I got Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell in the Classics Club spin and I thought to myself, – that’s fine, I have loads of time to read it so I’ll get on with some other reading now. So it was with a horrible shock that I read an email from the Classics Club recently and realised that all that time had whizzed past, and I hadn’t even started my spin book. I got my skates on but still wasn’t finished in time, anyway better late than never, here goes.
When I put Homage to Catalonia on my list I didn’t realise that this is a non-fiction book, but I think it still counts as a classic. It was first published in 1938 and it’s about George Orwell’s experiences as a volunteer soldier in the Spanish Civil War. A civil war is always even nastier than any other war, and this one was incredibly complicated due to the number of warring factions. A mixture of Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Fascists, Revolutionaries and various others meant that the many volunteers from other countries could easily find themselves fighting for the wrong side inadvertently, as happened to poor Mary McGregor in Muriel Spark’s Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Orwell says: The revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it. As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – P.S.U.C., P.O.U.M., F.A.I., C.N.T., U.G.T., J.C.I., J.S.U., A.I.T., – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials.
Some general said that war plans go out the window after the first shot is fired, but this war seems to have been more shambolic than any other. The soldiers in the P.O.U.M which was the outfit that Orwell was fighting in had very little in the way of weapons and equipment. After taking part in a daring assault on the Fascist trenches, the soldiers were more interested in looting anything they could from the evacuated enemy trench, but they discovered that the folks on the other side were in an even worse state than the P.O.U.M, there was nothing worth looting, not even any food. Lack of decent clothing and weapons seem to be a feature of all wars which I’ve read about.
After over 100 days at the front Orwell got a few days leave to go to Barcelona where his wife was staying. Instead of a well earned rest away from fighting he found himself in the middle of street fighting for the city and discovered that the P.O.U.M had been declared illegal so he was in grave danger of being flung into prison and shot with no trial.
The civil war was being reported in newspapers but the men writing the reports were miles and miles away from the action, and basically made their reports up, so Orwell warns people not to believe what is written or heard of any action, everything was lies and exagerration.
He escaped back to England 1938, where life was going on calmly, it was all bowler hats, cricket matches, red buses, Royal weddings – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
At one point Orwell wrote about British warships having been sent to Spain, supposedly to pick up refugees. He didn’t think that they were there for that reason and he thought that the British government was on the side of Franco. However that was written very soon after the fact and I know that at least one ship did pick up British citizens to rescue them from the war. One of those rescued was a very young Laurie Lee (Cider with Rose – amongst other books). In fact Laurie Lee wrote a book about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and when someone pointed out that he hadn’t been in it as he had been evacuated – Lee claimed that he had gone back out to Spain after that. I somehow think that he was one of the many men making up their own war stories of fighting which they had never seen.
One thing which really did annoy me was that Orwell persisted in calling everyone from Britain – English. It’s a state of affairs which people tend not to fall into nowadays, what Scots, Welsh or Irish person would relish being described as being English? – none obviously, but Orwell did it, as was normal for the times I suppose, but completely ignorant.
So many men from Fife and the Lothians died in Spain that there is a memorial to them in Kirkcaldy. Jack wrote about it here.
This was an interesting but at times confusing read, and completely different from what I expected.
On a lighter note, I couldn’t help being reminded of this bit from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.