Book Review: Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell

Really getting into Orwell’s essays and nonfiction writing recently, with this being another solid collection of pieces on a variety of subjects.

The title essay is about the British public’s appetite and morbid obsession with murder cases and what makes the best in terms of public interest. He talks about how for a crime to really capture the public interest it should involve macabre ingenuity, and issues of class, love and tragedy. It’s an interesting piece and darkly comic in a way.

Other pieces deal with analysis of boys’ magazines and what they say about society, the death of what he calls “good bad books” and an account of his time as a hop picker. 

All are handled with intelligence and insight, and Orwell is a shrewd observer and commentator. It’s an interesting quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and more of Orwell’s work has been added to my “to read list”.

Verdict: Highlighting Orwell’s skill as a writer and his insight these essays show that even on seemingly trivial subjects he can see deeper themes. He looks at what literature shows about the society that births it. Smart and holds the attention well. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO. 


Book Review: Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell

This is the third nonfiction Orwell book I’ve read (after Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London) and I definitely prefer them to his fiction. This book contains a handful of articles that he wrote which cover a range of topics including his experiences in school and a French hospital, the threat to freedom of speech and books.

The title piece sees Orwell thinking about how much cash he spends on books and why reading had fallen out of favour. It’s dry and I’ve always found old money slightly confusing, but it’s interesting to see reading weighed up against other pursuits and Orwell observes that it is not just cost that can be blamed.
The book works at it’s best when he’s writing about personal experience which gives him an opportunity to use his keen observation and description to great effect. When talking about a hellish hospital in France or his miserable time as a schoolboy he writes in evocative style, honest about his emotions and recollections. The events and characters are utterly real to the reader, and his insight is keen.

But his talent is linking these personal experiences with wider themes and ideas. He talks about how doctors and medical attitudes have changed, how the hospital in France could never exist in Britain and how his schooldays represented the end of an era of snobbishness and petty cruelty which he celebrates being consigned to the past.

Most interesting is his writing about his patriotism, his feeling as World War II loomed that he would do what he could for his country. He writes openly about how as a teen he dismissed all patriotism as foolish, but now writes about it in a different way. His patriotism seems to me the same I feel, a love for country which doesn’t mean blind acceptance or faith. He knows Britain is flawed, but he knows it is better than the Nazis and has good points.

It’s a quick, interesting read and Orwell is an immensely talented writer. The dryer parts drag a little, and it’s dated but the keen observation and intelligence shines through.

Verdict: Not every essay is a winner, but it’s all written well and Orwell impresses with his ability to express his memories in such evocative and full fashion. A good book to dip in and out of. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Down and Out In Paris and London by George Orwell

Having enjoyed his memoir about his Spanish Civil War experiences, I tracked down this George Orwell book, a non-fiction piece about his time living a hand to mouth existence in the poor parts of Paris and a brief time on the streets of London.

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Orwell’s writing is simple with no frills, but he has a keen eye for detail and injustice and vivid, unflinching descriptions of the squalor and hardships. Throughout this his view is compassionate and outraged, angrily discussing the negative attitudes that the tramps have to deal with and the system which fails to address their problems.

At times it is dated and some of his views on different nationalities hint at bigotry. But Orwell discusses his time with honesty and an engaging insight. He has particular skill in recounting stories and observing people and their quirks.

The world has changed but you at times it shows how attitudes take longer to change. Interesting and engaging, if a tad bleak.

Verdict: An interesting view at what life was like for the poor in the early 20th century and one man’s experiences of them. Orwell writes well, with insight and compassion and unafraid to offer his opinion on what he feels are unjust or corrupt systems. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

I don’t know a lot about the Spanish Civil War, other than it was in Spain, and wasn’t that civil. It saw allied Communist and Anarchist forces fighting for the Republic face off against the Nationalists/Fascists. The Nationalists would eventually win, setting up Franco’s dictatorship which would last until his death in 1975.

In the fight against Fascism several idealistic men from other countries traveled to Spain and volunteered to fight, among them English writer George Orwell, who would go on to find greater fame for his fiction works Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Orwell’s account of this time has been sitting on my Kindle for a while, and it’s something I’m quite interested in, despite my ignorance of the war. Orwell admits that this is by no means definitive for the war, and carries his bias, but argues that all accounts are and that he can only write about what he saw.

homage to catalonia

The book begins in Barcelona in the early days of the revolution, with Orwell waiting to travel to the front and admiring the spirit of the city. He then travels to the front, a period of monotonous discomfort and deprivation. Firefights are few and far between, and the general tone is of boredom and disillusionment. There is no glamour or heroism there, only a growing sense of futility and tedium.

As the story progresses Orwell becomes increasingly frustrated by the poorly organized war and the failings of those in charge, as well as the rival factions which threaten the anti-Nationalist alliance and culminates in a period of needless street fighting in Barcelona.

It’s an interesting take and Orwell is a fine narrator, addressing his own fears with a distinctly English tone and sensibility. Even in war he seems to expect a certain level of fair play, particularly with regards to the law, but as the organisation he joined is betrayed and outlawed he is forced to flee under the threat of imprisonment, which claims many of his acquaintances.

I’m not naive, and I know revolutions aren’t conducted by pure hearted heroes, but it’s still disheartening to hear how petty rivalries undermine the cause and how quickly things in Barcelona revert to pre-revolution ways. I’m not a communist, but it’s clear how utterly depressing this must have been for Orwell and others, who fought for it and believed in equality, only to see that the class system had returned to Barcelona while they had been fighting on the front.

The treatment of POUM (the party Orwell served) is especially tough, bad enough that they are sacrificed due to being smaller and less influential, the true tragedy is the fact that several of it’s members continued to fight and die in the war, oblivious to the fact they had been declared illegal and would face imprisonment when they returned home. It clearly infuriates Orwell, and it should infuriate the reader, even if they disagree with some of the politics.

It’s a fantastically written book, with Orwell capturing his changing impressions and feelings during his time in Spain, as well as the mix of excitement and fear that seizes him during the fighting. His writing has a simple, vivid touch which avoids hyperbole but still brought the events to life for me. It paints an interesting image of the boredom, futility and surreal nature of war, best evidenced by the almost cordial relationship between Orwell’s unit and their enemy during the street fighting, where they broker a truce and even give their enemy a rifle to replace a broken one.

It’s an interesting insight into a chapter of European history of which my knowledge is vague at best, I’m still keen to read more, but aware of Orwell’s self confessed bias this is a personal and absorbing account of one man’s experiences.

Verdict: Well written by Orwell, who captures the mood and atmosphere well enough. Low on incident, but an honest representation of the often dull business of war. Interesting to learn more about the Spanish Civil War and the background machinations which would, in part, hand victory to the Fascists. An interesting read. 7/10. 

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.