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How George Orwell's hop-picking days sowed the seeds for his genius

An odd chapter in the author’s life yields fresh insights into both his work and rural Britain in the current crisis, says Dominic Cavendish

Picking for Britain: hop pickers in Paddock Wood, Kent, in 1932
Picking for Britain: hop pickers in Kent in 1932 Credit: Central Press/Hulton Archive

Picture the scene. In a field in Kent, a lanky young man is toiling away under a September sky. His palms have been cut to ribbons by the spiny stems of the hop vines he has been busily picking, hour after repetitive hour. Plant lice crawl about his neck. It’s hard-going yet he finds the experience oddly pleasurable. Around him, other hop-pickers often break into song and you can imagine Eric Blair – who would shortly become known to the world as George Orwell538prom精品视频在线播放 – joining in, in a likely faux cockney accent.

538prom精品视频在线播放Why revisit the autumn of 1931 and the three-week period that Orwell spent on a farm near Maidstone getting his hands dirty, the first fruit of which would be a diary of his experience and an article that October for the New Statesman? Because there’s suddenly something freshly pertinent about this foray into the countryside, when his writing career was in its infancy. 

538prom精品视频在线播放If we’ve thought of Orwell so far during the Covid-19 crisis, it has probably been as a reference point for dystopian nightmares and fears over the rise of the Big Brother state.

But actually it’s as someone foraying into a rural milieu, and undertaking a manual task in the open air, at a time of crisis, that Orwell is most obviously our contemporary again. Pick for Britain is the new campaign to help those looking for temporary employment in the fruit and veg sector as the peak picking period (June to October) approaches. There are supposed to be thousands of vacancies looming, the clock ticking to ensure produce is harvested, shelves filled.

Orwell was acting on his own initiative – taking part in the regular summer exodus from the metropolis that saw thousands going “hopping” in Kent, in search of rusticity, clean air and a dash of financial recompense. It was a long-standing sociological phenomenon that withered in the late Fifties as mechanisation took over. 

Oddly contemporary: Eric Blair, aka George Orwell Credit: Getty

Evocations of it vary. In Melanie McGrath’s 2009 book Hopping, which traces East End lives across the 20th century, the annual hop is likened to “a kind of Oz, the place where life meted out most of its magic”. But a darker view is inscribed in The People of the Abyss (1903), when the industrious US writer Jack London detailed his explorations of the East End, and dwelt among some of the 80,000 wretched “street people” – “the lingering dregs of adventure-lust still in them”, “an army of ghouls, and the country does not want them”.

The writer witnessed a poor summer, where “terrible storms reduced the yield”. Amid the Great Depression, with the Labour government dislodged by financial woe, 1931 was a poor year for hopping, too – afflicted, as Orwell biographer Bernard Crick notes, by “low prices, unemployment and bankruptcy in the hop-picking industry, exacerbated by ruinously bad weather”. That provided fertile soil for Orwell’s burgeoning insights into exploitation: given workers’ lack of rights and the unreliable way hop yields were measured, the sums didn’t add up.

Yet the episode afforded more than a grim tally of capitalism’s harsh vicissitudes. A valuable sense of something character-building and, at root, life-affirming emerges in his account of his protracted jaunt. For the author, the adventure straddled a line between imposture and self-reinvention. He suffered a bad conscience for having upheld British rule in colonial Burma (as an imperial police officer) and wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) that he wanted “to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants”.

538prom精品视频在线播放After his days in Burma he would kit himself out in the guise of a tramp and journey into a sub-world of dirty dosshouses and rough sleepers. He adopted the name Edward Burton, and a cockney accent. Before heading for Kent – mainly on foot – he kipped overnight (or tried to) amid the destitute and prostitutes who haunted Trafalgar Square. Falling in with other chancers and likely lads on the way down to Kent, the old Etonian turned low-life, stealing raspberries, apples and potatoes, using cutlery “stolen at different times from Woolworth’s” – half-starving as he lived for the next round of tobacco and cadged tea. Despite being sodden and footsore, he describes he and his companion (“Ginger”) as “quite happy and laughing all the time”.

His diary (accessible online) is stuffed with entertaining vignettes. Helping one hapless mother, homeward-bound, he writes: “I had to push a perambulator, with one eccentric wheel and loaded with huge packages, two and a half miles through the dark, followed by a retinue of yelling children.” The last day of the picking saw a bizarre ritual – “a queer game of catching the women and putting them in the bins”.

Orwell doesn’t sentimentalise the cohorts of costermongers, itinerant labourers and gipsies – this isn’t the equivalent of Millet’s beatific-bucolic painting The Angelus. Treatment of children could be brutish: “The woman in the next bin to us, a regular old-fashioned East Ender, kept her grandchildren at it like slaves – ‘Go on, Rose, you lazy little cat, pick them ‘ops up. I’ll warm your a--e if I get up to you’ etc until the children, aged from six to 10, used to drop down and fall asleep on the ground.” But the scrabbled sense of community and instances of simple kindness impressed him.

While left exhausted, he felt a pang heading home. It would be an exaggeration to say that all roads in Orwell’s ensuing work lead back to Kent. But his experience fed, in copious quantities, into A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) in which the preyed-upon daughter of a widowed rector awakes – amnesiac – in chapter two to experience a fictionalised version of the author’s escapade. The heroine, Dorothy, eventually attains an exhausted elation – “You were happy, with an unreasonable happiness” – before winding up back in the Big Smoke, homeless.

538prom精品视频在线播放Another biographer – D J Taylor – has detected the seeds of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in the structure of that novel – with its escape from and return to crushing conformity. And the pattern is repeated elsewhere – henpecked George Bowling making a brief break for a remembered rural bliss in Coming Up for Air (1939). Animal Farm (1945) carries a wonderful sense of communal joy in its early harvest scenes, when the animals have first taken charge, that perhaps owes a debt to the episode, and Gordon Bowker identifies in the hop-pickers, and their rowdy songs, the birth of “the Proles” – Winston Smith’s idealised guarantors, however grubby, of human resilience.

The language that Orwell used to denote the underclass amid which he swirled would hardly get ready approval from today’s PC police – and even Taylor has to defend him from inevitable cynicism about slumming it to reap literary rewards. But if the idea of a literary apprentice heading out of their comfort zone to lend a hand on the land and experience social levelling is easily sniffed at, you need only look at the nutritious substance of Orwell’s subsequent achievements to glean that there might be very rich pickings indeed.

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