I’ve only read three books by George Orwell, and they’re not the three most people probably associate with his name. He is, perhaps like Shakespeare, one of those writers whom we somehow simply know and can even quote without ever actually having read. I’m not entirely sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it certainly is a thing.
I may well have read a passage or two from Animal Farm (1945) in English classes at High School, but I’ve never read it all. Nor have I read Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). But somehow I can’t seem to recall my ever notknowing about this satirical tale of animals as political allegory for Stalinist dictatorship. All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. Likewise the “newspeak”, “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime”, and “Room 101” of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Big brother is watching you. But thinking about Orwell recently I was struck by the realisation that I’d never really engaged with his works. What seemed strange to me is how in many ways, and considering what little I know of him and his life, he would most fundamentally seem to be my kind ofwriter. As a Sixth Form and then undergraduate student in my late teens and early twenties I avidly read the political writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Camus, Vaclav Havel, and later, Aung San Suu Kyi. I also read the complete short fiction and personal writings of Franz Kafka. But not so much of Orwell.
The first book of his I read was Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). For a time I contemplated writing my undergraduate anthropology dissertation on some vague aspect or other of homelessness in London society. When not in lectures I often idly drifted about London and occasionally found myself engaging in conversations with various ‘down and outs’ I met on the streets. But nothing came of it, perhaps because I realised to do such a study properly would take more time and greater immersion than would be possible in the timeframe required of an undergraduate dissertation project (plus, asides from the question of what might be the most appropriate methodology; how to ethically reconcile oneself with pursuing “participant observation” of such a topic, as was required of the dissertation module? Should one pose as homeless in pursuit of veracity by being dishonest, or should one be open about being an academic observer, thereby maintaining honesty but creating a barrier through distance?).
In many ways I now regret not doing that project, comparing Orwell’s observations of London’s homeless with my own of some fifty-odd years later might have been a worthwhile endeavour. But my head was probably too much in the clouds at the time, I doubt I’d have been organised or disciplined enough to have done it justice. Instead I gravitated onto his novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), which chimed more with my own somewhat lazy artistic counter-culture inclinations – the story of Gordon Comstock, a not-very-good poet nurturing a slowly simmering rancour against the world and society in particular, which resulted in his busily being determined to go nowhere with his life. A kind of über-Romantic anti-Romantic. But happily, that didn’t last quite as long as it felt like it did at the time. Life eventually moved on.
And as life moved on, so too I seemed to leave Orwell behind. It’s only recently that I came back to him. This time drawn by an interest in his anti-imperialist writings which I thought might chime with elements of my current PhD research. But there again, how was it that I already seemed preternaturally aware of his essay, Shooting an Elephant (1936). Racking my brains I have no recall of how, when, or where I first became aware of this remarkable piece of writing. Somehow, I just knew about it already.
Hence I bought a copy of his Essays (2014). A gorgeously produced Penguin paperback with a design that harked back to the iconic 1940s-look of that publishing brand. Rather suitably, I thought. But inside the text has been reduced to fit this pocket-sized format, which means that trying to read the thing is rather like trying to decipher the semaphore of an ant attempting to communicate by dancing across a narrow blank page with inky feet. However, that screwed-up-eyes intensity of reading repays the effort well. I found Orwell just as engaging, if not moreso even, than I did when I was half the age I am today.
I realise now the main thing I like about his writing, asides from my sympathies with some of his viewpoints and shared interests in certain topics, is how clear and frank he is – without necessarily being simply clear and frank. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this, and that’s perhaps why he’s such a master prose-stylist. He does it so effortlessly. Although, I bet he did and didn’t. I bet he laboured long over some parts whilst others must have just poured out and seemingly wrote themselves. Maybe this is why he seems oddly timeless. While he might be writing about times and realities which have long since gone and which in many ways set his writings firmly in the context of their times – he writes of pounds, shillings, and pence; his weights and measures are imperial, he writes about drinking pints of mild, and buying so many ounces of tobacco, to point to the simplest of examples – he also writes very plainly about some topics which seem oddly open and thereby counter to my preconceptions of the era; take sex for instance, he can be remarkably candid about that – although, thankfully, not toocandid.
The social and moral observations he makes and his analysis of such matters are what perhaps resonate most with the modern reader, even now. It’s amazing he remains so fresh and seemingly current, but then maybe he has simply hit on the most unchanging elements of our reality. Perhaps the world, as he sees and understands it, was ever thus. Like Ben Jonson’s famous summation of William Shakespeare, perhaps George Orwell is not so much a man of his time, but rather more a man for all time – or, to thieve a different aphorism (from Zhou Enlai), is it still too early yet to tell?
A selection of BBC Radio 4 Programmes exploring the themes and political context of George Orwell's ideas and his writings