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Orwell and Time
The first in a series of exclusive extracts from 'Orwell: The New Life' by D. J. Taylor, with an introduction by the author
Back in the early 2000s, hard at work on Orwell: The Life (2003), I found myself writing a series of short essays on various aspects of Orwell’s personality, appearance and temperament to break up the more conventional biographical narrative. These had titles like ‘Orwell’s Face’, ‘Orwell and the Rats’ and ‘Orwell’s Paranoia’. None of them was more than a couple of thousand words long and some were only a few hundred. The aim was to address certain aspects of the way in which Orwell presented himself to the world that were fascinating to me but didn’t naturally lend themselves to the traditional framework of a life and times.
Not everybody liked them. The late Paul Foot, reviewing the book in the Observer, reckoned that if this process of miniaturisation were taken to its logical end the result would be an essay on the theme of ‘Orwell’s Arse.’ For the defence, Professor John Sutherland maintained that a consideration of Orwell’s backside would probably be quite interesting. I always thought that the approach had merit, if only because there are areas of Orwell’s complex mental life that can’t be ignored in any biographical study, but equally don’t fit in to the usual chronological pattern. Take, for example, the rat fixation which first manifests itself in teendom, re-emerges at regular intervals during his adult life and goes on to form a prime exhibit in Nineteen Eighty-Four’s chamber of horrors. Does the biographer remind the reader of it every 50 pages or so or deal with it as a lifelong obsession? I opted for Route B.
The same goes for Orwell’s complicated and (ultimately) guilt-ridden attitude to Jewishness. Four of the original essays – ‘Orwell’s Face’, ‘Orwell’s Voice’, ‘Orwell and the Rats’ and ‘Orwell and the Jews’ - suitably reworked and sometimes containing new material – have survived to ornament Orwell: The New Life. To them have been added a whole lot more – ‘Orwell in Time’, ‘Orwell and the Toads’, which examines his view of the natural world, ‘Orwell’s Enemies’, ‘Orwell and the Working Classes’, ‘Orwell in Fiction’, ‘Orwell and the Past’, ‘Orwell and Gissing’ (his favourite Victorian novelist, whose influence winds its way through his early work like knotweed through a lawn), ‘Orwell’s Diaries’ and ‘Orwell and the Nancy Boys’ – a homophobic slur if used these days, but conventional slang usage for homosexual back in the 1930s.
Eight of them follow, beginning with ‘Orwell in Time’ and ending with ‘Orwell and the Past’, which takes in his view of history. Paul Foot (for whom, incidentally, I always had the greatest admiration) would probably writhe in his grave, but I like to think that they add a dimension to a man who might otherwise slip out from beneath the mesh of the standard biographer’s net.
Orwell and Time
At any point over the past fifty years or so a small band of dissidents have made it their business to inform the reading public that the Orwell game is up. In most cases this process involves the revisionist either deciding that the seams of Orwell scholarship are exhausted or insisting that the attention focused on him was hopelessly misguided to begin with. In the first category could be found Orwell’s old friend the novelist Anthony Powell, who as long ago as 1982 pronounced that ‘by this stage it is not easy to say anything new about George Orwell’. In the second lurk the editors of the New Left Review, who in 1979 predicted that Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘will be a curio in 1984’, or the academic Scott Lucas, whose Orwell (Life and Times), published in the centenary of his birth, offers a wholesale debunking of the subject’s claims to any kind of lasting literary or political esteem. Naturally, it takes guts to swim quite so strenuously against the tides that have always held back the Orwell-sceptics – the tiny handful of Stalinists who have never forgiven him for Animal Farm’s burlesque of the Soviet Revolution, say, or the left-wing purists outraged by his disdain for the communist fellow-travellers of the 1940s. On the other hand, none of these rebuttals has ever had the slightest effect on Orwell’s readers or their awareness of his centrality to the political arrangements of the twenty-first century. Upwards of seventy years after his death, he seems more important than ever.
One of the really striking things about Orwell’s long shadow is just how early his reputation solidified. Most writers – even the great ones – have their ups and down, tread water for a generation or two, or go through periods where an exacting posterity decides to review their status in the light of information not available at the time of the first flourishing. Even Dickens, towards the end of the nineteenth century, was sometimes unfavourably compared to his old rival Thackeray on the snobbish grounds that the author of Vanity Fair was more of a ‘gentleman’. Orwell was never a victim of this critical sand-shifting, and his triumphs were set in stone almost from the moment of his death. Within a few years of his passing in January 1950, his two great novels were being filmed, animated and adapted for radio, while the younger talents who followed in his wake fell over themselves to acknowledge him as a formative influence. ‘Of all the writers who appeal to the post-war intelligentsia he is far and away the most potent,’ Kingsley Amis declared in 1957. ‘No modern writer has his air of passionately believing what he has to say and of being passionately determined to say it as forcefully and simply as possible.’
Amis was a left-winger heading purposefully towards the right, but the specimen Orwell-fancier of the post-war years was as least as likely to be an erstwhile conservative veering to the left. Once his early death and the tumultuous success of Nineteen Eighty-Four had turned him into a legend, his appeal became universal: a Tory prime minister summoning up a vision of bygone England; a freedom fighter in some ground-down former Soviet republic; a politics student debating the nature and uses of propaganda – all of them could look to Orwell and find something that not only existed nowhere else but seemed to explain a world which Orwell himself had had no opportunity to quantify. Just as the Marxist critic Raymond Williams, writing in 1973, is charmed by Orwell’s foresight and his ‘liberating consciousness’, thinks Newspeak, the artificial language of Nineteen Eighty-Four, offers the ‘central perception’ that there is a relationship between social and linguistic forms, and marvels that ‘it is as if [Orwell] had seen the news reels from Vietnam’, so a substantial proportion of the US electorate were sufficiently impressed by the resemblance of modern America to Orwell’s dystopia to inflate Amazon sales of the novel by something over 900 per cent in the week of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
And this, it should straightway be said, is not an Anglo-American or even a Eurocentric view: one might note Orwell’s popularity in Zimbabwe, where the crowds protesting against Robert Mugabe’s government were fond of comparing him to Napoleon, the leader of the Manor Farm pigs, or in Myanmar, where a Western journalist was assured by a local that ‘Animal Farm is a very Burmese book . . . it is about pigs and dogs ruling the country’. In much the same way, ‘Orwellian’ has become one of the key adjectives of the modern age, endlessly pressed into service to describe anything from an over-vigilant CCTV system to a government plan for ID cards or the absurdities of cancel culture, one of those all-purpose words – the correct erm is probably a ‘floating signifier’ – that long ago tugged free from its original moorings and went flying off into the outer margins of cyberspace, sanctified to its users (and mis-users) by virtue of its connection to the dystopian world of hate, enforced obedience and state-sanctioned suppression that Orwell coaxed into life in his Hebridean farmhouse three-quarters of a century ago. In May 2021, for example, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that GCHQ’s bulk interception of online communications was illegal, no fewer than three of judges invoked a passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given time.’
All this, naturally, is a mark of Orwell’s universality. It takes genius to devise pieces of mental shorthand – Big Brother and Room 101 are two more – that have entered the everyday language of people who would struggle to recognise your face in a photograph and have never read a word of your books. Like Dickens, Orwell is not merely a popular writer who has sold millions of copies of his works: he is someone who has quarried his way down into the heart of the human condition and, by doing so, managed to colonise the mental world both of his own age and the ones that followed. As even those critics who profess themselves faintly bewildered by the constant re-imaginings and extensions of the Orwell industry usually concede, this process is unlikely to stop any time soon: the world outside the window is too Orwellian, too pre-ordained, too mysteriously foretold, for the connection to be ignored. Significantly, having begun the piece quoted above by wondering if there is anything left to say about Orwell, Anthony Powell ends it by remarking – this is 1982, remember, when the Cold War had several more years to run – ‘that we may wish he were here to see what is happening in Poland and Afghanistan’. Four decades later we may wish he were here to see what is happening in Ukraine, in China and a dozen other places where individual and collective freedom is under threat from what he once called ‘the smelly little orthodoxies that are now contending for our souls’: those malign exterior forces, vengeful and insistent, that are bent on stopping us from living in conditions of peace, freedom and self-determination – and all the other abstract nouns whose desirability Orwell spent his short lifetime in proclaiming.
Exclusive extract from Orwell: The New Life by D. J. Taylor, published 25 May (£30, Constable) | Available to pre-order here.