Of the various books and essays written by Orwell, if there was only one writing of his that I could recommend, it would no doubt be "Such, Such Were The Joys". An essay that changed how I viewed Orwell once and for all.
To be honest, Orwell has always been my favourite writer, partly because the first book that I ever read on my own was the "Animal Farm", which I fell in love with instantly; and partly because of the lucidity in his writing that I only got to realize later in life when I started reading his essays. This is to say that although the journey between me and Orwell continued with 1984, Burmese Days, The Road to Wigan Pier and Coming up for Air, it was his essays and his column titled "As I Please” that kept me interested once I had exhausted all his books, and it is among them that “Such, Such Were The Joys” stands tall and apart, showing not only a preview of what Orwell’s childhood was like, but also a glimpse into what he was to become — The Orwellian Orwell.
It is a pity that when you ask people about what they know of Orwell, all they can come up with are words like Big Brother, Thoughtcrime, Doublespeak, and other kindred dystopian terminologies that have gone on to become a part of the umbrella term that is Orwellianism, but never quite articulate the man behind the term. To know about Orwellianism, you first need to know Orwell well. And by that I do not mean the Colonial Orwell who served in the Indian Civil Service and saw the ugly bits of Colonialism, or the POUM Orwell who almost sacrificed himself during the Spanish Civil War, or for that matter the Columnist Orwell who covered every bit of the WWII. When I talk about knowing Orwell, I am talking about the young Orwell of St Cyprian’s. The remarkably unremarkable student who not only had to work hard and withdraw into himself throughout his time at St Cyprian’s, but also form the world view that would shape the libertarianOrwell used dystopian stories as a tool to talk about the potentialities of the then situation in the world which seemed to align more with totalitarian future as opposed to the libertarian world that he had envisioned thinker that he later went on to become.
In fact, you can see the shadow of 1984 in almost every line of that essay. For e.g. Take this incidence from St Cyprian’s and see for yourself how similar it is to the furtive meetings between Winston and Julia from 1984.
“…I have said that at St Cyprian's we were not allowed to keep our own money. However, it was possible to hold back a shilling or two, and sometimes I used furtively to buy sweets which I kept hidden in the loose ivy on the playing-field wall. One day when I had been sent on an errand I went into a sweet-shop a mile or more from the school and bought some chocolates. As I came out of the shop I saw on the opposite pavement a small sharp-faced man who seemed to be staring very hard at my school cap. Instantly a horrible fear went through me. There could be no doubt as to who the man was. He was a spy placed there by Sambo! I turned away unconcernedly, and then, as though my legs were doing it of their own accord, broke into a clumsy run. But when I got round the next corner I forced myself to walk again, for to run was a sign of guilt, and obviously there would be other spies posted here and there about the town. All that day and the next I waited for the summons to the study, and was surprised when it did not come. It did not seem to me strange that the headmaster of a private school should dispose of an army of informers, and I did not even imagine that would have to pay them. I assumed that any adult, inside the school or outside, would collaborate voluntarily in preventing us from breaking the rules. Sambo was all-powerful; it was natural that his agent should be everywhere…”
This is not to say that his school life alone was responsible for everything that he went on to write, but that he could so vividly recall that incident and that this was written in 1949, the same year as that of “1984” should show us the kind of impact it must have had on him to have had so comfortably overlayed it on a dystopian novel (unlike any other).
In fact, if you think about it the constant fear of “Flip”, the almost absent nature of the headmaster, the reminiscence of that past that he only vaguely remembers, is all so uncannily similar to the plot of 1984 that you cannot help but see the shadow of the Orwellian Orwell lurking beneath the timid kid of St. Cyprian's. You see the pronounced nature of this similarity especially when he talks about his bed-wetting episodes and compares them to a sin that is out of his control despite his best efforts. I felt it reminded me of the act of thoughtcrime in 1984, in that, you know you shouldn't do it, but you also can't help it.
…A little later, I forget how, I learned that it was not after all ‘Mrs Form’ who would do the beating. I cannot remember whether it was that very night that I wetted my bed again, but at any rate I did wet it again quite soon. Oh, the despair, the feeling of cruel injustice, after all my prayers and resolutions, at once again waking between the clammy sheets! There was no chance of hiding what I had done. The grim statuesque matron, Margaret by name, arrived in the dormitory specially to inspect my bed. She pulled back the clothes, then drew herself up, and the dreaded words seemed to come rolling out of her like a peal of thunder:
‘REPORT YOURSELF to the Headmaster after breakfast!’
I knew the bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control. The second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question. It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you…
It does not end here, in fact, if you read the entire essay you’ll see that St Cyprian’s also instilled in him a lot of such qualities that you see in his future works. One of them being the sense of careful avoidance, that is, the kind of avoidance that you know is not right, but you do anyway so as to fend off time and punishment. You get to see a glimpse of which also in “A Hanging”, where he although is clearly disturbed by what is happening, follows along with his superiors in committing and then celebrating the successful completion of the disgusting act. Makes you wonder if this could have been the effect of “Flip” and “Sambo”, for you get to repeatedly see this weak and self-effacing side multiple times throughout the essay:
“…I did not question the prevailing standards, because so far as I could see there were no others. How could the rich, the strong, the elegant, the fashionable, the powerful, be in the wrong? It was their world, and the rules they made for it must be the right ones. And yet from a very early age I was aware of the impossibility of any subjective Always at the centre of my heart the inner self seemed to be awake, pointing out the difference between the moral obligation and the psychological fact…”
“…But this sense of guilt and inevitable failure was balanced by something else: that is, the instinct to survive. Even a creature that is weak, ugly, cowardly, smelly and in no way justifiable still wants to stay alive and be happy after its own fashion. I could not invert the existing scale of values, or turn myself into a success, but I could accept my failure and make the best of it. I could resign myself to being what I was, and then endeavour to survive on those terms…”
“…But I never did rebel intellectually, only emotionally. I had nothing to help me except my dumb selfishness, my inability — not, indeed, to despise myself, but to dislike myself — my instinct to survive…”
FWIW, all of this could’ve been just Orwell being Orwell with his lucid prose and beautifully weaved narrative.Or it could also be that he indeed grew out of his childhood trauma and was merely recollecting whatever came to his mind. Or it might be that we are right and that there is still that kid from St Cyprian’s buried somewhere deep inside in him trying to use the mighty writer as an outlet to reach out to the larger world.
We will never know, will we?
All said, the thing that sort of confirmed it to me personally was his longing for a home, a home that despite being imperfect was his. A home that was redolent of what defined the meaning of a good life. A life that I believe to him was synonymous with childhood, which to me is Orwell in pretty much every book and every essay —– a timid child looking for a home away from home.
“…But of course the differences between home and school were more than physical. That bump on the hard mattress, on the first night of term, used to give me a feeling of abrupt awakening, a feeling of: ‘This is reality, this is what you are up against.’ Your home might be far from perfect, but at least it was a place ruled by love rather than by fear, where you did not have to be perpetually on your guard against the people surrounding you. At eight years old you were suddenly taken out of this warm nest and flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a gold-fish into a tank full of pike. Against no matter what degree of bullying you had no redress. You could only have defended yourself by sneaking, which, except in a few rigidly defined circumstances, was the unforgivable sin…”
I am still not sure if this is an apt description of Orwell, or if it does justice to bringing about the hidden elements of Orwellianism, but this is definitely what I felt reading that essay and I don't think I can ever unsee this Orwell even if I wanted to — a prolific writer trying to simulate his atrocious school days in every which way to find the lost “Child” of St Cyprian’s.