Tuesday 27 February 2024

Stalin, Animal Farm, George Orwell and the Holocaust


George Orwell’s Animal Farm is only 30,000 words long and yet it packs a lot in. Earlier this month we went to see a production of it at which there were several school groups. My impression was that they were all possibly too young to understand it and I worried that they might not concentrate. I was wrong: even though they were noisy at first they were enthralled from the moment the play started.

Orwell wrote the book between 1943 and 1944 but it wasn’t published until 1945 despite its relevance to society then and indeed to any society.  The problem was that it looked as if it was talking about Stalin and Stalin had just become an ally.

There is a reverence to the Holocaust but could Orwell have known and indeed isn’t it really a universal reference? Boxer becomes weak and less useful and is carted off in a van marked “slaughterhouse.”

“It isn’t what it seems,” says Napoleon (and what a name that is). Is that the equivalent of a Nazi lie or indeed any lie in politics when the truth needs to be covered up?

Food becomes short on the farm and there is a hint that it was perhaps better when Jones (the farmer) was still in charge.  Mollie wants to go back to wearing ribbons (animals are not allowed to wear clothes). Would they in fact be better off with a benign dictator than the democracy they try to create?

Leadership goes to the heads of those who have put themselves in charge; they start fraternizing with humans, they change the rules – alcohol is now allowed as long as it is in moderation and animals may sleep in beds as long as they don’t have sheets.  They start walking around on two legs where before they had said four legs were superior to two legs.

They become capitalist; they have to produce goods that they can sell so that they can buy in labour and materials in order to rebuild a mill.

And the biggest change is that all are no longer equal because some are more equal than others.

Democracy dies as the leaders become dilators and no longer hold open meetings.

There is a feeling of inevitability about this. It all started out with good intentions. The animals were to rule themselves and this was going to be better than what Farmer Jones had offered. Yet they have to make compromises on their goals.  And the mill’s lack of success isn’t just down to lack of materials and labour – bad weather also plays a part and we should remember it is only being rebuilt because a neighbouring farmer has sabotaged it.  

So often political leaders in the end can only do what circumstances allow them to do. Out of fear for their status they begin to impose harsher rules on people. Is there that much difference between a far left totalitarian society and a far right dictatorship?

Friday 9 February 2024

Pogroms, asylum seekers, happiness seekers


A member of my creative writing group wrote a very moving piece based very loosely on her family. She wrote of a time when two million Jews fled or rather were forced to emigrate from Russia 1880 -1920. Clara’s Story starts as a time like that in Germany has ended and any persecution of Jews has been made illegal. We know that that particular peace did not last long. My creative writing group member really took us into the time and place and made us understand what that way of life felt like. This is another example of creative writing being a tool for uncovering what we don’t know.  We take what we do know, our humanity, and say how that humanity will react if this or that happens.

Her other piece was a newspaper article about the people who arrive in boats. These are people wo are so scared of the regime they have left, where their lives may be under threat , that they are willing to pay the high prices to exploitive gangs and put their lives at risk  in another way by crossing the sea dangerously. Asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants. However we don’t know who the people are in the boats until we process them.

Jennifer Burkinshaw’s Happiness Seeker features Mareno who has come illegally to the UK simply because there is no work in his homeland. Simply? Wait. There being no work is huge. How are people supposed to support themselves if they can’t find work?

As the people in my creative writer’s story began to leave their already quite poor homes I was actually reminded of John Steinbek’s The Grapes of Wrath. They too were “happiness seekers” but what else could they do if their farms were no longer viable and there was no work available locally?

Many factors can lead to people becoming displaced. Having a home, feeling safe at home, and being able to sustain a home are important. We all do what we can to maintain that. We are or should be grateful for it and it may be worth taking a few moments to reflect on what it might feel like if that were suddenly taken away from us.

We should also remember those displaced people are often or often become very resourceful and creative and thereby also become an asset to the community they eventually join.