This Side of the Barricades

Article excerpt

"The power and endurance of Orwell's writing, and the reason he is still worth reading, is that he could look at his own times square-on. He had its measure, and he expressed its spirit, its complexities and darkness through an English language style free of cant, subdued yet passionate, emanating from a moral centre and an ideological stand whose universality and largeness lend themselves to all seasons and to all peoples. That's why Orwell matters."

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We are left alone with our day 
And the time is short and 
History to the defeated ... 
              W. H. Auden, Spain, 1937 

CHARLIE DORAN must have been in his eighties when I visited him in his tiny flat in Glasgow almost thirty years ago. People -- especially people on the left -- were continually going to see Doran. He was an icon of the left -- one of the few survivors of those thousands of socialists and anti-fascists from Glasgow to Vancouver who volunteered to fight on the side of the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. He was a small man, frail by that time but, like most working men of his generation, he would have been in his prime strong-shouldered and hard-handed -- tough as they come. Unlike most of the foreign volunteers who fought for the Spanish Republic, he didn't serve with the Communist-run International Brigade, but with an independent Marxist militia contingent called POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) who were affiliated with the Catalonian anarchists. They were the ones whom Stalin and his henchmen dubbed "Trotskyites." Doran fought as a machine-gunner in the defence of Madrid early on in the war; later he served on the Aragon Front. I asked him if he had met George Orwell, who had also fought on that front. "Oh, aye, your man Eric Blair," he said matter-of-factly. "I remember him fine. Big skinny fella with a posh English accent. He never would keep his head down under the parapet. I told him he'd catch one if he didn't watch out -- and he did. A sniper's bullet -- right through the throat. He'd never keep his head down, that was his problem. He was gey brave, mind," he added, almost as an afterthought. Other visitors came in about that time, and they started with the usual questions. Charlie Doran gave me a faint little nod, and smiled patiently as he gave his stock replies to his admirers. I don't remember much of the rest of that evening's conversation, but Doran's comment about Eric Blair/George Orwell always lingered in my memory: "He'd never keep his head down ..."

OUTSIDE of a diminishing group of the old left-wing circles in Glasgow and the few surviving British veterans of the Spanish Civil War, Charlie Doran's name is forgotten (although Hemingway apparently corresponded with him) while Orwell's name is known everywhere, especially because of his novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and because of the neologisms he invented: "Big Brother," "doublethink," "unperson." The adjective "Orwellian," like "Kafkaesque," has become synonymous with anti-Utopias, with dark labyrinthine ministries whose faceless officials control your fate, watch your every move, whose machinery can on a whim swallow you whole and crush you into fragments as though you had never existed.

Perhaps inevitably, there have been, as Christopher Hitchens puts it in Why Orwell Matters, no lack of individuals and interest groups who, for their own dubious ideological motives, have had a go at the "body-snatching" of Orwell. In 1993, seeking to reassure his Conservative audience that the European "idea" was okay, since England would retain its customs and particularism, then British Prime Minister John Major quoted a passage from Orwell's 1941 essay "The Lion and the Unicorn," to the effect that "... Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer ... and old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist . …