A Letter to George Orwell
Dear George (if I may),
Happy Birthday and best wishes on this lovely June morning. I did have a card for you but I didn’t know where to send it, so this will have to do instead. Apparently you’re a bit of a blogger yourself. Pity you’re not down here any more because you’d have plenty to blog about. Every time we hear yet more news of state surveillance and telephone tapping Big Brother is invoked. Mind you, there’s not a single telephone call in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Anyway, I’m sending you this because I have just written a book called George Orwell: English Rebel and by way of a change I thought I’d write this in the first person as a change from all that the third person distancing which controlled our relationship over the past couple of years. I bought my first ‘Orwell’ at Sussex University Bookshop in 1967. It was a Penguin, three shillings and sixpence, orange and black, and bought because it looked edgy. I’ve still got it — pale and crumbly, worth nothing on eBay but everything to me. The Road to Wigan Pier is a period piece now, but then I suppose we all are.
The big idea behind my book was to let a historian (me) have a go at someone (you) who had been well turned over by the biographers, the philosophers, the literary types, the political scientists and so on. My argument is that it was your Englishness, not your socialism, or your common sense, or your personal decency, that underpinned your writing and, after a slow start, Englishness provided you with all that a contrarian could want without having to actually surrender to one big idea. I have argued moreover that as an intellectual who was ashamed of intellectuals, Englishness provided you a persona that you might otherwise have lacked and at the same time forced you into the company of the sort of people intellectuals cant stop calling ‘ordinary’. In the end, all this battling made for a man who sought resolution in his writing…
Oh dear, this sounds far too complicated. You’ve probably stopped reading it by now. But to keep going, I have argued that for all your protestations, deep down you were a Tory. Yes, yes, I know you voted Labour and said you were a socialist and so on but I mean ‘Tory’ in the wide philosophical sense which used to include a strong sense of belonging to the people as well It’s true you followed the well worn 1930s path of middle-class men going north to gawp at working-class men. But it’s also true that, given the circumstances, you were not condescending. Rather you tried to write about them with what Edward Garnett called (in relation to D H Lawrence) a ‘hard veracity’ that matched how they worked. Am I right or wrong on this and if wrong, how wrong? And if right, how right? And if mostly right — could you please tell my reviewers?
Sorry to bother you with serious thoughts on your birthday George, but you’ve become quite a famous chap down here. To your certain horror you’ve even become slightly fashionable and it’s only a matter of time before some lithe young man calling himself ‘Orwell’ comes sashaying down the catwalk in bags and cords, thin 'tash and Tin Tin hair. In a certain light, TB can look like cocaine, and there’s not a day goes by that you are not quoted by some hard-pressed journalist looking for serious moral back up. Did you know they opened the XXX London Olympiad with a pageant of British history that could have been written by you? As someone who sometimes had the truth conveyed to him in dreams, maybe it was written by you? And did you know that last summer there was a move by Joan Bakewell and friends at the BBC to put a statue of you in front of Broadcasting House? Patron Saint of Journalists! Think of that! I’m not sure you’d like it. On the other hand (and one learns with you there’s always another hand) I think it’s a great idea. They say Philip Larkin’s sculptor Martin Jennings might do it. You’ll not remember Larkin. He was the weedy 19 year old who took you for a cheap meal after a talk you’d given to Oxford University English Club in 1942. Like you, he is dead but has never been more alive — and the statue helps. So come on, let’s have a statue: larger than life, scarf and coat, hands on hips, head thrust back — I have a photo of you in the book just like that.
I wonder what are you up to on your birthday? What’s the treat this time? Writing to your old girl friend again? Or a romp round the garden with Richard? Or off to the Moon & Stars to sink a few pints with your literary mates? Now that you don’t have lungs to worry about, I can see you now scrubbing up for a night on the Celestial Town with Sonia (leaving Eileen at home knitting her brows). Who can say? Not me. I’m only the interpreter. But whatever you are doing George, I hope you are enjoying it. Here’s to you old boy, and all those who make a decent living out of you! Long may you live.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the OUP Blog.
Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, Leicester
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