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“Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell #1

I was starting “Homage” for the second time, this time while in Catalunya, Barcelona in fact. I’d forgotten much of it and so found myself enjoying it in unexpected ways, rediscovering it anew.

Orwell eschewed a life of privilege in England to live the life of a writer; he understood that a great writer can’t fake it. That’s not to say invention is the same as lying; rather experience is the cradle of invention, but there is little invention needed here. Orwell went to Spain in December 1936 “with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but [he] joined the militia almost immediately.” In a mode reminiscent of the French Revolution, Barcelona then was in the hands of the working class and “Nobody said ‘SeƱor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos Dias’ “. He found this atmosphere extraordinary and moving. Although he didn’t fully understand it, he nevertheless felt it was something worth fighting for. Yet, there was “the evil atmosphere of war.”

Orwell was stationed at the Lenin Barracks, captured from the Fascists the previous July. Conditions were poor, not just because of the smells of “horse-piss and rotten oats” but also because food was being wasted, something which bothered Orwell greatly, given that the general population was hungry. Their uniforms were thrown together, more like “multiforms” he says. Many of the recruits were boys – sixteen or seventeen – and there was little military discipline. Even though he and the others were being readied to go to the front to kill Franco’s fascists, their training was laughable: “[T]his mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb.” The whole effort was a mess: many young boys were signing up for the ten pesetas a day and the free bread and “many of the best men were already at the front or dead.” So why was Orwell there, if it was such a disorganised mess? He was a courageous, curious and adventurous man, with a passion for good writing, if a bit idealistic. He was seduced by the Spaniards’ generosity: “If you ask him for a cigarette he will force the whole packet on you. And beyond this there is a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances.” The Spanish recruits talked up the courage and skill of the French: “An Englishman would cut off his hand sooner than say a thing like that.”

In Sietamo, it was bitterly cold and between there and Alcubierre, the lorry driver taking the militia to the front got lost. This was usual. That night Orwell slept in “chaff [that] was full of breadcrusts, torn newspaper, bones, dead rats, and jagged milk tins.” They were close to the front line and Orwell knew enough about it to recognise the smell of war: “excrement and decaying food.”

They waited in Alcubierre for rifles and after several days Orwell got a forty-year-old German Mauser in an advanced state of disrepair. He recalls a dog with POUM branded into its flesh that “slunk along as though conscious that there was something wrong with its appearance.” All the while Orwell dreads the cold more than the enemy; at any rate, when he got to the line he discovered the Fascists were beyond the range of his rifle. It hardly mattered if you were a crack shot, not that many men could shoot straight. Some would fire their guns in just and miss their friends because of utter incompetence.