Why George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has been relevant since the day it was written
Just as a live streaming of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was taking place, life began to imitate art
15 June, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Martin Jennings’ maquette of the statue of Orwell mooted for New Broadcasting House
BRAVO to Jeremy Corbyn. And bravo to George Orwell too, as the UK faces its most colossal EU challenge since victory at the end of the Second World War in which millions died.
For the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose message of a political prison of fake news from Big Brother, was broadcast two days before last Thursday’s general election vote – and no doubt helped sway the overwhelming response that defeated PM Theresa May.
Every word of Orwell’s final and fateful novel was live-streamed to theatres and libraries across the country in a 12-hour assault by a band of 68 admiring volunteers. They did it from University College’s Senate House in Camden, itself the inspiration for the so-called Ministry of Truth, and not far from University College Hospital where Orwell – real name Eric Blair – died in 1950, aged just 46.
The readers were headed by his adopted son Richard Blair, brought up in Orwell’s then home in Canonbury, Islington, and included his teenage great grandson Archie Blair, historian Simon Schama, novelist and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, film director Ken Loach, actor Dame Harriet Walter and Tory peer and journalist Baroness Wheatcroft.
The freedom of speech event, a collaboration between the Orwell Foundation and University College London, as part of our era of post-truth politics, was a first in the UK but has previously been broadcast in both America and Australia.
“The thing about Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it has been relevant since the day it was written,” said Richard Blair. “Every now and then world affairs seem to clash with it. And everyone stands back and says: ‘Goodness, how Orwellian it is. This is fake news. This it totalitarianism writ large’.
“So every now and then again say: ‘We must go and read Orwell again’ because it still hits the bestseller lists throughout the world, and everyone seems to think that Orwell was correct in his prognosis of world affairs and the way the world is going.”
What’s more, the momentous broadcast dramatically coincided with the announcement that after long delays the nine-foot high bronze statue of Orwell, a project conceived by Ben Whitaker, the late Labour MP for Hampstead, is to be unveiled in early November.
And another coincidence there too. The statue, the work of sculptor Martin Jennings, is to go up in the new Portland Place entrance to the BBC, where Orwell was part of the Eastern Service propaganda team for two years from 1941, and based Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four on the BBC conference room he hated.
“It would be good to have the unveiling on November 5 with fireworks all around,” said Baroness Janet Whitaker, widow of Hampstead’s first ever Labour MP, who chairs the George Orwell Memorial Trust. “But I suppose it will all depend on the diary of Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general. I’ll need to chase him to find out.”
She made the announcement following the delivery of the statue from the foundry, together with a cast of the bust to be unveiled at Eton College in May next year. Eric Blair, like Ben Whitaker, was educated at Eton.
Senate House, the inspiration for Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty Four
“Orwell was always my hero at Eton,” he often recalled. “He is such a marvellous example of honesty and integrity in writing. Animal Farm and its famous ‘All animals are equal..’ quote is my favourite book, a classic that is there to be read for all time.”
And it was while MP for Hampstead that he launched the appeal for an Orwell plaque on the site of what was Booklovers’ Corner, in Pond Street, where Orwell wrote his second novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and later lived in Parliament Hill and in Lawford Road, Kentish Town, which also display commemorative plaques.
But, as Baroness Whitaker pointed out: “It is amazing the unveiling will be taking place now with the government in disarray after calling an unnecessary election. In a way it’s tragic all these things are happening as if it were Orwell’s legacy. We really are living in the world of fake news.
“As for Theresa May, I didn’t like her attitude to immigrants when she was at the Home Office. And I thought cutting the police numbers was idiotic. But I did think she was competent even if she was a bloody difficult women – there’s nothing wrong with that, though everybody, in the end, comes unstuck.”
Her delight was in the success of Jeremy Corbyn.
“I like him very much,” she said. “I have known him quite well because he was chair of the all-party group on the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean and always supported a lot of the other causes I’m interested in.
“He is a very decent, principled man – it has been a real pleasure to work with.
“People found it very refreshing to have a straightforward, authentic politician for a change. And the way he has turned young people back on to politics – and vote at the election – is itself a real achievement.”
A remarkable third coincidence is the re-publication by Penguin of two of George Orwell’s noted pamphlets at just £1.99 – England Your England and Politics and the English Language, which contain so many of the quotes Orwell is remembered for that have direct parallels today.
If you recall Theresa May’s robotic slogans, remember that Orwell declared: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms… All issues are political, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”
And notably: “England is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family… A family with the wrong members in control.”