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The Orwellian Toad

Tuesday, 24th June 2003, page 1 of 2, West Yorkshire

toad Barbara moves the plastic planter that fits around the fall pipe on the patio. The cavity beneath provides a home for a toad. I take particular notice of its eyes because I recently came across the following quote from George Orwell (1903-1950) in a television documentary George Orwell, a life in pictures (BBC2) celebrating the centenary of his birth:

a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet-rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.

toadOrwell was so good at describing, in a plain, truthful but vivid and darkly humorous way, the misery and injustice of our modern world and the effects of war and totalitarianism on the lives of ordinary people. He saw that capitalism and industrialism have evil effects and realised that socialist utopias are likely doomed to failure. How then should we, as individuals, live our lives?

He makes this suggestion in his essay In Praise of the Common Toad, first published in Tribune in April, 1946,

The point is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other, if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site.

. . . I think that by retaining one's childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and - to return to my first instance - toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.

If that's good enough for Orwell - who went through the Spanish Civil War, imperial Burma and World War II (not to mention an awful prep school) - then it's good enough for me. He was far from politically naive.

That's what I want to spend my life doing from now on: simply looking at a toad, or experiencing the spring. I've done my bit in the political/ecological action sphere and I've no longer have any illusions about the way the decision-making process works. I don't feel I'm opting out: I feel that studying nature, just seeing nature, can be a subversive and in some ways a political activity (since to be apolitical is to take a political stance).

I can't resist one more quote from Orwell's delightful essay which you can read at and at various other sites on the Internet.

I know by experience that a favourable reference to `Nature' in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually 'sentimental', two ideas seem to be mixed up in them. One is that any pleasure in the actual process of life encourages a sort of political quietism. People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment of the things we have already. The other idea is that this is the age of machines and that to dislike the machine, or even to want to limit its domination, is backward-looking, reactionary and slightly ridiculous.

I'll leave it to you to find out what the author of 1984 has to say about such attitudes!

brown-lipped snailBrown-lipped Snail

As I cut the hawthorn hedge I'm surprised to find a brown-lipped snail, striped like a humbug, right up amongst the top branches, four feet above ground level. It retracts into its shell, returning to ground level the quick way; falling from its perch.

buzzardBy the way, that buzzard, which I mentioned yesterday was back this evening, same time, same place, soaring low over the valley. This time there was no crow around to mob it. next page

Richard Bell