“Perhaps the twentieth century’s best chronicler of English culture,” said The Economist of George Orwell. Reading Orwell’s diaries gives an insight into the encyclopaedic mind from which came the novels for which he is remembered.
There seems no detail of the lives of ordinary people in which he was not interested. Visiting poor communities, he notes every aspect of living conditions: housing, incomes and expenditures; food and drink; leisure activities; work and working conditions; political loyalties and activities. Orwell has an eye for the minutiae of people’s existences, he describes everything from bedsheets and footwear, from children’s play to the plight of older people.
Mathematical calculations are frequent. He visits coal mines, scrambling with miners to the coal faces, and works out precisely how many tons men must dig in return for the poor pay they receive. He goes to Morocco and discovers communities where people are paid in fractions of a penny.
Orwell has no fear about where he goes or what he does. He spends time as a vagrant in Paris and London, he is shot in the neck while fighting for the Republican cause in Spain, he travels through poor industrial towns and cities, staying wherever a few pennies will pay for a bed. He is prepared to sleep rough, go without food, walk the roads, talk to whomsoever he meets.
Among his comprehensive observations on political developments and economic realities. Orwell has an eye for aspects of natural history, he describes birds and flowers, he records temperatures and weather conditions. Wildlife catches his eye and is recorded in his entries.
George Orwell must have spent every day making mental notes of all he encountered. He even goes back through his diary entries adding footnotes to correct or develop observations he has made. He is forthright and frank in his descriptions of those whom he met and there must have been many who would have felt that he was less than flattering in what he had written about them.
It is the stuff of everyday life that is most fascinating in his writing, his noting of recipes or sticking in of news cuttings. If comment on the great affairs of the day is wanted, there are plenty of commentators, but to have a writer of genius describing the things others thought unworthy of recording gives a sense of time and place that is not easily captured. With his eye for detail, he might not have been someone you would have wanted as a visitor.