Orwell, Astor – and me

Professor Richard Lance Keeble, Acting Head of the Lincoln School of Journalism, recalls his interview with David Astor, the legendary editor of The Observer, about George Orwell’s war reporting – and possible links with intelligence.

I was always determined to interview David Astor, the legendary editor (from 1948-1975) of The Observer which has just celebrated its 220th anniversary. George Orwell, having struck up a remarkable friendship with Astor (whose father owned the newspaper), had travelled to the continent in 1945 to report on the final days of the Second World War for The Observer – and I wanted to chat to Astor about that.

It was the year 2000, I was enjoying a full year’s sabbatical from teaching at City University, London, and so had time to pursue my obsession. Securing the interview proved remarkably simple. Here was millionaire Astor, one of wealthiest men in the country, among the 3,000-odd Great and Good who essentially run the country – and yet the address and telephone number of his swish London pad was there for all to see in Who’s Who.

I rang the number, Astor picked up the phone and when I indicated that I wanted a brief interview with him about George Orwell he said: “Fine, come round to my house. We’ll have a chat.” So in Astor’s magnificent, tall house round the back of Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood,London, I chatted to him for two hours about Orwell. It was one of his last interviews before he died in December 2001.

Astor’s biographer Richard Cockett records that Astor had wanted to meet Orwell after reading his Lion and the Unicorn (1941) and finally secured an introduction to him through Cyril Connolly, an old Etonian friend of Orwell, then editing the influential literary journal, Horizon, and filling in for The Observer’s literary editor. They met in a café near the BBC off Portland Place where Orwell was working on broadcasts toIndia. Cockett comments: “They quickly became friends, recognising each other’s directness and simplicity and David seeing him as an intellectual guide and companion.” 

After leaving the BBC in November 1943, Orwell became literary editor of the leftist journal Tribune until February 1945 when he resigned to take on the war reporting assignment. Astor told me that Orwell strongly desired to travel to the continent before the end of the war to see at first hand a totalitarian state. But he said Orwell was working under a serious misapprehension. “He wanted to pick up the atmosphere of a dictatorship. But by the time he arrived in Germany it had blown away. He was looking for something that wasn’t there.”

Orwell’s biographer W. J. West explains Orwell’s decision to report for Astor in a rather different way: he simply wanted to earn a “large lump sum” to help pay for his family’s move to the remote Scottish island of Jura (to a farmhouse actually owned by Astor).

One of the most intriguing aspects of Astor’s career, usually ignored, is that he served with the covert military intelligence force, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), during the war and thereafter maintained close links with British intelligence. Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of MI6, reports that in 1944 Astor was transferred to a unit liaising between the SOE and the resistance in France, helping the French underground in London spread the word to groups throughout Europe.

I was obviously keen to ask Astor about Orwell’s possible links with intelligence. Perhaps not surprisingly he adamantly denied them. But Dorril does record that Orwell attended the first conference inParisof the Committee for European Federation, bringing together resistance groups from aroundEurope, probably on behalf of Astor. Significantly, most of the men Orwell met in Paris (Malcolm Muggeridge, the philosopher AJ Ayer, Ernest Hemingway, and Harold Acton) had links to intelligence.

I later asked Peter Davison, editor of the 20-volume collected works of Orwell, for his view and he commented: “I do doubt if Orwell would be involved with intelligence – but that by no means says he wasn’t.”

Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln. His PhD was published as Secret State, Silent Press: New Militarism, the Gulf and the Modern Image of Warfare (John Libbey). He has written and edited 21 books on a wide range of topics: reporting skills, journalism ethics, the coverage of US/UK militarism, the journalism of George Orwell, literary journalism, peace journalism, investigative reporting and the coverage of the ‘Arab Spring’. His latest is The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited with John Mair and published by Arima, of Bury St. Edmunds. He is also the joint editor of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics.


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