In a moment of honesty I once said to a friend that, “I would rather have strong and powerful prose than rock-hard abs.”
Funny as that is, it is true. Ever since I was a teenager reading George Orwell under the bed-covers, prose stars have always impressed me more than sports stars.
Yeah, I guess he is OK. – Image: Burnell University
For me the coolest things were always writers doing something spectacular with prose; something like this:
As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil. – George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn”
This is the sub-ten-second 100m of introductions. That first paragraph doesn’t mess around. It tells you what the essay will be about in the most startling way. He tricks us. We are calmly talking about the “civilised human beings” in a long clause and then, to our surprise, they are killing him! That is really cool. If you don’t think so, re-read it until you do.
King of cool
The essay’s argument is not actually his best: he is in full on English nationalist mode, writing under the Blitz, and trying to argue in favour of socialist revolution. As an Irishman, English Nationalism never impressed me, but that I enjoyed it as much as I did despite its subject is testament to his genius. Orwell’s Nationalism, spliced rather with international socialism, is a charming thing.
In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious. They do not retain among their historical memories the name of a single military victory. English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore’s army at Corunna, fighting a desperate rearguard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction. And of the last war, the four names which have really engraved themselves on the popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles that finally broke the German armies are simply unknown to the general public.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, with Orange men beating lambeg drums each summer, it was a British Nationalism I did not recognise and yet could not help but admire when Orwell spoke about it. You get the sense that he believes it. He knows his Literature, he knows his History, he knows what is going on in war. You get the sense that he knows and loves the ordinary British people. Let us be honest – you get the sense that he would a good guy to go for a pint with .
That really is what distinguishes an essay from any other type of non-fiction writing: you get to know the writer’s personality. Articulate assholes can probably make a decent living as reporters or novelists, but they are really going get far as Essayists. The essay is more and more about getting people to trust you. That kind of writing is what you should find here: lots of voices trying to charm you into believing in their argument. I might stretch the definition a little bit, but expect to see little snippets of Orwell and Johnson, Zadie Smith and Joan Didion, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Clive James, David Foster Wallace and John Jeremiah Sullivan and many more. People with prose that I really really love. I hope you enjoy it and see something brilliant that you did not know about before.
 See “The Moon Underwater” for proof that the man knows a great deal about what a good pub looks like.