George orwell

Reluctant servant of the Raj: Burma Sahib, by Paul Theroux, reviewed

Eric Blair, to give George Orwell his baptismal name, arrived in Burma (present-day Myanmar) as a 19-year-old trainee police officer at the end of 1922 and left it in mid-1927 just before his 24th birthday. Not much of his time there had a direct impact on his work beyond a solitary novel, Burmese Days (1934), two luminous essays, ‘A Hanging’ (1931) and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (1936), a poem or two and a scattering of autobiographical fragments, most of which turn up in the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). None of his letters home survives and only a handful of reminiscences by people who knew him as

Sandra Newman: Julia

38 min listen

My guest in this week’s Book Club podcast is the novelist Sandra Newman, whose new book Julia retells George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from Julia’s point of view. We discuss the spaces Orwell’s classic left for her own novelistic imagination, what we do and don’t know about the world of Big Brother, and whether the misogyny in Orwell’s original belongs to the author or the dystopia he depicts.

Back to the world of Big Brother: Julia, by Sandra Newman, reviewed

Sandra Newman’s Juliahas a connoisseur’s nose for body odour. When she gets close to another person or animal, she almost always notices their smell – manly, dusty, dungy, a hint of talcum powder. When she suppresses emotion, she sweats. She sprains her wrist and tears rise ‘of themselves like sweat’. In a pivotal scene, she unblocks a gruesomely overflowing toilet. This abundance of bodily functions feels like a reminder of George Orwell’s original Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose physical abandon makes her an object of desire and symbol of rebellion. This fantasy is punctured in Julia. Bodies are sensuous but they are also skin-crawlingly horrible. Mutilated wrecks, with teeth and

Russia’s long history of smears, sabotage and barefaced lies

Russian politicians often refer to something called the Dulles Plan. This document purports to capture the future CIA chief Allen Dulles explaining, in 1948, the US strategy to destroy the moral foundations of the USSR and bring about ‘the death of the most intractable people on Earth… the definitive, irreversible dying out of its self-consciousness’. If this sounds like a fictional villain’s expository monologue then that’s because it is. The text was taken from an antagonist’s speech in a 1971 novel, Eternal Call, which itself recalled a much earlier Russian forgery, the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The ‘plan’ was written and disseminated in 1993 in an attempt

George Orwell’s unacknowledged debt to his wife Eileen

Anna Funder, the author of Stasiland, is a premier-league writer who can roll fiction, reportage, criticism and memoir into glinting prose, her sentences like handheld treasures you keep turning over, admiring their graceful contours and crafted precision. Lately she’s published little. In fact Wifedom is a book wrenched from the swirl of domestic duties that drown out women’s voices – the lifeline, in this case, being a chance find at a moment of ‘peak overload’ when she stumbles on a rare edition of George Orwell’s collected non-fiction. Eileen’s fingerprints are all over Animal Farm, a book that displays a psychological acuity Orwell lacked Diving into his essay ‘Why I Write’,

In praise of the suburban semi

In 1939 George Orwell took aim at burgeoning British suburbia and its population of lower middle class lackeys in his novel Coming Up for Air, memorably describing the new homes being built on the fringes of cities as ‘semi-detached torture chambers where the poor little five-to-ten pound a-weekers quake and shiver’. More than eight decades on and the Office for National Statistics reports that one in three of us lives in a semi-detached home, an architectural style with a far longer and more interesting history than Orwell may have been aware of. They are also – officially – the hottest property type on the market. Analysis of more than 100,000 house

Why George Orwell’s ‘perfect pub’ deserves to be saved

Eleven days after turning 45, I sent my first ever letter of complaint to the council. A real coming of (middle) age. The topic of my complaint? My local pub. I followed the British protocol for complaining – I made it clear I’m ‘dismayed’ and ‘appalled’ and hope people can ‘see sense’ – about an issue that has instilled such rage in me that a stiff drink is required. You see, my local, the Compton Arms in Islington, north London, is under threat of closure. This is no ordinary pub. Tucked away from the busy stretch of Upper Street, on a picture-perfect back road, is an establishment that has been

The unfamiliar Orwell: the writer as passionate gardener

This is a book about George Orwell’s recognition that desire and joy can be forces of opposition to the authoritarian state and its intrusions. To explore the theme, Rebecca Solnit has produced a sequence of loosely linked essays around the roses and fruit bushes the author of Animal Farm planted in 1936 in the garden of his modest Hertfordshire house. A Californian with more than 20 books behind her, Solnit opens this latest with a pilgrimage to Wallington, where Orwell’s Albertine roses have endured. The blooms instigate a reconsideration of the man ‘most famous for his prescient scrutiny of totalitarianism’, which in turn invites the author ‘to dig deeper’ and

Can a criminal really be ‘prolific’?

The BBC made a documentary about a man sent to prison for being the ‘most prolific rapist in British legal history’, in the words of Ian Rushton, the deputy chief crown prosecutor for North West England. To my ears, it sounds weird to call a rapist ‘prolific’. It sounds no better to refer to ‘one of the country’s most prolific serial killers’ as the Sun did last weekend. The difficulty is that the word still carries connotations of its Latin origin prolificus, ‘capable of producing offspring’. The Latin word was in use in Britain from the 14th century, and the English form developed only in the 17th century. Swift, in

Beyond 1984: why I’m listening to George Orwell

One of the great things about touring in the age of audio books, is that you can use your time driving between gigs, with nothing more to concentrate on than other half-tons of steel and rubber hurtling down ‘Smart’ motorways at suddenly varying speeds, to really binge on reading. I’d long been meaning to expand my knowledge of George Orwell. I’m pretty familiar with his better, or at least better known, essays and I have of course regularly scaled his Two Last Peaks, Animal Farm, and 1984. I’ve read Animal Farm so often that it has become a sort of catechism, and if it had a tune I could probably sing

How two literary magazines boosted morale during the Blitz

William Loxley’s lively account of ‘Bloomsbury, the Blitz and Horizon magazine’ begins with W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood emigrating to the United States in January 1939 and ends with George Orwell dying in University College Hospital in January 1950. Between these two events Loxley explores the often interconnected professional and personal lives of a number of British writers, publishers and editors — principally Orwell, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, John Lehmann and Dylan Thomas — during the second world war and its immediate aftermath. Faced with criticism in both public and private for his and Auden’s ‘defection’, Isherwood attempted in January 1940 to justify his action to

How the International Brigades were ‘thrown into the heart of the fire’

During the Spanish civil war of 1936 to 1939, 35,000 men and women from around the world volunteered to fight against the forces of General Franco and his supporters from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. When the volunteers were withdrawn in September 1938 after two years of bitter fighting, more than a fifth of them had been killed and very few emerged unscathed. Conflicts are by definition binary affairs, so it’s inevitable that bitterly contrasting views of the role of the International Brigades have existed ever since the civil war itself. For the volunteers and their supporters, their sacrifices were a ‘heroic example of democracy’s solidarity and universality’. Conversely, Francoist

Pure poison: BBC1’s Talking Heads reviewed

The big mistake people make with Alan Bennett is to conflate him with his fellow Yorkshireman David Hockney. But whereas Hockney’s art is generous, warm, bright, life-affirming, Bennett’s is crabbed, catty, dingy, insinuating. The fact that the BBC-led establishment keeps telling us he’s a National Treasure tells us more about the BBC-led establishment than it does about Bennett. Bennett is typical of the English intelligentsia Orwell anatomised in his ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ essay: ‘It is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.’ I’d forgotten quite

There’s nothing equal about this virus

Filthy germ-laden townsfolk were out and about on the footpaths near my home on Easter Sunday, dragging with them their awful, mewling children. I got the dog to harass them and occasionally shouted out: ‘These are local paths for local people. Clear off.’ One youngish father — lightly bearded, self-satisfied smirk, probably a sticker on his car window saying ‘-Refugees welcome here’ — even had the nerve to ask me for directions to the nearest train station so that he might return to his squalid Remainer tenement. I directed him and his family through a field which was fecund with manure and full of restive bullocks. The child — four

No lockdown, please, we’re Swedish

Uppsala Who would have thought that Sweden would end up being the last place in Europe where you could go for a beer? We have, in our normalcy, suddenly become an exotic place. Other countries are closing their cities, schools and economies, but life in our corner of the world is surprisingly ordinary. Last weekend I went to the gym, met up with friends, and sat in the spring sun at outdoor cafés. My foreign friends are stunned. They can’t fathom that there are still people enjoying the fruits of civilisation, as if the natural reaction to pandemics is to embrace totalitarianism. And they wrestle with another conundrum: how on

Coronavirus shouldn’t be used as an excuse to expand the state

Since this is the nearest most of us have ever got to living under the Blitz, I’ve been re-reading George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn. Written in London in 1940, it begins with the famous line: ‘As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’ The first part of the book, titled ‘England Your England’ contains more quotable lines per page than anything not written by Shakespeare. It is here that Orwell explains why he loves Britain, warts and all. The rest of the book, in which he makes the case for ‘democratic socialism’ is maybe less well known, but is characteristically clear and

What would George Orwell make of Brexit?

In the London Review of Books this month, James Meek wrote a long article about Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ‘curious duality’ in being both a high Catholic, fogey Brexiteer and a founder of Somerset Capital Management, which the author sees as globalist and ruthless. The piece is elegantly done, but entirely sneery. It makes not the slightest attempt to enter into the Mogg’s (or any Brexiteer’s) mind with any sympathy. I was thinking about this because the LRB’s publicity emphasised that Meek is an Orwell Prize winner. How we need an Orwell on the subject of Brexit. Although he came from a declaredly socialist view, he understood what it is — to use

The royals should embody virtue – not signal it

ONE should not be censorious if the Duke and Duchess of Sussex fly in private jets to their holidays, though one cannot help laughing when they combine this with exhortations to save the planet. There is, sadly, no royal yacht nowadays (a new one would be a good make-work scheme post-Brexit), and we are not a civilised enough country to leave them and their baby alone if they were to travel on public transport. But they are making two mistakes. The first is to go somewhere hot, sunny and celebrity-filled for their break. One of the secrets of the Queen’s popularity is that she has almost never been seen sunbathing with

Novel explosives of the Cold War

One autumn night in 1991, I stood on the rooftop terrace of a tacky villa in Saranda once owned by Albania’s Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, beside three elderly former SOE officers who were returning to Albania for the first time since 1945. In an image that summed up the waste and the horror of the Cold War, David Smiley stared out over the dark water at the lights of Corfu, from where, on a similar night in October 1949, he had sent a group of dissidents, code-named the ‘Pixies’, to launch an insurgency — and wiped his eye in silence. Smiley’s men had been ambushed as they landed, and then

Time warp

How we love bringing history into our political debates. It may seem strange in a country where so little history is taught at school, but perhaps that makes it easier. We grab hold of vague notions of the past for a Punch-and-Judy brawl. There could hardly be a better example of this than Brexit, in which we skim through the whole of our history to search for analogies to batter the other side with. The Roman empire, the Norman conquest, the Wars of the Roses, the British Empire, appeasement, the second world war, Suez… Leavers have fulminated against ‘traitors’ who deserve the Tower for flouting Henry VIII’s assertion of sovereignty.