Orwell's shadow

Big Brother, Room 101, 1984. George Orwell is everywhere. There is no escape. By DJ Taylor
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A good test of a writer's influence is to work out his or her impact on the millions of people who have never opened one of their books. In his essay on Charles Dickens, written in the weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, Orwell suggested that until well into the inter-war era it would have been possible for a music hall comedian to go on stage and inhabit one of the better known Dickensian characters with a fair chance of being understood by his audience. By this stage in his trajectory, you see, Dickens had become public property: the variety hall crowd would have known, through a kind of cultural osmosis, that Oliver Twist wanted some more or that Mr McCawber thought that a sixpenny deficit in one's annual income meant misery.

Sixty years later the same point could be made of the half-dozen slogans that are Orwell's legacy to the early 21st-century popular consciousness. "Big Brother is watching you"; "Room 101"; "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others". Like Dickens, but much more emphatically, Orwell brought off the immensely difficult trick of making literature work at second hand, and books seem important to people who had never entered a library. Unlike Dickens, his influence on the mental life of the generations that followed him seems infinitely renewable – capable of breaking out endlessly into the political and social firmament in a way that Orwell himself, one suspects, would have found faintly bewildering.

Had he lived, Orwell would have turned 99 next month. More than half a century since his death – he died in January 1950, after a nightmarish struggle with tuberculosis – his is the dominant voice among a spangled literary generation. His centenary year will bring a clutch of biographies, joining the three existing lives by Bernard Crick, Michael Shelden and Jeffrey Meyers, television documentaries and radio series. The coming month alone sees the publication of Christopher Hitchens' spiky Orwell's Victory, which makes a plausible case for regarding its subject as the single most important British writer of the 20th century, and The Girl From The Fiction Department, Hilary Spurling's memoir of his much reviled second wife, Sonia, married across the hospital bed in the autumn of 1949. Almost alone among the cast of literary friends and enemies who populated his life, Orwell has managed to preserve and extend his relevance into a world that he would scarcely recognise.

The absolutely totemic status that Orwell now assumes in the mind of the average Western liberal is not without its ironies. Most obviously, it has taken place almost wholly in absentia. Only towards the end of his life – first with the anti-Stalinist satire Animal Farm (1945), then with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), published six months before his death – did he achieve any kind of literary success. Homage to Catalonia (1938), his bristling account of the Spanish Civil War, in which he was shot through the throat, sold only a few hundred copies in his lifetime. His total earnings for his first four books, published between 1933 and 1936, amounted to no more than £400. Deep into the 1940s he was regarded as a solitary and slightly maverick figure, on whom several of Sonia's intrigued acquaintances thought she was throwing herself away. By the time that Nineteen Eighty-Four careered into the Anglo-American best-seller lists in the summer of 1949 he was on his death-bed in University College Hospital, so emaciated, he reported to a friend, that his doctors had difficulty finding spare flesh in which to stick the hypodermic.

Yet more ironic, on the other hand, was the use to which his two most successful books were put in the years after his death. Orwell was, and remained, a man of the left, ever vigilant in refusing his support to right-wing ginger groups that tried to enlist him in the cause of "freedom" and, in his last months, alarmed that Nineteen Eighty-Four might be misinterpreted as an attack on the British Labour Party. By the mid-1950s, though, under the mostly pop-eyed supervision of the American right, he had been adopted as a paid-up Cold War warrior. Perennial best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic, and consistently rated as the most popular "serious" novels in history, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were, at any rate on its farther side, invested with the kind of sanctity usually reserved for religious tracts. Abetted by selective quotation, this process was still going strong in the 1980s, courtesy of apologists for President Reagan's "Star Wars" defence plan.

This posthumous sainthood – and it is rather ominous how often the word "saint" gets used with reference to that aloof, ascetic figure – was enough to ruin Orwell's reputation with much of the intellectual left for upwards of 40 years. The more optimistic Marxists believed Orwell's novel would simply take its place as an historical curiosity, something chained irrevocably to its time, guaranteed to lose its lustre once that time had passed. Curiously, the projection of international power politics that Orwell undertook in Nineteen Eighty-Four turned out to be a great deal more enduring. What, as Christopher Hitchens points out, could be more Orwellian than the conditions currently prevailing in North Korea, or Burma (significantly enough, the venue for Orwell's first encounter with the much milder form of autocracy practised by late-British imperialism). "Relevance" is not the only test of a literary reputation – there are some writers, after all, whose merits rest entirely on their detachment from contemporary arrangements. All the same, there is something rather wonderful about last year's report of the Zimbabwe Daily Mail's decision to serialise Animal Farm. No one, it seems safe to say, was in any doubt over the identity of Napoleon, the despotic head pig.

Meanwhile, far below the stratospheric rumblings of the Cold War, all through the post-war years there were other Orwells at work, busily colonising vast and hitherto unexplored areas of the national cultural terrain. The new wave of British novelists and poets of the 1950s – Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, John Wain and others – were deeply attracted by Orwell, Orwell's "decency", his plain-speaking and his impermeability to some of the lies and evasions that had characterised the literary world of the 1930s. In a much more fundamental sense, wherever one looks in the rumpus rooms of post-war popular culture Orwell, mysteriously, is there. It is no disrespect to Richard Hoggart, for example, to say that a book like The Uses of Literacy, the first real study of the effects of mass culture on working-class life, could not have been written without Orwell's ghostly thumbprint on the page. Popular literature; crime; sport and nationalism: in half-a-dozen areas of cultural enquiry the trail leads back to the hundreds of pieces collected in Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus' talismanic 1968 four-volume Penguin edition of the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Wanting to test this altogether dramatic pervasiveness while writing that last sentence, I pulled an egg-head volume entitled Expanding Suburbia: Reviewing Suburban Narratives off the shelf. It was not one of the man's better showings: there were only nine index references.

But as well as crawling all over the university library, this trail of influence leads deep down into the cultural bedrock, back into the world of suburban bedrooms, popular music and real life. The list of rock groups tutored by Orwell at one time or another (The Jam, David Bowie – The Clash, after all, were originally called "The 101-ers") would fill a fair-sized compilation album. The mark of Orwell's achievement, perhaps, is that he should have isolated so many of the national obsessions over which, half a century after his death, his descendants continue to fret. Hitchens makes a respectable case for Orwell the prophet of post-colonialism and Orwell the somewhat equivocal contributor to early debates on feminism. Dwarfing each of these, though, is his contribution to the eternal debate about "Englishness" and of what the business of living in this queer, sequestered island of 60 million people – glorious, if tarnished past behind you, uncertain future ahead of you, casting alternately envious and contemptuous glances to left and right – ultimately consists. Again, it is a testimony to Orwell's even-handedness that he manages to write convincingly about England and the English without turning in the least chauvinistic. The John Bullism of his Victorian equivalents is altogether beyond him, but so, too, is the "My country ... wrong" attitude that has undermined and marginalised so much of post-war English liberal thought. One of his most enduring legacies was to demonstrate that it is possible to love the place that formed you while remaining a decent human being.

Like most writers whose influence is, in the last resort, a moral one, Orwell will continue to be hijacked by interested parties, often for narrowly sectional ends. In a curious way, this is a testament to his vitality, his ability to stay alive as a literary force long after most writers have turned to dust. To render his "message" down to its absolute essence is, inevitably, to be left with a few rather vague injunctions, only just on the right side of platitude: behave decently, realise that one can be happy only by not consciously striving for happiness, live for other people as well as for yourself. It takes only a few moments thought, here in our complacent little Western time bubble, where nobody ever dies and the news from beyond Europe barely scratches the surface of our lives, to establish quite how radical, how pertinent to our time, these prescriptions are. And this, perhaps, is the greatest of all Orwell's achievements: that someone so manifestly old-fashioned in his attitudes, so steeped (as one of his friends put it) in the illusions of 1910, should turn out to seem so thoroughly up to date.

DJ Taylor's biography of George Orwell will be published next year.