The essay opens with a young Orwell wetting the bed for the first time in years when he arrives at the school because he’s afraid of his new environs, miles away from his family and friends. He’s warned by the Headmaster’s wife, nicknamed Flip, that if he didn’t stop doing that, she’d get the Sixth Form (the older boys’ grade) to beat him up! When he doesn’t stop (because threatening a child with violence was surely going to work!), he’s sent to the Headmaster, nicknamed Sambo, who beats him with a riding crop in what reads like a semi-comical scene with Orwell writing Sambo’s words in a staccato style as he beat him “you-are – a – ve-ry – nau-ghty- boy!”. It sets the tone for the essay, being a frank and open discussion of his schooldays that were often cruel and unrecognisable in the 1940s when he wrote this, let alone in the 21st century.
The conditions he experienced would go on to influence Orwell’s literary career, particularly his two most celebrated novels including Animal Farm. Orwell discusses the class politics at the school with the boys arguing over whose dad has the most modern car and status was measured by who had their own cricket bat and who didn’t. The situation is encouraged by Sambo and Flip who acquiesced to the rich offspring, letting them get away with lackadaisical study but coming down hard on the scholarship students like Orwell who were there to raise the grades of the school. They would also give the rich kids a cake on their birthday but not the less affluent kids.
There’s a revealing passage when Orwell recounts going into the town one day to buy sweets with some money he’d stashed in the wall vines and, on the way back, imagining the Headmaster’s power extending out into the community, that there were spies of Sambo ready to rat on Orwell the moment he returned to the school. The episode and the character of Sambo in Orwell’s mind feels like a precursor to his greatest work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s also a part of Orwell’s insightful exploration of how children perceive the adult world.
He critiques the teaching system which drilled into children like himself important dates, quotes and names without ever giving them any context – they were told to recite them to rote questions because it would make them seem clever when they were merely parroting back to examiners a script they didn’t understand. Moreover, he finds the whole idea of sending away young children to these private boarding schools a distasteful custom that damages children’s psyches, frightening them with unfamiliar surroundings, strangers, and putting them at the mercy of harsh, unloving people like Sambo and Flip.
Orwell’s writing is as powerful and clear as it always is, effortlessly communicating to us through the years and bringing the reader back to an Edwardian school where the cheesy wet towels, unclean sheets, cold rooms and grotty food are vividly drawn to the point where we can feel and smell St Cyprian’s today. The memoirs are infused with an energy and wit that makes for compelling reading, despite the grim subject matter, and Orwell masterfully weaves in emotional moments and enlightening ideas throughout the essay. Reading Such, Such Were The Joys is both a reminder of how accomplished a writer Orwell was and a truly enjoyable experience to be in the hands of a writer so assured in their craft.
Of course Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the Orwell books everyone should read but these small paperbacks Penguin is publishing as part of their fantastic Great Ideas series are essential reading too, bringing to light George Orwell’s astonishingly good non-fiction essays and journalism. The essay ends humorously with Orwell wishing the rumour he heard that St Cyprian’s burned down was true. Regardless, Orwell provides his old school with a more thorough demolition job than any wrecking ball could in this wonderfully vitriolic essay.
Such, Such Were the Joys