Monday 18 February 2013

Remembering George Orwell

George Orwell was born in June, 1903. No, he wasn’t. George Orwell was born in January, 1933. Actually, both are true. What; is there something Orwellian here; are we to entertain contradictory statements without being aware of the contradiction? Are we in the foothills of double-think? 

OK, then, let me clarify: Eric Arthur Blair, who was to become George Orwell, was indeed born in June, 1903. Although he had previously published some minor articles with the by-line E. A. Blair, the pen name by which he is best known comes with the publication in January, 1933 of Down and Out in Paris and London, his George Gissing-like odyssey into the nether world.

So this year is an anniversary in two senses – the one hundred and tenth of his birth and the eightieth of his first reasonably successful literary endeavour, the kind of perceptive, unadorned and matter-of-fact sociological analysis that he was to make a unique feature of his writing.

Orwell - like Charles Dickens a social analyst as well as a novelist - is one of my favourite writers. Like him, my own ambition is to make political writing into an art, an aim he set out in Why I Write, one of his most brilliant essays. Like him, I discovered the sheer joy of words when I was in my mid-teens. I first readAnimal Farm, his exposé of the fraudulent character of Soviet Communism, when I was fourteen. I have been reading his work on and off ever since, his novels, his reportage, his criticism, his occasional pieces and his journalism. 

This anniversary year I’ve been re-tracing my steps, overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance and insight in the likes ofCharles Dickens, a critical essay of outstanding ability. As with so much of his work there is a slight element of biography. I give you, from the conclusion, how Orwell saw Dickens and how I see Orwell:

When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

I’ve been looking for this face also in biography. I looked for it in George Orwell by Gordon Bowker. This is not the first account of Orwell’s life that I’ve tackled. I read Bernard Crick’s study while I was still at school, though I remember little of it now. What can I say about Bowker? He has given us an honest and decent account of honesty and decency, the major themes, if you like, of Orwell’s literary career. What I do remember about Crick is that his book was primarily political in purpose. Bowker, I suppose, is more classic biography, a warts and all portrait. It’s a good workman-like effort, though I have to say I could have done without the occasional ‘he would have thought’, the kind of tiresome and speculative formula used to fill gaps in the narrative. This sort of thing simply will not do! 

I think I probably know as much about Orwell about as anyone, which is to say I’m not sure how much I really know. He certainly left traces, including Such, Such Were the Joys, his posthumous exposé of life at Saint Cyprian’s, his prep school, where he says that he does not want to make it sound like Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall and then makes it sound remarkably like, well, Dotheboys Hall! At other times he can be quite guarded, saying very little about his five years as an imperial policeman in Burma, his version, I think of Gorky’s ‘university.’ It left him with an abiding hatred of imperialism and left us with two superlative essays – A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant, but not much more besides. It also gave us Burmese Days, his first novel and, in my estimation, his best. 

That’s the other thing about Orwell – he was an artist first and foremost, not beyond a certain amount of embellishment and poetic licence. Did he really shoot an elephant? Yes, it seems he did, but perhaps not in the way he suggested. I imagine the political symbolism was just a brilliant afterthought. 

As I say, Bowker gives us a decent warts and all portrait, not avoiding some of the less savoury aspects of the writer’s character, including his apparent homophobia, his anti-Semitism and his misogyny. Sex for Orwell seems to have been something of an imperial experience, picked up clearly during his formative years in Burma, quick possession and rapid fulfillment being the only aims! Ah, but he was man of his times, for all of his progressive attitudes, replete with the residual prejudices of his time and his class, things which have become rather amusing with the passage of time. His fulminations against fruit juice (fruit juice!) and nudism in The Road to Wigan Pier are a joy to behold. Eileen O’Shaughnessy, his first wife, was in the habit of pulling his leg over some of his more outrageous statements, which he took in good humour. 

When I think of Orwell I also think of Jonathan Swift, who just so happens to have been one of his favourite authors. Orwell was the Swift of the Age of Ideology, exposing in the most biting satire the lies and deceptions that had become part of contemporary political discourse. If Swift was a frustrated Tory, Orwell was a frustrated Socialist, more critical of his own side than the enemy. It was in Stalinism that he saw the greatest evil, particularly after his experiences in Spain, recorded so memorably in Homage to Catalonia Here, with language abused for political ends, with the truth turned inside out, with today’s orthodoxy becoming tomorrow’s heterodoxy, the foundations were laid for the Nineteen Eighty Four, the ultimate nightmare of the age.

I believe that Orwell is best approached through his work. But if you are coming to him for the first time, or if you are looking for a thread through the labyrinth, then George Orwell is a useful companion. It’s well-situated, well-structured and well-written without a superabundance of detail. It’s a little lacking, perhaps, in critical analysis, but I do not believe that to be a great fault. 

For so many years success and recognition had eluded Orwell, often reduced to the same tenuous straights as Edwin Reardon in George Gissing’s New Grub Street. It came eventually, particularly after the publication of Animal Farm, but by now the author was approaching a premature death, carried away eventually by the lung aliment that had troubled him for most of his life. 

Just before Orwell’s death at the tragically early age of forty-six in January, 1950 Desmond MacCarthy, a distinguished editor and literary critic, wrote saying that he considered him “among the few memorable writers of your generation”, one who had left “an indelible mark on English literature.” It serves, I think, as an abiding epitaph. Bowker has done good service in reminding us just how memorable he was. 


  1. I have read nothing of Orwell's I saw the film of his book 1984 with Richard Burton starring in it, a countryman of mine. I remember little of the film now but the few bits that did stick leads me to believe that this fiction is turning into a prophecy. Did he mean it to be as such? Probably not just a warning in which case we are not heeding it.

    1. Antisthenes, he was increasingly concerned towards the latter part of his career by totalitarianism, particularly in its Soviet version. He had experience in Spain of how the communists twisted and subverted the truth by twisting and subverting language. He later became aware just how quickly the party line could change, the Soviets damning the Nazis at one point, in alliance with them at the next. These rapid changes of line were meant to be accepted by the faithful without any qualms of conscience. So heterodoxy at one moment becomes orthodoxy at the next. All of this fed into Nineteen Eighty-Four, a concern over present political trends rather than a prophecy as such. The gloomy mood was not helped by the fact that the author was terminally ill.

  2. A good writer the man certainly was, someday You will eventually surpass even Orwell when you learn to get to a point without using so many words.

    1. I appreciate your confidence in me, Anthony, but - hey - Orwell used far more words than I have ever done. :-)

    2. Anthony said;

      That is why he was only a good writer, you must be a great writer.

    3. Flattery will get you everywhere, Anthony. :-)

  3. Guys, Blogger is playing up, so I'm going to have to publish your comments under my own name.

  4. Calvin said;

    I can't help wondering why Orwell's warnings have been so ineffective. Half a century later, Western society has been sleepwalking into a socialist, globalist tyranny. Perhaps if he had been prescient enough to write of a path to liberty, too?

    It is time for a sequel to 1984.

    1. Calvin, I feel sure he would have if only he had lived a bit longer. It was certainly the direction his writing was moving in.

  5. Calvin said;

    And this: