December 9th 2019

Tour d'Orwell: Marrakesh

(Previously in George Orwell-themed travel posts: Hampstead, Paris, Southwold, Ipswich…)

In the winter of 1938, Orwell travelled to Marrakech in Morocco — one R in the latter yet two in the former — in an attempt to quell the tuberculosis that would take his life in 1950. Like his Parisian apartment he was not quite the fan, writing that:

When you walk through a town like this, when you see how the people live and still more how easily they die it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings.

Whilst reading this curiously fragmented essay during my own sojourn in the souq (entitled simply Marrakech) it becomes particulary purplexing that it was during this very stay (where "life is an endless struggle" and flies swarm over corpses covered only in rags passing in the street) that Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air. Set in a metaphorically peaceful and literally antebellum period prior to the First World War, his fourth novel displays a number of features that were already becoming recurring themes in his output, including an unromantic but nostalgic love of the workings of the countryside (reaching its apotheosis in Animal Farm), pessimism towards advertising and modern concrete buildings (Keep the Aspidistra Flying) as well as a dislike of mechanical political speech (Politics and the English Language). At one point the protagonist visits a Left Book Club meeting and asserts:

These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button and it starts.

Whilst the ventriloquisation of the author's own sentiments are a little too transparent here, less obvious are the physical ailments being adopted as literary symbols — George Bowling's false teeth clearly foreshadow Winston Smith's varicose ulcer in Nineteen Eighty Four, both revealed within their respective opening paragraphs.

Returning to his Marrakech essay, Orwell is not best known for his humour but even in these supposedly torrid surroundings his wit and acumen were recorded for those with a keen eye: upon noting (in 1938) the robust 13,000-strong Jewish population, he remarks dryly that it is a "good job Hitler isn't here"…

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