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George Orwell – freedom fighter and Old Etonian

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, Literature, War on Monday, 28 November 2011

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This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 863 published on  29 July 1978.

The Spanish Civil War, picture, image, illustration

A battle during the Spanish Civil War with insets (from left to right): George Orwell, Jack Jones of the TUC and Ernest Hemingway, by Severino Baraldi

He was educated at Eton, but spent periods of his life as a dish-washer, hop-picker, and tramp; he hated anything to do with the Establishment, yet joined the Burma police; he fought side by side with the Communists in the Spanish Civil War, and yet wrote a savage novel attacking Communism; he was always preaching that we should all learn to become Europeans, but there was nothing he liked more than a simple English meal washed down with strong English tea; he was an intellectual, but one of his most cherished books was a children’s novel, The Swiss Family Robinson.

His name was Eric Blair, and he is better known by his pseudonym of George Orwell. He was the bravest and most attractive of personalities, even though he once described himself as  being weak, ugly and cowardly.

George Orwell’s life was a colourful one. But the interesting thing about it was not so much what he did, but why he did it. To find the answer to that we have to go back to the beginning of his life.

Orwell was born in 1903, in Burma, the son of genteel and rather stiff-necked parents whose family roots spread into the Army, the Civil Service and the Church, all branches of the Establishment which he was to attack so bitterly in his books. Bright enough to obtain a scholarship at Eton, where he was wretchedly unhappy, he left there eventually to join the Indian imperial police in Burma, where he saw at first hand how the British Imperial ruling class operated.

Appalled by its reactionary attitudes he met there, he returned to Europe, where he became convinced that the true hope for the future of the world lay in Socialism and in the working classes. Unlike his parents and their kind, they did not go in for snobbery, but were always truly themselves. This somewhat romanticised view, which did not seem to accept that human fallibility exists at all levels of society, never altered.

Becoming more and more obsessed with proletarian life, Orwell began to explore its more seamy side. He stayed in workhouses, slept in doss-houses, and lived in a slum at Wigan. When the Spanish Civil War began, he enlisted with the Republicans in their struggle against Franco. Badly wounded in the neck, he returned to England, to find it unchanged.

The same snobbery existed, and still continued to exist even after World War II broke out, as Orwell was soon to learn. Soon after he had joined the Local Defence Volunteers, he was interviewed as a potential NCO. Asked what his military experience was, he told the interviewing office that he had fought in the Spanish Civil War for the Republicans.

The officer looked down his nose. “I’m sorry. We feel you’d be happier in the ranks.” Orwell was about to leave, when the officer asked: “By the way, what school were you at?”

“Eton,” Orwell said.

“My dear chap,” the officer said, beaming. “You’re just the type we need for NCOs.”

By then Orwell had published eight books, all of them social documents of the highest order. In between he had also written a large number of articles, including two now-famous ones, a piece on the Donald McGill picture postcards to be found on any seaside bookstall, and a perceptive article on the stories that used to appear in the boys’ comics Magnet and Gem.

Despite all this he did not become really well known as a writer until he published Animal Farm, which had the rare distinction of becoming a popular children’s book, while at the same time being a savage exposure of the totalitarian nature of Communism. The book was translated into 14 languages.

By the end of the war, Orwell had become a sick man. Retiring to a remote farmhouse on the Hebridean island of Jura, he wrote the first half of 1984, a bleak and grim fantasy about a future totalitarian England. But before he could finish it, his health collapsed and he was taken back to the mainland.

He wrote the second half of the novel in a TB Sanitorium in the Cotswolds. “If I hadn’t been so ill,” he afterwards remarked, “the book wouldn’t have been so gloomy.” But in view of the nature of the subject, it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise. It is not, however, as many people seem to think, particularly anti-Russian. It is opposed to the creation of any state in which the individual becomes merely the puppet of those who rule it.

George Orwell is now recognised as an outstanding writer of our times, both as a man of ideas and as a political writer. His death in 1950, at the early age of 46, robbed us of a writer whose full potential had still not been fully explored.

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