It may appear a wee bit odd for Scottish Review
to publish anything about George Orwell. But there are good reasons for a re-examination of his influence today, even in a place with which he had few connections. Orwell almost certainly had more impact on 'free world' public policy in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond than any other novelist in the 20th century. I realise that's some claim. But how many other writers have bestowed upon the language an adjective derived from their name, 'Orwellian'? 'Shakespearian' may make the grade, but that's about it.
So, even though he's long dead, very English, and little of his work, other than two novels (Animal Farm
and Nineteen Eighty-Four
) and a handful of essays, are read today by anyone other than literary scholars – he deserves a wee reappraisal. Especially one in SR, for reasons which are personal to myself and the late Kenneth Roy.
During the course of the year 1984, there were many media pieces arising from Orwell's famous dystopian novel. One of them was a BBC Scotland TV analysis hosted by Kenneth, whose gentle guidance of a thorough interrogation of myself could, in a lesser journalist's hands, have been profoundly harrowing.
I'd been chosen because, I presume, I was then one of the younger and more visible Communist Party members in Scotland, and as an official of the Scottish Trades Union Congress had appeared occasionally on TV news and current affairs programmes. So Kenneth gently 'grilled' me on totalitarianism, which in a West which saw the 'totalitarian' USSR as a threat to its own values, took a bit of skill. I remember Kenneth's kindliness better than what I said. Deservedly: I can't imagine it was anything incisive. I had read everything of Orwell's I could lay hands on, as a teenage socialist in the early 1960s, but little since.
My reconnection with him arose from reading DJ Taylor's 2003 Orwell: The Life
, which I recently picked up second-hand. It's a fair task just reading it, almost 500 pages in very small, closely-spaced type. It's one of the finest biographies I have read and had me glued to my chair for two days, as I learned something of Orwell's short life – and even shorter stays in Scotland. That Orwell is little read now I can confirm; there aren't many second-hand book-selling charity shops in north-west Glasgow (which has a good few of them) which I haven't since scoured for his work.
Etonian Orwell was born into one of the rich English families which had profited from UK 'ownership' of India, where he was born. But careful reading of his work, and Taylor's biography, shows his confused moral and political rejection of a world into which he'd been born to have more than his share. He lived and died poor in consequence of his decency; he shines out as an honest man. But how many socialists today would have as their first thought (he was then very sick with TB) on adopting his son Richard to 'have his name put down for Eton'?
Perhaps only one of whom, his sympathetic biographer could write: '… Orwell, an Anglo-Indian himself, could not shake off his allegiance to the caste that had created him'.
When he wrote Animal Farm
, the biography records his problems in finding a publisher, in the days when 'Uncle Joe' Stalin was still a UK ally against the Nazis in the Second World War. That I respect it as a fine wee (it was very short) allegory, my son Euan can confirm. When Euan was in his early teens and had to find an interesting novel for an essay, I recommended it to him. (I knew it had to be short and captivating!) He read and loved it.
It perhaps led him, after I'd taken him on holiday to Barcelona, to read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia
; not a novel but his attempt to recount his complex experiences during the Spanish Civil War. That Orwell volunteered to join the International Brigade in fighting Franco's fascists is a measure of his enormous humanity, commitment – and bravery. That his account of his experiences may have helped my son become an anarchist, is another matter – for which I can't blame Orwell.
If Animal Farm
helped put Orwell firmly on the map as a serious writer, it was Nineteen Eighty-Four
which cemented his status as a major figure in the literary/political firmament. Less I fear from its value as a novel, than because of its use to US/UK politicians at the very start of the 'Cold War'. Taylor records socialist Orwell's fears on this, shortly before his early death, 'that it could be seen as a deliberate and sadistic attack on socialism and socialist parties generally. The book was worth a million votes to the Conservative Party, and could plausibly be issued with a preface by Winston Churchill'. A page later, the biographer notes that 'Nineteen Eighty-Four
was being promoted in the United States as an anti-Soviet tract'.
So, in the late 1940s, English socialist George Orwell became an essential weapon in the Cold War strategy of the then leaders of 'the Western world'. Had he lived, this would have made him very rich indeed. The biography does not record this, but I'm pretty certain that Nineteen Eighty-Four
and Animal Farm
became amongst the bestselling 'serious novels' in the post-war Western world, in consequence of their political value to our rulers, rather than because of their literary merit.
Not, please understand, that I think they have little literary merit. I read and enjoyed both as novels. But that was not why they were promoted by the cold-warriors of the Western world. I suspect that honest and complex Orwell might have at least quarter-turned in his grave, had he known why he became, posthumously, a millionaire.
Dougie Harrison is an auld socialist who has been politically active since his teens in the 1960s. He is currently as active in the Scottish Green Party and in community affairs as his age permits