Thomas Ricks: It was that he had real difficulty getting published. Which he was surprised by. He had always been able to find publishers of some sort, even as he's becoming internally more critical of the Left, as in . But --he's finished it; he knows it a good book, that it has real potential. And, it keeps on getting rejected. We now know, partly because the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, Soviet security enforcement agency) archives were opened, that one of the people who prevented the book from getting published was a British official named Peter Smollett. And, Peter Smollett had contacted some publishers and said, 'You don't want to publish this. It would not be helpful.' We now know that Peter Smollet, besides being a British official, was secretly a Soviet spy. So, there were real stakes here. Not surprisingly, Orwell about this time begins to carry a pistol, so many of his friends have been killed by Soviet agents in Spain; and he's worried that when comes out, as eventually it did right after the war ended in Europe, he begins to worry that they'll try to kill him, as well. Because, though, the book was delayed until the end of the war, suddenly paper became more available. And they began printing and essentially never stopped. It was a smash hit, in England, and then in Europe, and then in America. And for the first time in his life, 1945, money begins to pour in to Orwell. He's not a rich man, but he's able to pay his debts and able to live decently. Unfortunately for him, he only lives another few years and dies at the age of 46, in 1950.
Thomas Ricks: Well, some of his later essays--I mean, he hadn't written yet--"Politics and the English Language" is one of, I think, the great essays of all time. And I think that still would be read. But, as you say, he hadn't written it when he was in Spain.
Thomas Ricks: Well, for me it actually began with a feeling I was sort of leaving journalism, I guess, becoming a full time book writer. And, I think it's part of my farewell to journalism: I went back and started reading a lot of 20th century journalists, serious[?] about who would be remembered and who will be forgotten--and most of them will because forgotten. And I went back and started with H. L. Mencken, and found Mencken's style anachronistic. Politics, really wrong. And his understanding of America very limited. So, I turned to S. J. Perelman--found him not funny. I turned to E. B. White, and found E. B. White's prose style extremely good, but his concerns kind of did not, not to my interests at all, it he [?] today. Hemingway--just found him a blowhard. And then I picked up Orwell--and George Orwell just stood out. It was such a fresh, new voice. There's a guy who died in 1950, yet he sounded like he was writing today in his prose style. And his concerns were the concerns of today: How do you preserve the freedom of the individual in an era of an intrusive state? And even more intrusive cooperation? What freedom of expression? How do you define it? How do you preserve it? And that really intrigued me. And I went back and kind of re-read a lot of him, re-read his letters and diaries, which I'd not read. And as I was reading it occurred to me, 'Wow! This guy is kind of a left-wing parallel to another hero of mine, Winston Churchill.' And I began to see similarities in their points of view, even if, as you say, they are extraordinarily different people.
A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be
traduced in the eyes, or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors
of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as "standard English." When the
Voice of Britain is heard at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less
ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish,
inflated, inhibited, school-ma'am-ish arch braying of blameless bashful
This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most
marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind
of political writing.
Today I would probably recommend A Soldier of the Great War, A City in Winter, the Bible, Three Men in a Boat, Joy in the Morning, Meet Mr. Mulliner, Fooled by Randomness, The Righteous Mind, and The Three Languages of Politics. It's interesting that I wouldn't think now to recommend the Gulag Archipelago--the fall of the Soviet Union has made the cruelty of communism less visceral for me. These are some of the books that have given me great pleasure or taught me something central to my thinking.
They're told in two languages to be grateful and subservient for what they get; but Tambu's English is as bad as Nyasha's Shona, and there's no language available to them to speak their own minds and write their own narrative....
One need not swallow
such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present
political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can
probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.
Russ Roberts: She is an excellent writer. I find it interesting as I was--two things about Orwell's last two books. Let's start with . You make the great point that England is a great fount of talking animal books. Which I'd never thought about. , , . Is that a British thing?--
Thomas Ricks: I also think Churchill probably didn't see what was in front of him, a lot, when he was in that bunker. Much of the war was taking place inside his head. This was his great achievement, I think, as a war leader: defies rallying the British people with having an overall strategic conception of the war. The big picture. Oddly enough, the place where he explains this best was in his essay on painting and why he loves painting. And he says, 'When you are painting a picture, you are working on small details, but you must constantly keep in mind the big picture of the entire painting.' And it's a good description of how he approached war. I think he saw WWII as a giant canvas that was to be his masterpiece. And he's constantly dealing with small details in a very effective way. But, his great achievement as a leader was having an overall strategic concept. For example, the sense that it's always better to do something than to do nothing, because it throws the enemy off the initiative. So, even if they got thrown out of Norway, in doing so, the Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce destroyed enough German ships that it helps prevent German landings in England in the following months. His other greatest strategic conception was, 'I can stop the Germans from defeating me, but I can't win the war unless the Americans come in.' And, from the day he becomes Prime Minister, he's intent on finding a way to pull the Americans into the War.
If one gets rid of these habits one can think more
clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political
regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and
is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have
political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence
of this or that individual writer.
For Winston Churchill aficionados, Thomas Ricks is new to his effort to understand Churchill. Unfortunately, it shows. Other than reading Churchill in his own hand, from when he was a 25 year old lieutenant fighting in the Malakand Field Force to his four volume History of the English Speaking People, Boris Johnson authored a delightful book to commemorate 50 years after Winston Churchill's death, "The Churchill Factor, How One Man Made History".
I know that Russ has a prohibition against interviewing any politician on EconTalk, but if there were ever an exception, Boris Johnson should be it.