Orwell: Why I Write, BBC and Reflections on Gandhi

George Orwell

Anyone who likes to write will probably agree with some of the things George Orwell (June 25, 1903 – January 21, 1950) has to say on why we write. In his essay, Why I Write, which appeared in 1946, four years before he died at the age of 46, Orwell wrote:

Four motives for writing

I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer… They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all–and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

Right in the main, but…

One doesn’t have to agree with everything Orwell says. Not every writer writes with a political purpose.

But, yes, to write, one has to love words, their sounds and rhythms, the emotions they convey. One has to be observant to describe anything in words – and, yes, one may write to impress, to seem clever, to be talked about.

Different world

So, much of what Orwell says is true. But the world has changed since his time. Contrary to what he says, we don’t lose our sense of being individuals after 30. Not these days when we have Facebook and other social networks where we can post our thoughts and pictures. We wouldn’t be doing that if we thought we had nothing interesting to share and had lost our sense of individuality. This is something he didn’t anticipate – the rise of social media.

Orwell begins his essay, Why I Write, with the words: ”From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.”

“I was the middle child of three but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely,” he writes. “I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons…”

I guess this is how many people become writers.

Orwell recalls: ”When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e. the sounds and associations of words.”

Spanish Civil War

Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, was published in 1934. Then came the Spanish Civil War (1936 -1939). Orwell went to Spain in December 1936, fought for the republicans against the fascists, was wounded in the war and returned to England in July 1937.

The Spanish Civil War had a profound influence on him as a writer. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it,” he says In Why I Write.

Orwell’s starting point

“What I have most wanted to do,” he says, “is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. … So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”

Orwell ends his essay, asserting: “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane…”

In his last sentence, he says: “Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

I like to read Orwell’s essays more than his novels. Some of his essays such as Politics and the English Language, A Nice Cup of Tea and Decline of the English Murder are widely quoted, anthologized and considered classics.


I dipped into his essays after his statue was unveiled outside Broadcasting House in London two days ago. “George Orwell returns to loom over BBC”, said the Guardian. I saw the news on BBC World.

Orwell joined the BBC in August 1941, becoming a talks producer at the Overseas Eastern Service. He left in November 1943, going on to publish Animal Farm in 1945 and Nineteen Eighty-four in 1949.

Initially, at the BBC, a lot of Orwell’s time was spent writing a weekly news commentary aimed primarily at India, to be read on air by Indian members of the department. The typescripts were rediscovered and published in the 1980s. They are summaries of how the Second World War was going.

“After about a year, those in charge seem to have decided that because Orwell was a known supporter of Indian independence it would go down well in India if his name became more associated with the broadcasts,” the BBC reported after his statue was unveiled.

“He invited the likes of TS Eliot and EM Forster to broadcast to Asia and was permitted to go on air himself,” the report added.

Reflections on Gandhi

Orwell, who was born in India, in a place called Motihari in Bihar, had mixed feelings about Gandhi. In his essay, Reflections on Gandhi, in 1949, he wrote:

“The things that one associated with him – home-spun cloth, ‘soul forces’ and vegetarianism – were unappealing, and his medievalist programme was obviously not viable in a backward, starving, over-populated country. It was also apparent that the British were making use of him, or thought they were making use of him. Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence–which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever–he could be regarded as “our man”. In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away.”

He ended the essay, saying:

“One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”

It is grudging praise, but Orwell does acknowledge Gandhi was the cleanest politician of his time.

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