Remembering George Orwell
1903, June 25. - 1950, January 21.



The Observer
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 join CND.
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 :

Writing skill
'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 follow me.
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 one lung.

Tomb robbing

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 unlikely.
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.

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