george packer

Orwell and journalism Homage to Orwell

June 8 is the CCCB and Pen Català's third edition of Orwell Day

On the day before 1984, George Orwell's year, I picked up a copy of Homage to Catalonia in an English-language bookshop in Barcelona. I was twenty-three and about to fly to the United States after a year and a half in Togo, on the west coast of Africa. My time as a teacher in a small African village without electricity or running water had been hard, by far the hardest experience of my life. I opened Homage to Catalonia for no other reason than that I was in Barcelona, a city where I had intended to spend a week's holiday before returning to Africa for another six months of work. Instead, everything had fallen apart, and now I was about to go home. I was going back with a sense of defeat, already wondering how I would explain what had happened in Africa to the people close to me, since I couldn't explain it to myself. I felt lost and didn't quite know how I was going to get on with the rest of my life.

Standing in the bookshop, I read Orwell's first sentences: “In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers' table. He was a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders. His peaked leather cap was pulled fiercely over one eye. He was standing in profile to me, his chin on his breast, gazing with a puzzled frown at a map which one of the officers had open on the table. Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend.”

In high school we had read the novels Animal Farm and 1984, but Orwell's non-fiction was completely unknown to me. Something in those sentences penetrated me. The language was direct and strong; it illuminated everything with a steady clarity. And the “I”-that word held such power. Orwell was speaking in his own voice, without the filter of fiction. The voice was detached, but not at all indifferent. There was no self-indulgence or pretension. It was an “I” that you trusted, that you wanted to follow anywhere. It seemed capable of facing the worst.

I bought Homage to Catalonia for the long flight home. I already sensed that the book might help me to face my own experience-perhaps even to write about it. If I did, I wanted to sound like that voice.

Orwell is best known as a kind of twentieth-century prophet, a Jeremiah crying in the wilderness of history against imperialism, totalitarianism, and injustice. To paraphrase his essay on Charles Dickens, he's one of those writers everyone wants to claim for his side. But beyond his political and historical significance, Orwell will always be my guide to writing. Not just how to compose sentences, but how to be in the world as a writer of non-fiction. It was a category that didn't exist for me until I read Homage to Catalonia. Before that, writers were poets, novelists, or playwrights-and then there were journalists, who might or might not count as writers, but of some lower form, like amateur athletes. Orwell showed that non-fiction writing can be a form of literary art. It has a unique ability to combine the profound pleasures of literature with the urgency of engagement with the world.

Orwell wrote little of what we today call journalism. He rarely went out to report a story on assignment and then write it up. Instead, he described his experiences-as a colonial policeman in Burma, a dishwasher in Paris, a visitor in the English coal mines, a militiaman in Catalonia during the early months of the Spanish civil war. His narrative writing mixes eyewitness accounts, essayistic reflections, and political argument. But the categories matter less than we think. Every journalist who isn't just a professional hack should aspire to write literature.

I spent much of my twenties apprenticed to Orwell's complete works. I didn't become a full-time journalist for another decade, but by then I had already learned the essential things. Words should not call attention to themselves-they should take the reader straight to life. Large subjects are best illuminated by small, specific stories. Being fair and honest is not the same as being neutral-good writing comes out of passion and taking sides. Know your own biases in order not to be ruled by them. Face the facts and tell the truth.

On June 8, the exact date of the anniversary of the publication of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four' in 1949, Barcelona will celebrate “Orwell Day”. It is an initiative by a group of readers and experts on the works of George Orwell and the people who organise Orwell routes around the city that began in 2013, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the publication of ‘Homage to Catalonia'. On that occasion, a debate was organised at the CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona) that included our chief editor and Orwell scholar, Miquel Berga. Last year's guest speaker for Orwell Day was the Irish writer, Colm Toíbín, who put his relationship with Barcelona and Catalan culture during the years of the Transition to democracy following the death of General Franco into perspective.

The CCCB has taken on the job of organising Orwell Day every year, and this year's event includes the participation of PEN Català. On June 8, different guided city tours will revisit the places in the city that were decisive in the experiences of the writer during the Civil War. You can contact “Spanish Civil War Tours” through for bookings and meeting point details.

Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 full of enthusiasm. A keen anti-fascist activist and committed socialist, Orwell spent a number of months at the front with POUM militias before being wounded by a Francoist bullet. After recovering, he was forced to flee Catalonia in 1937, pursued by the Stalinist forces that had gained great political influence in the Republican government. Orwell's experiences in Barcelona and at the Aragon front were decisive for his political position and for the works that would make him world famous, such as ‘Animal Farm' and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four'.

Lessons from Orwell

This time, the New Yorker journalist George Packer will give a talk at the CCCB on “The Future of Journalism: Lessons from George Orwell”. Parker has published two volumes of Orwell essays and recently achieved global success with his book, ‘The Unwinding', a chronicle of present-day America and an unforgettable tapestry of a society of winners and losers that is always busy redefining itself. As in Orwell's best writing, Packer produces journalism as clear as its vigorous and that never leaves you indifferent. Packer's X-ray of the realities of contemporary America resonates with the reporting style and the moral force we associate with the author of ‘Homage to Catalonia'. The Orwell Day Lecture will take place at 7pm on June 8, at the CCCB.

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