When the world seems overwhelming in its insanities and brokenness, how do we live with any integrity in rich countries? Do we put on hair shirts, cover our faces in ash, live only in lamentation? Do we reduce our lives to the barest needs of survival in solidarity? Whether the terrible news is of fire and flood in Australia or war in Ukraine, of political corruption and greed in the UK or the enslaving practices of factories and corporations in China that all of us are implicated by in our everyday purchases, how can we make any meangful response?
In 1936, watching the developments of the Spanish Civil War, and cultivating ideas that would become the novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell faced the darkness of the world by planting roses in the garden of the cottage in Wallington where he was waiting for his fiancée. Writing about this in Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit says:
If war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks, and gardens.
The roses outlived Orwell and still bloom. Solnit writes of her visit to the cottage:
Even on that November day two big unruly rosebushes were in bloom, one with pale pink buds opening up a little and another with almost salmon flowers with a golden-yellow rim at the base of each petal. They were exuberantly alive, these allegedly octogenarian roses, living things planted by the living hand (and shovel work) of someone gone for most of their lifetime.
And for Solnit the roses are not an irrelevance or a way of ignoring the pressing issues of the world.
[Orwell’s roses] rearranged my old assumptions… This man most famous for his prescient scrutiny of totalitarianism and propaganda, for facing unpleasant facts, for a spare prose style and an unyielding political vision, had planted roses. That a socialist or a utilitarian or any pragmatist or practical person might plant fruit trees is not surprising: they have tangible economic value and produce the necessary good that is food… But to plant a rose—or in the case of this garden he resuscitated in 1936, seven roses early on and more later—can mean so many things.
They were questions about … where pleasure and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical result fit into the life of someone, perhaps of anyone, who also cared about justice and truth and human rights and how to change the world.
Roses are not going to feed anyone. Although herbalists and aromatherapists value them for their oils or astringent bitters, it would be easy to see growing roses as of ‘no value’ or a ‘luxury’. But writers know that life is not made worth living by being merely utilitarian; it is not a mere pursuit of outcomes and quantifiable goals.
Far from being self-indulgent and trivial in the face of international war and suffering across this planet, growing roses, like making art, literature, music, ceramics or so many other human pursuits, declares that life cannot be reduced to datasets of the most basic needs. As Lear puts it in Act 2, scene 4:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. …
The vitality that makes us grow a rose, write a poem or compose a symphony, is the same vitality that makes us care about racist policing, endentured working practices, the ice caps melting, the invasion of Ukraine…
In 1911 James Openheim wrote a poem published in The American Magazine inspired by a speech by Helen Todd, an American women’s suffrage activist who had interviewed farm girls in the American West. The poem encapsulated the political urgency that all lives should contain not only ‘bread’ but also the passion, leisure and beauty represented by ‘roses’. The poem became a rallying cry for the women’s Trade Union movement in the USA and later for the Civil Rights movement.
As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!
As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
(There’s a moving performance of it on The Unthanks’ Live and Unaccompanied album.)
What makes a life one of dignity and connection is not a bald choice between survival or nothing. This is not to support those of us in the rich-world in feeling entitled to ‘having it all’, including all the stuff that strips the earth only to end up in rubbish dumps in poorer nations. It is not to brush off the magnitude of how consumerism and corporatism make us complicit in their abuse of those poorer countries. Clearly, there are deep moral dilemmas to be faced by virtue of the lives we are accidentally born into. But it is to insist that everyone deserves not only shelter and food, but also art and beauty. Life needs roses and literature and… because lives reduced to labouring animals or homelessness and a daily struggle for survival become lives too exhausted and drained to protest.
Orwell put it like this:
Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
And Solnit adds:
You might prepare for your central mission in life by doing other things that may seem entirely unrelated… Orwell seemed to have an instinct for this other work and a talent for giving it what it required. In the last phase of his life, he was both intent upon writing Nineteen Eighty-four and devoting huge amounts of his time, energy, imagination, and resources to building up a garden verging on a farm, with livestock, crops, fruit trees, a tractor—and a lot of flowers—on the remote tip of a Scottish island.
What might look like a distracting luxury might be exactly what makes us passionate about life itself. If we are not moved by an amazing sunset, a beautiful garden, some particular piece of art or music, then perhaps we also care less about the ecological crisis or children going to sleep hungry?
Passion, beauty and dignity should not be add-ons in any life. Solnit goes on:
A society seeking to reinvent human nature wants to reach down into every psyche and rearrange it. Bread can be managed by authoritarian regimes, but roses are something individuals must be free to find for themselves, discovered and cultivated rather than prescribed. “We know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity,” Orwell declares at the end of “The Prevention of Literature,” and the roses in “bread and roses” mean a kind of freedom that flourishes with privacy and independence.
What we do as writers is like growing roses. It won’t feed anyone. It has no designs on us. It doesn’t need to have. When we encounter a majestic tree or stand under an awe-inspiring night sky, it becomes a small part of us. We are changed in each encounter. When we read a great story or poem or work of lyrical non-fiction we don’t need it to be didactic to be transformative. Writing, like roses, insists that there is more to life than the quantifiable.
Yes—give us bread. But also—give us roses.