Big Brother is bleeping us - with the message that ideology
doesn’t matter. It was all very different in the 1930s, as three books about
the early Left reveal.
THE BLAIR IN GEORGE ORWELL
By Stefan Collini
4 July 1998
review of: The Complete Works of George Orwell,
edited by Peter Davison. 20 vols, Secker & Warburg, £750
In the I980s a refurbished warehouse in Wigan was kitted out, complete with
a museum and restaurant, as "The Orwell Wigan Pier", from which visitors
could take barge trips on the canal. Rarely can the anti-historical drive
of "heritage" have been so fatuously illustrated. Orwell only visited Wigan
for a few weeks in 1936, and the title of his subsequent book was anyway
an allusion to a local joke. Only the resources of Newspeak could do justice
to such absurdity: the whole thing is DOUBLEPLUS UNREAL.
In some ways, Orwell’s enduring iconic status is puzzling. As a writer (and
"George Orwell", we have to remind ourselves, only existed as a writer),
he is a figure of glaring limitations. His novels suffer from their diagrammatic,
propagandistic qualities; his plain-mannish literary persona led him to be
reductive and philistine; there is something tiresome and self-flattering
about his repeated insistence that only the cantankerous non-joiner has any
chance of telling the truth; and he is a compendium of intolerant prejudices,
represented by his repeated attacks on "pansy intellectuals".
Moreover, one might have expected his writing to "date" badly, since it is
so tightly bound up with the politics of the 1930s and 1940s, but new generations
of readers conscripted by exam syllabuses continue to fall under his spell.
He actually subtitled Animal Farm "a fairy story", a detail omitted
in many editions, and that description may suggest something about the source
of that particular book's enduring power, even for readers for whom "Communism"
is something to be looked up in the notes.
We also tend, in this post-Cold War world, to write off Orwell’s predictions
of creeping totalitarianism as alarmist pessimism, but it is worth remembering
that he was at least as preoccupied by the insidious managerialism and deadening
consumerism of liberal societies. For example, in a sentence that was written
50 years ago, Orwell imagined another "implausible" feature of life in Airstrip
One: "The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one
public event to which the proles paid serious attention." Nah, it’ll never
Certainly, it was one of Orwell's strengths, as well as the source of some
of his obvious limitations, that he was always truculently "off-message".
We don't find it very difficult to imagine what he might have said about
Britain in the age of another Mr Blair. An updated version of his famous
essay on "Politics and the English Language" would make particularly enjoyable
reading, and he would surely have had no difficulty in identifying the whereabouts
of the Ministry of truth: O'Brien is now Minister Without Portfolio, and
"Big Brother is bleeping you".
The great difficulty with Orwell is not to allow the slag-heaps of glibness
that result from the political, commercial and curricular appropriations
of him to obscure the enduring qualities of the courageous, driven man who
recognised, in a characteristically plain phrase, that he had "a facility
with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts". Part of the value of
comprehensive scholarly editions of major writers lies in the way they help
us to confront the icon, worn smooth by repeated careless handling, with
the unevenness and sheer variousness of the actual writer's achievement.
Peter Davison's long-awaited edition of "the complete Orwell" serves this
purpose marvellously well.
Volumes 1 to 9, containing textually corrected editions of Orwell's nine
books, were published in 1986-7. After many difficulties and delays, volumes
10 to 20, containing the essays, journalism, letters and much else besides,
have now triumphantly appeared. The 11 volumes of miscellaneous material
contain 3.737 separate items, plus several more that only came to light when
this edition was already at the proof stage. There is some new, and a vast
amount of newly accessible, material here which it will take scholars some
years to digest.
There is an irresistible madness about a "Complete Works" edition on this
scale; it yields pleasures which fall somewhere between those of dipping
into Wisden and those of poking around in a dead aunt's attic. Most
readers will probably remain content with the four-volume Penguin Collected
Essays, Journalism and Letters, which was first published in 1968. Some
indication of what they will be missing, however, is given by the fact that
only 68 of the 379 reviews and only 226 of the more than 1,000 letters printed
here were included in that edition, not to mention the vast body of material
from his time at the BBC during the war, his lectures on street-fighting
tactics to his Home Guard platoon ("bombs easier to throw downstairs than
up"), his diaries, previously unpublished letters by his first wife, Eileen,
records of his earnings, and so on.
Every item is impeccably presented and authoritatively annotated; there is
a wealth of additional commentary. The cumulative index to the last 11 volumes
runs to 187 closely-packed pages. The edition more than once refers; in wry-self-defence,
to the description of the character in 1984 who "was engaged in producing
garbled versions -definitive texts, they were called". Professor Davison
knows better than to lay claim to definitiveness, but the message on the
tele-screens should certainly be BLAIR-TEXTS UNGARBLED GOOD, and quite a
few unBlair untexts ungarbled good, too.
These volumes thus document in quite extraordinary detail what was a relatively
short writing life. And they bring home even more forcefully than Bernard
Crick’s splendidly tough-minded biography the extent to which this was a
writing life, a life lived in thrall to the ideal of producing clear,
honest, telling sentences. From the moment in the mid-l930s when he starts
to sign personal letters with his pseudonym, we can trace the unnerving process
by which the man was increasingly absorbed into his writerly persona (neatly
symbolised by the fact that his first wife died as "Eileen Blair", while
his second lived on as "Sonia Orwell".
The first item in this edition is an (uncorrected) letter home from the 8-year-old
Eric: "I supose you want to know what schools like, its alright we have fun
in the morning. When we are in bed." (Ah, such, such were the joys!) The
final entry has him signing his last will and testament three days before
his death, aged 46: he directed that the headstone on his grave should bear
the name "Eric Arthur Blair", but he also left instructions for the Uniform
Edition of the works of "George Orwell". Blair est mort: vive Orwell!
Stefan Collini is Reader In Intellectual History and English Literature
at Cambridge University.