George Orwell died 70 years ago. It would be hard to find another writer of his generation who had as profound an influence on, and prophetic accuracy about, the world we now inhabit. David Bowie, The Jam, Eurythmics, Radiohead, Dead Kennedys, Subhumans, Spirit, even Stevie Wonder all wrote songs openly inspired by Orwell, and lord knows how many other musicians, filmmakers and writers had their visions more subtly reshaped by his words. Nineteen Eighty-Four, his final novel even hit the bestseller lists again in the past year. Where would we be without Orwell, without doublethink, Big Brother, two-minute hates, 2+2=5, the memory hole, Winston Smith and Julia…and on and on?
On an inside page of my copy of Such, Such Were the Joys by George Orwell (first U.S. edition, hardbound), I found this inscription, written in pencil, by a previous owner of the book:
“I love this man—for his honesty, his hatred of cruelty and oppression, his passion for social justice, his love of men and nature, the flavor of his personality. I believe it is very good that he has lived and written and grieve for his early death as for the death of a friend.”
I have never bothered to erase the inscription for two reasons: I simply cannot top it; and it uncannily echoes my own sentiments about the author born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 and who, as George Orwell, changed the way we look at the world, and then died in 1950 just as he hit his literary peak with his dystopian novel 1984.
I am, alas, an Orwell fan. I am in good company: David Bowie, The Jam, the Eurythmics, Spirit, Radiohead, Subhumans, Dead Kennedys, even Stevie Wonder all wrote songs inspired by his writings.
David Bowie – ‘1984’ from Diamond Dogs:
Stevie Wonder – “Big Brother”, from Talking Book:
But it’s probably worse than mere fandom in my case. I am an Orwell obsessive. I own multiple editions of every book he wrote, including all collections of his letters, essays and journals. I own all the biographies and commentaries on his work, of which there are legion. Though he only published nine books during his lifetime, my Orwell collection takes up three shelves and they have pride of place in my office above my collections of Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Edmund Wilson and Henry Miller.
Years ago, at the Center for British Art at Yale University, I met the photographer Humphrey Spender, brother of Stephen Spender (the British ex-patriate who became the U.S. Poet Laureate). An octogenarian by then, the spry Humphrey Spender was at the opening for an exhibition of his own photographs from the 1930s and 1940s in England. His starkly beautiful black-and-white images of working class sections of the UK, coal mining communities, city street life and wounded countrysides were reminiscent of the great work done around the same time in the U.S. by FSA photographers like Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, et al.
When I saw Humphrey standing alone at the reception, I decided to risk making an ass of myself and approached the distinguished gent. My first question, after remarking on the beauty of his photographs, was, “Did you know George Orwell?” He quickly responded with a smile, “Oh yes…I knew Orwell quite well, met him for tea on occasion…a strange but fascinating chap he was…”
Nearly awe-struck, I asked, “You knew George Orwell? Can I shake your hand?” And I did so for far longer than was socially acceptable. “Forgive me, Mr. Spender, I have never met anyone who knew and talked with George Orwell.”
Happily, Ol’ Humphrey laughed appreciatively but, before he could share any Orwell anecdotes, he was button-holed by the curator and led over to a group of far more important guests than me.
George Orwell died 70 years ago. Weakened by chronic lung ailments and the Herculean physical strain of completing 1984, his final novel, he nonetheless continued writing to the end, continued planning future projects and even kept fishing gear at the foot of his hospital bed for what he hoped would be a recuperative outing once he was back on his feet.
It was not to be, and he probably knew it, too. But it was like Orwell to keep the upper lip stiffened and the inner light burning.
Yes, it is very good that Orwell has lived and written, but I consider his death at age 46 to have been one of our greatest literary losses. I grieve it, so to speak, even though it occurred 70 years ago. I’m tempted to say it occurred in an entirely different world from the one we live in now, and yet our world now seems so much more like the world Orwell prophesied than it did 50, 40 or even 30 years ago. The parallels to 1984—fake news, alternative facts, two-minute hate, doublespeak, memory hole, Ministry of Truth, etc.—have been much remarked upon and the book briefly reentered the bestseller lists (along with Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here) in the past year or so. They even invented a word to describe this world: Orwellian.
“1984” – Spirit:
Such, Such Were the Joys is a collection of essays compiled shortly after his death and one of his less-discussed books. Included in it are three of his greatest essays, “Why I Write,” “Inside the Whale” and “England Your England.” The title essay—the manuscript for which was found among his posthumous papers—was published for the first time in this volume. It is both hilarious and harsh, a not-so-fond remembrance of his schooldays. Orwell is seldom credited for his humor, but he could be a very funny writer.
Had he not been cursed with weak lungs, exacerbated by a neck wound sustained while fighting in the Spanish Civil War (see his extraordinary account, Homage to Catalonia, for details) and lived another 30 or 40 years, he would have continued to produce crystal-clear writing (“Good prose is like a window pane,” he once noted). Even on his death bed, he had sketched out several long-term writing projects, including books about George Gissing and Charles Dickens, two writers he admired, another book of essays and more novels.
Who knows, though, maybe he would have disappointed us, or renounced his views, or turned to writing schlocky thrillers and lukewarm sequels to Animal Farm, or worse: Become an intolerant and intolerable crank, like Gore Vidal or Christopher Hitchens at the end of their lives.
Ah, little chance of that. The opening line of “Why I Write,” the first essay in the posthumous Such, Such Were the Joys reads: “From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.” Toward the end of that essay, he wrote, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Best books about Orwell:
Orwell by Michael Shelden (1991): Arguably, the best, least agenda-driven, biography of Orwell.
Honorable mention: The Unknown Orwell and Orwell: The Transformation (1972, 1979): A two-volume study of how Eric Blair, Eton graduate and daydreaming idealist, became “George Orwell.”
Eric & Us: A Remembrance of George Orwell by Jacintha Buddicom (1974): A sweet-tempered account of the boyhood and teenage years of Eric Blair through the lens of his friendship with three children from the Buddicom family.
The Road to 1984: George Orwell by Peter Lewis (1981): A “study” of the enigma of George Orwell, well worth having for the illustrations and photographs alone.
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (2005): Larkin sets herself an unusual and difficult premise: to travel to contemporary Burma, a police state when she wrote this, and retrace Orwell’s footsteps when he was the unknown Eric Blair, a member of the Imperial Police in Burma. Remarkably, she pulls it off, finding ghosts of Orwell and his prophetic voice about totalitarian rule in the contemporary world.
The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell by George Woodcock (1966): Countless books of literary criticism of Orwell have been published. If you’re into that sort of thing, this sympathetic and accessible book by a Canadian friend of Orwell’s, is the best of the lot.
“2+2=5” – Radiohead live (studio version on Hail To The Thief):