One only has to watch the television news to see images, which cannot help but remind you of the George Orwell book 1984. In his book, written in 1949, refugees fleeing conflict endure the most desperate of conditions and situations and a powerless population struggle to find significance in their lives. This book has had an amazing impact upon our world it is woven in to our vocabulary and culture now. Where do you think “I am not a number” The Prisoner Ref 1., or the title for Channel 5’s ‘Big Brother’ came from?
If you ask people about Orwell it is probable that they will come back with the author of Animal Farm or 1984. We are reminded virtually everyday of this book: conspiracy theory, manipulative media, political correctness, plutonium tea, poisoned umbrella, enemy within, huddled masses, boat people. The media are fond of describing Orwellian situations. ‘Orwellianism’ is very pertinent at this time in UK history with the recent election still looming large; 1984 permeates our culture and not just in the UK. It is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
If you read a biography of Orwell, who died age 47 in 1950, you immediately beg the question how did he manage to pack so much into his short life: policeman, anarchist revolutionary, soldier, journalist, critic, author, editor, broadcaster, socialist, gardener, chicken farmer (his own description), husband, father, adulterer, friend.
Born in India under the British Raj but educated in England he lived at a time when Britain and indeed the world was overshadowed by so much conflict and want: two world wars, Russian Revolution 1917, Spanish flu pandemic 1918, Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression 1929, Jarrow marches 1936, the Spanish civil war 1936, the abdication of Edward the VIII 1936, the Holocaust and the Atomic bomb 1945. I could make the list longer there are many others, one tumultuous world changing event after another which culminated in massive social change. Most of us living through those turbulent times might be forgiven for looking at our own troubles but Orwell was an observer he saw the condition of others and was able to articulate his observations. As we read his work it is inhabited with these peoples and events.
I read, Animal Farm, and 1984 as a teenager and his diaries and letters and documents in my 20s, my day job is in heritage. As I worked through his archive Ref 2., my impression of Orwell is that he felt the need to speak into the human condition, not to entertain but to challenge and change what he saw as the unfairness and inequality that was so prevalent. He showed great compassion, and empathy, being able to see both sides of every argument, without a shred of sentimentality. He had no compunction in quitting his safe upper middle class milieu and stepping into the under classes.
Educated at Eton he could not possibly pass himself off as working class and his diaries contain many instances where the minute he opened his mouth people immediately changed their response to him. Whether it was trying to get himself arrested in Bow Street, walking through the Kent countryside or joining the rough sleepers in Trafalgar Square.
His upper class characteristics did not antagonise the people he rubbed shoulders with in fact it appears that his, supposed, ‘degenerated condition’ evoked sympathy. The rough sleepers in Trafalgar Square invited him to join them to go to the hop fields in Kent and when he got there his fellow illiterate hop pickers felt no hesitation of asking him to read or write letters for them or to add up the number of hop skips they had picked so that they were not cheated out of their earnings.
Orwell didn’t really start to write until he was 25, although he had wanted to write since he was a boy. He had to struggle to get his work accepted, couldn’t earn a living for a long time working as a dish washer in Paris and a private tutor and teacher in England to support himself.
By the mid 1940’s his contemporaries and friends were people like T.S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas, E.M. Forster and H.G. Wells and he was in great demand, which is when he departed London. Orwell wanted his voice to be heard but didn’t want a celebrity status, which is ironic because when he started to write it was his lack of status that made it difficult to get his work accepted. He was an idealist but his experience, particularly as a policeman in the Indian Imperial Police, and his time in Spain clouded his viewpoint for the rest of his life. Living through such a period of upheaval and social change may account for his self deprecating manner of acknowledging his success and gifting, he is often described as being pessimistic always expecting failure. When half the world is struggling just to cope with life possibly he felt guilty that he was gaining success.
I could not but be aware that so much has been written about this paradoxical man. I asked myself what possibly could I add that would be fresh or new? I had worked on his original manuscripts and documents and so I do have a very personal view of him but my worthwhile observation on his literary gift would possibly only make a sentence. We tend to put our heroes on a pedestal but all heroes are as flawed as the next man. Reading Sheldon’s biography of Orwell Ref 3., we find a well-rounded human being, warts and all.
I could observe that while he struggled to write his last book 1984 on the Scottish island of Jura in 1946, in Spartan conditions and already dying of tuberculosis, he kept a vegetable garden and made detailed notes about what he planted, it’s development and the harvest. He had determined when he first arrived on Jura that he would not write for several months to have a break but it seems from his diary it was just impossible for him not to write even if it was about vegetables.
His dystopian books where written in parallel to similar works inhabiting imaginary worlds C. S. Lewis – Narnia, H. G. Wells – The Time Machine, J. R. R. Tolkien – Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake – Gormenghast and the earlier Brave New World by Aldus Huxley all reflecting world insecurity and addressing real moral and social issues.
There are words in 1984 that seem very pertinent today ‘Doublethink – to hold two contradictory beliefs simultaneously; my favourite, which brings me back to loves language, ‘Prolofeed’ very 21st Century, homogenized, manufactured superficial literature, film and music, used to control and indoctrinate the populace into docility of which Big Brother, the internet and the mobile epidemic are supreme examples.
Finally a reminder of why I write this blog – I have another novel ready to be published, ‘Children of the Time Oak” hopefully by the end of July. I hope to give you a synopsis next time.
Ref 1. The Prisoner ITV series 1968
Ref 2. University College Library
Ref 3. Orwell the Authorised Biography Michael Sheldon ISBN 0-434-69517-3
I wrote my blog ‘I am not a number’ in June last year, my personal observations on George Orwell. Yesterday a friend reminded me of it because, on the 12th December, Rowan Williams wrote an article in The Guardian that echoed some of my observations so I read it with interest. Of course Rowan Williams ‘ observations are much more profound than my own but I’m encourage that my thinking is not out of step with others I respect.