New Times,
New Thinking.

The memeification of George Orwell

The writer has become a national treasure, moral arbiter and begetter of biographies: do we need a new one?

By Robert Colls

David Taylor has already written one biography of Orwell, from 2003, and now he’s written another. Why? Although the two books are different, there’s not that much you can change in the life itself. We know how it runs. Born Eric Blair, India, 1903. Public Schoolboy 1911-21. Burma Sergeant 1922-27. Down-at-Heel Writer 1927-34. Great Road North 1936. Spanish Civil War 1937. TB 1937-38. Marrakech 1938-39. Great Patriotic War 1939-45. Animal Farm 1945. Hebrides 1946-48. Nineteen Eighty-Four 1949. Last Days. Dies.

The New Life has the advantage of being able to draw on about a dozen previously unpublished letters, but to no real consequence. Not much bothered by other biographers, Taylor raises nobody up, casts nobody down, shows little interest in grand theories and doesn’t come up with any of his own. By and large he sticks to his brief – the life and those who hovered close to the flame.

The publishers’ proud claim that this is the first full-length study for 20 years is not true. The best reason for a second try is that Orwell is worth it. Born as he was into a world at war, a biography of Orwell is almost a running history of that world in 46 years – years in which he hammered himself into a writer of monstrous talent, enormous breadth, and enduring significance. In spite of old colonial money on both sides of the family – sugar and opium on the English side, Burmese teak on the French – it was as a man of the left that Orwell took a sharp and personal interest in struggle wherever he found it. At the same time, for someone who swept so wide (his Eastern Service BBC wartime scripts were outstanding) he also ground exceeding small. One moment we find him discussing nationalism and imperialism as great historical tides, the next moment he is an imperial policeman lying flat on his belly, shooting an elephant he didn’t want to shoot in a village he didn’t want to police. A jeering crowd and a man at bay – it was in small things such as these that Orwell lifted his sights and found his range.

In recent times, the appeal has gone beyond the writing. He has become a trope, a meme, a signifier, a symbol, a moral force, a patron saint of lost causes and begetter of hopeful ones. He thought working for the BBC was a lost cause, but that didn’t stop the corporation sticking a statue of him at the front door. There he stands outside Broadcasting House, like a doorman spoiling for a fight or looking for a light, however you see him. His deeply etched face, like Big Brother himself, has become part of our culture. Taylor reckons Orwell is not now just a popular writer “but someone who has quarried his way down into the heart of the human condition”. Want to give your op-ed a bit of moral welly? Reach for George.

And yet, for all that, Taylor still sees him as unquestionably homophobic, possibly anti-Semitic, surprisingly selfish, and surely a less good husband than Eileen deserved. But there he is, still at odds with himself, still quarrying into the human condition, still telling us it like it is. Spoils of the Spanish war? So much shit and horse piss. Marks of the British empire? Blue tattoos on his knuckles. Testaments to journalism? “In Defence of PG Wodehouse”, “How the Poor Die”, “A Hanging”. No other 20th-century English writer comes close. Philomena Cunk has already done Shakespeare and Shakespearean. Time surely for a whole new documentary on Orwell and Orwellian. Why did he go animal farming? Why did he write about a pier? If he was so poor, why did he go dining out in Paris and London?

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Orwell is worth a second try and so is David Taylor, who has grown so close to his subject that he has picked up some of his writerly tics – old adjectives (“fly-blown”) for instance, or bold judgements (prep school ruined his life), or a tendency to fix people in the scheme of things. Taylor claims that Orwell “sits at an oblique angle to…early 1930s talent”, while in fact it is truer to say that at that time Orwell did not sit at an angle to anybody.

[See also: George Orwell on Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”]

Taylor writes generously, but with more confidence and bite than last time round. Interested in what Orwell thought and did, he is also interested in what Orwell thought he thought and did, which raises the bar considerably. He claims that Orwell was interested in the future. Nothing new there. But then he asks what sort of past Orwell thought that future was replacing. Exactly the right question. Here he is again, riffing on a letter from Eileen Blair to a friend on the state of her marriage. You could write a whole book on less:

… affection, exasperation, solicitude, semi-humorous acceptance of the fact that her husband is not quite of this world but wanders somewhere in its lonely extraneous margin, the whole brought sharply into focus by the hint that Eileen is somehow improvising the material… taking part in an immensely sophisticated game of call and response…

Taylor gets to Orwell not only in the good ways. I don’t know what social class David Taylor was born into, or what class he thinks he is now, but when it comes to this touchy subject, he can drop the ball as well as the next public-school man. To take one small example, he says Orwell’s proley gesturing “seemed to mock the very real destitution [his friend Jack Common] and his working-class family had known”. Three things about that. One, destitution is a very loaded word and very few working-class families knew it, even though they all feared it. Two, Jack Common would never refer to “his working-class family”. Only outsiders (or those who had become outsiders) would say such a thing. Third, Jack Common’s father drove the Flying Scotsman. Orwell was probably nearer to destitution than they were.

How do you imagine a great writer to look? Try this composite, taken largely from the future Labour MP Bob Edwards early in 1937: 6ft 4in, gaunt, brown, grinning, probably lousy, a rifle slung over his shoulders and two hand grenades and a smouldering rope (for lighting cigarettes) strung from his belt, clothed in balaclava, two jackets and a jumper, corduroy breeches, khaki puttees, size 12 boots and a chocolate-coloured scarf looping round a long neck that was soon to take a bullet. This was our man at war on behalf of the Spanish Republic. Soon after, the New Statesman, having been one of the first to publish him, refused two anti-communist pieces on what he had seen there. Not that it mattered. Such was Orwell’s faith in the tangible world over the written that, rather than a pen in his hand, it could just as easily have been a spade or a saw – and on this occasion it was a bolt-action Mauser. And if you want know how it got there, and how he became a great writer, and a tormented figure, and a national treasure, David Taylor’s New Life is the doubleplusgood place to start.

Robert Colls’s “George Orwell: English Rebel” is published in paperback by Oxford University Press

Orwell: The New Life
DJ Taylor
Constable, 608pp, £30

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List