OS Voice: 2017-12-24 Kyra Howell and Professor Tim Crook

How would you describe the environment Orwell grew up in?


He appeared to have a very bourgeois middle class up-bringing in the British Imperial tradition.


Most of his ‘home’ life was dominated by his mother and his older sister Marjorie as his father was away collecting taxes on the trade of opium from India to China.


He said he was a lonely child because his older sister was five years older and younger sister five years younger. He also said he developed ‘disagreeable mannerisms’ which made him disagreeable throughout his schooldays.


And then ‘home’ was transformed or substituted by the boarding school brutality of his preparatory school. This happened from the age of eight. Orwell was a scholarship pupil and marked as being the recipient of charity and owing the school his academic achievement.


The atmosphere was authoritarian and because of the sense of being under surveillance and control perhaps even totalitarian.


There was also a dictatorial force at the head of this English preparatory school, St Cyprians, in Eastbourne on the South coast of England.  This was in the form of the couple who ran it, Mr Vaughan Wilkes and Mrs Cicily ‘Flip’ Wilkes. He wrote a scathing and emotionally wrought account of a life of control and arbitrary punishment and humiliation. The essay was called ironically ‘Such, Such Were The Joys’ and it was so libellous, it was not published in Britain in his lifetime.


I think the emotional injustice Orwell experienced in this environment informs much of Nineteen Eighty Four. There are accounts that he experienced bullying from the other pupils as well as the school’s proprietors.


This was the intensification of being an outsider and, of course, Winston Smith’s characterisation in Nineteen Eighty Four is that of the outsider being sought, identified, tortured and brain-washed into becoming the insider of the Big Brother state. My view here is not original. It was advanced as long ago as 1958 by Anthony West in his collection of essays Principles and Persuasions: The Literary Essays of Anthony West.


As Orwell’s biographer Michael Sheldon wrote, the young Orwell had no privacy at St Cyprians: dormitories with several beds and no partitions, lavatories with no locks, the matron patrolling at night in slippers to catch out boys talking and send them to the headmaster for punishment, having to plunge into a cold swimming pool first thing in the morning, drying himself with damp towels shared with others, putting on his uniform to do drill in the parade ground, and then breakfast of porridge from pewter bowls, half an inch of bread and margarine and a minuscule dollop of jam and ‘Flip’ administering teaching of the scriptures.


This is gruesome for a sensitive boy who would far rather lie in bed alone reading H.G. Wells, Dickens, and then later George Bernard Shaw.


Why did Orwell choose the term “Big Brother” to represent the totalitarian government?


I think he wanted to create an everyman of totalitarian tyranny. It has the familiarity of Il Duce, or Papa Doc. The Führer myth postulated that Hitler was the father of everybody in the fatherland. As a German newspaper headline screamed in 1934: ‘Today Hitler is All of Germany.’


There is the suggestion that the all powerful and all-seeing dictator has a familial concern about his subjects. There is the false consciousness of socialistic comradeship and equality.


The ‘Big Brother’ title is also vague. ‘Big Brother’ can be the ruler whose mantle is passed from father to son and grandson; something like the dynasty in North Korea.


The myth generated means that he never needs to be tangible and a reality in terms of a face to face meeting. There is a constant ambiguity about Big Brother as the black moustachio-ed man in his middle forties, his place in history and the all-powerful and infallible myth.


Winston, when under torture, asks O’Brien ‘Does Big Brother Exist?’ and O’Brien replies ‘Of course he exists. The Party Exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.’


The term ‘Big Brother’ also serves as the suitable title of a force that has to be feared, celebrated and praised and then, most important of all, loved.


The title is also a human personification. It is characterised as a source for human emotional direction and attachment. It is easier to centre reverence, love and fear on an individual than it is on any organisation.


Clearly Orwell based his Big Brother totalitarian force on the regimes of Hitler and Stalin. The Gestapo and NKVD knew very well that their leaders had to be feared, respected and loved and necessarily in that order.


Why do you think the American culture, and perhaps Western culture in general, is so fascinated with Orwell’s dystopian world?


I would hope the fascination is based on the aspiration to liberal democracy and the avoidance of authoritarian and, indeed, totalitarian dictatorship. The acceleration of electronic mass media dissemination in terms of speed and scale through the 20th and early 21st centuries has brought benefits, but also increased anxiety. America was founded as a reaction against colonial oppression and its expansion through the 19th and early 20th centuries with waves of emigration from tyrannical and war-torn European societies. Ideologically, politically and religiously the West has sought Utopian dreams including ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ Dystopias are the benchmarks of what must be fought against and denied. The post 9/11 war against terrorism, secret processes of mass surveillance through homeland security has accentuated that anxiety and there has been an understandable fear that NSA and secret state interception, evaluation and retention of personal online data invites abuse of power as well as advancing protection against external and internal threats.


Would you say Orwell’s 1984 is his way of having his fellow man to revolt against the government of his day, or just to warn his fellow man to not allow the government to have great power?


I think Orwell was orchestrating a very sophisticated and complicated warning about how the politics of fear and permanent ‘Cold War’ against perceived and constructed threats can lead to democratic deficit, degradation and eventual liquidation. He also fully understood how the control of history can eradicate the verifiable corroborative intelligence needed to challenge lying, deception and malignant control of the media. He was also conscious of how the manipulation of language also manipulates human thinking and emotions. The biggest threat that mankind faces is the invasion and control of mentality.  Orwell was in some respects a revolutionary but only where the process of revolution would bring about his dream of democratic or libertarian socialism. The book is therefore a warning to his fellow man everywhere and for the future.


Why do you think our society has connected 1984 more to the issue of privacy rather than the issue of totalitarian government or individualism?


The issue of privacy is an everyday concern. It is the politics of daily performance in terms of the interior and exterior personality. Orwell’s portentous depiction of the television screen that can pontificate and observe is now reality. Edward Snowden has revealed how state agencies as well as computer hackers can hijack the microphones and cameras of our smartphones and computers to watch us. The digital electronic fingerprint means we have nowhere to hide and will always find it difficult to conceal our analogue and virtual digital movements.


How do you think Orwell would feel upon seeing our society as it is today, especially concerning the surveillance on our technology


That is a very difficult question to answer. On the one hand he would have been fascinated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the failures of global capitalism, the development of cyberspace and the Internet, and the emergence of extremist Islamist terrorist phenomena such as Al Qaeda and ISIS that are capable of provoking super-powers into restoring the wars by proxy that were the by-product of the Cold War.  He would have been a robust libertarian and socialist critique of excessive state and privatised corporate power to manipulate as well as track and record our emotions, understandings and perceptions of the world. He would be very sceptical and critical of the role and power of large global and transnational social media corporations such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.