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Orwell: courage in the face of facts

Telling the truth sometimes involves abandoning your friends

George Orwell, whose novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published 60 years ago, enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the New Statesman.

In the summer of 1937, after returning to England from the Spanish Civil War with a hole in the throat left by a Fascist bullet, Orwell contacted the magazine’s then editor, Kingsley Martin, to offer him a report about his experiences in Spain. Martin accepted and Orwell duly delivered an article, entitled “Eyewitness in Barcelona”, in which he described the bloody suppression of the Trotskyist POUM militia by agents of the Soviet secret police.

Martin rejected the article on the grounds that it would “cause trouble” – political trouble, that is.

Orwell, with that “power of facing unpleasant facts” for which he would be posthumously celebrated, had simply reported what he had seen on the streets of Barcelona. Martin did not dispute his version of events, but reasoned that the cause of Republican Spain was better served by not publishing it.

Orwell did not accept his kill fee, and he never forgave Martin.

The New Statesman subsequently made recompense of a sort for what Orwell regarded as a betrayal, not least with V S Pritchett’s review of Nineteen Eighty-Four, an extract from which we publish in the magazine this week. Describing Orwell as the “most honest writer alive”, Pritchett recognised that the novel was not a dystopian fantasy but an essay on “mental terrorism” – on the contortions and corruptions of a narrowly “political conception of man”.

As it happens, read today, Nineteen Eighty-Four carries a kind of premonitory charge. It is difficult not to reach for the adjective “Orwellian” when confronted with the depredations of our “surveillance state”.

The hard and enduring lesson contained in Orwell’s work is more general, however: and it is that telling the truth sometimes involves abandoning your friends.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother