George Orwell is unavoidably associated with 1984, as well he should be. And if that's what it takes to keep the man's reputation going through another generation, then by all means let that be his main claim to fame. Orwell should be almost as famous for Homage To Catalonia, his heartbreaking report on the Spanish Civil War. Like many Europeans and some Americans (Hemingway among them), Orwell was on the losing side, fighting the fascists and losing much of his idealism along the way.
Most of the essays in Facing Unpleasant Facts come after Homage to Catalonia, so they all have a realist and rather bleak view of the world. The message throughout is that we all know certain facts about the world, but that somehow people have just avoided saying them; hence the title of the collection. Elsewhere, in his famous essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell notes that the language itself has become impoverished and calcified; without someone to sandblast off the rubbish, it will be impossible to talk straightforwardly about the way the world actually is.
Orwell honors that goal in Facing Unpleasant Facts. He is the master of the common English sentence. He tells stories about British colonialism that are devastating and to the point, as in "Shooting an Elephant" -- a perfect little gem of an essay, in which Orwell recounts killing the beast just so that he won't look like a fool before his Burmese subjects. In this sort of essay, the story doesn't spin very far from Orwell himself; he lets the audience draw its own inferences about the nature of colonialism. In others -- quite a few others -- he's more impersonal but just as concise: "England, Your England" is a series of flicks of the knife directed at the British government. The acid bubbles:
And yet somehow the ruling class decayed, lost its ability, its daring, finally even its ruthlessness, until a time came when stuffed shirts like [Anthony] Eden or [Lord] Halifax could stand out as men of exceptional talent. As for [Stanley] Baldwin , one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air.
Beneath it all is a visceral sadness for the suffering of mankind. Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War because he wanted to help people. In "Clink," he gets liquored up and tries to get arrested, so that he might document the viciousness of the police. (Perhaps to his dismay, they weren't all that vicious.) In "How The Poor Die," he recounts a few weeks he spent recuperating in a public hospital for the poor in France; the doctors hardly noticed that the sacks of flesh they were working on were human beings. In "Such, Such Were The Joys," we get a Roald Dahlish taste of the barbarity of British schools. Orwell sees great potential in the world, and much suffering; those further up in the hierarchy, whether deliberately or not (mostly deliberately) force those below them to suffer.
Facing Unpleasant Facts also contains some trifles not really connected to the collection's title. For instance, there's a little essay on how to make a proper English cup of tea. There are a few pages in defense of British food. There's a charming essay on the return of spring; I have to imagine that essay rescued a few London moods at the height of the Blitz. A man can't argue the virtues of socialism all the time. I think it's safe to say, though, that socialism is where Orwell's heart lay; the springtime merely paid the bills.
Facing Unpleasant Facts is a fun, quick read. Its staying power lies in understanding Orwell more than it lies in understanding Britain, or socialism, though it's valuable on those as well. It's most valuable to budding essayists, who want to study at the feet of a master.