The deep, deep sleep of England


One of my favourite passages in the English language is the last paragraph of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938). In it he describes coming back to Blighty after fighting in the Spanish Civil War, in which he was shot in the neck and nearly killed. Forseeing World War II and in particular the Blitz, he captures beautifully the sense of cognitive dissonance one often has on returning from the world to the familiarity of England. The passage also evokes Britain’s tendency to ignore developments in contintental Europe until it is too late: the “deep, deep sleep of England”. It seems to me as apt in 2012 as it was in 1938:

And then England – southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs. 


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