What would George do? Scott Lucas on the banality of the Orwell industry

Orwell: the life

D J Taylor <em>Chatto & Windus, 466pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0701169192

George Orwell

Centenaries are occasions of danger as well as opportunity for biographers who, as Sigmund Freud noted, "are fixated on their heroes in a quite special way". George Orwell's centenary doubles the stakes. He is the near-unanimous choice for England's greatest political writer of the 20th century. He is the benchmark for judgements on imperialism, fascism and communism. He is the "wintry conscience of a generation" (V S Pritchett), "the only writer of genius among the litterateurs of social revolt between the two wars" (Arthur Koestler), "the crystal spirit" for all of us (George Woodcock). For Noam Chomsky, he was the model of the "responsible intellectual". For Bernard Crick he was, in post-imperial, post-welfare-state Britain, the "English socialist". And since the events of September 2001 he has become, for Christopher Hitchens, a stalwart against "Islamic fascism" and its pacifist accomplices (such as Noam Chomsky). Orwell is all things to all people.

In his new biography, D J Taylor offers a consummate chronicle of the life of this multi-purpose Orwell. He diligently chronicles the schoolboy experiences of the young Eric Blair, his time in the imperial police service in Burma, his adventures as a down-and-out in Paris and London which transformed him into George Orwell the author, his encounters with the working classes of Wigan and Barcelona, and his wartime experiences in London. The problem for Taylor - indeed for any biographer of Orwell - is that we have taken this path many times before, notably in Crick's "official" narrative. (Whatever the merits of Peter Davison's laborious cataloguing in 20 volumes of Orwell's correspondence and writing, it added little that was not already in the public domain.)

So, like many before him, Taylor meets the challenge - "What was he like? What preoccupied him? What were his ambitions?" - by reanimating the physical Orwell. He offers a four-page vignette on the author's face, which was "full of power and mysterious calm". He writes about Orwell's voice as a distinctive staccato "suitable to the deadpan". He doggedly searches for an appearance, any appearance, "of a tall, haggard man with a toothbrush moustache", in a photograph or a long-forgotten home movie.

It is a quest for the complete Orwell, distinguished only by Taylor's shrugging acknowledgements that his mission is futile. "One can recreate the environments through which the migrant passed, but Orwell himself is impossible to pin down," he writes at one stage. Later, he concedes that the "really striking feature of Orwell's life in the early 1930s . . . is how little we know about him".

At least Taylor departs with the impression of honest and honourable failure. The dust jacket of Gordon Bowker's book, by contrast, is pure tabloid sensationalism: "[Orwell's] superstitious streak and flirtation with black magic; his complex and sometimes reckless sex life; revealing new evidence of his being hunted and spied on in Spain; the strange circumstances of his first marriage and his deathbed wedding to a woman 15 years his junior".

None of this is new. The Spanish "hunt" has been presented by Christopher Hitchens and, in any event, is far from substantial; the "black magic" is no more than a curse Eric Blair placed on a classmate; and the "reckless sex life" involves alleged visits to prostitutes and the proposal of a menage a trois to Eileen, his first wife. As the actual revelations are few and far between, Bowker covers familiar ground with overblown pop psychology. Orwell's ultimate decency comes not only from the struggle against bad men and bad systems, but against the torments of his "nightmare and paranoia, of his feelings of self-hate, of his sadistic inclinations, of his struggles always with a powerful urge to revenge driven by spite and malice".

What is missing, in these testaments to Orwell, who declared it his mission to turn "political writing into an art", is any examination of the political. Much of Orwell's best work is lost through omission: his "As I Please" columns for Tribune between 1943 and 1947, which were so wide-ranging in subject and trenchant in opinion, are collapsed into a few sentences. His authorial manifesto, "Why I Write", is absent as are important postwar polemics such as "Notes on Nationalism", "The Prevention of English Literature" and "Politics and the English Language". The few essays that are mentioned by both biographers fare little better: the complex approach to imperialism in "Shooting an Elephant" is set aside by Taylor, who is concerned instead with the exact date and location of the incident, and Orwell's embrace of 19th-century liberalism (he exalted Charles Dickens) is transformed beyond recognition by Bowker into a "Marxist critique". (Orwell's socialism is problematic enough without Bowker turning a writer who showed no familiarity with The Communist Manifesto, let alone Das Kapital, into one with "a Marxist perspective on the world".)

Even the well-known books are reduced to little more than backdrops to contrast decent George with a deviant "left". Taylor mentions the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier - Orwell's extended diatribe setting himself apart from socialists "out of touch with common humanity" - only so he can join in the ritual condemnation of the book's publisher, Victor Gollancz. Bowker misrepresents the book to assail adherents of "the stupid cult of Russia who would soon have George Orwell in their sights". Orwell's time in Spain is described in exhausting detail but his outstanding memoir Homage to Catalonia is never examined, other than as a means to take a cheap shot at the "Marxist critic" Raymond Williams. Taylor shows how politics threatened the publication of Animal Farm but skips over the book to revisit Orwell's "frenetic professional and social life". Only Nineteen Eighty-Four merits a few pages: Bowker, ever the cod psychologist, notes it for its "role-playing and deception"; Taylor at least recognises it "as not exclusively anti-communist but anti-totalitarian".

This reduction of the political significance of England's greatest political writer is more than ironic. Orwell is our guide only if the decent, clear, consistent objectivity of his "common sense" is unchallenged. He must remain infallible: if we acknowledge any mistake or contradiction in his past, we cannot invoke him in our defence in the present. Bowker's Orwell must lead us against the "great threats" of "religious totalitarianism and the rise of global plutocracy"; Taylor's Orwell must be our "moral force" against unnamed "orthodoxies . . . wearing yet more elaborate disguises".

But Orwell - if not this manufactured "Orwell" - could be far from consistent, far from clear and, arguably, far from decent. George Woodcock's 1942 denunciation - "Comrade Orwell, the former police officer of British imperialism . . . Comrade Orwell, former fellow-traveller of the pacifists . . . [whom] he now attacks! . . . Comrade Orwell, former extreme left-winger . . . defender of anarchists . . . And now Comrade Orwell who returns to his imperialist allegiances and works at the BBC . . ." - has never been rebutted effectively, either by Orwell or by generations of his defenders.

If there was a significant revelation for these 21st-century biographers, it was the confirmation that, in 1949, Orwell passed a list of those he considered "crypto- communists, fellow-travellers, or inclined that way" to British intelligence. Thirty-six individuals, whose names are still withheld by the Orwell Archive and Her Majesty's Government, were selected from a notebook of 105 suspects such as Stephen Spender, Charlie Chaplin, Michael Redgrave, Harold Laski and Richard Crossman.

How could the creator of Big Brother co-operate with the covert operators of the British state? The resolution is not that difficult to find. From The Road to Wigan Pier to the end of his life, Orwell used his books and essays to name and shame suspects. He criticised the establishment but, more often than not, he established himself as the archetypal contrarian facing down the deviant left. He had patrolled the borders of socialism as a lone ranger of decency, the authoritative voice of dissent limiting the dissent of others. He had used decency and morality to discredit others as indecent and immoral. And now, having warned of the power of the state, he had discreetly shared his campaign with the state.

The truth of Orwell the wilful contrarian is too unsettling to be countenanced in these "definitive" works. Taylor skips from the argument that "no one was being hounded, this was merely a private endeavour, not without its light-hearted side" to the far from consistent acclamation that it was "a highly necessary undertaking". For Bowker, the incident is more straightforward - "an opportunity . . . to help keep potential quislings out of positions of influence in the event of an enemy invasion".

These simple truths reduce both these biographies to compilations of events in Orwell's life. Confronted with the complexities of Orwell's politics, all that we can cling to is the myth, not the man. Confronted with the complexities of our own times, it is far easier to use that myth as our shield and raise the chant: "What would George do?"

Scott Lucas's George Orwell and the Contemporary Betrayal of Dissent is forthcoming from Pluto

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The new censorship