March 10th-12th – Remembering The Road To Wigan Pier

A Weekend to Commemorate

the Publication of

George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier

in March 1937, Eighty Years Ago

Day & Time


Event Information

Friday 10th March

7.30 PM

Sunshine House Annex, Wellington St,

Wigan WN1 3SA

A joint event with Wigan Diggers’ Festival, Sunshine House Community Hub and The Orwell Society

  • 7.30 – introductions

  • 7.45 – Professor John Newsinger’ s talk ‘From Wigan Pier to Nineteen Eighty-Four’ plus Q&A

  • 8.45ish – raffle and buffet

  • 9.15ish – “Chonkinfeckle” Wigan duo, ukulele and anecdotes, supported by Louise Fazackerly with a few poems

  • 10.30 til close, a bit of music.

Saturday 11th March

9.30 AM Until Midday followed by light lunch

Sunshine House Annex, Wellington St,

Wigan WN1 3SA

  • 9.30 Barbara Nettleton will give an informal talk about the role and work of Sunshine House for Orwell Society Members, but all are welcome to join this event.

  • 10.00 Formal Opening and Welcome to Wigan by Councillor Ron Conway, Mayor of Wigan.

  • Response on behalf of The Orwell Society by George Orwell’s son and Patron of The Orwell Society, Richard Blair.

Events this morning will be compered by Alan Gregory.

You will see the results of the work done by enthusiastic local people of all ages working with Wigan Poet Louise Fazackerly since Autumn 2016 when they attended workshops with Authors from English PEN.

  • SupercalifragilisticexpialiWriters from St Patrick’s RC Primary School will read poems they have written inspired by The Road to Wigan Pier (RTWP).

  • The Sunshine Writers group, who meet at Sunshine House, will perform dramatic pieces, which they have written interspersed with Memories of their personal experiences, which they recalled while in the Workshop and afterwards working with Louise.

  • A short interval

  • The Future Writers, who are pupils from senior schools in Wigan, will perform a Dystopian drama, which they have written inspired by RTWP. The idea was created by them after working with Louise.

  • Alan Gregory, your compere and his group Pianos, Pies and Pirouettes, will lead us in singing 3 songs, which he has written, which have been created from key passages in RTWP.

  • Stephen Armstrong – Author of Road to Wigan Pier Re-visited

  • Quentin Kopp on behalf of The Orwell Society and Donna Hall, Chief Executive of Wigan Council on behalf of Wigan.

Sandwich lunch at the venue.

Saturday 11th March

1PM to 3PM

Museum of Wigan Life, Library Street, Wigan, WN1 1NU

From the web site

The Museum of Wigan Life is housed in Wigan’s first public library and first public building with electric lighting. Alfred Waterhouse designed the building, which opened in 1878 and also designed the Natural History Museum in London and Manchester Town Hall

The event will be held where in 1936 George Orwell researched his book ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ in the Reference Library (now Family History and Local Studies) upstairs. Members of The Orwell Society will give talks on research they have conducted for this weekend.

  • Introduction to the Event by Les Hurst of The Orwell Society. ‘George Orwell’s Long Walk to Wigan Pier’:

A talk on how and why Orwell came to write the book, and how it came to be published and the derivation of the book’s title.

  • “Seeing What Orwell Chose to See in Wigan”. Dr David Craik has conducted research in the same material, which Orwell used when it was located in this room. He will talk and present original photos and material from that time.

  • Tim Foster – photos and presentation of Wigan Now.

  • ‘Poverty of Aspiration? No one aspires to Poverty’: Les Hurst will give a talk on conditions in post 1929 England

Questions are welcome after each speaker’s talk.

6PM to 7PM

The Mill at the Pier, ALRA North’s theatre

Trencherfield Mill Wigan, Greater Manchester

WN3 4B

  • Introduction to the Work of Sunshine House by Barbara Nettleton.

  • Plays have been created by current students supported by Lecturers and former Students of ALRA. The plays have been written by the students and inspired by RTWP

Sunday 12th March

10am – 11am

The Old Courts,

Gerrard Winstanley House, Crawford Street, Wigan, WN1 1NA

  • This morning’s event will include film of Wigan from 1936 and a tour of The Old Courts building

The Orwell Society

The Wigan Diggers’ Festival

The Orwell Society on Facebook

The Orwell Society would like to thank Wigan Borough council and its leaders and staff; the Museum of Wigan Life; Sunshine House and its staff and members; Stephen Armstrong; Louise Fazackerley; ALRA, staff and students, the Wigan Diggers; and everyone else who has helped during the two years we have been planning this 80th anniversary commemoration.

The Lion and the Unicorn: An Anniversary Commemoration

George Orwell’s war-time call to change, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialsm and the English Genius, was published on February 19th, 1941. On this February 19th, Dr Philip Bounds, author of Orwell and Marxism and an Orwell Society member, takes a look at Orwell’s book, paying particular attention to its first part, ‘England Your England’.

George Orwell’s response to the outbreak of the Second World War was a highly unusual one. Unlike many other people on the socialist left ˗ and in spite of the vigorous anti-war sentiments expressed in his writings of the late 1930s ˗ Orwell believed that Britain had no choice but to take up arms against Hitler’s Germany and its fascist allies. On the other hand, he rejected the idea that the war could only be won if patriotic Britons rallied around the existing government. Having seen the depths to which market forces had reduced the country during the slump, Orwell firmly believed that Britain would have to abolish capitalism and embrace socialism if the challenge of fascism was to be met. His message to his fellow countrymen was as startling as it was quixotic: War and revolution are two sides of the same coin. Without a socialist government to guide the country at its hour of supreme crisis, Britain may not have the strength it needs to consign Hitler and his armies to the dustbin of history.

LU 1
Orwell continued to think along these lines until at least the end of 1941. His most memorable account of his revolutionary war strategy can be found in The Lion and the Unicorn, a brief but deeply inspired book written in the Autumn of 1940 as German bombs rained down on London. Published by Secker & Warburg in February 1941 as part of the Searchlight series of books which Orwell co-edited with Tosco Fyvel, it aimed to persuade its readers that “We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war”.*1 But it also did something else. Drawing on all Orwell’s skills as an analyst of popular culture, it sought to relate its proposals for political action to an ambitious and highly suggestive interpretation of the English character.

Orwell’s goal in writing about the nature of Englishness was clear. Knowing that socialism had often been dismissed by its opponents as an alien creed, Orwell set out to show that there was actually a perfect fit between the politics of the left and the English people’s most enduring characteristics. His concern was not so much with the historical evolution of the English character as with the average Englishman’s bedrock habits and assumptions. According to Orwell, whose descriptive flights of fancy in the section entitled “England Your England” are as lyrical as anything he ever wrote, the English people were marked out by their gentleness, their hunger for privacy and their support for the underdog. These characteristics made them instinctively suspicious of the powerful and imbued them with a deep concern for the well-being of ordinary people. Although their freewheeling concern for freedom and justice had once made them sympathetic to liberalism, it was now increasingly clear (or so Orwell argued) that their deepest instincts could only be fully satisfied if they shifted radically to the left: “By revolution we become more ourselves, not less”.*2

Searchlight Books Cover
No reader can today feel entirely comfortable with Orwell’s musings about Englishness. Recent scholarship has shown us that national cultures are far more artificial, fragmented and historically changeable than Orwell seemed to believe. Nevertheless, The Lion and the Unicorn represents a high watermark in the British left’s efforts to invent a form of radical patriotism. Intent on challenging the association between patriotism and the political right, it serves as a salutary reminder that radical movements must always root themselves in the immemorial instincts of the people they claim to represent. It also serves as a useful entry point to the wider political culture of the 1930s and 1940s. Although many commentators have argued that Orwell’s fascination with Englishness set him apart from his radical contemporaries, The Lion and the Unicorn was one of many works in which the inter-war left tried to annex the English national character to the socialist cause. Especially influential in Orwellian circles were the abundant writings on the so-called “English radical tradition” produced by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). This body of work, exemplified by a series of seminal books and articles by the likes of Jack Lindsay, Edgell Rickword and A.L. Morton, had its roots in the politics of anti-fascism. Taking their lead from a famous speech by the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov’s at the 1935 Congress of the Communist International, British Marxists believed that Hitler, Mussolini and their ilk had won the support of ordinary people by posing as the modern inheritors of their respective national traditions. Their response was to argue that English national traditions had far more in common with the politics of the socialist left than with those of the fascist right, not least because the real history of England had been marked a by a titanic succession of popular struggles for social justice and democracy. The spirit of this attempt to reclaim Englishness for the left was summed up in Lindsay’s ringing declaration that “Communism is English”.*3 Although Orwell was often bitterly critical of the communist interpretation of Englishness, The Lion and the Unicorn addressed similar themes and subtly reworked some of its central arguments.

Jack Lindsay England My England
Some people might blanch at the idea that Orwell was influenced by communist texts, but his debt to the CPGB’s intellectuals is not as surprising as it may seem. The communists were among the only people in inter-war Britain seeking to analyse culture from a socialist perspective. As one of the few other writers whose understanding of culture was shaped by socialist ideas, Orwell naturally paid close attention to what they said. Many of his non-fiction writings either restate, develop or refute the communist position. It is just another example of Orwell’s admirably broad-minded capacity to learn from his enemies.

LU 1


  1.  George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (London: Penguin Books, 1982 [1941]), p. 100.

  2.  Ibid., p. 123.

  3.  See Jack Lindsay, England My England: A Pageant of the English People (London: Fore Publications, n.d. [1939]), p. 64.

Orwell Takes Coffee In Huesca 2017

<<Orwell toma café en Huesca>>

Commemorating the 80th anniversary of George Orwell’s arrival on the Aragon Front, the exhibition runs in Huesca from 17th February to the 25th June in the Museo de Huesca.

Present at the opening were Richard Blair, son of George Orwell, and Quentin Kopp, son of Orwell’s commander Georges Kopp, as well as leading figures from Spain and the regional government.

The event is curated by Victor Pardo.

Announcement by the government of Aragon.

The Orwell Society provided detailed coverage of the opening via links to newspaper and media reports on the 17th and 18th February, via its Facebook page.


Gerrard Winstanley, Diggers, Orwell and Reynolds


Gerrard Winstanley, born in Wigan and for a time a successful mercer before the upsets of the 1640s, was a leader of, and polemicist for, the Diggers, a small offshoot of the better-known and more powerful Levellers; the Levellers were themselves part of – though they were ultimately suppressed – the Puritan and Parliamentary opposition during the English Civil War and consequent Commonwealth (1649-1660).

In September 1944 George Orwell reviewed Selections from the Works of Gerrard Winstanley, edited by Leonard Hamilton with an Introduction by Christopher Hill. The Cresset Press had published a large octavo volume of 198 pages in a mainly khaki dustwrapper. Despite being produced in complete conformity to the war economy standards, its printers, the Chapel River Press, had made a volume of such quality that copies have survived in remarkably pristine condition today, seventy-odd years later.


We understand that the copy reviewed by Orwell was passed onto Michael Foot, who in turn passed it to its current owner, in another example of production quality being proved in its continued existence.

Orwell begins his review with a modern reference: ‘Every successful revolution has its June purge’, though he does not specify which June he is referring to, as this appears to be a popular month for revolutionaries to be suppressed: the Girondins in France in June 1793, the Nazis in June 1934, and the Stalinist opposition in June 1937. After more discussion Orwell expands on the suppression: ‘… the Diggers were swiftly crushed. The parvenu gentry who had won the civil war were willing enough to divide the lands of the Royalists among themselves but they had no intention of setting up an egalitarian society.’ Orwell points out that the troops sent against the Diggers tended to be sympathetic, as the Levellers were most active in the army, but Winstanley and his colleagues were driven off, and he ‘vanishes from history about 1660’.

Orwell in his review – it appeared in The Observer – does not quote other works, but his friend Reginald Reynolds was a Quaker and a historical pamphlet collector, who was familiar with the literature of the Civil War. Together Orwell and Reynolds would publish British Pamphleteers, an anthology of historic literature including Winstanley and other radicals.

Many reading Orwell’s review, though, would be familiar with the background to the revolutionary figures of the English Civil War through a number of books published in the previous decade. In 1940 the Left Book Club offered its members David W Petegorsky’s Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War.

LWDECW_fThe title sounds general, but the sub-title makes its subject explicit: ‘A Study of the Social Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley’. The copy shown belonged to a student who was familiarising themself with economics and history. Notes on the endpapers refer to ‘Economic theory of revolution’, ‘natural law gave no justification of private property’, ‘”to know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God”‘, and ‘morality social [sic] determined & human nature a product of social conditions’ (this last, of course, Marx’s concept of base and superstructure). Christopher Hill’s Introduction to the Selections refers to Petegorsky’s book.

A work on the wider area, with a chapter on Winstanley, had been published in H J Stenning’s English translation: Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution by Edward Bernstein. ‘Cromwell and Communism’ appears to be an addition to the title by either Stenning or his publishers, George Allan and Unwin in 1930, as Petegorsky in an appendix refers to the book in its 1895 German original as Sozialismus und Demokratie in der grossen Englischen Revolution, while its English title appears in his bibliography. It was reprinted in 1980 by Spokesman Books.

CAC_EB_fAccording to Orwell, ‘Winstanley’s thought links up with Anarchism rather than Socialism because he thinks in terms of a purely agricultural community living at a low level of comfort’.  Orwell goes onto to examine Winstanley’s complaint against the ‘Normans’, whom he blamed for the historic loss of common rights, on which Orwell would expand in his Introduction to British Pamphleteers. In his review, meanwhile, Orwell returned to the theme of his first sentence: ‘But alas! he (Winstanley) could see only too clearly that the victors of the civil war were themselves developing “Norman” characteristics.’ With hindsight we can now read a suggestion of Winstanley in Orwell’s own story of agricultural betrayal, Animal Farm.

Orwell’s review was criticized later in the month by Reg Groves for failing to emphasise Winstanley’s visionary side, but Groves retracted his complaint after hearing that this aspect had been cut by the newspaper subeditors on space grounds from the article submitted by Orwell. Groves – who was a member of the Balham Group, the original British Trotskyists – had received a sideways acknowledgement from Orwell in an earlier discussion of the Civil War.

In the conclusion to his 1940 review of The English Revolution: 1640, a collection of essays edited by Christopher Hill, Orwell wrote ‘The most interesting essay of the three, by Miss Margaret James, is on the materialistic interpretations of society which were already current in the mid-seventeenth century … It is a pity that Miss James fails to make a comparison between the seventeenth-century situation and the one we are now in. A parallel undoubtedly exists, although from the official Marxist [Orwell means CPGB] point of view the latter-day equivalents of the Diggers and Levellers happen to be unmentionable.’ One can infer from this pointed remark that Orwell and Groves had made the Digger comparison before.

BP_Contents 2

A poor quality reproduction of the contents page of British Pamphleteers, calling Winstanley ‘Gerard’.

Outside his collaboration with Reginal Reynolds, Orwell’s last comment on the Diggers seems to have come in ‘The Intellectual Revolt’, his 1946 essay series in the Manchester Evening News. Each essay was a thematic review. In the second, ‘What Is Socialism’ (an essay much less well-known than ‘What Is Fascism?’, because this series did not appear in the 1968 Collected Essays Journalism and Letters), Orwell concludes by considering Winstanley’s Selections, uses the words primitve Communism crushed by Cromwell, and then says ‘The “earthly paradise” has never been realised, but as an idea it never seems to perish in spite of the ease with which it can be debunked by practical politicians of all colours’. He ends ‘… it could be  claimed that the Utopians, at present a scattered minority, are the true upholders of Socialist tradition’.

by L J Hurst

Last updated February 12 2017



  • Orwell’s reviews of Winstanley and the Commonwealth can be found most easily in Orwell and Politics edited by Peter Davison (Penguin Books). It is Professor Davison’s detailed note that clarifies Reg Groves’ complaint and Orwell’s response about editorial abridgement.
  • Interest in Gerrard Winstanley, and inspiration for activities in line with his thought, is maintained by the Wigan Diggers. They now hold an annual festival in commemoration and celebration.
  • Quaker tradition has it that Winstanley joined their number – something mentioned by Bernstein, but Petegorsky has some quotations from the Restoration period suggesting that Winstanley was then regarded as a turncoat, who may have become a successful enclosed farmer.


The Adelphi Magazine – A 1930s home for George Orwell

The Adelphi was a magazine founded by John Middleton Murray, edited in the 1930s by Murray and then by Max Plowman. Its tone was progressive, associated with Christian pacifism and social advance. As with a number of similar magazines and imprints of the period it had reading and discussion groups around the country. Richard Rees, another editor, was able to give Orwell (often identified by his real name of Eric Blair or E A Blair in the pages of the magazine) the names of reading groups members on his journey to Wigan in 1936. It was through people he met in such ways that Orwell was able to see a wide range of housing, working and social conditions from the Black Country, through Lancashire and into Yorkshire.

Our illustration, from the collection of an Orwell Society member, shows an issue towards the end of the time that Orwell contributed. He was to disagree with Middleton Murray about the role that Pacificism could play in resisting the Nazis.

Adelphi 1939 f


The back cover contains a list of suggested reading from the year 1939. Notable is the recommendation of one of Orwell’s most explicitly titled pieces, and the first of the strong works he wrote around the period of the Second World War condemning the attitudes of the home nations to their colonies and native populations.

Adelphi 1939 rOne can see how The Adelphi approached the Second World War from the tone of its renewal slip.Adelphi 1939 renewalThe Dutch-based Remembering George Orwell website has a page showing some of the other issues of The Adelphi which contained works by Blair/Orwell. It was in this magazine that Orwell published ‘The Spike’ and ‘A Hanging’.  His poems included ‘Sometimes in the middle autumn days’, ‘Summer-like for an instant the autumn sun bursts out’, and ‘A dressed man and a naked man’. (The poetry is now available in George Orwell: Complete Poetry).


By L J Hurst

with thanks to Masha Karp

February 4 2017



Current Controversy

Readers will find that the Orwell Society has commented on current political controversies using its Facebook page. This is regularly updated, using quotations from the work of George Orwell relevant to events now.

We do not speculate on what Orwell would say or do today, but we can identify what Orwell did or said in similar circumstances.

Members of the Orwell Society committee have appeared on radio and TV speaking on this subject, and there are more interviews in print and online.

Two of our committee, Quentin Kopp and Leslie Hurst, were interviewed on the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show on January 25th. It is available online until February 24th. The interview begins at 33 minutes.


Welcome to Dystopia

Donald Trump’s first few days of office have been such an explosion of propagandist grapeshot many commentators have been reaching for their copies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.

Orwell’s seminal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ should also go on the emergency reading list.

As Orwell said political language from Conservatives to Anarchists ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says explaining away press secretary Sean Spicer’s claim of a record inauguration audience as ‘alternative facts’ means we have ‘come full Orwell.’

The full Orwell would recognise the game here of political speech being largely the defence of the indefensible.

As Orwell said ‘political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.’

Orwell never set foot in America. But he was an avid critic of its literature and politics.

He would be the first to concede that his political attitude to the USA was the very double-think he dramatized in Nineteen Eight Four.

He resented how post-war US economic dominance frustrated the realisation of the British socialist dream, but at the same time chose the American side against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

If Orwell were alive today I imagine Trump would amuse and horrify him at the same time.

Indeed, Trump does exemplify and project the double-think power to ‘hold two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.’

He says he respects women and at the same time clearly objectifies them.

He constructs Russian President Vladimir Putin as his friend, even invites the Russians to hack the computer systems of his political opponent, but at the same time emphasises the need to match Russian nuclear ambitions.

The Trumpian binary dance of contradiction has spawned the exquisite American neologism ‘frenemy’ – a word that is classic Newspeak from Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Frenemies take us back to the pigs in Animal Farm when Snowball was the hero of the revolution against the evil farmer Mr Jones, loyal and courageous to Napoleon, but later the traitor, deviationist and renegade.

Napoleon’s propagandist porker called Squealer was capable of persuading all the other animals that it was Napoleon and not Snowball who had attacked Mr Jones. He had secret documents to prove it.

It is not very difficult to imagine the potential volte face on Putin at the Trumpian White House press conferences to come.

As all students of Orwellian literature will recall Squealer can ‘turn black into white’ and is expert in ‘New Belief’.

Orwell would have appreciated how the eruption of populist demagoguery in the Brexit and Trump electoral triumphs on both sides of the Atlantic have generated a ‘post-truth’ anxiety in the mainstream media.

The key media institutions of journalism sense a crisis. Public sphere news and current affairs interpretation is supposed to represent reality to the audience.

Orwell said ‘realism’ used to be called dishonesty, and was certainly part of the general political atmosphere of his time.

He wrote in his account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, that bombs are indeed impartial because they killed the man they were thrown at, and the man who threw them.

At present Trump’s Orwellian cantata is more of a carnival of propagandist lies, even when, as Orwell so poignantly observed, one is in fact telling the truth.

The dangers lie in phase two of a ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ world.

Orwell’s key message in Nineteen Eighty-Four is that the purpose of propaganda is to narrow and limit human consciousness, confuse human conscience, and control and narrow the range of thinking.

After his death, Orwell’s crystal pane deconstruction of the corruption of revolution and the totalitarian game were adopted as propagandist weapons by the CIA against the Soviet Union.

The early transfer of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four to film was even financed by the CIA with the end plots changed from the Orwell originals.

If any Orwellian unmasking of Trump rhetoric begins to hurt, I imagine the day will come when the new President gestures with his characteristic shape and pinch hand movement and bellows ‘Fake Orwell.’

Professor Tim Crook, Orwell Society Committee Member

An abridged version of this article appeared in The Guardian 25th January 2017

Welcome to dystopia – George Orwell experts on Donald Trump


Orwell appreciated: just months after he died

One of the first appreciations of Orwell, published in June 1950 just months after his untimely death, came in a special edition of World Review. Interestingly, it mixed both celebration and critique. Orwell’s personality as much as his writings clearly fascinated many – and this is reflected in the articles here.


Around selections from Orwell’s Notebooks (from 18 May 1940 to 28 August 1941), which lie at the core of the journal, are contributions from a glittering array of (all male) journalists and intellectuals: Bertrand Russell, Tom Hopkinson, Aldous Huxley, John Beavan, Herbert Read, Malcolm Muggeridge and Stephen Spender.

World Review, published by Edward Hulton, described itself as ‘a monthly devoted to literature and the arts and all other aspects of our cultural interests’. It had previously published Orwell’s Appendix on Newspeak from his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (then shortly to be published) though without any background explanation. *i


In a brief editorial, Stefan Schimanski says that Orwell felt, ‘strangely enough’, that his diary should not appear until ten years after the events described. ‘Today, the records as he left them in his notebooks, have, indeed, the value of a document that brings to life a forgotten and short-lived period of high expectation.’

The first article (pp 5-7) – just a few hundred words – is by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. He highlights Orwell’s ‘admirable essay’ on Dickens and compares Animal Farm with Gulliver’s Travels. Swift’s satire, he suggests ‘expresses universal and indiscriminating hatred, Orwell’s has always an undercurrent of kindliness’. But he concludes on a critical note (pp 6-7): ‘The men of our day who resemble Goethe, Shelley or Wells in temperament and congenital capacity have mostly gone through, either personally or through imaginative sympathy, experiences more or less resembling imprisonment in Buchenwald. Orwell was one of these men. He preserved an impeccable love of truth, and allowed himself to learn even the most painful lessons. But he lost hope. This prevented him from being a prophet for our time.’

Next, Orwell’s Tribune colleague T. R. Fyvel contributes a 13-page biography. It is split into seven sections: after a brief Introduction, the second section is a moving, personal memoir of his time visiting Orwell in hospital just before he died. He writes (p. 7): ‘In this private ward, a square pane of glass is let into the door of each private sickroom, through which patient and caller can see each other. I visited him fairly often during these months, and my first glimpse of him was always through this glass, and always a slight shock, at the sight of his thin, drawn face, looking ominously waxen and still against the white pillow.’ Orwell would then immediately start to chat. ‘His need to plunge straight into conversation was more than ordinary shyness. It had something of the schoolboy about it. And to the last, even on his sick-bed, Orwell retained those boyish traits which were so marked in his character.’

But Orwell did not like talking about possible death. ‘To the last he kept his form. He read newspapers carefully, watching out for journalist misuse of words – one of his pet worries – and noting down instances. The last piece of work he was contemplating was to be a study of Joseph Conrad. The interaction of the Continental and English mind held a special interest for him.’ The last time he saw Orwell he seemed ‘particularly cheerful’ and they chatted about his plans to leave for Switzerland by ‘special charter aircraft’ and about their early schooldays.

In the third section, Fyvel examines Orwell’s class background with special reference to his comments in The Road to Wigan Pier. He next moves on to Orwell’s time at ‘a preparatory school in the South of England’ (St Cyprian’s, in Eastbourne, though for libel reasons its name is never given) at Eton and then, at the end of section five, in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He comments (p. 13): ‘In personal affairs, Orwell was always extraordinarily reticent, so shy as to be almost secretive. Though he seemed to like to deal in personal asides, e.g. “When I was fourteen or fifteen I was an odious little snob”, this was always in terms of social classification: the self-revelation is only apparent. In his novels, on the other hand, he himself stands out; for, if he had sharp power of insight, he had much less of invention. From Flory, in his first novel, Burmese Days, to Winston Smith in 1984 [as the novel is consistently called throughout the journal, rather than Nineteen Eighty-Four], his last, all his heroes are Orwell himself, suitably transmuted.’

Section six (pp 14-18) moves rapidly through the biography taking in publication of Down and Out in Paris and London, The Clergyman’s Daughter and Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his essays on Dickens and Kipling, his fighting in the Spanish Civil War, publication of Homage to Catalonia and finally of Coming up for Air. Orwell’s success, he stressed ‘remained confined to increasing prestige among a few discerning critics’. Fyvel adds in parenthesis: ‘Once, in 1940, he told me that he reckoned – he loved making such calculations – that his literary earnings over the decade 1930-40 worked out at not quite three pounds per week.’

In the final section (pp 18-20), Fyvel returns to personal reminiscences. ‘It was probably my second or third encounter with him which remained in my memory. It was at his small mews flat near Baker Street, in London, a rather poverty-stricken affair of one or two rather bare, austere rooms with second-hand furniture. I saw an extremely tall, thin man, looking more than his years, with gentle eyes and deep lines that hinted at suffering on his face.’ Following publication of Animal Farm in 1945, to ‘instantaneous success, especially in America’, Orwell, for the first time in his life, became ‘comparatively well off’. ‘But I found him in character quite unchanged – and physically very tired. … In spite of his many new friendships, he remained a solitary and a lonely man.’

In a section of the journal subtitled ‘Revaluations’, Malcolm Muggeridge, Orwell’s friend, former intelligence agent and later editor of Punch, contributes a surprisingly highly critical assessment of Burmese Days (pp 45-48). He writes: ‘Considered simply as a novel, Burmese Days is not particularly satisfactory. Most of the characters are stock figures, and most of the dialogue is intended rather to present them as such than to reproduce actual conversations.’ He continues (p. 46): ‘The description of the Europeans in their club, of their discussions about electing a “native” to membership, their quarrels and their drunkenness and their outbursts of hysteria, is somehow unreal.’

Perhaps in an attempt to offer some ‘balance’ he ends (somewhat unconvincingly) on a positive note: ‘Burmese Days, as I have said, is not on any showing a great novel. It is, however, extremely readable and, in some of its descriptive passages, brilliant.’

John Beavan, who next examines The Road to Wigan Pier (pp 48-51), was London editor at the time of the Guardian. Little did he know that he featured on Orwell’s infamous ‘little list’ of crypto-communists handed over to the government’s newly formed secret propaganda outfit, the Research Information Department, in 1949. There is an attempt to understand Orwell’s complex attitudes to class: ‘As a child he was taught that the poor were dirty and immoral and he was denied their society, though they seemed to him to be the most interesting and friendly of people. He never quite got over this.’ And Beavan ends: ‘Orwell produced at least one book that touched men of his time deeply, and that even his slenderest writings helped many of us to examine our consciences with something of his fierce honesty.’

Poet Stephen Spender, in his short article on Homage to Catalonia (pp 51-54), also takes the opportunity to comment on his personality: ‘He was perhaps the least Etonian character who has ever come from Eton. He was tall, lean, scraggy man, a Public House character, with a special gleam in his eye, and a home-made way of arguing from simple premises, which could sometimes lead him to radiant common sense, sometimes to crankiness.’ On Homage, Spender (p. 53) says that it had encouraged him to reflect on the meaning of the phrase ’the living truth’. ‘This has all too often in history been exploited in order to trample on human freedoms for the sake of some authoritarian teaching which is supposed to bring happiness in this world or the next. Orwell was extremely sceptical of the claim of any cause to represent “the living truth”. But he himself in his own life was an example of “the lived truth”, which is perhaps the most valuable truth anyone can offer to humanity.’

Tom Hopkinson, then editor of Picture Post, another Hulton publication, next looks at Animal Farm (pp 54-57). Actually, his stint at Picture Post was soon to be ended abruptly after Hulton objected to his publication in October 1950 of reports by James Cameron and photojournalist Bert Hardy of UN atrocities in the Korean War – and promptly sacked him. In his article, Hopkinson provides a precis of the novel, ending in glowing terms: ‘Orwell’s knowledge of farming helps to maintain the necessary faint illusion of reality. Nothing is shirked – even the relations of “Animal Farm” with its human neighbours. Everything is treated with combined lightness and assurance that suspend disbelief. … Animal Farm is a work of genius in the lofty tradition of English humorous writing.’

The art historian, poet, literary critic, anarchist, pacifist and philosopher, Herbert Read, in considering 1984 over just two pages, provides a rather strange explanation for its success (pp 58-59). He writes: ‘In his last years he saw only the menace of the totalitarian State, and he knew he had only the force left to warn us. It is the most terrifying warning that a man has ever uttered, and its fascination derives from its veracity. Millions of people have read this book. Why? It has no charm; it makes no concessions to sentiment. It is true that there are some traces of eroticism, but surely not enough to make the book, for those who seek that sort of thing, a worthwhile experience. An element of sado-masochism in the public may explain the strange success of this book.’

The novelist Aldous Huxley brings the collection of essays to a close with just half a page ‘Footnote about 1984’ (p. 60) critiquing the novel and at the same time promoting his own ideas. In his celebrated Brave New World (1932), Huxley says he prophesied the production of ‘Hypnopaedia’. It is now, he stresses ‘an accomplished fact’. ‘Pillow microphones attached to clock-controlled phonographs playing suitable recordings at regular intervals during the night are now being used quite extensively here by paediatricians who want to get rid of childish fears and bad habits, such as bed wetting, or to help backward children acquire larger vocabularies, and by students who want to learn foreign languages in a quarter of the time ordinarily required for the job.’ And he ends with a jibe at Orwell: ‘It looks very much as though the systematic brutality described in 1984 will seem to the really intelligent dictators of the future altogether too inefficient, messy and wasteful.’

Overall then, the various articles provide a fascinating if rather idiosyncratic insight into the early reception of Orwell.

Richard Lance Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln
and chair of the Orwell Society


*i See World Review: A Magazine Recommended By Orwell


An Index to CBC’s Orwell Tapes: Those Who Knew Orwell

“CBC is the only media organization with a comprehensive archive of recordings of people who knew George Orwell from his earliest days to his final moments.  There are fifty hours of recordings.  Some of this oral history was included in “George Orwell, A Radio Biography” which aired on CBC radio on January 1, 1984 – the first day of Orwell’s famous year. But much of it is being aired now for the first time.”

Link to The Orwell Tapes, Part 1

An index document to all three episodes of the Orwell Tapes

The direct links to the podcast mp3 files, along with participants lists, are in the index document. All this information is taken from the CBC website.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Steven Wadhams, thank you