Down and out in Burma, Paris and London
The canal in Wigan, inspiration for Orwell's 1936 novel
This 'awkward squad' member's real name was Eric Blair, and he was born in India in 1903, son of an official in the Opium Service; he was brought to England by his mother at the age of three. His family was what he called sardonically, 'lower-upper middle class', that is 'upper-middle class without money'. He was crammed for a scholarship to Eton, but did little work there, already being something of an odd man out 'agin the system'. Most of his school friends went on to Cambridge, but he entered the Burma Police, a satisfyingly second-class part of the Imperial Civil Service. He stuck it for five years, but resigned in 1927, having come to hate the social pretentiousness of the British in Burma, especially their indifference to Burmese culture.
All this poured out in Orwell's first published novel, Burmese Days (1935). The work is often taken to be socialist, because it is anti-imperialist and because we know from his Down and Out in Paris and London that the author spent time among tramps and down-and-outs - in order to see at first hand, not from books or reports, if the British treated their poor as they did the Burmese and the Indians. He thought, on the whole, they did, although later he admitted that he was mistaken in seeing tramps as the extreme of working-class poverty, rather than as a highly differentiated sub-class.
Between 1927 and 1934, when asked where he stood politically, Orwell would often reply simply, 'I'm a Tory anarchist'. He was an individualist who resented one man or one culture imposing its values on another; and though familiar with socialist arguments about economic exploitation, he did not consider himself a socialist until 1935.
A year later he published The Road to Wigan Pier (1936), a clinical but moving account of living among the unemployed of the real working class. To this he added an eccentric and provocative final section, simultaneously announcing his conversion to socialism and his scorn for many socialist intellectuals, whom he described as so bemused by 'the myth of Soviet power' and Marxist ideology that they had lost their traditional care for freedom and had failed to understand the nature of working people. Orwell's adoption of a plain and colloquial style of writing then became an attempt, highly unsuccessful at first, to reach all those whose only education beyond the age of 14 was the free public library.