Orwell’s Roses

A random post in the midst of radio silence.

I’ve just finished reading Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit and it has led to lots of thoughts and one of those thoughts is that I probably need to write some of those thoughts down – so here we are.

I’ve never read any Solnit before, but I very much enjoy the way she starts with one thing and then sort of wanders around lots of offshoot thoughts, circling back to the main thought along the way.

The idea for the book was prompted by an essay Orwell wrote in which he talks about planting some roses from Woolworths’ in his garden in Hertfordshire. Solnit loves the way that he writes with such beauty and pleasure about such simple, every day things and starts following a chain of thought in which she explores his love of nature as one way to reframe the Orwell everyone thinks they know. Along the way she discusses coal mining, Stalin, genetics, the environmental crisis, poor working conditions amongst South American rose growers/workers and goats.

There were so many brilliant moments in the book that it would take another book to write about them all. One, huge thing for me, a person who often worries that I’m not doing enough of ‘the right thing’ whatever that is, or that somehow I have let the opportunity to live my best life pass me by, was her exploration of how it is most often the most tangential things in life that are your true path or at least lead you there.

She talks about Jacques Lusseyran, blinded as a child, who nevertheless went on to become an organiser of the Resistance in Paris in WWII. She talks about his time working in the resistance and how he also learned to swing dance whilst fighting against the Nazis and; ‘that you might prepare for your central mission in life by doing other things that may seem entirely unrelated, and how necessary this may be.’

She gives other examples of how our immersion in joy, in frivolity in apparently ‘meaningless’ activities can so often give us the strength and purpose to carry on in life. She talks about a judge in a war crimes trial, decompressing from his job by going to see the Vermeer paintings in the town art gallery on his lunch hour. How his immersion in the beautiful ordinariness of the scenes allowed him to go back and listen to and face extraordinary cruelty and horror and not lose his faith in humanity.

She talks about 1984 and how Winston buys a glass paperweight with a piece of coral inside it from a junk shop, and how this beautiful, pointless object both helps to condemn him, but also gives him the strength to push back against a world in which there is increasingly no room for beauty at all.

She completely dismantles the idea that our paths in life are narrow and straight, which is often what we, and by that I mean I, subconsciously feel, despite the fact that time and time again, it is the tangents of my life, the byways, not the highways, that have given me joy and purpose and meaning.

She also talks about love.

Again, she quotes excerpts from 1984 where Winston watches film footage of a boat load of refugees being mowed down by machine guns and sees a mother reach forward and shelter her son in her arms, even though the gesture is futile.

‘He thinks of his mother: “It would not have occurred to her that an action which is ineffectual thereby becomes meaningless. If you loved someone, you loved him, and when you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love.” Things that matter for their own sake and serve no larger purpose or practical agenda recur as ideals in the book.’

And these are the words I needed to unlock me today. And even reading them was a tangential action on my part. I read that my friend, the wonderful author Katherine May, had been reading Solnit’s book and loving it. This led me to request it on Netgalley and they were kind enough to allow me to read it. It’s not a book I would have otherwise picked up. A series of chance encounters led to this morning’s reading.

Because I have been bowed down in recent weeks by the cruelty of the world. Young men I know taking their own lives. My son feeling that there is no space in the world left for someone who feels and thinks like him. Young women I know feeling desperate and driven and that they cannot shake off a past that they inherited through no fault of their own, but which dogs their days. People jubilant at the death of refugees in boats trying to seek sanctuary. People abusing those who try to help others. People torturing children who are supposed to be safe and loved in their care. People taking pleasure in making other people feel loveless and hopeless. It’s a lot.

Orwell knew that. He writes so vividly about man’s inhumanity to man and 1984 is the pinnacle of that achievement, his image of the future being a boot stamping on a human face forever, is one that has haunted me ever since I first read it.

What Solnit does is remind us of the joy of Orwell, despite all this. She shows us a man who, in the last 18 months of his life, knowing he was dying, carved out a sixteen acre farm on the inhospitable, wind blown Isle of Jura. A man who planted an orchard whose apples he would never eat. A man who adopted a son in the last years of his life because he wanted to give love to an orphan who didn’t have any. A man who knew it was all transient, but that finding and making joy mattered, particularly in the face of inescapable odds. A man who found pleasure in the simplest things and relished it while he could.

Orwell is Winston and Winston is Orwell. As soon as Winston starts writing in his diary he knows he is a dead man, but he chooses to forge on anyway. He has hope that he will find some pleasure and some meaning however small, and he does.

The reality is that none of us are getting out of here alive. Nothing we do is forever. I think that sometimes we are so tired, so exhausted that we forget that. We act as if everything we do, every choice we make is somehow set in stone and will be and has to be and this is the way it is. We forget, so very often we forget that this too will pass, good and most importantly, bad.

Solnit reminds us of the last night that Winston spends with Julia and how, before the soldiers come, he looks out of the window and sees the washerwoman, pegging out the nappies and singing. Winston realises that she carries her own kind of beauty. She, with her countless babies and her pointless song that lifts the mundanity and brutality of the day is as much the future as a boot stamping on a human face.

And for us, it reminds us that beauty isn’t what we see on Instagram, or what comes in a Tiffany box. That’s one type of beauty but there are many and some of them are surprising and all the more wonderful for it. It is good to be surprised by life. It is good to find something new to wonder at, celebrate, enjoy. And some of the most beautiful of those moments will undoubtedly be found on that tangential path we think is probably a mistake but turns out not to be. And a lot of it will seem ‘useless’ unless we understand that beauty and goodness and joy don’t have to be practical or useful or even what other people think they are. They are enough in themselves and allowing ourselves to have them is a great act of resistance against a world in which misery has such a strong toehold.

And some of that beauty is in the futile gesture of a woman, protecting her son from the inevitable because her love is bigger than death and some of it is in a man planting roses from Woolworths for a future he will not see but is sure will be there anyway.

4 responses to “Orwell’s Roses

  1. You, as always, write so movingly, I wonder if you know! Slowing down our journey should help us appreciate and focus on the small stuff, which in the end turns out to be the huge stuff, the only stuff that matters. Sending best wishes xx

  2. This is what I needed today. Thankyou katy x

  3. Katy, I really appreciate this post (and it made me want to read the book too.) Am facing up to an operation and having to let go of some things, and this clarified in some ways. I have ended up copying half of it into my journal!

  4. That is a beautiful and inspiring piece of writing in its own right. Respect.

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