Magazine article The Spectator

Neither Saint nor Sage

Magazine article The Spectator

Neither Saint nor Sage

Article excerpt

The inventor of 'doublethink' was consistently inconsistent in his own political views says A.N Wilson. And no fun at all.

George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls OUP, �25, pp. 304, ISBN 9780199680801, Spectator Bookshop, � 19.95, Tel: 08430 600033 This is the most sensible and systematic interpretation of George Orwell's books that I have ever read. It generously acknowledges the true stature of the great works - most notably, Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. It rightly sees the second world war as having brought forth some of Orwell's finest writing.

Yet it does not deify him, and it acknowledges that this strange, drawling, gawky Etonian, who wore common sense like a carapace, was occasionally as capable as the next journalist of writing undiluted tosh.

Witness his claim in an article of 1940 that if he thought a victory in the present war would mean a new lease of life for British imperialism, he would be inclined to 'side with Russia and Germany'. Even given Orwell's love of striking attitudes, there is something more than perverse about claiming that you would rather have the world run by the Third Reich and Stalin than by the comparatively benign Indian civil service.

Colls writes:

The truth is, this most famous of political writers did not have consistent - let alone symmetrical - politics, and the strain of trying to be true to the situation as he found it, and true to the natural justice as he believed it in the situation as he found it ... produced in him a sort of doublethink almost from the start.

He was therefore a left-wing intellectual who always despised 'the boiled rabbits of the left'; a public schoolboy who claimed that Eton was 'bankrupt of ideas', but many of whose friends, such as Anthony Powell, Richard Rees and Cyril Connolly were Etonians. He disliked religion, but his ideal England was populated by old maids cycling to communion in the autumn mist, and he decreed that his funeral should follow the Prayer Book service.

Although a staunch defender of P.G. Wodehouse during the war, and an essayist who celebrated Dickens, Donald McGill, Billy Bunter and Max Miller, Orwell himself never strikes the reader as having had anything much in the way of a sense of humour. One of Colls's best observations on The Road to Wigan Pier concerns what Orwell failed to find in the north of England:

He is taken to an afternoon meeting in a Methodist church ('some kind of men's association, they call it a Brotherhood') but shows no interest in this most proletarian of religious movements. Lancashire was the home of football, but there is no football in Orwell. Yorkshire was a stronghold of the Working Men's Club and Institute, but when he attends their delegate meeting in Barnsley he does not approve of the free beer and sandwiches and thinks they might go fascist. There is no fun, no ambition, no zest, no obscenity and precious little sociability in Orwell's north.

Well said. I'd go further and add that there was no fun in any of his work, impressive as some of his famous exposures of the Comintern and his denunciations of fascism might have been. Fun isn't everything, and nor is lyricism - another quality in which Orwell is all but lacking - but their absence makes him a less congenial writer than many of his contemporaries.

Colls writes well about Orwell's famous 'list' which he submitted to the security services in 1949 of Soviet sympathisers who could not be trusted as propagandists to write well about Britain. …

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