George Orwell was a diligent diarist, keeping several notebooks to note down his thoughts on current events and record his everyday activities. This political journal, covering the period between May 1940 and August 1941, contains Orwell’s fascinating account of everyday life in London during the Second World War. Rather than writing a chronological narrative of his day, Orwell noted down short meaningful episodes showing how the constant bombing raids transformed the landscape of the city and changed people’s interactions.
Narrating an urban war
In these entries, written between 17 and 24 September 1940, Orwell’s diary often reads like a journalist’s notepad. His purpose seems to be to capture a snapshot of the time he is living in for future generations, or perhaps for later use in one of his works. One single-sentence paragraph succinctly reads: 'Regular features of the time: neatly swept-up piles of glass, litter of stone and splinters of flint, smell of escaping gas, knots of sightseers waiting at the cordons.'
The entries also contain Orwell’s social commentary, supporting the use of empty West End houses for people who had been rendered homeless by the bombing raids. Despite his criticism of Stalinism, Orwell remained a convinced socialist all his life, and believed that the Second World War could become a ‘revolutionary war’: ‘When you see how the wealthy are still behaving, in what is manifestly developing into a revolutionary war, you think of St. Petersburg in 1916’. Orwell believed that Britain would not win the war against Germany without a social revolution, an idea that he developed on his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.
A writer’s diary
One of the most interesting aspects of Orwell’s diaries is the fact that he constantly edited them, typing them up from his manuscript notes and making corrections and additions by hand, some of which can be seen in this extract. It is likely that Orwell intended for his war diaries to be published, although they never appeared in print when he was alive.