Sixty years ago, the world was still a very damaged and fragile place, despite the fact that World War Two had been over for five years and reconstruction was already beginning. Britain had effectively become a bankrupt ex-superpower as a result of the conflict, and the devastation of this world war was still fresh in the collective memory of all those who had lived through it, whether as soldier or civilian.
In cities and towns across the country, bomb sites still scarred the urban environment; acting as a constant daily reminder of the Luftwaffe’s concerted and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bomb Britain into submission. Many people were still homeless or living in temporary housing.
Food and other essential items were either still rationed or very scarce, resulting in the continuation of the wartime black market in desirable goods and foodstuffs like chocolate or butter. Emotions were still raw; families all over Britain and beyond still mourning the loss of loved ones killed in battle or amid the destruction of the home front. Recovery was a slow process.
And sixty years ago, in the midst of all this, the author of one of the most important and remarkable novels of modern times died. A year earlier, in 1949, this novel had been published, initially to confused and sometimes hostile reviews. Its author was an unusual man who had lived an unusual life, but who had been, at the time of publication and although still only in his forties, dying of advanced TB on a damp and remote Scottish island.
This novel was to become his last and greatest work; a creative tour de force which challenged the English language and has echoed down the years since with a prescience and a stark clarity born of bitter experience. Last year celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian final masterpiece 1984, which – if anything – is even more relevant today than it was on its first publication in 1949.
Less than a year later, in January 1950, Orwell was dead, aged only 46.
Born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903, George Orwell was from birth a product of the British empire; a subject he later felt conflicted about but which also informed much of his early writing. His father Richard was employed in the Opium Department of the Indian Government, and his mother Ida (who had been born in Burma) came from a family of French colonial merchants, making their families among the many who played their part in the tangled networks of imperial administration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Eric himself was born in Bengal, India and spent the first year of his life there before travelling back to England with his mother and elder sister. At the age of eight, like many Edwardian boys of his age and social class, he was sent away to boarding school; an experience he detested. He wasn’t that keen on Eton either when he was sent there aged 14, and already saw himself as an outsider, as someone different to his contemporaries.
He left Eton in 1921 with very little in the way of academic success to his name and about as much in the way of ambition. University thus not really being an option, he decided to follow in his family’s colonial footsteps and joined the Indian Imperial Police. Soon bored by his posting to Burma, Eric developed a hatred of both his job and what he described as the ‘imperialist oppression’ he witnessed all around him, all of which eventually caused him to resign from his post and return to England in 1927.
It was from this point onward that things began to change for Eric Blair both politically and personally. Determined to write, he began collecting the experiences which would later form the basis of his first published book, Down and Out in Paris and London, his commentary on the realities of contemporary poverty and deprivation. This was published by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz in 1933 to good reviews.
It was for the purposes of this book that ‘George Orwell’ was born, and it was under this name that all of Blair’s later non-fiction books, novels and journalism were published, including Homage To Catalonia, which recounted his experiences fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, and Animal Farm, the controversial and still often misinterpreted fable which, along with the equally controversial 1984, were to make him world-famous and highly-criticised.
His critics might plausibly argue that Orwell was politically inconsistent – but then again, who isn’t? Time, age and experience all change our political viewpoints – I certainly don’t see politics the same way I did when I was 21, and, like most people, I don’t think Orwell did either. His first-hand experiences of the grinding poverty of the 1930s and the chaos and destruction of the Spanish Civil War certainly completed a change in his way of thinking, a process which had begun when his experiences working in Burma made him start to question his privileged upbringing and position.
This process put him in the unusual position of being from within the ruling classes but also outside them, giving him an insight into the real world as well as an understanding of how ordinary people were exploited by the system; a system he himself had been part of by virtue of his family background and his (albeit lowly) position in the administration of empire. It is often said that history is written by the winners – but, in the case of George Orwell, he saw and wrote about the other side too.
And, historically, Orwell was one of the few contemporary political commentators who were very openly of the left but were still prepared to be critical of it, which makes his journalism in particular a very unusual and valuable source. At a time when the European left was usually either feared (this was, it must be remembered, within living memory of the Russian Revolution, which absolutely terrified conservative Europe), or uncritically accepted, voices like Orwell’s were few and far between.
In fact, his voice is still completely unique, and perhaps that is one reason why it still resonates with us sixty years after his untimely death in January 1950. The fact that he was prepared to ask uncomfortable questions in his writings at a time when he knew that hearing the actual answers would be just as uncomfortable – although entirely necessary – for his contemporary audience (let alone for his modern readership), remains as necessary a function of his work today as it was then.
And, personally speaking, his work still strikes a chord. In early May of last year, still angry and smarting over the unnecessary and pointless brutality I had witnessed being meted out to demonstrators at the London G20 protests, I wrote a furious blog post about the policing of protest which, as is so often the case with such articles, ended up making pointed reference to the relevence of Orwell and his final novel in today’s society:
“I can just imagine George Orwell looking down from wherever it is that good lefties go when they die (probably a proper old pub somewhere, with decent beer and no smoking ban), shaking his head in appalled fascination; watching as his novel 1984 slowly, inevitably comes true, twenty-five years late and in a blaze of banality. It’s all too easy to fall back on Orwellian comparisons these days – in this CCTV-addicted surveillance society where the government knows best and mass economic uncertainty is the order of the day, they are almost clichés. Actually, forget the ‘almost’: they are now clichés. But there’s a reason why clichés are clichés; they have their origins in basic truths, and the basic truth now is that Orwell was right: we are all becoming a nation of willing and unwilling Winston Smiths, living in what amounts to a police state, with some profoundly twisted egomaniac Big Brother watching everything we say and everything we do”
A touch melodramatic, perhaps, but I still stand by those words. It’s sad that these days, to quote or refer to Orwell and his works is seen by many commentators as clichéd, trite and lazy when his writing is quite clearly nothing of the kind. I suspect the man himself would be half-appalled, half-fascinated by this – and by the way his writing and its message (1984 in particular) has become philosophically debased as a result.
Clichéd or not, Orwell’s work still connects with us, still speaks to a world that has fundamentally changed little since he put pen to paper to write 1984 more than sixty years ago. The reader may not always agree with him, but his words are now part of the common language, intimately interwoven with the cultural currency of Britain and beyond. He is still necessary.
Hat-tip to the excellent Jack of Kent, whose thought-provoking blog post on the subject reminded me of this anniversary.