Tuesday, October 27, 2015

`The Movement All Against Him'

I have found a useful phrase, one that fits like a tailored suit: “the awkward squad.” Thanks to a post by Nige I discovered a good poet new to me, Jonathan Price, and an interesting collection of essays and reviews by P.J. Kavanagh, the English poet who died in August -- People and Places: A Selection 1975-1987 (Carcanet, 1988). In it is a piece about C.H. Sisson combining two reviews , “Orthodoxies,” that helps explain his awkward charm and some of the reasons I admire him:

“. . . mention of Englishness, which Sisson pre-eminently represents in all his writings, leads to another man, of the other party, a Regicide probably, described by his biographer[Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life, 1982] as one of `God’s great awkward squad of unorthodox, dissident Englishmen’ – George Orwell. If you open Sisson’s The Avoidance of Literature at any point you could be in the literary and moral presence of Orwell. They both detest fuss, cant and any form of sloppy thinking. I do not mean that either imitated the other, I mean that both are of the English `awkward squad’ and show it in the same way.”

In the OED’s earliest citation, dating from 1796, Robert Burns is supposed to have said as he was dying, “John, don’t let the awkward squad fire over me.” I read that as a fear of “friendly fire.” Clearly the original sense was military. Brewer gives “recruits not yet fitted to take their place in the regimental line,” and Webster has “a group of inept recruits undergoing special drill.” Over time the phrase seems to have mutated into being a rough synonym for outsiders, freebooters, nonconformists – but not in the approved, fashionable sense. Members of the awkward squad plot their own course, indifferent to well-intentioned career advice. Another military word that comes to mind is “irregular” (OED: “a soldier not of the regular army”). In 1756, George Washington writes in a letter to Gov. Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia: “With this small company of Irregulars; with whom order, regularity, circumspection and vigilance were matters of derision and contempt, we set out.”

To group Orwell and Sisson with other members of the Awkward Squad — Swift, admired by both men, comes to mind, along with Dr. Johnson -- is oxymoronic but useful. Kavanagh says of Orwell and Sisson that for all their political and literary differences, “[it is] the similarity of tone that is striking.” Both strive for honesty and clarity, and neither is afraid to be contemptuous. Each is inelegant, unconcerned with assembling pretty sentences. Orwell’s work is wildly uneven, which shouldn’t surprise us about a hardworking journalist, and he is best-known for his poorest books. Nothing Sisson wrote, whether poetry or prose, is a waste of the reader’s time. Kavanagh writes:

“. . . Orwell went with the post-Regicide tide, albeit awkwardly, scourge of both far-Left and Right; he was recognizably a man of his time. To be the Royalist Sisson, concerned with the protection of older orthodoxies, because he considers them preferable to the new ones, is much more difficult and lonely. You feel that Orwell is sustained by his sense of belonging to a movement and Sisson has the movement all against him.”


Subbuteo said...

In England the word awkward can mean gauche as in an awkward adolescent. In the awkward squad it has agency and means rather refractory and intransigent and deliberately so - perhaps for pleasure.

George said...

Suvorov appears in Byron's "Don Juan" drilling the awkward squad, as apparently he sometimes did.