The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Good news, boss, good news, as Rosco P. Coltrane used to say. Though it's been out for a couple of months now, I've recently been taking the time to dip into the latest collection of Orwell's writing, Orwell in Tribune, and I report that it's excellent. The pieces are from his column "As I Please", published in the '40s, and it's a blog in all but name: he'll write at length about some weighty political issue of the day, or a literary dispute, then there'll be an asterisk, and "Have you noticed how the price of postage stamps has shot up?" or somesuch will follow.

I was trying to figure out just what it is that makes Orwell's writing so good, so compelling, other than the range of his interests, the depth of his reading, and the passion with which he discusses both. What is it about the writing itself? - and I woke up this morning and realised that it lies in how completely he closes the gap between what he thinks and what he manages to get down on paper. As anyone who's written even a postcard knows, that gap can be punishingly wide. Most of the time you wind up with an approximation - an awful lot of professional writers complain about how their finished work fell short of what they imagined and hoped it could be - but in Orwell, in his essays, anyway, there's no sense of any codge. His thought and his pen fadge perfectly.


Seeing and flicking through Hazlitt in Love gave me the impetus - that, and remembering Bernard Crick's comment that Orwell was the best essayist in English since Hazlitt. Two years after purchase I realised the time was right and I've begun reading a collection of Hazlitt's essays. I did try once before, but got beaten back by the language, which is ornamental by modern standards. The solution I've found is the same one I used when reading The Last of the Mohicans - take a deeper mental breath before each sentence, and that'll carry you through. True, I've had to re-read some sections a few times to get the sense of them, but not too often.

In life, Hazlitt seems to have been pretty disagreeable - he fell out with almost everyone he knew - but I guess he saved the best of himself for print, and the strongest impression is one of tremendous enthusiasm. One of his most famous essays, "The Fight", which I've just finished, involves nothing more than getting to the fight, a bare-knuckle match, describing it, and getting home again. That's it. What keeps you reading is the immediacy, the freshness he brings to even the smallest observation. Everything seems to play directly on his nerves. I remember being like that in my late teens and early twenties, when I was raw and even trivial experiences could be brutal, but a little age covers you up. It's a real delight to come across someone like Hazlitt, or Kipling, so you feel the jolt of electricity coming off the page, and the carapace being split open.


Interesting times he lived through, as well. I've been surfing Wikipedia this evening. I knew a little about Peterloo and the United Scotsmen, but nothing about the Cato Street Conspiracy, or the Six Acts, or the Radical War in Scotland.


The father of a friend of mine once said to me, "If Scotland had won the World Cup in 1978 we would be independent today." Given that a fair amount of psychic stock is still (wrongly) invested in the fortunes of the national team, and given that Scotland is currently head of Group B in Euro 2008 (which includes France and Italy), and given that the SNP is currently doing well in the polls ahead of the elections in May to the Scottish Parliament, is it too much to imagine that Walter Smith's baffling departure from the Scotland manager's job has been engineered for political purposes?

No, I have not, pace Gore Vidal, arrived in the studio by flying saucer. The only harbour in the UK capable of taking nuclear subs is in Scotland. If Scotland goes independent and implements a no-nukes policy - something the SNP is actively promoting at the moment - the remnant of the UK has nowhere to put them. Moreover, the UK's diminished military and geographical status would likely call into question its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Of course, given our recent behaviour, the rest of the world would probably see this as a good thing.

This makes Scottish independence a matter of national security rather than constitutional affairs, and means anything - or indeed, everything - is possible regarding a UK response.


At 3 February 2007 at 14:12 , Blogger Joe said...

First time I came across the Cato Street Conspiracy at school I thought it sounded like the title of a Sherlock Holmes short story. Actually, I still think it does :-)

At 4 February 2007 at 18:50 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Agreed. I also get it confused with the Siege of Sidney Street and the Battle of Cable Street. I wonder if it had any influence on Jospeh Conrad's "The Secret Agent"?

At 6 February 2007 at 10:11 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

It's interesting for another reason, in that it demonstrates the UK's use of agent provocateurs (a phrase it's impossible to use now without conjuring up an image of spooks in lingerie). No doubt they're still around.


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