In his recently published political memoir, Philip Bounds tells of how reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had such a transformative impact on both his life and ideas.
Richard Lance Keeble reports
How many people around the world have been inspired by Orwell’s writings and life to commit themselves to progressive politics? Thousands upon thousands for sure. Philip Bounds can certainly be counted amongst them. In his recently published political autobiography, Notes from the End of History: A Memoir of the Left in Wales, Bounds, the historian, journalist and critic, recalls how reading Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a 15-year-old schoolboy had such a transformative effect on his life and outlook. He writes:
Nineteen Eight-Four wasn’t the first book to afford me a glimpse of the past but it was certainly the first to beckon me into another age and then close the door behind me. Its function in my life was to induct me in History with a capital ‘H’. … As I held the book in my hands I got the unnerving feeling that past, present and future had somehow been conflated. In one way or another that relic of history was telling me how to live now.
Bounds says that he had originally been attracted to working people (and hence to the left) by the absurd belief that they had a genius for shirking their responsibilities. ‘Orwell did precisely nothing to rid me of this delusion. Instead he took the myth of the noble savage and invested it with a peculiarly English charm.’
In his essay ‘Inside the whale’, Orwell wrote that when he first read the work of Henry Miller he got the feeling that he was writing ‘specially for me’. Bounds comments: ‘As has often been pointed out, many people have had precisely the same experience when first reading Orwell. I’m one of them. Right from the start I had the feeling that Orwell was sitting opposite me in a comfortable chair, rolling one of his full-strength cigarettes and genially expounding ideas I didn’t know I had. To this day I can’t read a sentence of his work without thinking “Ah! It’s George!”’
Bounds, throughout his memoir, is pleasantly self-deprecating – and even manages to make his struggles with Marxism and the various factions on the left always witty. He adds: ‘When I skipped through Nineteen Eighty-Four and concluded that something truly momentous had occurred in my life, I suppose I was suffering from the sort of intellectual arrogance that only afflicts the extremely ignorant.’ From then on, he set out to read all of Orwell.
In an email correspondence with me, Bounds stressed: ‘I wrote primarily about Nineteen Eighty-Four because I wanted to evoke the experience of encountering the work of a great writer for the first time, but there’s no doubt that it’s Orwell’s non-fiction that has had the greatest long-term impact on me. Indeed, I don’t suppose I’d have written Notes from the End of History in the first place if Orwell hadn’t convinced me at a very early age that memoir is a powerful vehicle for exploring political issues in an accessible way.
‘Also, Orwell’s writings on the relationship between culture and politics stimulated my wider interest in the history of cultural criticism – an interest that’s reflected (for what it’s worth) in my book Orwell and Marxism, which traces the links between Orwell’s non-fiction and the radical political culture of the Thirties and Forties. The biggest lesson I learned from Orwell is that socialists must always be scrupulously democratic if they’re going to do more good than harm. He was my first model of political virtue and like thousands of other people I try to live up to his principles as best I can. It goes without saying that I don’t always succeed.’
Many of the scenes he narrates (such as his attendance at a meeting of the Moltmann Society, ‘composed of nutters, soi-disant messiahs and naïve young women’) are hilarious. To avoid libel and hurting feelings, he says in the ‘Preface’: ‘Some of the people who appear in it are composites, fusing the traits of separate individuals into a single character. Many of its scenes conflate things that occurred at different times and different places. .. All names, except those of public figures, have been changed.’
One public figure whom he criticises quite strongly is Tony Benn. He describes him appearing on the BBC’s Question Time, claiming the miners were infinitely superior to the ‘city slickers’. ‘As he spoke he thrust out his clenched fists in a frantic imitation of digging for coal. He looked for all the world like a man on the edge of despair, and it is probably no co-incidence that his career was going downhill at the time.’ In a note, Bounds reports that Benn had died while he was correcting the proofs – and acknowledges that his portrait had been ‘uncharitable’.
In the email correspondence, I suggested he might have tweaked the copy rather than just add the note. And Bounds replied: ‘I agree with you about my portrayal of Tony Benn. I certainly should have altered the text rather than simply added a footnote. Having said that, I think my rather janus-faced portrait reflects the love/hate relationship that many people had with Benn. I regarded him as one of the twentieth-century’s greatest English radicals, but at the same time I was occasionally a bit exasperated by his failure to acknowledge the weaknesses of the radical left. For example, I think some of his comments about Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela weren’t entirely consistent with his fierce commitment to democracy. But you’re right: He was a remarkable man and I fail to do him justice in the text.’
- Notes from the End of History: A Memoir of the Left in Wales, by Philip Bounds, published by the Merlin Press, London