Thursday, November 5, 2009

As He Pleased

George Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia is one of the most valuable first-hand accounts of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) ever written. It is an impassioned, highly emotional work of reportage that relates the amazing social conditions of Republican Spain. "It was the first time," he wrote in the first chapter, "that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle." In 1944, for his weekly "As I Please" column in Tribune, he wrote nostalgically of that time, which had already seemed to recede into the distant past. He writes about the feeling of solidarity that he felt then with everyone around him on his journey from France to Spain. I believe that that feeling, which I have never felt and which Orwell perhaps only felt momentarily, is worth remembering.

About the end of 1936, as I was passing through Paris on the way to Spain. I had to visit somebody at an address I did not know, and I thought that the quickest way of getting there would probably be to take a taxi. The taxi-driver did not know the address either. However, we drove up the street and asked the nearest policeman, whereupon it turned out that the address I was looking for was only about a hundred yards away. So I had taken the taxi-driver off the rank for a fare which in English money was about threepence.

The taxi-driver was furiously angry. He began accusing me, in a roaring voice and with the maximum of offensiveness, of having "done it on purpose." I protested that I had not known where the place was, and that I obviously would not have taken a taxi if I had known. "You knew very well!" he yelled back at me. He was an old, grey, thick-set man, with ragged grey moustaches and a face of quite unusual malignity. In the end I lost my temper, and, my command of French coming back to me in my rage, I shouted at him, "You think you're too old for me to smash your face in. Don't be too sure!" He backed up against the taxi, snarling and full of fight, in spite of his sixty years.

Then the moment came to pay. I had taken out a ten-franc note. "I've no change!" he yelled as soon as he saw the money. "Go and change it yourself!"

"Where can I get change?"

"How should I know? That's your business."

So I had to cross the street, find a tobacconist's shop and get change. When I came back I gave the taxi-driver the exact fare, telling him that after his behaviour I saw no reason for giving him anything extra; and after exchanging a few more insults we parted.

This sordid squabble left me at the moment violently angry, and a little later saddened and disgusted. "Why do people have to behave like that?" I thought.

But that night I left for Spain. The train, a slow one, was packed with Czechs, Germans, Frenchmen, all bound on the same mission. Up and down the train you could hear one phrase repeated over and over again, in the accents of all the languages of Europe - là-bas (down there). My third-class carriage was full of very young, fair-haired, underfed Germans in suits of incredible shoddiness - the first ersatz cloth I had seen - who rushed out at every stopping place to buy bottles of cheap wine and later fell asleep in a sort of pyramid on the floor of the carriage. About halfway down France the ordinary passengers dropped off. There might still be a few nondescript journalists like myself, but the train was practically a troop train, and the countryside knew it. In the morning, as we crawled across southern France, every peasant working in the fields turned round, stood solemnly upright and gave the anti-fascist salute. They were like a guard of honour, greeting the train mile after mile.

As I watched this, the behaviour of the old taxi-driver gradually fell into perspective. I saw now what had made him so unnecessarily offensive. This was 1936, the years of the great strikes, and the Blum government was still in office. The wave of revolutionary feeling which had swept across France had affected people like taxi-drivers as well as factory workers. With my English accent I had appeared to him as a symbol of the idle, patronizing foreign tourists who had done their best to turn France into something midway between a museum and a brothel. In his eyes an English tourist meant a bourgeois. he was getting a bit of his own back on the parasites who were normally his employers. And it struck me that the motives of the polyglot army that filled the train, and of the peasants with raised fists out there in the fields, and my own motive in going to Spain, and the motive of the old taxi-driver in insulting me, were at bottom all the same.

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