academic observer, thereby maintaining honesty but creating a barrier through distance?).

In many ways I now regret not doing that project, comparing Orwell’s observations of London’s homeless with my own of some fifty-odd years later might have been a worthwhile endeavour. But my head was probably too much in the clouds at the time, I doubt I’d have been organised or disciplined enough to have done it justice. Instead I gravitated onto his novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), which chimed more with my own somewhat lazy artistic counter-culture inclinations – the story of Gordon Comstock, a not-very-good poet nurturing a slowly simmering rancour against the world and society in particular, which resulted in his busily being determined to go nowhere with his life. A kind of über-Romantic anti-Romantic. But happily, that didn’t last quite as long as it felt like it did at the time. Life eventually moved on.

And as life moved on, so too I seemed to leave Orwell behind. It’s only recently that I came back to him. This time drawn by an interest in his anti-imperialist writings which I thought might chime with elements of my current PhD research. But there again, how was it that I already seemed preternaturally aware of his essay, Shooting an Elephant (1936). Racking my brains I have no recall of how, when, or where I first became aware of this remarkable piece of writing. Somehow, I just knew about it already.

Hence I bought a copy of his Essays (2014). A gorgeously produced Penguin paperback with a design that harked back to the iconic 1940s-look of that publishing brand. Rather suitably, I thought. But inside the text has been reduced to fit this pocket-sized format, which means that trying to read the thing is rather like trying to decipher the semaphore of an ant attempting to communicate by dancing across a narrow blank page with inky feet. However, that screwed-up-eyes intensity of reading repays the effort well. I found Orwell just as engaging, if not moreso even, than I did when I was half the age I am today. 


I realise now the main thing I like about his writing, asides from my sympathies with some of his viewpoints and shared interests in certain topics, is how clear and frank he is – without necessarily being simply clear and frank. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this, and that’s perhaps why he’s such a master prose-stylist. He does it so effortlessly. Although, I bet he did and didn’t. I bet he laboured long over some parts whilst others must have just poured out and seemingly wrote themselves. Maybe this is why he seems oddly timeless. While he might be writing about times and realities which have long since gone and which in many ways set his writings firmly in the context of their times – he writes of pounds, shillings, and pence; his weights and measures are imperial, he writes about drinking pints of mild, and buying so many ounces of tobacco, to point to the simplest of examples – he also writes very plainly about some topics which seem oddly open and thereby counter to my preconceptions of the era; take sex for instance, he can be remarkably candid about that – although, thankfully, not too candid.

The social and moral observations he makes and his analysis of such matters are what perhaps resonate most with the modern reader, even now. It’s amazing he remains so fresh and seemingly current, but then maybe he has simply hit on the most unchanging elements of our reality. Perhaps the world, as he sees and understands it, was ever thus. Like Ben Jonson’s famous summation of William Shakespeare, perhaps George Orwell is not so much a man of his time, but rather more a man for all time – or, to thieve a different aphorism (from Zhou Enlai), is it still too early yet to tell?


A selection of BBC Radio 4 Programmes exploring the themes and political context of George Orwell's ideas and his writings

1 August 2016

Finding Krishna in Tibet - Perceval Landon

“Gems and wrought gold, never sold – brought for me to behold them;
Tales of far magic unrolled – to me only he told them,
With the light, easy laugh of dismissal ‘twixt story and story –
As a man brushes sand from his hand, or the great dismiss glory.”

A Song in the Desert
By Rudyard Kipling (1927)

‘A Song of the Desert’ is a poem written in 1927 by Rudyard Kipling in remembrance of his friend, Perceval Landon, who had died that year at the age of 59. In 1904, aged 35, Landon had accompanied the Younghusband Expedition to Lhasa. The ‘expedition’ was a military one, sent to forcibly open up a trade route between Tibet and British India. Landon was one of four correspondents, what we might now think of as ‘embedded journalists’, who travelled with the British Military Force, sending reports back to various newspapers in Britain and India. Along the way, as did many members of the British expedition, Landon acquired and collected various trinkets, curios, and objets d’art some of which he later donated to the British Museum. One of these objects is currently the centrepiece of an exhibition at the BM, titled: Krishna in the Garden of Assam (closing August 15th 2016).

The Vrindavani Vastra (British Museum)

The Vrindavani Vastra is a nine metre long textile, made up of twelve strips of woven silk, each figured with depictions of the incarnations of Vishnu and scenes from the life of Krishna as described in the 10th century Hindu text, the Bhagavata Purana. The textile, which is thought to have been created around 1680, was discovered by Landon in the monastery at Gobshi, near Gyantse in southern Tibet. But how did this textile depicting Hindu religious scenes end up in a Buddhist monastery in Tibet some 300 years or more after it was originally made?

 Krishna in the garden of Assam: the cultural context of an Indian textile

The exhibition, along with an accompanying book and film, by my friend and colleague, Richard Blurton, explains the fascinating detective story of archival research and contemporary fieldwork which has helped to rescue and restore the cultural context of this very rare work of art. Very few textiles of this kind from this period, which originate from the Assam region of northeast India, have survived; and indeed, the weaving techniques used to create such a cloth are no longer practiced there. For almost 80 years after it was given to the British Museum by Landon the textile has languished in obscurity, wrongly classified as being of Tibetan origin due to its provenance, it is only now that the real facts regarding its history have come to light. 

Yet many questions still remain unanswered. Not least the manner in which Langdon acquired the textile – it is not known if the item was bought, bartered, ‘appropriated’ or stolen. There were certainly instances of looting which occurred during the Younghusband offensive, but equally there were also many instances of trade, barter, and salvage from rubbish heaps. What sets Perceval Landon apart from his peers in the Younghusband mission though is his attitude and appreciation of Tibetan art and culture. Whilst many of Landon’s contemporaries clearly appreciated the magnificence of the flora and the spectacular scenery of the Himalayan ranges through which they were travelling, they frequently deplored the perceived squalor and superstitions of the local communities and the social systems of the cultures they encountered. Frequently they looked down on the local art and technologies as ‘primitive’ and ‘antique.’ 

Writing about the British occupation of Lhasa, Landon’s fellow correspondent, Edmund Candler, observed that the British officers haunt [the] bazaars searching for curios, but with very little success. Lhasa has no artistic industries; nearly all the knick-knacks come from India and China. Cloisonné ware is rare and expensive, as one has to pay for the 1,800 miles of transport from Peking. Religious objects are not sold. Turquoises are plentiful, but coarse and inferior. Hundreds of paste imitations have been bought. There is a certain sale for amulets, rings, bells, and ornaments for the hair, but these and the brass and copper work can be bought for half the price in the Darjeeling bazaar.”

Landon’s eye was attuned very differently. An uncommonly artistic correspondent, his own two volume account of the expedition, simply titled Lhasa (1905), was illustrated with his own photographs and watercolour paintings. And, as Clare Harris has noted, Landon frequently uses an artist’s vocabulary to describe what his camera and his watercolours could not; for example, describing the entrance to Lhasa’s Jo Khang thus: “Granite, dun, grey, yellow, pointing white, Prout’s brown yak hair curtains, dull crimson pillars, valance Isabella-colour, sacred monogram gold, sky ultramarine.” Landon was a great champion for what he termed as the ‘National Art of Tibet.’ He and Laurence A. Waddell acted as members of the official Collecting Committee, allocating the most significant discoveries to the official Government collection. Certainly, many such items were collected during the mission at all social levels from the officers to the soldiers, and hence, a great number of Tibetan art works in museum collections across the world have frequently been found to derive from this source, with many family heirlooms still surfacing and being taken to museums for identification even to this day.

It is thanks to Landon’s discerning eye that we have this remarkable textile, an Indian artefact long preserved in a Tibetan sanctuary, unknown and misunderstood but prized and highly valued nonetheless, transcending cultures over the course of three centuries. At last, its story is finally being unfolded.

 Richard Blurton - Curating Krishna in the garden of Assam

The British Museum, London
21 January - 15 August 2016 (free entrance)  

References and Further Reading:

Krishna in the Garden of Assam, by T. Richard Blurton (The British Museum Press: London, 2016)

The Unveiling of Lhasa, by Edmund Candler (Thomas Nelson & Sons: London, 1905)

‘Officers, Gentlemen and Thieves’, by Michael Carrington, in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1 (2003), pp. 81-109

Bayonets to Lhasa: The British Invasion of Tibet, by Peter Fleming (Rupert Hart-Davis: London, 1961)

The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics and the Representation of Tibet, by Clare E. Harris (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2008)

Lhasa, by Perceval Landon (Hurst and Blackett: London, 1905)

Tibet: A History, by Sam Van Schiak (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2011)

Perceval Landon (standing, far left) & Rudyard Kipling (standing, far right) on Glovers Island during the Boer War, circa 1900 (Getty Images)