As I Please

in Tribune

28 July 1944

George Orwell

SOME years ago, in the course of an article about boys’ weekly papers, I made some passing remarks about women’s papers—I mean the twopenny ones of the type of Peg’s Paper, often called ‘love books’. This brought me, among much other correspondence, a long letter from a woman who had contributed to and worked for the Lucky Star, the Golden Star, Peg’s Paper, Secrets, the Oracle, and a number of kindred papers. Her main point was that I had been wrong in saying that these papers aim at creating wealth fantasy. Their stories are ‘in no sense Cinderella stories’ and do not exploit the ‘she married her boss’ motif. My correspondent adds:

Unemployment is mentioned—quite frequently . . . . The dole and the trade union are certainly never mentioned. The latter may be influneced by the fact that the largest publishers of these women’s magazines are a non-union house. One is never allowed to criticize the system, or to show up the class struggle for what it really is, and the word Socialist is never mentioned—all this is perfectly true. But it might be interesting to add that class feeling is not altogether absent. The rich are often shown as mean, and as cruel and crooked money-makers. The rich and idle beau is nearly always planning marriage without a ring, and the lass is rescued by her strong, hard-working garage hand. Men with cars are generally ‘bad’ and men in well-cut expensive suits are nearly always crooks. The ideal of most of these stories is not an income worthy of a bank manager’s wife, but a life that is ‘good’. A life with an upright, kind husband, however poor, with babies and a ‘little cottage’. The stories are conditioned to show that the meagre life is not so bad really, as you are at least honest and happy, and that riches bring trouble and false friends. The poor are given moral values to aspire to as something within their reach.

There are many comments I could make here, but I choose to take up the point of the moral superiority of the poor being combined with the non-mention of trade unions and Socialism. There is no doubt that this is deliberate policy. In one woman’s paper I actually read a story dealing with a strike in a coal mine, and even in that connexion trade unionism was not mentioned. When the U.S.S.R. entered the war one of these papers promptly cashed in with a serial entitled ‘Her Soviet Lover’, but we may be sure that Marxism did not enter into it very largely.

The fact is that this business about the moral superiority of the poor is one of the deadliest forms of escapism the ruling class have evolved. You may be downtrodden and swindled, but in the eyes of God you are superior to your oppressors, and by means of films and magazines you can enjoy a fantasy existence in which you constantly triumph over the people who defeat you in real life. In any form of art designed to appeal to large numbers of people, it is an almost unheard-of thing for a rich man to get the better of a poor man. The rich man is usually ‘bad’, and his machinations are invariably frustrated. ‘Good poor man defeats bad rich man’ is an accepted formula, whereas if it were the other way about we should feel that there was something very wrong somewhere. This is as noticeable in films as in the cheap magazines, and it was perhaps most noticeable of all in the old silent films, which travelled from country to country and had to appeal to a very varied audience. The vast majority of the people who will see a film are poor, and so it is politic to make a poor man the hero. Film magnates, press lords and the like amass quite a lot of their wealth by pointing out that wealth is wicked.

The formula ‘good poor man defeats bad rich man’ is simply a subtler version of ‘pie in the sky’. It is a sublimation of the class struggle. So long as you can dream of yourself as a ‘strong, hard-working garage hand’ giving some moneyed crook a sock on the jaw, the real facts can be forgotten. That is a cleverer dodge than wealth fantasy. But, curiously enough, reality does enter into these women’s magazines, not through the stories but through the correspondence columns, especially in those papers that give free medical advice. Here you can read harrowing tales of ‘bad legs’ and hemorrhoids, written by middle-aged women who give themselves such pseudonyms as ‘A Sufferer’, ‘Mother of Nine’ and ‘Always Constipated’. To compare these letters with the love stories that lie cheek by jowl with them is to see how vast a part mere day-dreaming plays in modern life.

.     .     .     .     .

I HAVE just been reading Arthur Koestler’s novel The Gladiators, which describes the slave rebellion under Spartacus, about 70 B.C. It is not one of his best books, and, in any case, any novel describing a slave rebellion in antiquity suffers by having to stand comparison with Salammbô, Flaubert’s great novel about the revolt of the Carthaginian mercenaries. But it reminded me of how tiny is the number of slaves of whom anything whatever is known. I myself know the names of just three slaves—Spartacus himself, the fabulous Aesop, who is supposed to have been a slave, and the philosopher Epictetus, who was one of those learned slaves whom the Roman plutocrats liked to have among their retinue. All the others are not even names. We don’t, for instance—or at least I don’t—know the name of a single one of the myriads of human beings who built the pyramids. Spartacus, I suppose, is much the most widely known slave there ever was. For five thousand years or more civilization rested upon slavery. Yet when even so much as the name of a slave survives, it is because he did not obey the injunction ‘resist not evil’, but raised violent rebellion. I think there is a moral in this for pacifists.

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WE published last week part of a very truculent letter about the anti-war poem entitled ‘The Little Apocalypse of Obadiah Hornbrook’, with the comment, ‘I am surprised that you publish it.’ Other letters and private comments took the same line. I do not, any more than our correspondent, agree with ‘Obadiah Hornbrook’, but that is not a sufficient reason for not publishing what he writes. Every paper has a policy, and in its political sections it will press that policy, more or less to the exclusion of all others. To do anything else would be stupid. But the literary end of a paper is another matter. Even there, of course, no paper will give space to direct attacks on the things it stands for. We wouldn’t print an article in praise of antisemitism, for instance. But granted the necessary minimum of agreement, literary merit is the only thing that matters.

Besides, if this war is about anything at all, it is a war in favour of freedom of thought. I should be the last to claim that we are morally superior to our enemies, and there is quite a strong case for saying that British imperialism is actually worse than Nazism. But there does remain the difference, not to be explained away, that in Britain you are relatively free to say and print what you like. Even in the blackest patches of the British Empire, in India, say, there is very much more freedom of expression than in a totalitarian country. I want that to remain true, and by sometimes giving a hearing to unpopular opinions, I think we help it to do so.

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