Most helpful critical review
on June 15, 2014
Of the four Penguin Great Ideas paperbacks published with George Orwell’s essays, Decline of the English Murder is by far the weakest collection.
If you scan the contents page, you’ll notice that a number of the essays here don’t make it into the larger essay collections and there’s a good reason for that: they’re not very good.
The title essay is a smarmy look at what elements Orwell believes would make for the ideal reading matter for newspaper audiences obsessed with crime - sex, death, money - that isn’t particularly interesting or clever.
Other dull subjects include Orwell’s love of junk shops in Just Junk - But Who Could Resist?, and the guilty pleasure of reading trashy books in Good Bad Books. And while he’s right that Uncle Tom’s Cabin (an atrociously written novel that has nevertheless remained in print since it was first published) would outlive George Moore’s work for being more memorable and powerful despite its artlessness, he was wrong that Virginia Woolf would disappear too.
Orwell returns to the subject that made his name, the poor, in two essays, Clink and Hop-Picking Diary, both of them revealing that Orwell’s slumming was done purely for his writing, not because he couldn’t avoid these degrading circumstances.
In Clink he gets himself arrested for no reason and writes about his time in the drunk tank for a couple days, alongside people for whom this wasn’t a respite they could call up mummy and daddy and escape from.
Hop-Picking Diary is essentially a b-side to Down and Out in Paris and London as Orwell joins tramps as they go fruit and hop-picking in the countryside and we get a glimpse into the harsh conditions that were, bizarrely, considered a holiday for the poor of London as well as immigrants and gypsies.
While these essays were dull and contained only a smattering of Orwell’s famed insight, what really irked me were the essays on Boys’ Weeklies and The Art of Donald McGill.
In Boys’ Weeklies, Orwell takes nearly 40 pages(!!) to say that he believes publications for children are intended to maintain the status quo and keep the poor from rising up. He spends the rest of the 30 odd pages tediously pointing out that these publications - like Gem and Magnet - use outdated references in their stories though it’s an ironic observation as these magazines have been out of print for decades, making his own essay’s references outdated as a result.
Women’s Twopenny Papers is an addendum to Boys’ Weeklies that says the same thing applies to women’s magazines.
The Art of Donald McGill is a humourless look at raunchy postcards from Britain’s beaches, written is such a strangely disdainful way that it’s unclear whether he’s for them or not. And why did he feel the need to intellectualise such a trivial subject?! Dumb postcards = a profound study into society? Nope!
A lot of Orwell’s work - fiction and non-fiction - is worth reading, like the novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, and a good selection of his essays too, which can be found in the collections Books v. cigarettes, and Some Thoughts on the Common Toad or even the larger books simply titled Essays; Decline of the English Murder contains his most forgettable and least remarkable pieces that aren’t worth reading as they add little to the Orwell canon that hasn’t already been written better elsewhere.