Orwell Watch #2: Murder in Yeovil

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Thank you, George.

Last month, I jeered at the cliché “soaring rhetoric” (already on the wane by the time I whacked at it), challenged the liberals’ rebranding of themselves as “progressives,” and, to be an equal opportunity offender, in the comments section I questioned the right-wing highjacking of the meaningless, self-congratulatory term “values.”

It seems timely to launch the second installment of the Orwell Watch, in honor of George Orwell‘s immortal essay, “Politics and the English Language” — especially after Books Inq. alerted me to a blog post datelined from the odd little burg of Yeovil, a few miles from my own ancestral village outside Glastonbury.

While Orwell’s rule “Never use the passive where you can use the active,” should, like everything else, be used in moderation (in this sentence, for example), it’s a pretty good yardstick to measure the intent to obfuscate.  In this squalid murder case, reported by Theodore Dalyrimple, the prosecutor has pretty effectively distorted a straightforward narrative.  The prosecutor’s through-a-glass-darkly verbiage attempts to describe the murder of 38-year-old Glynn Rowlands, over some stolen gold.

For simplicity (Dalyrimple’s phrasing is rather ornate), the prosecutor’s words from the Western Gazette are italicized below.  The journalist’s queries are indented.

Ben [one of his co-accused] started tying up his [the victim’s] arms and legs. Steve [another of the co-accused] picked up a brick and let it go in his face.

Let it go in his face? Do bricks, then, fly spontaneously into people’s faces like poltergeists, unless diverted from their course? Why did the young man not write that Steve threw, or smashed, the brick into the man’s face?

Glynn Rowlands had fallen into an ugly dispute with [the accused].

By the force of what social (or antisocial) gravity does one “fall into” ugly disputes? Of course, it is possible that the accused picked a quarrel with the victim completely at random: some people behave like that, though it is unlikely in this case, and in fact the prosecutor did not believe it. But an ugly dispute? One does not fall into ugly disputes as into cunningly-disguised elephant-traps.

Retribution was required.

But required by whom or by what? By the laws of the universe? Clearly the prosecutor meant by the accused; but then why not say “The accused sought retribution”?

He was to tell good friends who went to see him in hospital the reality of how gold was missing…

How gold was missing? Did it go missing spontaneously, of its own accord and volition? … Or did someone take the gold? If so, why not say so? Why the passive construction? Since the prosecutor soon went on to say that Rowlands “returned nothing”, he clearly believed that Rowlands had stolen the gold. Why did he not say “Rowlands confessed to stealing the gold”?

It was to get worse …

What was to get worse? The situation, that presumably acted like a demiurge independent of how the participants in it acted? What the prosecutor meant was that the accused allegedly behaved more and more threateningly towards the victim until they actually killed him.

At 3.17 pm on Thursday, December 3, hours before Glynn Rowlands was to lose his life…

Glynn Rowlands was to lose his life? In a fit of carelessness, perhaps, in the way that I sometimes mislay my keys because I am preoccupied by something else? Or by the spontaneous development of a head injury and multiple fractures of the ribs, as some — including Dickens — once thought that people could die by spontaneous combustion? Someone, whether the accused or others, killed Glynn Rowlands.

Does it matter?  I think it does.  As Orwell points out, fuzzy language leads to fuzzy thinking. Here a brutal murder by brutal people has been treated as a sort of inevitability, like leaves falling in the autumn. Human agency has been blanketed by a soft carpet of moral snow.

Legal pomposity is commonplace, and the journalist reacted to it with understandable derision.  Still, some active, Anglo-Saxon verbs — “beat,” “hit,” “stab” and “kill” — would have gone some way to describing the reality of the wretched man who was kidnapped, bound, stripped naked, brutally assaulted and left dying in a cold and muddy on a remote country lane.

Postscript on 12/10:  Of course in my perambulations around the internet, I ran across a photo of Glynn Rowlands; it seemed exploitative to use it on a blog post that is essentially about the use of language. So I settled for a generic “Lady of Justice” image instead. On reflection, however, it seems wrong and indecent not to use it.


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