George Orwell: The Original Blogger
Over twenty years ago Penguin books published a three part series of the collected essays, letters, and articles of George Orwell (born as Eric Blair). These covered the period from the 1920’s to the time of his death in 1948. They are a fascinating account of a world going through massive changes, by a man with a keen eye for political, personal, and social stories that are indicative of the state of the world at that time.
He has opinions on such diverse topics as Ezra Pound’s and P. G. Woodhouse’s broadcasts for fascist radio during the war; the return of fences around parkland and top hats towards the end of the war being an re-implementation of the British class system; discourses on the nature of British cooking (much underrated according to him because it’s never properly done); the search for the ideal pub; and, of course, political analysis of current issues.
An unabashed left winger Orwell was never afraid to speak his mind on any issue, even when he would find himself in direct opposition with the conventional leftist opinion. He was a free thinker who would not let himself be blinded by “party” affiliations or loyalties, and the thing he hated most in the world was hypocrisy, which he was quick to point out when and whereever it revealed its ugly head.
Probably best known for two novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, both of which dealt with the failures of trying to create ideal societies, he was long pilloried by the left for being anti-socialist. In truth he was far more left-wing then any of his critics could have hoped to be. His biggest crime was to criticize the Stalinist regime of Soviet Russia when they were still the darlings of the left.
He had first-hand experience of their oppressive nature when he served in an Anarchist Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (the Workers Party of Marxist Unification, POUM). He watched as the initial victories of war fell apart when communist-backed forces became more concerned with purging the federalist army of anarchist troops than fighting Franco. So while Hitler was actively supporting the fascists, the Soviets were actually undermining the fight for freedom.
Orwell accounts the whole sordid mess in the wondrous Homage to Catalonia, one of the best first-hand accounts of the Spanish Civil War. For those interested, this is the war that, if the powers in Britain, France, and the U.S. had gotten involved in it, would have prevented World War II, because it would have crippled Hitler’s and Mussolini’s war machines before they even got built. As it was, it provided a perfect training ground for them to prepare for the invasion of Poland and France three years later.
It was during World War Two that Orwell started to write his column As I Please. As the title suggests he was given carte blanche to write about anything and everything with no suppression of his opinion.
Whether it was criticism of the Soviet Union, or the behaviour of American soldiers in London, reviews of books, or observations about daily life during the war, they are fascinating to read for the picture generated of a very specific time in history. The work during that period is the forerunner of the modern columnist in style and format. Wide ranging, provocative, and thought-inspiring, they were what are attempted with various degrees of success today by anybody writing an op-ed piece.
What separated and continues to separate Orwell from the rest of the pack was his breadth of knowledge and experience. Few people alive now can hope to match in a life-time what he had achieved to that point: Served as police man in Burma, fought in Spain, lived as a down-and-out with the working poor to better document their lives for a book, worked as an interviewer for the BBC, and published three novels, The Road to Wiggen Pier, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Down and out in London and Paris
A life such as that could not help but formulate an innate sense of social justice. His exposure to the poor, colonial oppressed, and people willing to die for their freedom ensured that he would always speak out against inequity no matter whose feathers he ruffled. Remarkably, no matter what he said his work was never censored, widely-criticized maybe, but always printed.
What he would have thought of the quality of our press currently, their willingness to censor themselves by being embedded and hand-fed pool reports, is easy enough to guess. One only need look at the disdain he held for the “jingoists” who simply parroted government statements as gospel without question and called it news, to fathom the contempt he would have held current standards of reportage.
When I started posting to the Internet I did not have in mind the idea of emulating George Orwell. I was suddenly reminded of him the other day when I was attempting to describe what it is I do with my writing. It made me think of what a wonderful time he would have had with the Internet, and having his own blog.
He was always highly sceptical about things that were claimed to bring people together. In his age, the radio and the airplane were supposed to be the tools that brought about international co-operation through the closing of the physical gap between countries. He was always cynical about comments like that, saying that the only good thing about planes is that in a time of war at least the “jingoists who push for war will be in reach of the enemies’ guns for a change, instead of safe at home out of harm’s reach”. But I do think he would have appreciated the technology that would have allowed him to have his words read anywhere across the world for free.
As a writer I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Orwell. His untiring devotion to truth, even if it was uncomfortable, is something to strive for, and has coloured all my attempts so far. He died never knowing how the title of his last book 1984, became so symbolic, and continues to serve notice how perilous are our freedoms.
It seems that without knowing it, bloggers everywhere have taken up the slack left with the death of Eric Blair, and whether we know it or not his spirit lives on through all of us. Thank you, George, for being the example for us all.