George Orwell would not have been surprised by the brouhaha surrounding Kate Clanchy. Two years ago, Clanchy published Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, a non-fiction book about teaching poetry to disadvantaged schoolchildren which was well-received. Earlier this month a group of offence archaeologists on social media started trawling through it for ‘problematic’ passages and from their point of view it was as if they’d discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Clanchy had described an Afghan refugee as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’, another child as having ‘chocolate--coloured skin’ and nicknamed a third ‘African Jonathan’. She had also labelled two autistic children ‘unselfconsciously odd’ and ‘jarring company’.
Before long, a cry of ‘Burn the witch’ was echoing across Twitter and on Friday Clanchy issued a statement explaining how ‘grateful’ she was ‘to those who took the time to challenge my writing’. This was followed by a series of statements from Picador, her publisher, not only expressing their gratitude for ‘the insights’ provided by the witchfinder generals, but apologising for the ‘hurt’ they’d caused. The book would now be ‘updated’ in consultation with ‘an appropriate group of specialist readers’, i.e. the pitchfork-wielding mob.
So far, so predictable. As Orwell wrote in the unpublished preface to Animal Farm: ‘The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.’ At any given moment, he said, a body of ideas holds sway in the literary world and it is just assumed that all right--thinking people will accept them without question. The state plays no part in enforcing this orthodoxy; rather, it is entirely policed by the literary intelligentsia. If asked whether they believe in free speech, these intellectuals will profess that of course they do — what a ridiculous question. But if pressed on whether they’d defend the right of someone to publish a book that runs afoul of contemporary dogma — describing a child of colour as having ‘almond-shaped eyes’, for instance — the answer will be ‘No’. When the orthodoxy is challenged, their commitment to free speech evaporates.
Needless to say, Orwell was passionately opposed to this form of censorship. He’d experienced it first-hand with Animal Farm, which was rejected by four publishers, including Gollancz, which had published his previous books. The preface to Animal Farm, which was eventually published in the 1976 Italian edition, includes a clear statement of his belief in the importance of free speech: ‘If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth…’
In light of this, it pains me to report that one of the literary institutions that failed to defend Kate Clanchy was the Orwell Foundation, which awarded her book the Orwell Prize for political writing last year. Had I been a trustee of the foundation, I would have seen this as a heaven--sent opportunity to express my opposition to the tide of Maoist intolerance sweeping the literary world. Surely if a charity bearing Orwell’s name has a purpose, it is to keep the flame of intellectual freedom alive? The least the foundation could have done would have been to issue a statement standing by an author to whom it had awarded its most prestigious prize. But no.
‘The Orwell Foundation acknowledges the concerns and hurt expressed about Kate Clanchy’s memoir,’ it said. ‘The Foundation understands the importance of language and encourages open and careful debate about all the work which comes through our prizes.’ In a particularly cowardly move, it washed its hands of the decision to honour Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, explaining that the prizes were awarded ‘by a panel of independent judges…who make their own decisions as to the awards in each category’.
In his Animal Farm preface, Orwell said it’s ironic that the people you’d expect to take a stand against censorship are the ones who end up imposing it. ‘It is only, or at any rate it is chiefly, the literary and scientific intelligentsia, the very people who ought to be the guardians of liberty, who are beginning to despise it, in theory as well as in practice,’ he wrote. Orwell had an extraordinary gift for prophecy, but I doubt even he could have foreseen that in 2021 the intellectual community which failed to defend free speech would include a literary foundation named after him.