George Orwell Always in the News: Number 8

J B Pick – The Man Who Let Orwell Explain Why He Wrote

John Pick who died in January 2015 at the age of 93 may have been the last surviving editor to have worked with George Orwell:-

‘His degree studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939. As an 18-year-old conscientious objector, he joined the Friends’ Ambulance Service, training in life-saving and hospital work in London during the Blitz. In 1943 he met and married Gene Atkinson. Later in the war he volunteered to work in the coal mines, sharing the miners’ lives for 18 months..

‘After the war he edited a short-lived journal, Gangrel, which published pieces by George Orwell and Henry Miller…He wrote poetry, and Under the Crust (1946) is a sympathetic record of conditions at the coalface from the point of view of a middle-class volunteer, full of memorable vignettes of his fellow miners.

‘A novel of social realism, The Lonely Aren’t Alone (1952), followed, then a satirical one, Land Fit for [‘]Eros (1957), written in partnership with a friend, John Atkins. (Daily Telegraph obituary 1st April 2015)

In fact, despite its short life, Gangrel was responsible for giving the world one of Orwell’s most signficant works, his essay ‘Why I Write’ (Gangrel Number 4, 1946). It can be read on The Orwell Prize website:

It was in ‘Why I Write’ that Orwell explained ‘The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it’.

And Orwell ended ‘one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed.’

Pick’s friend, John Atkins, wrote 1954’s George Orwell: A Literary Study, which was described on the cover of the American edition as ‘An appraisal from personal knowledge of the author’. His obituary, which quotes both Orwell and Pick, can be read here:

Pick, the conscientious objector, worked as volunteer coal miner in the War after having already served as an ambulance driver. Orwell, who had been down the mines himself, must have known the strength of character it took to volunteer (conscriptees who were sent to the mines rather than the forces, even the submarine service, regarded the ballot as a ‘disaster’, Orwell wrote in 1944).

BBC Radio 4 program on the Bevin Boy miners (27th May 2015):                                            

From his published criticisms of John Middleton Murray, Alex Comfort and others active in the war-time peace movement, some of whom he called ‘fascifists’, it may seem that Orwell rejected all such men, but given his continued association with Pick and with others such as Reginald Reynolds, who was also a volunteer driver though a C.O., that clearly was not true.

Gangrel 4 1946 (2)


Message by Richard Blair, Patron of The Orwell Society

Dear Member,

Thirteen members of the Society have just returned from a memorable trip to Spain.  We will be posting a full report and pictures on the website and Facebook pages soon but suffice to say it was a wonderful experience, with time spent in Barcelona and at the front line in Aragon.  We made many new friends including at a book shop in Huesca where we were greeted by around 30 locals for a talk and book signing.  We also received coverage from a Barcelona newspaper and had a Times journalist accompanying us.  You may have seen the resulting coverage in yesterday’s Times by Graham Keeley which I would like to comment on.

You will see that the Times article states that I “demanded” that the trenches be restored. This is rather overstating my wishes. I have no desire to start a war with the Spanish Government, but only to express a view that I hoped the good work that Victor Pardo has done over so many years, the museum and the restoration of the trenches that Orwell fought from (the Ruta de Orwell in the Aragon area) would continue to be maintained, and that people from all nationalities might come and visit. That the present Government has withdrawn funding for such projects is disappointing but, should there be a change of power, perhaps funding might one day be restored. Meanwhile, I don’t think the small voice of the Patron of the Orwell Society will make a great deal of difference one way or another to the way Spain is governed and how it views the preservation of its historic sites.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Blair


The Orwell Society

George Orwell Always in the News: Number 7

Intelligent Life Magazine on Orwell’s World 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2015: ‘Orwell’s World’

‘After the collapse of communism, neo-cons and libertarians would use Orwell as an argument against Big Brother and the nanny state. Yet he had categorically stated that everything he had written since his return from the Spanish civil war had democratic socialism at its very heart. It was possible to spot Orwellian scenarios on both sides of the Iron Curtain’.

Spotted by Orwell Society Chairman, Richard Lance Keeble.


George Orwell Always in the News: Number 6

John Sutherland, George Orwell and English Rhyme

‘Was Shakespeare gay, and does it matter?’ by John Sutherland

Contains this paragraph: ‘Sonnets, one should note in passing, are hard to read – particularly as they move on to the “sestet”, or last six lines. They are also particularly hard to write in English. As George Orwell noted, the cross that English poets have to bear is too few rhyme words (how many for “love”? glove / dove / above – that’s it). There are infinitely more in Italian – the home of the sonnet.’

Where did Orwell say this? Actually, he didn’t. The paucity of rhymes in English is discussed by Ampleforth and Winston Smith in the cells of the Ministry of Love:

‘Ampleforth,’ he said.

There was no yell from the telescreen. Ampleforth paused, mildly startled. His eyes focused themselves slowly on Winston.

‘Ah, Smith!’ he said. ‘You too!’

‘What are you in for?’

‘To tell you the truth — ‘ He sat down awkwardly on the bench opposite Winston. ‘There is only one offence, is there not?’ he said.

‘And have you committed it?’

‘Apparently I have.’

He put a hand to his forehead and pressed his temples for a moment, as though trying to remember something.

‘These things happen,’ he began vaguely. ‘I have been able to recall one instance — a possible instance. It was an indiscretion, undoubtedly. We were producing a definitive edition of the poems of Kipling. I allowed the word “God” to remain at the end of a line. I could not help it!’ he added almost indignantly, raising his face to look at Winston. ‘It was impossible to change the line. The rhyme was “rod”. Do you realize that there are only twelve rhymes to “rod” in the entire language? For days I had racked my brains. There was no other rhyme.’

The expression on his face changed. The annoyance passed out of it and for a moment he looked almost pleased. A sort of intellectual warmth, the joy of the pedant who has found out some useless fact, shone through the dirt and scrubby hair.

‘Has it ever occurred to you,’ he said, ‘that the whole history of English poetry has been determined by the fact that the English language lacks rhymes?’

No, that particular thought had never occurred to Winston. Nor, in the circumstances, did it strike him as very important or interesting.

(_Nineteen Eighty-Four_ Part Three Chapter One)

So Orwell wrote it, but he did not say, it is a subject discussed by his characters. All of which is odd, because the original subject that Sutherland is discussing is a spat between two aged academics, one of whom think that Shakespeare wrote gaily because he was gay, the other who thinks that the gay voice was adopted as a persona by the poet and not his actual feelings. So in his reference to Orwell on English rhymes Sutherland is actually adopting the position of one of his academic subjects rather than remaining neutral; an error, surely?

Read more about the role of literary revisionism in Peter Davison’s Orwell Society article: ‘Parallel Worlds: George Orwell and Vasily Grossman’, including references to Ampleforth’s errors:


George Orwell Always in the News: Number 5

Figures Close To The Target

In March 2015, The Telegraph published a tribute by Jake Kerridge to Lionel Davidson, the thriller writer whose work is being re-discovered. Born in 1922, ‘During the Second World War Davidson served in submarines in the Pacific; he claimed to have been one of only two Jews in the submarine service.’

This will not surprise anyone who has read Orwell’s essay ‘Antisemitism in Britain’, which was first published in Contemporary Jewish Record in April 1945:

‘…thirty years ago … In theory a Jew suffered from no legal disabilities, but in effect he was debarred from certain professions. He would probably not have been accepted as an officer in the navy, for instance, nor in what is called a “smart” regiment in the army.’

Although he was writing for a specialist publication Orwell offered no official or academic sources for his claims at the time, but Davidson’s recollection supplies that detail mainly because after the war Davidson ‘became preoccupied with his Jewish heritage – many of his relatives had been killed in the Holocaust – and, in 1968, moved his family to Israel. Such was his eminence that the government provided him with an office in Jaffa’, so he would have had time to think about the people with whom he served. He had met only one other Jew in the RN submarine service. If he served as an AB rather than an officer then his experience proves Orwell’s claim absolutely and is another example of Orwell’s ability to make a statement that can be proved true independently. Even at its weakest (‘probably not’), it shows that Orwell realised that the Royal Navy had this tendency.

There are letters showing Orwell kept in touch with men in the Army and (I think) Air Force, but none to seamen come to mind. So, now he is proved right, how did he know? Who or what was the source of Orwell’s information? Can anyone help?


George Orwell Always in the News: Number 4

Orwell’s Pamphlet Collection

An index to George Orwell’s pamphlet collection is available on the British Library website:

While it has the drawback of being a PDF, so it can be read, but it cannot be sorted or filtered, and that consequently volumes from the same series appear on many different pages, and that it is not so easy to find volumes on a similar subject, it is a good starting place for anyone interested in seeing what Orwell collected or was sent. In one case, his Tribune articles show, Orwell received a work on which his informant had written “Burn when read”. I wonder if that can be found in the collection now.

The BL also has an article on the subject: ‘George Orwell’s Loft: The author’s own collection of pamphlets’ by Andy Simons.


George Orwell Always in the News: Number 3

Orwell’s Publisher Caught in Controversy

Six years after Frederick Warburg published George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-Four his publishing house, Secker And Warburg, was caught in controversy when he published T. Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye.

The controversy was dramatised in 2012 and now the BBC have repeated the play, ‘The Third Eye and the Private Eye’ by David Lemon and Mark Eccleston. It will be available to listen again on the BBC website until the 27th May, 2015. Find it here:

The protests against The Third Eye were lead by the Nazi mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who became famous for his Seven Years In Tibet. How far the original controversy was intended to clarify historical matters and how far it was intended to inconvenience a progressive publishing house is not clear.

Harrer’s later apology for his SS membership was that he was young and had not learned to think for himself; in fact, he was 26. Some words of Orwell’s come to mind: ‘In Life On The Mississippi there is a queer little illustration of the central weakness of Mark Twain’s character. In the earlier part of this mainly autobiographical book the dates have been altered. Mark Twain describes his adventures as a Mississippi pilot as though he had been a boy of about seventeen at the time, whereas in fact he was a young man of nearly thirty. There is a reason for this. The same part of the book describes his exploits in the Civil War, which were distinctly inglorious. Moreover, Mark Twain started by fighting, if he can be said to have fought, on the Southern side, and then changed his allegiance before the war was over. This kind of behaviour is more excusable in a boy than in a man, whence the adjustment of the dates. It is also clear enough, however, that he changed sides because he saw that the North was going to win; and this tendency to side with the stronger whenever possible’.

What Orwell wrote of Mark Twin applies to Heinrich Harrer, who may have been an excellent climber but was a flawed human being. Twain ended his war on the decent side, a century later Harrer spent World War II as a nuisance POW in India. Glossy films cannot disguise that.




George Orwell Always in the News: Number 2

Writers protest PEN honour for ‘Charlie Hebdo’

‘Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and at least three other writers have withdrawn from next month’s PEN American Center gala, citing objections to the literary and human rights organisation’s honouring of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’ (Guardian 27th April 2015). Read the article here:

Read the Guardian article before you read on. The problem of ‘problem literature’ and of the attitudes of PEN itself are not new. In fact, if the report stirs any thoughts in you it is probably because of one essay, first published nearly seventy years ago, ‘The Prevention of Literature’ by George Orwell. You can read it in its entirety online:

Orwell begins by discussing problems with PEN in his age.

The names of the enemies of freedom of thought may have changed from Orwell’s time to ours, but this statement still seems true: ‘the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats, but that on a long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all’.

Orwell was thinking of the situation in Britain particularly, but as events since his death have shown Orwell had thought enough for the whole world.


George Orwell Always in the News: Number 1

The Morning Star for April 20th 2015 carries a review of ‘No Other Way: Oxfordshire and the Spanish Civil War 1936-39′ by Chris Farman, Valery Rose and Liz Woolley (Oxford IBMC, £8)

Their reviewer writes, ‘The authors do not court controversy — the much disputed role of George Orwell is dealt with sparsely. And it’s disappointing that only a little more than a third of the subjects were individually identified in the book as Communist Party members and its role comes across generally muted.’

Is the petulance of this reviewer what one finds in the members of the IBMT? No. Quentin Kopp of the Orwell Society notes: ‘This CP attitude, is certainly not shared by the key figures in the IBMT. They made us very welcome at the specific event 3 years ago, when they focused their Len Crome lectures on the 75th Anniversary of ‘Homage To Catalonia’.

‘Since then we have built a firm relationship with them and we have attended the subsequent events and have at their invitation taken a table in the exhibition space to promote the OS.

‘The only person, due to speak at the 75th commemoration event, who took the old line was Paul Preston. His essay was read for him, because he was unable to attend due to his own and his wife’s illness. He produced the old “straw man” that Orwell claimed to speak with authority on the whole Civil War. In fact as we know, Orwell very specifically says in ‘Homage…’ that his work is confined to the specific places and events he saw himself, including of course the CP treatment of my Father, Georges Kopp.’

The book itself seems interesting and is available at £8, including p&p, from IBMT, 6 Stonells Road, London SW11 6HQ.


Eileen Blair Commemorative Visit to Tyneside

An Attendee Writes

Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who married Eric Blair, was born in South Shields on the mouth of the River Tyne in 1905, and died hearing the same accents only a few miles away in Jesmond in 1945. That final date was March 29th, and on the seventieth anniversary of her death Orwell Society members, lead by her son Richard, made a commemorative visit to Tyneside.

Arriving as a vanguard on the 27th, Sylvia Topp – author of a biography-in-progress of Eileen – and Les Hurst explored the intellectual life of Tyneside through a visit to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Institute, before taking a ride on the Metro to Cullercoats, home to a Victorian artists’ colony and a century-old marine laboratory. Sylvia has been liaising with local researchers from her home in New York as well as making visits such as this one, so was able to tie together all that she saw. When Eileen was growing up on Tyneside it was an industrial, a scientific and an intellectual powerhouse.

The next day, Saturday March 28th, saw the arrival of the Society members, including Richard and Eleanor Blair and events organiser Quentin Kopp and his wife, Liz; ten of us altogether. From the start we were able to keep to our timetable, and heading to the nearby Metro station we took a ride out to South Shields, passing through Jarrow on the way. At South Shields Library Theatre we met Gary Wilkinson, a local historian and the director of ‘Wildflower’, a film biography of Eileen, and Tom Kelly, a local poet and historian. After being fed by The People’s Cafe we watched ‘Wildflower’ on the big screen and heard Tom Kelly read his poem ‘You, You, You’ – his response to all he had learned of Eileen’s life. It was then time to explore the locations of Eileen’s childhood, as all the homes in which she had been born and raised in the town are extant. Our group made its way through the bright, if wind-whipped streets, especially impressed by Westgate House, the long-term family home, before walking back to see the Customs offices on the High Street, and continuing to the riverside Customs House, where Eileen’s father had been the chief officer (now an arts centre with a cafe providing warm relief from the elements). Thanks to Sylvia for identifying the houses and to Gary for planning such a pleasant walk.



Saturday evening found us back in the city in an Italian restaurant for a group meal. Just as we had experienced at lunchtime in the People’s Cafe, we had fascinating and wide-ranging conversations. They are a feature of the OS, and one reason why the society deserves to exist.

On Sunday morning at 10am our darker mission began. We took the Metro again, to Jesmond, where Fernwood House in March 1945, had been a medical clinic and Eileen was due for an obstetric operation. Now the head office of Gregg’s The Bakers, David, the Manager of the Gregg’s Foundation, opened the building to show us the rooms which had existed seventy years ago. The house was built by one of the Novocastrian ship owners with a belvedere on the roof, from which he would have looked down at his fleet on the river. It was in this building that Eileen died on the operating table.


Eileen’s husband, Eric, was in Paris as a war correspondent, and though he returned as soon as possible when he learned she had died, the funeral arrangements were made by George Mason, a former colleague and family friend of Eileen’s brother Laurence O’Shaughnessy. We continued from Fernwood House to Haldane Terrace where Mason had lived, in which Eric/Orwell stayed for the funeral, and then made our way to St Andrews cemetery and to Eileen’s grave, as Mason and Orwell would have done seventy years before. Richard Blair, with porterage supplied by Liz Kopp, had brought a rose to plant on the grave. Orwell had once done the same, though his has been lost. The rose planted, Richard read Tom Kelly’s poem, ‘You, You, You’, as the rain which had held off during all of our previous excursions began to fall.



We returned to the city centre from West Jesmond station and made our separate journeys home.

Along the way we learned more: that Eileen herself in 1934 had written a poem on the year 1984; that the concept of the year 1984 was a Tyneside invention (it was the Venerable Bede in Jarrow who used the BC/AD dating system in which 1984 is a year). Perhaps one of our symposia mentioned that Newcastle was once home to Yevgeny Zamyatin, who recalled ”In England [in 1916], I built ships, looked at ruined castles, listened to the thud of bombs dropped by German zeppelins’, all of which would have been among Eileen’s formative experiences as well. Eileen would know war with Orwell in Spain, but unlike him, she lived through the coastal air raids of the Great War. Perhaps – as with the authorship of ‘Animal Farm’, we will never know – she contributed something to George Bowling’s vision of bombs falling in ‘Coming Up For Air’. And perhaps in the experience of Eileen’s loss of her brother Lawrence at Dunkirk, which changed her forever, Orwell also learned some of the loss he placed in Winston Smith.

We are grateful to Gary, Tom and David, to the ladies of the People’s Cafe and to everyone else on Tyneside who helped us. Such a visit is not one to be made frequently, but in five years time some of us may visit Eileen’s grave again, to check that the rose planted by her son is flourishing.

Les Hurst

The official society for the author Eric Arthur Blair known as George Orwell