George Orwell’s first appearance on the wireless was in a scripted discussion of “The Proletarian Author” with Desmond Hawkins. Professor Peter Davison‘s notes record that this was part of the series ‘The Writer in the Witness-Box’, with this contribution broadcast on the BBC Home Service on the 6th December 1940. The talk was published in The Listener, on the 19th December 1940.
Hawkins and Orwell had known each other for some years, meeting through their mutual reviewing for the New Statesman magazine. It was not, though, every author’s privilege to have their first appearance on the wireless made permanent by publication in the BBC’s flagship journal.
The cover shows the Nobel laureate Sir Lawrence Bragg. Bragg’s assistant, after a period of internment in Canada, was Max Perutz. Among Perutz’s other wartime work was advice on Project Habakkuk, giant artificial icebergs, the inspiration for the Floating Fortresses in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Among the contributors to this issue were the sociologist and anthropologist Tom Harrison, the author Sacheverell Sitwell, and the poet Sidney Keyes. Keyes died in Tunisia in 1943, not yet 21 years old: according to Orwell’s friend Michael Meyer, Keyes was murdered by the Germans after he had been taken prisoner.
When asked to say what “proletarian literature” is, Orwell did not reply with his own definition but said “What people mean by it, roughly speaking, is a literature in which the viewpoint of the working class, which is supposed to be completely different from that of the richer classes, gets a hearing.” He went on to say “The reason why I am doubtful of the whole conception is that I don’t believe the proletariat can create an independent literature while they are not the dominant class.”
Orwell went on to say “[I]t was a big step forward when the facts of working-class life were first got onto paper… I think possibly the first book that did this was The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists; which has always seemed to me a wonderful book, although it is very clumsily written. It recorded things that were everyday experience but which simply had not been noticed before”, and he concluded this section by saying “And Jack London was another pioneer in the same line.”
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists had been published and then reprinted in 1914, reprinted twice in 1918 (perhaps when Orwell first read it), and then was printed as a Penguin paperback in April 1940, reprinted in the May, and as Orwell and Hawkins spoke was being reprinted again to appear in January 19141. The speakers, though, would not have known that were not reading the book written by Robert Tressall, which had been heavily abridged after his death and before publication.
Desmond Hawkins went on to prompt Orwell for “a lot of good books” that had been produced by proletarian authors so far, and Orwell was able to identify “George Garrett’s sea stories, Private Richards’s Old Soldier Sahib, James Hanley’s Grey Children — to name just a few”.
As the exchanges became briefer Orwell was able to introduce some of his other interests, including “papers” (that is, magazines) such as Home Chat and Cage Birds, which he would mention in the introduction to his essay “Boys’ Weeklies“, and “comic coloured postcards, especially Donald McGill’s”, to whom he would dedicate a whole essay.
During the War Orwell himself joined the BBC to broadcast on the Eastern Service, but left after two and a half years to become literary editor of Tribune. Desmond Hawkins turned to a more scientific bent, and in 1946 became the first head of the BBC Natural History Unit.
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Uploaded July 14th 2018
Updated July 16th 2018