The Pantheon:
George Orwell

1984 reasons to embrace the great author

By Richard Luck, 14 December 2011

"By the time he turns 50, every man has the face he deserves." So said George Orwell who actually died four years short of his half century. Since he was blessed with a dark sense of humour, you imagine the great man of letters would have found some amusement in this.

Though you might not immediately think it, George Orwell has quite a lot in common with Cliff Richard. For one thing, neither achieved fame using their given name "" Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair, Richard Harry Rodger Webb. They were also both born in India "" Sir Cliff in Lucknow, George in Motihari.

That Orwell was a child of the Empire might amuse those aware of how much energy he put into criticising such institutions. But then the author's life is as rich in peculiar ironies as it is in great literary works. Orwell was the animal lover who was once called on to slaughter an elephant and the anti-establishment type who wound up writing war-time propaganda for Winston Churchill.

George Orwell

Ask someone about Orwell today and there's a good chance their reference points will be televisual (see Big Brother and Room 101). It's less probable that they'll acknowledge him as the true godfather of gonzo journalism. But 40 years before Hunter S Thompson hit the road to Las Vegas, Orwell assembled a tramp's kit and hit the mean streets of London and Paris. Lurching from hostel to flop house, the twentysomething writer demonstrated that, while the Depression was tough on everyone, it was particularly hard on those who were entirely without. The resulting tome, Down And Out In Paris And London, remains a potent account of life among the lowly, just as The Road To Wigan Pier was the first and last word on the manufacturing downturn of the 1930s.

Great as these books are, they're not exactly a bundle of laughs. But those who would write off Orwell as a cynic or misanthrope should familiarise themselves with the essays he wrote about the perfect pub and that most cherishable of institutions, the good old British cuppa. Though an avowed enemy of nostalgia and sentimentality, Orwell the essayist is never dark for the sake of darkness and is frequently hilarious. And while you might disagree with his point of view, the prose is rarely less than perfect.

"Essayist" was but one of many strings to his bow, however. Orwell's war memoir Homage To Catalonia and his autobiographical debut novel Burmese Days are testament to a life incredibly well lived. While many writers have covered conflicts, the left-leaning Orwell's signed on for service with the anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War. And while his front line service left him with a severe neck injury, it also inspired his breakthrough work. Though a socialist at heart, Orwell's experiences with the Workers' Party Of Marxist Unification left him aware that the equality offered by communism was a cruel illusion. But how to relate such facts without boring the pants off everyone? The answer presented itself when, after seeing a farmer whip his dray horse, he thought for a while about what the animal might be capable of were it ever to become aware of its strength...

The resulting Animal Farm was actually Orwell's fifth novel but while all the earlier works "" especially Keep The Aspidistra Flying "" are deserving of your attention, it was this unique twist on the barnyard fable that enabled the writer to add "accomplished author" to his list of credits.

Animal Farm is more than merely accomplished, however. Had Orwell's career ended the day he typed the final line "" "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, but already it was impossible to say which was which" "" his place in the British literary pantheon would be secure. But there was more to come.

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Big Brother for George Orwell piece

Long before the world started (and stopped) watching Big Brother... (Image: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images)

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Laid low by the TB that would eventually kill him, Orwell removed himself to the island of Jura to write the book that would define the second half of the 20th century. A science fiction tale at heart, this commentary upon everything from the Cold War to government-imposed conformity has yet to lose its relevance nor its sense of dread. Written in 1948, its title is Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear

George Orwell


Big Brother, Room 101, thought police, doublethink, thoughtcrime - the language of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the language of the CCTV-friendly 21st century. In the realm of prescient works, the book is so on the money it's tempting to believe Orwell possessed technology as sophisticated as his prose.

While commentators might use the term 'Orwellian' to suggest a form of government that's both totalitarian and impossible to overcome, those who return to the novel might see the ways Winston Smith rebels against his superiors as emblematic of the fact the war for individuality and creativity is winnable provided people are willing to fight. For as Winston discovers at the end of the book, you're only truly defeated when you learn to love Big Brother...

Orwell has been dead form more than 50 years but it's still his world you're living in. If you don't believe that merits him a place in our Pantheon, a visit to Room 101 will surely convince you otherwise...


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