Orwell Week – totting up the prophet and the loss, by Dominic Cavendish
So, we didn’t only have Orwell Day we ended up having Orwell Week too – and a veritable embarrassment of riches about the man and his work, including a few rare extracts that helped remind us that, when it comes to discussions about his legacy, sometimes it’s best just to let Eric Blair speak up on his own behalf. That’s certainly a governing rationale with Radio 4’s The Real George Orwell season, which began simply enough with a useful batch of new adaptations, including Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia.
Highlights and lowlights from the media scrum? First impressions of Philip Collins’ article in The Times were not favourable: the strap-headline suggested he would be jumping on the too-convenient bandwagon of recent events in Mali (“Fanatics in Mali, Syria and Iran prove the timeless truth of his words on the horrors of unrestrained power”). But the piece – available to read online only behind the Times pay-wall – was instantly engaging.
Beginning with the under-known factoid that we owe to Orwell the actual existence of the Weatherspoon’s sub-pub-chain The Moon Under Water it moved swiftly into the realm of sweeping but easily approvable generalisations: “He not only changed how we think about politics and the language, he also changed the language. In the first three pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four we encounter Big Brother, the Ministry of Truth, Newspeak and the Thought Police. Last Sunday it was possible to turn over from Celebrity Big Brother to watch Room 101 on the other side.” I wish I could quote the piece at greater length, as it was so finely written – Collins’ remarks sufficiently restrained in their eulogising to allow room for discussion (“On the domestic political questions of his day he was always one of three things: romantic, wrong or both”), while pointing up with immense clarity why Orwell remains so necessary. Instead of indulging in hypothetical thoughts of the What Would Orwell Think About X Today? variety, he simply and valuably suggested that Orwell’s writing, even when stripped from the context of his own times, still remains pertinent: “We don’t need new insights from Orwell on the world we live in today because, alas, the old insights still apply. He may have got lots of small things wrong but he got one big thing right. There is no writer better on what power can do if it is not checked.”
Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian went big on what “Would George Orwell have made of the world in 2013?” – conveniently supposing him young enough (cryogenically suspended in fact) to have avoided negotiating the challenges of post-war social “liberation”. I don’t think it’s a random factor that we’re thinking a lot about Orwell at the moment – both major organising models that he held up for critique – socialism and capitalism – look to be in crisis. Orwell suits the austerity of our times; we’re less certain, I’d argue, that he would matter to us in an age of runaway prosperity. There were some useful pointers as to what would get George’s goat today, though, Jeffries bringing in sane and sage contributions from Adam Stock, an Orwell scholar at Newcastle University. Stock reckoned that food would be on the menu: “Orwell’s novels are marked by their rich detailing of taste, touch and especially smell. Tinned and processed food is a recurring image in his fiction, and it often represents a smoothing out of difference and individuality, a process which mirrors political attempts to make people conform to certain ideological visions of the world in the 1930s and 1940s.”
Interesting food for thought. And there was plenty more where that came from in a piece that also liberally quoted biographer DJ Taylor – who pointed out that Orwell might have gone in a very different, far from incendiary direction, had he lived: “His last writings, from 1949, were the sketch for a novel called The Smoking Room Story about a character called Curly Johnson who, like Orwell, was returning from Burma. It’s set in the 1920s and reads like Somerset Maugham. Perhaps there weren’t any more dystopian fictions to come and had he lived longer he would have drifted rightwards.”
All good, though how Jeffries could write the following sentence without acknowledging Stephen Armstrong’s excellent recent investigative retread – The Road To Wigan Pier Revisited – baffles me: “If he [Orwell] took a journey to Wigan pier in 2013, what would he find that would resemble the original trip and what would be different? Would there still be a full chamber pot under his hosts’ breakfast table? Let’s hope not.”
Taylor himself contributed an excellent article for the Daily Telegraph about the road to Nineteen Eighty-Four, pointing out that “Most of the novel’s significant landmarks… are cunningly disguised versions of real buildings and locales, nearly all of them given a lurid, out-of-kilter twist. And to the figures who wander fearfully through the shadow cast by its ziggurat-like government buildings can be added Orwell himself. One of the curious things about this dystopian projection, set three-and-a-half decades after the year in which it was published, is how much of Orwell there is in it.”
Elsewhere? Loved some of the offerings from the New Statesman, still atoning, it would seem for the decision by editor Kingsley Martin not to publish reports sent from Barcelona, fearing they were “liable to be taken as propaganda against socialism”. The overviews were commendable (“He left an unreadable (in terms of size) corpus behind, which justifies little, and criticises everything as part of its operating logic. In Orwell things are found. He is still repackaged and republished, and remains an enigmatic source: a commonplace book for political journalists (and essayists) on the make”). But it was the archive material that fascinated most. Orwell’s essay on Lodging Houses, from 1932, induced a shudder of hind-sightful speculation: did that constantly over-watched condition – “no room where any privacy is attainable” – feed into the 24/7 surveillance of Nineteen Eighty-Four? Especially worthwhile was the exhumed assessment by WH Davies – a bona fide tramp – of Down and Out in Paris and London, published 18 March 1933. A glowing review, with a few handy tips. ‘At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty,’ we make haste to assure him that his book is packed with unique and strange information. It is all true to life, from beginning to end. Perhaps a few important slang words could be added, such as ‘scrand’ for food; ‘skimish’ for drink; ‘stretchers’ for laces; ‘sharps’ for needles; ‘pricks’ for pins; ‘feather’ for bed; ‘needy’ for beggar; ‘clobber’ for clothes, and many others. But this is only a small matter, as the list could almost be extended to a full language.”
At the risk of running on until 2084, I will call a halt to this overview – but for those interested in contributing their own thoughts on the week that was, here are some links below to Orwell Week articles. Consider it an at-a-glance briefing ahead of the next one.