Notes On…George Orwell

By March 8, 2017News

This article was originally published on the Financial Times website here.

We are living in an embattled period. Little wars, some not so little, rage everywhere. But one of the more serious of the conflicts is entirely bloodless — President Donald Trump versus the American press.

What would George Orwell make of it? It’s a question I regularly pose myself. For four years, while writing a book on him, I valued the company of this most sensible of writers; one of those whose authority grows year by year, culminating recently in his testamentary novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, shooting back into the bestseller lists.

Orwell’s great virtue lay in where he stood. It was expressed in one of his images, that of the whale. You could understand society — the world — by being swallowed up like Jonah. Or you could be like Ishmael in Moby-Dick, close enough to see the beast but keeping all the while your distance.

The BBC, belatedly, is raising a statue to Orwell. The memorial was resisted for years on the grounds that he was too politically opinionated: a “man of the left”, even though he seldom got involved in active party politics. It was similar with the BBC, his paymaster for a couple of years. Orwell never held down any kind of job: jobs, he believed, held you down.

Thoughtfully, one understands, the Orwell statue will be raised on the boundary of Broadcasting House, neither in nor out of the leviathan.

The other monument to Orwell is the 20-volume set of his collected works. Peter Davison devoted nearly two decades to this crown jewel of British literary scholarship (a sextuple heart bypass did not stop him).

What strikes one, contemplating the mass Davison assembled, is that the bulk of Orwelliana is journalism. Journalism, for Orwell, was plain talking and truth-telling. What, then, would he have made of the current conflict between the most powerful man in the world and the US press?

Orwell’s thinking on such matters is manifest in the novel that is at the top of our minds once more. He originally called Nineteen Eighty-Four “The Last Man in Europe”. It could as readily have been called “The Last Journalist in Europe” — versus Big Brother.

The hero, Winston Smith, works for Oceania’s paper of record. “The Times”, it is called in the novel, a rather spiteful appellation (Orwell wrote for David Astor’s Observer: there was no love lost between the broadsheets).

Winston’s paper is hand-in-glove with the Ministry of Truth, “Minitrue”, in charge of broadcasting. His day job is to falsify. To use our phrase, he manufactures “alternative facts”. The nation’s chocolate ration is reduced? Create an irrefutable archival record that it has actually been increased. Winston’s other main activity is to pervert the record of the past. There is a typewriter on his desk and, by his side, a pneumatic tube in which facts, no longer convenient, are sent on their way to make room for newer facts.

Getting things straight was, for Orwell, the main business of life. As he lay in what would be his deathbed, in UCL hospital, he controlled the panic of what was coming by simply describing, on paper, the room around him.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in his last years, by an ever more sickly man. It has the quality of a final verdict. Winston Smith, the suborned journalist, sets out to be a real journalist: the last of his kind.

Winston Smith’s day job is to falsify. To use our phrase, he manufactures ‘alternative facts’

He buys himself a desk diary and a pen, finds a corner of his flat where he thinks the TV can’t see him, and describes the world outside. He has made himself a one-man fourth estate. His suicidal mission? To record not alternative facts but the real thing.

Orwell would have been fascinated by what is going on in the US. Trump’s allegation is that the mainstream media is confecting “fake news”. For its part, the MSM is registering what it calls the president’s “lies”. Which side is in the right? There is little doubt in my mind and I believe there would have been none whatsoever in Orwell’s. He was a journalist, not a hack.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, we recall, ends pessimistically with Winston killing time until it suits the state to kill him. But Orwell was, in life, no pessimist. He fought in Spain alongside anti-Stalinist Marxists and anarchists, whom he must have known were glorious losers.

Malcolm Muggeridge liked to call his friend the contemporary Man of La Mancha: Quixotic. Comical he may have seemed to the then editor of Punch. Nowadays Orwell is, more than ever, a beacon of light in a darkening world. Read on.

John Sutherland is author of ‘Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography’ (Reaktion)