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Orwell’s world

It is now 65 years since George Orwell died, and he has never been bigger. How did this happen?

Robert Butler | January/February 2015

If there were to be a statue outside the BBC’s new offices in central London that captured the spirit of its modish interior of “workstation clusters”, “back-to-back booths” and “touchdown areas”, and the daily struggle of the 5,500 employees to produce content across multiple platforms for an audience of 240m, it might be that of the anxious, well-fed, middle-aged, middle-class white male, with a lanyard dangling over his hi-vis jacket, who is running late for his meeting and struggling to fold his Brompton bicycle. That would be Ian Fletcher, the over-stretched head of values (played by Hugh Bonneville) and central character in “W1A”, the BBC’s sprightly satire about itself. But Fletcher is not the one who will be on the plinth outside Broadcasting House. In 2016 a statue of George Orwell—paid for by Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Rowan Atkinson among others—will be unveiled, a few yards beyond the outdoor ping-pong table.

Orwell spent a mere two years (1941-43) at the BBC, which he joined as a talks assistant in the Indian section of the Eastern Service. No recording survives of him giving a talk, which is perhaps fitting; for what is most striking about his essays and journalism is the tart, compelling timbre of his voice. The critic Cyril Connolly, an exact contemporary, thought that only D.H. Lawrence rivalled Orwell in the degree to which his personality “shines out in everything he said or wrote”. Any reader of Orwell’s non-fiction will pick up on the brisk, buttonholing manner (“two things are immediately obvious”), the ear-catching assertions (“the Great War...could never have happened if tinned food had not been invented”) and the squashing epithets: “miry”, “odious”, “squalid”, “hideous”, “mealy-mouthed”, “beastly”, “boneless”, “fetid” and—a term he could have applied to himself—“frowsy”.

Orwell might well have damned this new honour too. In his studio on the edge of the Blenheim estate in Oxfordshire, Martin Jennings, the sculptor working on the eight-foot likeness, told me that Orwell had made some disobliging remarks about public statues, thinking that they got in the way of perfectly good views. The bronze Orwell will look down on the comings and goings of BBC staff who, returning his gaze, can read some chiselled wisdom from his works on the wall behind him. The Financial Times recently called Orwell “the true patron saint of our profession”, another tribute he would probably resist. “Saints”, he warned, “should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”

“Its atmosphere is something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum, and all we are doing at present is useless, or slightly worse than useless”

Orwell on working at the BBC

Why Orwell? His time at the BBC was ambivalent at best. As students of “1984” soon discover, the novel’s dreary, wartime ambience and the prominence of propaganda owe much to his BBC experiences; Room 101, where Winston Smith confronts his worst nightmares, was named after an airless BBC conference room. “Its atmosphere is something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum,” Orwell wrote in his diary on March 14th 1942, “and all we are doing at present is useless, or slightly worse than useless.”

One answer to “why Orwell?” is because of his posthumous career. Five years before his death in 1950, he was, in the words of one of his biographers, D.J. Taylor, “still a faintly marginal figure”. He had published seven books, four of them novels, none of which put him in the front rank of novelists, two of which he had refused to have reprinted. He was acknowledged as a superb political essayist and bold literary critic, but his contemporary and friend Malcolm Muggeridge, first choice as his biographer, frankly considered him “no good as a novelist”. It was only with his last two books, “Animal Farm” and “1984” (published in 1945 and 1949), that Orwell transformed his reputation as a writer. These two books would change the way we think about our lives.

The interest in Orwell, his literary executor Bill Hamilton tells me, “is accelerating and expanding practically daily”. Since his death, 65 years ago, the estate has been handled by A.M. Heath (who also look after Hilary Mantel). In his office in Holborn, overlooking the Family Courts, Hamilton describes the onward march of “1984”. “We’re selling far more. We’re licensing far more stage productions than we’ve ever done before. We’re selling in new languages—Breton, Friuli, Occitan. We’ve recently done our first Kurdish deals too. We suddenly get these calls from, say, Istanbul, from the local publisher saying, ‘I want to distribute a thousand copies to the demonstrators in the square outside as part of the campaign,’ and you think, good grief, this is actually a political tool, this book. As a global recognised name, it’s at an absolute peak.” A new Hollywood movie of “1984” is in the pipeline, “Animal Farm” is also in development as a feature film, and Lee Hall, who wrote “Billy Elliot”, is writing both a stage musical version of “Animal Farm” and a television adaptation of “Down and Out in London and Paris”. It’s boom time for Orwell: “total income”, Hamilton says, “has grown 10% a year for the last three years.”

A Supreme Court judge warns that unmanned drones will create an Orwellian future. A professor of history at Yale, advises, “To understand Putin, read Orwell”

Type “#Orwellian” into the search box on Twitter and a piece in the South China Morning Post says the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, has attacked the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong on the Orwellian grounds that they are “anti-democratic”. An article in Forbes magazine warns of an Orwellian future in which driverless cars catch on and computer hackers track “rich people in traffic and sell this information to fleets of criminal motorcyclists”. A story in the Wall Street Journal reports the Supreme Court judge Sonia Sotomayor warning that unmanned drones will create an Orwellian future. In a piece in Politico, Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale, advises, “To understand Putin, read Orwell.” By Orwell, he means “1984”: “The structure and the wisdom of the book are guides, often frighteningly precise ones, to current events.” This is just the top end of the range. Barely a minute goes by when Orwell isn’t namechecked on Twitter. Only two other novelists have inspired adjectives so closely associated in the public mind with the circumstances they set out to attack: Dickens and Kafka. And they haven’t set the terms of reference in the way Orwell has. One cartoon depicts a couple, with halos over their heads, standing on a heavenly cloud as they watch a man with a halo walk towards them. “Here comes Orwell again. Get ready for more of his ‘I told you so’.” A satirical website, the Daily Mash, has the headline “Everything ‘Orwellian’, say idiots”, below which an office worker defines the word as “people monitoring everything you do, like when my girlfriend called me six times while I was in the pub with my mates. That was totally Orwellian.”

We could be using another hashtag entirely. If Orwell had stuck to the surname he had been christened with, we might now have two types of #Blairism. As Eric Blair, he was casting around for a pseudonym for “Down and Out in London and Paris” in case his low-life adventures embarrassed his family. “The name I always use when tramping etc”, he told his agent, “is P.S. Burton, but if you don’t think this sounds a probable kind of name, what about Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, H. Lewis Allways. I rather favour George Orwell.” His pseudonym, borrowed from a river in Suffolk (where his parents lived), sounds very like “all well”, but has come, in the public imagination, to stand for All Wrong.

When the architect Frank Matcham was commissioned to design the Grand Theatre Blackpool in the 1890s, a few hundred yards from the beach and the North Pier, his brief was to create “the prettiest theatre in the land”. Last autumn I sat beneath the ornate curved balconies and flamboyant canopy and watched as Winston Smith, the hero of “1984”, was held down in a chair in a starkly lit torture room. First his fingernails were pulled out, then his teeth, and then a steel cage was placed over his head and a small gate lifted to allow a hungry rat to eat through his skull. The teenagers in the stalls, who may not have got this far in the book, looked appalled. Ten minutes after the performance ended, when the stagehands were still cleaning the blood off the floor, the cast returned and sat in a line at the front of the stage for a Q&A. The production, by Headlong, had run and run around Britain, gathering five-star reviews as it went. One member of the Lancashire audience—trilby, ponytail—told the cast that he had dropped in only by chance, but it was the most powerful piece of theatre he had ever seen in his life. Another man—cropped grey hair—asked what kind of responsibility the cast felt when performing a piece with such a strong political message. (The answer, from the actor playing the dim-witted Parsons, was that their responsibility was more to do with how well they performed the play.) But it was a young woman at the front—auburn hair gathered scattily in a bun—who astonished the cast with her question. The actor playing Winston was slender, polite-looking and prematurely balding; the actress playing Julia was pretty, slim and dark-haired. The question these two were asked was whether they had been “deliberately channelling Wills and Kate”. After the laughs died down, the actor playing Winston said, “It’s amazing how people see things that we never intended.”

Orwell had been told to expect this. As soon as the critic William Empson, author of “Seven Types of Ambiguity”, read “Animal Farm”, he wrote to Orwell saying, “I thought it worth warning you…that you must expect to be ‘misunderstood’ on a large scale.”



If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
Whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie...
It is not possible for any thinking person to live in such a society as our own without wanting to change it.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.
All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.
Within certain limits...the less money you have, the less you worry.
Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing is war minus the shooting.
One defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself.
As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.
Political thought is a sort of masturbation fantasy...the world of facts hardly matters.
In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer...has to face.
Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.
One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker...pacifist, and feminist in England.
Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.
One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up.
At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.

Compiled by James Tozer


In the years after his death, Orwell was co-opted by cold-war warriors as a powerful voice against communism and Soviet Russia. After the collapse of communism, neo-cons and libertarians would use Orwell as an argument against Big Brother and the nanny state. Yet he had categorically stated that everything he had written since his return from the Spanish civil war had democratic socialism at its very heart. It was possible to spot Orwellian scenarios on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The Academy-award-winning film “The Lives of Others”—set in 1984—depicts the nightmare apparatus of the secret police in East Germany. (When its star, the late Ulrich Mühe, was asked how he researched the role, he replied: “I remembered.”) But the toxic fear of McCarthyism that runs through a film like George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” is every bit as Orwellian.

For decades “Animal Farm” and “1984” have been mainstays on the British English-literature syllabus. Generations have grown up knowing “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”; “Four legs good, two legs bad”; “2 + 2 = 5”; and familiar with the concepts of newspeak, doublethink, unperson and thoughtcrime. The A-level reading list, for teenagers like me in the late 1970s, was a diet of chilling warnings about Soviet life: Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”, Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “1984”. But a year or two later, when I was reading English at Cambridge, Orwell barely broke the surface. We looked at his essays (“Why I Write”, “Politics and the English Language”, “Politics vs. Literature”), but not his fiction. In those days, Conrad, Joyce and Lawrence were seen as the towering novelists of the 20th century. Yet, today, “1984” can claim to be the most influential novel of the century.

“We thought, after the year 1984, it would flatten out and disappear. It would all look a bit old-fashioned, he’d look like a creature of history”

Orwell’s literary executor, Bill Hamilton

One reason was the countdown. There would have been no surge of interest 35 years after publication if Orwell had gone for the other title he liked: “The Last Man in Europe”. Nor would the appeal have been as global. I doubt “1984” would have become as big as it has in Brazil—where, along with “Animal Farm”, it is now on the government’s school syllabus—if “Europe” had been in the title. And yet a book that twisted the year in which it was written for its title appeared to carry its own sell-by date. The year itself saw the release of “1984” the movie, with John Hurt as Winston and Richard Burton as O’Brien. “We thought, after the year 1984, it would flatten out and disappear,” Bill Hamilton says, “and it would all look a bit old-fashioned. After the Wall came down, we thought even more so, he’d look like a creature of history.”

The vision of the future Aldous Huxley had conjured up in “Brave New World”, of a society rendered passive by a surplus of comforts and distraction, seemed more prescient. In 1985, the cultural critic Neil Postman argued in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us while Huxley feared that what we love would ruin us. In 2002 J.G. Ballard, reviewing a biography of Huxley, said that “Brave New World” was “a far shrewder guess at the likely shape of a future tyranny than Orwell’s vision of Stalinist terror…‘1984’ has never really arrived, but ‘Brave New World’ is around us everywhere.”

The appearance in 1998 of “The Complete Works of George Orwell”, a massive work of scholarship taking up 20 volumes, left even some of its most admiring reviewers wondering why, out of all the British writers of the 1930s and 1940s, it was Orwell who had been singled out for this monumental tribute. New biographies appeared for the centenary of his birth in 2003—drawing on the wealth of material in the Complete Works—but that, surely, had to be it: the Orwell industry had run its course. At the end of a three-day conference in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to mark the centenary, the Orwell scholar John Rodden wondered: “Was 2003 his swan song?”

The opposite turned out to be the case. As Bill Hamilton says, “It all came roaring back with a vengeance.” At the Q&A with the cast of “1984”, I asked the actors what they had researched in terms of everyday life in 2014 to help them understand the world of the play. One answer was Edward Snowden on YouTube showing how the National Security Agency (NSA) snoops on ordinary Americans, another was news footage from the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, and a third—from the actress playing Julia (who hadn’t been channelling Kate Middleton)—was that the most useful research for her had been living in New York in the wake of 9/11. It wasn’t the horror of the two planes going into the twin towers: it was the fear and paranoia that followed. When George Bush first heard about the attacks, he had been reading a story to children in an elementary school in Florida and he went on and finished the task in hand. After that exemplary display of statesmanship, things deteriorated. As the novelist Andrew O’Hagan wrote recently, “9/11 unleashed terrible furies in the minds of America and its allies…it literally drove the security agencies and their leaders mad with the wish to become all-knowing.” With his “war on terror”, Bush made the mistake—which Orwell would have eviscerated him for—of picking a fight with an abstract noun. Then came rendition, Guantánamo, waterboarding and the industrial-scale expansion of homeland security. “In the past”, we’re told in “1984”, “no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance.” Now the FBI can activate the camera on a laptop without the light going on to alert the user.

We may not know what personal information the state is gathering about us, but we do know what we willingly make available through social media. The shift over the past ten years in our concept of privacy has been both covert and overt: the Iraq war was launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004. Two images capture this: one, by the British street artist Banksy, shows men in raincoats and hats with recording equipment, hovering round a public phone box; in another, by the Polish illustrator Pawel Kuczynski, a man skulks behind an ominous blue F, which has a camera at its tip. Rupert Murdoch shared his view on which of the two was worse, tweeting last August: “NSA privacy invasion bad, but nothing compared to Google.”

Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick identified seven main themes in “1984”, from the division of the world into spheres (inspired by the Tehran conference of 1943) to the rewriting of history and the spread of managerialism. But, more than any other factor, the new age of surveillance has kept Orwell in the public mind. One of the most telling ways in which he predicted the future was the “oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror” that formed part of the wall in Winston’s flat. The genius of the telescreen was that it was two-way.

To Edward Snowden, the technologies that Orwell depicts “now seem quaint and unimaginative”. He told the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, “Now we’ve got webcams that go with us everywhere. We actually buy cellphones that are the equivalent of a network microphone that we carry around in our pockets voluntarily. Times have shown that the world is much more unpredictable and dangerous.” But the general public, on learning of something like Snowden’s revelations, still goes out and buys Orwell. Even though there are many editions of “1984” to choose from, after Snowden went public, Bloomberg News reported that in America a single edition of the book had moved from 11,855th on Amazon’s Movers and Shakers list to number three. And the general public, on hearing Snowden’s revelations and reading or re-reading “1984”, still happily release unprecedented amounts of information about their private lives through social media, search engines and GPS trackers.

What’s extraordinary is that Orwell had a very clear purpose in writing “Animal Farm” and “1984” which has now largely evaporated. He had gone to Spain to fight fascism, but had returned with a hatred of communism. The group he joined, the POUM, were separate from the pro-Soviet communists, and in the factional fighting that broke out in May 1937 the POUM were denounced and their members either went into hiding or were murdered. Orwell and his wife escaped back to England, but he was charged in his absence as a fascist. He saw his trial in Valencia as a by-product of the show trials taking place in Moscow.

In attacking Stalin, Orwell captured the way the world was evolving, and struck a chord that resonates even more today. His target was bigger than he knew.

This is what complicates the story. Orwell felt that most English writers and intellectuals had no grasp of the depth of lying that underpinned the horrors of Stalinism. After Eton, where he was a scholar, Orwell went to Burma for five years to work as a policeman, which left him with a visceral dislike for imperialism. But he saw his contemporaries easing their way from public school to Oxbridge to the “bleaching tub” of literary London. He was a left-wing writer pungently attacking the illusions of the left and he did it by aiming his fire at Britain’s ally Stalin, while the second world war was still going on. For that reason, some publishers, including T.S. Eliot at Faber, turned him down. “Animal Farm” and “1984” depict the terror of Stalinism but, for many readers, that is only of historical interest. The reason these books retain their ability to scare us lies elsewhere. In attacking Stalin, Orwell captured fundamental aspects of the way the world was evolving, and struck a chord that resonates even more today. His target was bigger than he knew.

There are plenty of places where it’s possible to pay homage to Orwell, from his modest gravestone in an Oxfordshire churchyard (“Here lies Eric Arthur Blair”) to his birthplace in a colonial bungalow in Motihari, northern India, soon to be turned into a museum. If you have a spare afternoon in London, you can take in the secondhand bookshop in Hampstead where he worked as a shop assistant (now a branch of the café chain Pain Quotidien), his first lodging in London in Portobello Street (recently on the market for £2.5m), and his later home in Canonbury, Islington (the estate agents call it “one of London’s most desired areas”), or University College Hospital, where he died of tuberculosis. More enterprisingly, members of the Orwell Society head up to Jura, the remote Hebridean island where, in a secluded farmhouse, Orwell spent most of his last couple of years. Farther afield, there’s the Plaça de George Orwell in Barcelona, where—this is a popular image on Facebook, which looks Photoshopped—the street sign for the square appears bang next to a CCTV camera.

But the strangest place associated with Orwell is Wigan, the town in Lancashire where he stayed in February 1936 to write about the conditions of the industrial north during the Depression. He did research at the town library, and his name is in the register, but the library itself is now a museum and the downstairs exhibition ignores Orwell, preferring to pay tribute to famed Lancastrian institutions such as George Formby, Sir Ian McKellen and the Wigan Casino, epicentre of northern soul. Orwell lodged with a family in Darlington Road and, a few hundred yards away, in the foyer of the Premier Inn, there’s a photo of a converted warehouse by a canal. “Wigan Pier”, it says, “Immortalised by the great George Orwell in his book ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. Delve into the past before heading to bed.”

A husband and wife were checking in. “Where is this pier then?” the husband asked the receptionist. “There isn’t one,” she replied. “That’s why people only come to Wigan once.” The pier was always a joke as Wigan is nowhere near the coast. But one of the warehouses by the canal, opposite National Tyres and Autocare, has been converted into The Orwell, which offers weddings and civil ceremonies from £900. The local speciality is meat pies. Outside the pub a poster shows Uncle Sam holding out a pie, with the slightly Big Brotherish message: “We want you to eat more pies.” Nearby there’s a plaque marking the occasion, on March 21st 1986, when this little area (“Wigan Pier”) was opened by Her Majesty the Queen. Only a writer as complicated as Orwell could have bequeathed a pub opposite a tyre shop that boasts a plaque unveiled by a queen for a place that never existed. All this in a town he put on the tourist map by saying how awful things were.


His style as a writer places him in the category of the immortals, and his courage as a critic outlives the bitter battles in which he engaged.
Christopher Hitchens

The word “Orwellian” is a daunting example of the fate that a distinguished writer can suffer at the hands of journalists.
Clive James

The Orwell...the English have sanctified is a descendant of the stone-kicking, beef-eating, commonsensical Dr Johnson.
Julian Barnes

I often feel that I will never pick up a book by Orwell again until I have read a frank discussion of the dishonesty and hysteria that mar some of his best work.
Kingsley Amis

I cannot resist the idea that Orwell’s intellect and finally his spirit, too, were broken by the horrors of the age in which he lived.
Salman Rushdie

In my opinion, “1984” is so popular because it’s trivial and because it’s about our enemies. If Orwell had dealt with a different problem – ourselves – his book wouldn’t have been popular...It probably wouldn’t have been published.
Noam Chomsky

I like Orwell’s writing as much as [that of] the next talented mediocrity.
Will Self

He is popular because he is conservative, because he is a pessimist who doesn’t much like women and who knows little about the working class.
Beatrix Campbell

[He had] the remarkable ability to achieve what every journalist and essayist seeks. He could tell the truth. Jeremy Paxman He could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.
Cyril Connolly

I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I’ve tried to watch out for since.
Margaret Atwood

Compiled by James Tozer

There are many Orwells. The literary Orwell sits at his typewriter with a rollie dangling from his lip. The militant Orwell stands head and shoulders above his fellow anti-fascist recruits in Spain. The rural Orwell crouches down to feed a goat (he liked to lecture his less practical friends, such as V.S. Pritchett, on milking). The paternal Orwell fits a shoe on the foot of his young son, perched on his knee.

One thing we can be sure of: any representation of him will look pretty odd. Orwell was six foot four and had size-12 shoes. When he went to fight in Spain, he amazed others by bringing his own boots. In Martin Jennings’s studio there are dozens of photos of Orwell on the work-table, his baggy trousers hitched above his stomach, his tweedy jacket buttoned at his chest, his dark tie fastened over a dark shirt. The biographers tell us he had piercing light-blue eyes, but the black-and-white photos catch the deep cheek-lines that run either side of his thin moustache, the sickly pallor and the cranial face. Hard to believe he was only 46 when he died. His watchful eyes are set deep in their sockets, but really any surveillance state based on Orwellian principles would focus on smell. Orwell had two of the most sensitive nostrils in English literature. He was endlessly drawn to whiffs, stinks and stenches. He once noted how Dickens recoils from sights he finds repulsive. Orwell himself moves in the opposite direction, leaning in close and inhaling foul odours as deeply as he can. His life’s work was exposing “smelly little orthodoxies”.

As we sift through photocopies of the photos, Jennings points out the legs that “go on for ever”, “the tubercular chest” and the “skull-like” face. Sculptors like a face where the bone shows through, he tells me—much easier to capture than flabby politicians with soft folds of flesh. If there’s one quality Jennings is looking to catch, it’s Orwell’s unease. What struck him, he says, reading “Homage to Catalonia”, is how “he keeps questioning his own position”. It’s the contrariness and the contradictions, the resolute lack of complacency, that animate the writing. No other writer could feel safe around him. “The real test of a radical or revolutionary”, wrote Christopher Hitchens, “is not the willingness to confront the orthodoxy and arrogance of the rulers, but the readiness to contest the illusions and falsehoods among close friends and allies.” Whatever the statue outside the BBC looks like, it will have to be testy and unemollient. No flab anywhere; and a distinct air of restlessness. This is the patron saint of the awkward squad. He’ll be wanting to get down from that plinth fast.