George Orwell at the BBC in 1942
by Desmond Avery (Wellingore: Garth Press 2017)
It could be an encounter, it could be education, it could be employment. Something in a life changes it. George Orwell wrote for ten years before the Second World War, and five years after but the power of his writing after the War was exponentially greater than that before it. Desmond Avery attributes this change to Orwell’s work for the BBC, and goes further to argue that, while Orwell worked there from 1941 to 1943, it was one year that shows Orwell’s transformation most strikingly: the year 1942.
Only five years after Orwell died, Laurence Brander, who had been a work colleague of Orwell, paid tribute to his work and its consequences. Brander identified Orwell’s educational broadcasts as precursors of the BBC Third Programme. In his Introduction Professor Tim Crook says ‘Orwell was generally rather negative when he reflected on his BBC experience’, but quite justly Professor Crook goes on to say ‘Desmond Avery joins Professor Peter Davison and myself in a growing number of George Orwell scholars who do not believe his time at the BBC during the Second World War were “two wasted years”’.
Avery divides his work into five sections:
- Introduction and up to 1941
- Becoming Propaganda Minded (Winter and Spring 1942)
- A Firmer Grip on Reality (Summer 1942)
- A New Vantage Point (Autumn and Winter 1942)
- Epilogue (1943 and Beyond)
In each section Avery identifies a theme or key piece of work: thus the theme of ‘Propaganda Minded’ is ‘fighting defeatism’, while ‘A Firmer Grip on Reality’ begins with Orwell’s reconsideration of Dickens, while poetry (and literary adaptation) becomes the underlying principle of ‘A New Vantage Point’. Any of these could sweep out, though: Avery regards Orwell’s attempts to work with Sir Stafford Cripps as another of the strands in his experience and itemises how their relationship and closeness ebbed and flowed, even while Orwell had to make reference to Cripps (the government’s ambassador to the Indian nationalists) in broadcasts that satisfied both the BBC and the Ministry of Information. We must not forget that everything Orwell broadcast or wrote for others to broadcast went through two layers of wartime censorship – it was W J West who first drew attention to the excisions of his work that censorship could bring.
Difficult to obtain now, Laurence Brander was the first to pay tribute to Orwell’s work at the BBC.
In Avery’s view Orwell had achieved everything he could by the end of 1942 (Orwell wrote as much in his resignation letter), and also had learned all that he could: ‘The idea of writing both to convince and to enthral simultaneously, both at full strength, had become a reality for him between 1941 and 1943’, Avery says, going on to show that the way that Orwell wrote Animal Farm, with his wife Eileen as his auditor and critic when he read it to her, exemplifies this way of working.
Others who knew Orwell at the time have left memories: William Empson was on the same training course and wrote an account of their time in Miriam Gross’s The World of George Orwell, but I doubt that reference to that could have added anything to this book.
Not everyone will agree that 1942 was the fulcrum year in George Orwell’s life, but Desmond Avery makes a good argument for it, and the detail he includes gives one an idea of everything that Orwell had to struggle against and overcome in order to give us the work for which we remember him.
L J Hurst
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