Orwell, David Astor and the Making of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Richard Lance Keeble

Two new excellent ‘biographies’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four celebrate in different ways the 70th anniversary of its publication. Both Dorian Lynskey (in The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, Picador) and D. J. Taylor (in On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography, Abrams Press) manage to offer new insights and information. Yet they fail to acknowledge the crucial role played by his friend, David Astor, in Orwell’s final years and in the making of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was Cyril Connolly who introduced Orwell to fellow old-Etonian, millionaire, and editor David Astor in 1941 – and after Orwell’s wife Eileen died suddenly in 1945, he arguably became the most important influence on his life.

Astor had a largely undistinguished career at Eton in the late 1920s – though he claimed to have invited the novelist P. G. Wodehouse to the school.i Then, after reading Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), he determined to contact its author. And following their meeting at the Langham Hotel, near Broadcasting House, where Orwell was working as a producer in the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Department, the two immediately became friends.ii Astor’s family owned the Observer; he became its highly distinguished editor between 1948 and 1975 – and, from March 1942, Orwell made regular contributions such as profiles and book reviews to the newspaper until his death.

Astor also introduced Orwell to the world of intelligence. Astor’s intelligence ties went back as far as 1939 when he did ‘secret service stuff’, according to his cousin, Joyce Grenfell.iii He served in the early part of the Second World War in naval intelligence alongside Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond spy novels)iv and later with the covert Special Operations Executive (SOE).v Thereafter, he maintained close links with intelligence.

Knightley records that when, in July 1939, Col. Count Gerhardt von Schwerin, of the German General Staff, arrived in the UK as a spokesman for the German opposition to Hitler, he was met by David Astor.vi According to Cabell, Astor and Fleming worked in intelligence alongside Dennis Wheatley (specialising in deception plans), later to become the occult/adventure novelist.vii Cabell also reports that Fleming may well have played a central role in luring Rudolf Hess to Scotland in May 1941.viii Astor introduced Orwell to other intelligence friends through the Shanghai dining group (named after the Soho restaurant where they met) which he had created with his friend and Old-Harrovian Edward Hulton. Old-Etonians in the group included Guy Burgess (later exposed as a Soviet spy), Frank Pakenham (later Lord Longford) and John Strachey.

After leaving the BBC in November 1943, Orwell planned to report for the Observer from Algiers and Sicily following the Allied landings but the authorities turned him down on health grounds. Orwell then quickly acquired the post of literary editor at the leftist weekly Tribune, which he held until February 1945 when he resigned to take on a war reporting assignment for Astor’s Observer and the Manchester Evening News.ix Was this a cover for an intelligence mission? Intriguingly, most of the men he met in Paris on his assignment were either Old-Etonians, working for intelligences services of one kind or another – or both.

Most evenings, Orwell dined with Harold Acton, whom he had known vaguely at Eton and who was working as a press censor for SHAEF (the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force).x

Orwell also met the philosopher (and fellow Old-Etonian) A. J. ‘Freddie’ Ayer xi who was in Paris for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), at that time particularly concerned about the danger of a communist coup.xii Another writer Orwell saw was Ernest Hemingway whom he had previously met in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. The American novelist, who was serving as a war correspondent and staying at the Paris Ritz, had close links with members of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) and his son, Jack, was a member of the OSS’s military arm.xiii

Yet another spook Orwell met in Paris was Malcolm Muggeridge who introduced him to P.G. Wodehouse (Dulwich College).xiv Muggeridge had been assigned to keep watch on the comic novelist who was suspected of having Nazi sympathies following his broadcasts in the summer of 1941 from Berlin for the American CBS network.xv Orwell had written an article in defence of Wodehouse in February just before leaving on his assignment (though it was not published until July in the Windmill magazine) and may simply have wanted to express his admiration to the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.xvi

Dorril, in his seminal history of MI6, certainly reports that in 1944 Astor was transferred to a unit liaising between SOE and the Resistance in France, helping the French underground in London spread the word to groups throughout Europe.xvii While in Paris, perhaps inspired by Astor, Orwell attended the first conference of the Committee for European Federation, bringing together Resistance groups from around Europe. The French novelist and editor of Combat, Albert Camus, was amongst those present – though they failed to meet. Astor was later adamant that Orwell had no intelligence links xviii and Peter Davison, editor of Orwell’s twenty-volume collected works, commented: ‘I doubt if Orwell would be involved with intelligence – but that by no means says he wasn’t.’xix

All this suggests that Orwell’s controversial decision to submit a ‘little list’ of 38 ‘crypto-communists’ (briefly and somewhat crudely) to his friend, the sister-in-law of the author Arthur Koestler, Celia Kirwan (née Paget) when she was working as Robert Conquest’s assistant for the secret state’s newly-formed propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, was not an aberration (as generally thought). xx Rather, it was an action consistent with his attitudes and behaviour as they developed during the 1940s – particularly through his friendship with David Astor.xxi

Moreover, during Orwell’s final years, Astor played an enormously important role. It was he who persuaded Aneurin Bevan, Orwell’s old Tribune editor, by now Secretary of State for Health in the Attlee government, to allow the special importation of the very expensive drug, streptomycin, from the United States to treat his friend’s TB.xxii It was he who owned the land on the remote Scottish island of Jura where Orwell spent his final days bashing out the Nineteen Eighty-Four manuscript. Astor also paid for the private room (No. 65) at University College Hospital where Orwell was to marry (with Astor as Best Man) and spend his last days. It was he who hosted the lunch at the Ritz following the wedding (Orwell was too ill to attend). And after Orwell, the atheist and unpredictable to the very end, asked in his will to be buried in a churchyard, Astor found a plot at All Saints, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, close to his family estate.xxiii

There were clearly many influences on Orwell in the making of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet, given Orwell’s introduction to the world of spooks by his friend Astor, is it not surprising then that his last great novel should describe a world of Big Brother, of child spies and telescreens – and where the state’s surveillance intrudes into the individual’s innermost private life? Orwell’s ambivalent attitude to just about everything was reflected in his responses to the secret state. On the one hand, he supported it and became friends with some of its operators. But he also saw the secret state’s growing powers and was horrified. So he dedicated all his energy (in what proved to be his final years) in his remote house on Jura to composing the crucial warning.


i Lewis, Jeremy (2016) David Astor, London: Jonathan Cape p. 22
ii Ibid: 116
iii Macintyre, Ben (2014) A Spy Among Friends: Philby and the Great Betrayal, London: Bloomsbury p. 201
iv Cabell, Craig (2008) Ian Fleming’s Secret War, Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Books p. 12
v Knightley, Phillip (1986) The Second Oldest Profession: The Spy as Bureaucrat, Patriot, Fantasist and Whore, London: André Deutsch p. 131. In 1956, Astor was persuaded to offer cover for the SIS agent (later to be revealed as a Soviet spy), Kim Philby, as a journalist in Beirut
vi ibid
vii Cabell op cit: 29, 49
viii Ibid: 40-52
ix1 Tribune was later to be distributed to British missions abroad by the Information Research Department
x Bowker, Gordon (2003) George Orwell, London: Little, Brown p. 324
xi From October 1941 to March 1943, Ayer worked as a Special Operations Executive agent within British Security Co-ordination with cover symbol G.246, in the Political and Minorities Section. He worked on intelligence relating to Latin America, particularly Argentina and Chile. In 1950, he attended the Berlin Congress for Cultural Freedom as a member of the British delegation, which was funded by the Foreign Office through the Information Research Department. See http://www.spinprofiles.org/index.php/A.J._Ayer
xii Ayer, A. J. ‘Freddie’ (1978) Part of My Life, Oxford/London: Oxford University Press pp 286-287 and Rogers, Ben (1999) A Life: A .J. Ayer, London: Chatto & Windus p. 192
xiii Whiting, Charles (1999) Hemingway Goes to War, Stroud: Sutton p. 104
xiv Wolfe, Gregory (1995) Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography, London: Hodder and Stoughton p. 215 and Muggeridge, Malcolm (1975) Chronicles of Wasted Time, Vol 2: The Infernal Grove, London: Fontana pp 256-257
xv Donaldson, Frances (2005 [1982]) P. G. Wodehouse: A Biography, London: Carlton Publishing Group pp 259-260
xvi Keeble, Richard (2001) Orwell as war correspondent: A reassessment, Journalism Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3 pp 393-406
xvii Dorril, Stephen (2000) MI6: Fifty years of special operations, London: Fourth Estate p. 457
xviii In an interview with the author, London, November 1999
xix In a letter to the author, 7 December 1999
xx ‘Known’ suspects include Labour MPs, the future Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, authors J. B. Priestley and John Steinbeck, journalist Richard Crossman, actors Michael Redgrave, Charlie Chaplin and Paul Robeson, actor and director Orson Welles, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Isaac Deutscher
xxi Keeble, Richard Lance (2012) Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four and the spooks, Keeble, Richard Lance (ed.) Orwell Today, Bury St Edmunds: Abramis pp 151-163. It is ironic, then, that Orwell was followed closely by British intelligence from the time of his first publication in Monde, edited by the communist Henri Barbusse, in Paris, in 1929 until his death (ibid). Orwell’s great friend, an Old-Etonian, the novelist Anthony Powell, had also worked for intelligence during the war
xxii Taylor op cit: 392. The treatment unfortunately did not work
xxiii Crick op cit: 580

Richard Lance Keeble is chair of The Orwell Society. Routledge are to publish a collection of his essays next year under the title Journalism Beyond Orwell.




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