George Orwell

Photographic Homage to Barcelona

There’s something in Catalonian sun on winter. It don’t seem to wear out as day progresses. Going out in late afternoon it feels just as fresh as when you first left in the morning. December weather is mellow. On a sunny day noon one can go about without a jacket.

I’ve arrived for my first trip to Barcelona and spend a new year in the city, and coincidentally chose apt book for travel reading: In 1937 city had a visitor, an author who’s pen name would later be known by the world. He wasn’t a normal tourist, but in Catalonia on a personal crusade against Fascism. Explaining the importance of defending the Republican side:

“Moreover, there was the question of the international prestige of Fascism, which for a year or two past had been haunting me like a nightmare. Since 1930 the Fascists had won all the victories; it was time they got a beating, it hardly mattered from whom.”

Harbor seen from Mount Montjuic.

Streets at night.

He arrived some months after anarchist and leftist militia had wrested control from old autocratic and clerical establishment in the city. This militia would then be part of bigger game of Spanish civil war, Republican side (supported by Soviet Union and Mexico), fighting against Fascist side (Germany and Italy as its main backers).

Barcelona Cathedral.

The cathedral was constructed from the 13th to 15th centuries, with the principal work done in the 14th century.

Column of Columbus.

From the pages of Homage to Catalonia, opens up a view of anxiety, uncertainty, political scheming and propaganda. But also small moments that matter more than they might, little joys of life. Authors winter in the Zaragoza front (see progress of front lines in Wikipedia) is chilling and hostile place. Daily routines include fighting the hunger, collecting firewood and killing louses that find their way everywhere. Barcelona 80 years later couldn’t be more different: wealth, welfare, civility, and exodus of tourists.

Barcelona streets.

Despite the polar opposites of then and now, couldn’t help to notice some parallels as well. Catalanian sense of independence is still strong, and has again surprised the ruling elite in Madrid. Independence movement has been on the news as central government has tried to quell the peaceful demonstrations and even elections. At the time of writing this, one leader of the movement has fled to Belgium, another one thrown to prison in Madrid (recent story in The Guardian).

Democracy is all nice and dandy, until people vote wrong.

The author in question was of course George Orwell. The book, Homage to Catalonia, was about his experiences in Spanish Civil War soon after returning from the revolution and a half year trench life. I both admire and envy Orwell’s literary style: compressed, yet far aiming and accurate though. Comparing to his better known classics, to me Homage to Catalonia feels most honest. It feels like unpolished blog post, written soon after the strong personal experience. At parts, Orwell is duelling with contemporary journalists, whom he thought had reported false information to English audience. Like his other books, Homage to Catalonia was hard pill to swallow by the authorities because of the criticism towards establishment.

La Rambla. Main promenades at the center of the city.

Book was published at the time when the outcome of the war was still hanging in the air. By the time of Orwells death in 1950, it had sold just under 1000 copies. Today it’s well worth reading, from historical aspect, from getting some insights about the Catalonia, and, well, because Orwell is Orwell 🙂

Old man and the sea.

Little green parrots can be seen everywhere in the city, often screeching from the trees.

Personal impressions about the visit: Bitter sweet stench of marijuana hovers by every now and then. City is very international, and not only the tourist crowds. Chinese seem to own and operate many bars in downtown. Indian and Pakistani have specialised as grocery store owners. Some streets and metro stations have been occupied by Africans selling t-shirts, sneakers and fake Ray Bans. Architecture is mix of tradition, La Rambla has the vibe of Champs-Élysées of Paris. And modern skyscrapers by seaside make you feel like in gulf countries such as Dubai or Bahrain. Mediterranean water is bright green, sandy beach is nice and long. Popular spot even now in January.

Relaxing at National Art Museum.

Further reading:

Placa de George Orwell, Barcelona downtown.


George Orwell: Flory’s Kyauktada or Blair’s Katha

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

Irrawaddy, Myanmar’s main waterway

June 2015. Its midnight, rain drops are drumming metal roof of my guesthouse. Arrived finally to Katha after full day of traveling in train, and lastly hour ride in darkness from train station at Naba. Road was mostly good and tuktuk boy let his machine fly.


Screenshot_2015-06-12-23-24-41 0118_Chiang_Rai_4614

George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days was my favourites while living in neighbouring Thailand. Orwell, or Eric Arthur Blar as his real name was, was stationed in British Burma after WW1. He served Indian Imperial Police in several locations, and became disillusioned about colonial system he was part of. Contemporary anecdotes of Orwell describe him a loner. He rather spends time with Burmese locals or reading books, than British empire builders called pukka sahib. In the novel, similar character called John Flory working for a timber logging firm and living a lonely life in a remote outpost. It’s hard to avoid feeling that what Orwell wrote about Mr. Flory in Kyauktada, was very much his own experience as Mr. Blair in Katha.

Search for Orwell’s house. Local teacher was well informed about Eric Arthur Blair, and his former home by the same street her school was.

Orwell returned to England 1927 and Burmese Days was published in 1934. Later ofcourse The Animal Farm and 1984 would bring him world wide fame, but his trademark Orwellian style was already very much present in the first novel. Today Burmese Days is popular reading among travelers in Southeast Asia, like The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and Caribbean.

Burmese Days takes place in remote Burmese village of Kyauktada. Orwells real life reference to Kyauktada was village of Katha (by today’s roads, over 300km north of Mandalay). Having read everything I could find my hands on about Orwell’s time in Burma, didn’t think twice when opportunity to see the place!

House of Eric Arthur Blair at the time of visit. It belongs to Burmese government, and a policeman is living in it.

June 2015. In the novel, John Flory wakes at night by the dogs howling outside. When I came, could also see the dogs and remembered the part in book. Great grand children of what Flory was cursing perhaps!? Novel is obviously a fiction, but am excited of being finally here so fact and fiction are starting to mix. It’s well beyond midnight. I wont be taking a rifle and go after the dogs like Flory did. Nowadays we have something better: ear plugs.

Riverboat’s could be used from Mandalay-Katha-Bhamo and back, but not all the way to Myitkyina due to military restrictions.

Katha-Bhamo riverboat views.

Snacks and food on offer for passengers.


@ Bhamo.

Further reading:
Seasons of Southeast Asia, in Orwell’s words.

Seasons of Southeast Asia – in Orwells Words

This post quotes George Orwell describing Northern Burma where he lived in late 1920’s. His lively description applies through the region, for example to North Thailand where I live. Am generalising title as Seasons of Southeast Asia. Quotes are from Orwell’s book Burmese Days, first published in 1934. Photos are mine from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos in between 2012-2015.

Main waterways of the region. Mekong above and Irrawaddy bellow.

“Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy-fields were wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy-fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October.”

“The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hop-scotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them—honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmans went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold.”

Winter clothes have their use. Chiangmai, North Thailand.

“In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wilderness, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun. At night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns looming through the mist like crescents. One had three blankets on one’s bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken. After dinner one sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and talking about shooting. The flames danced like red holly, casting a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to the fire like dogs. As one lay in bed one could hear the dew dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain. It was a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past.”

Temples mountains. Chiangmai above, Mandalay bellow.