ON A STICK WITH ONE LUNG
By BERNARD CRICK
30 december 1985
BERNARD CRICK, Orwell's biographer, looks back on 1984 and suggests that
most of the interpretations offered of the book were perverse or wilful distortions
of its author's true message.
WELL, we've all survived. But I am feeling a bit tired in body and mind both
from the travelling and the controversies. Not that the blows hitting me
have tired me more than the blows I've thrown. I like controversy. 'Good
strong blows are a delight to the mind,' said the Irish poet.
But I confess, ungratefully, to looking forward to an Orwellless New Year.
We have all survived. Those now famous Hassidim in Paris who found
in the Cabala that this last year would be Omega, the end of all things,
have been proved wrong; or their continuous prayers have worked. I hope they'll
Mrs Thatcher got the field off to a brisk and muddled start, for on 2 January
The Times reported : 'Mrs Margaret Thatcher in a buoyant New Year
message to the Conservative Party yesterday said that George Orwell was wrong,
and she promised that 1984 would be a year of hope and liberty.' Why was
he wrong ? Presumably because the Britain of 1984 is not a totalitarian State.
But many of the sages of the New Right took the view that 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'
was solely about points East and therefore on target, nothing about ourselves
or our cousins at all. The party line needs sorting out a bit.
Yet I think, Mrs Thatcher, or her speech writers, were more deeply wrong
to imply that the book was prophetic at all, and not a satiric warning all
round, deeply rooted in the immediate post-war world. The film caught the
author's context marvellously, but could not show, through its visual horror,
the Swiftian satire, gallows humour and black comedy. (At least I'm on the
same side on this as Anthony Burgess, who called it 'a comic novel' - having,
I gather, a very strong stomach too. Literary wars create strange allies.)
I've done my last Orwell conference and formal lecture but sometimes whole
passages return to haunt me in the night :
'Why do you take away my faith in Orwell by saying that he may never have
shot an elephant or witnessed a hanging ?'
'I don't give a damn for your faith in Eric Blair, I just wish that you could
see that George Orwell was in some of his works a great imaginative writer.'
The pose of plain, blunt, honest man which he adopted, probably modelled
on Defoe more than Swift, has brought a lot of misunderstanding on Orwell's
head. There is a whole breed of Orwellians who obviously seem to like the
man more than the writings, as if authenticity was the hallmark of his writing
rather than skill.
Certainly, he adopted a common style to reach the common man. He stubbornly
believed that there was a common man who was the common reader, the old non-university
lower-middle classes who educated themselves in public libraries on the novels
of Dickens and Wells. But common style is as deliberate a literary device
as high rhetoric. Didn't Lincoln muse on the usefulness of 'Honest Abe' to
Abraham Lincoln ? Neither man was a hypocrite. But my questioners often didn't
The irony was that Orwell succeeded only in reaching the common reader with
his last two books, 'Animal Farm' and the damned 'Nineteen Eighty-Four.'
What was by accident the last book he wrote has assumed the mythological
status of a last testament. But it stands between many readers and the real,
or at least the other, Orwell.
Consider these sales figures from Penguin Books just for the United Kingdom
market for the first six months of this year only:
'Nineteen Eighty-Four' 301,000.
'Animal Farm' 123,000.
'Down and Out in Paris and London' 19,500.
'The Road to Wigan Pier' 16,000.
'Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays' 6,000.
'Penguin Essays of George Orwell' 6,500.
That first figure is incredible. But I agree with John Wain that it is Orwell's
essays (selected in the last two books) on which his reputation will finally
rest. His genius was as an essayist. The essay as much as the novel, perhaps
more, embodies the speculative, humorous, digressive, serious, eclectic humanistic
spirit of Europe.
But which Orwell do you read ? The full figures show another Orwell still.
His pre-war novel with the best sales on the home market was 'Burmese Days,'
selling 11,000 in that same six months : but overseas (and excluding America)
an incredible 130,000. It speaks to the Third World indeed.
'Where would Orwell stand if he were alive today?'
'Probably on a stick and with difficulty, for he would be 81 and with only
Basically I lectured on 'Nineteen Eighty-Four,' but if they would let me
I would slip in either 'The Other Orwell,' that often degenerated or ascended
into a reading, or 'Little Eric and the Bodysnatchers.'
I was angry at Mr Norman Podhoretz's claim in his 'If Orwell Were Alive Today'
(Harper's Magazine, January 1983 - trust an old Trot to be first on
the track) that he would be a neo-conservative. God alone can know .Very
Tomb-robbing is such an indecent substitute for argument. It still rages.
So many of the Right cannot believe that there are socialists who hate the
Communists. Who is dividing 'the West'?
Leaving the horrors of the popular Press aside, most of the academic razzmatazz
was in the States. And for wholly creditable reasons. American university
education thrives on inter-disciplinary instruction. If Orwell had not been
born, he would have been invented (by the British Council). Some of the discussions,
admittedly, got a bit far away from the text. The
mere rumour of the text seemed to trigger off a1l the deepest worries people
undoubtedly have that the future may be worse than the past. I've never found
anything morbid in Orwell's realistic and sardonic pessimism.
But in Britain, though the schools have been having a wide-ranging Orwell
year, the universities have mainly held off. Our critics and leading literary
journals seem ill at ease with Orwell's populist stance and common touch
- certainly with his forcing us to think about issues rather than form. And
inter-disciplinary conferences usually turn into interdisciplinary bitching.
Out universities are parochial and narrow compared to the great American
graduate schools. And intellectual life follows suit. It is either 'literature'
or 'politics.' Orwell denied that division. 'Above all else,' he wished,
he said, 'to make political writing into an art.'
He might also have wished to have avoided 1984.