A hero for the wine bar warriors

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The Independent Online

I used to be quite active in the Labour Party, in the days when people still began sentences with the words, "As the late, great Clem Attlee once said...". It is a long time since anyone bothered to quote Attlee but another deceased former public schoolboy - an Etonian, while poor old Attlee merely attended Haileybury - has lost none of his glamour in leftish intellectual circles. A hundred years after his birth, George Orwell is everywhere, not just in columns by the usual suspects - that breed of polemicists which does not consider a broadside complete without a quote from one of his essays - but in fulsome tributes and television programmes.

What is truly impressive about members of the Orwell fan club - and it is exactly that, even if it doesn't issue membership cards - is how passionate and partisan they remain about their idol. A centenary tribute in Tribune, the left-wing weekly which employed Orwell as its literary editor and columnist, contained a delicious sentence by a former editor denouncing "the claims of cold-warrior mountebanks of Left and Right that Orwell somehow reneged on socialism in his later years". Oh joy! Cold-warrior mountebanks! We don't hear enough of them these days, and don't you just love the sound of those old sabres rattling? I'm fond of Tribune, for which I sometimes write the column that Orwell initiated in 1943, but I can't help marvelling at the readiness of the boys to get down and dirty, even in what was presumably intended as a celebration of his life.

Something similar has happened at The Guardian, which marked his centenary by resurrecting an old row about a list of communist sympathisers Orwell compiled, not long before his death, at the request of a luminously beautiful (to judge by her photograph) woman who worked for a murky section of the Foreign Office. The list itself is less interesting than the paper's assumption that something that happened more than 50 years ago is front-page news, but then it is hard to resist the conclusion that Orwell has become the Princess Di of the left - dead, endlessly fascinating, and the subject of continuing skirmishes between admirers and detractors. They have both become secular saints, admittedly with very different constituencies, unless Paul Burrell is a secret admirer of Down and Out in Paris and London. (Come to think of it, one of Burrell's revelations after the collapse of his trial was about the Princess's habit of visiting the homeless in London late at night, although I'm sure Orwell never threw a fur coat at the destitute.)

The reason why all this Orwell-worship creates problems for agnostics such as myself is not that he is a bad writer. Although I can't help thinking he is treated much too uncritically - some of his journalistic observations strike me as really quite commonplace - and I suspect he would have been startled, if he had lived, to witness the reverence with which his work has come to be regarded.

But that is the point: if he had lived to a ripe old age, I'm not sure he would have attained anything like the status he enjoys today. Indeed he might well be embarrassed - at least I hope he would - by some of his unreconstructed attitudes, notably his fondness for using the word "whore" as a term of abuse. "Once a whore, always a whore", he claimed in Tribune in September 1944, taking to task left-wing journalists and intellectuals who supported Stalin - a lazy piece of polemic that is both untrue and demeaning to working-class women forced by economic circumstances to make a living from prostitution.

Orwell's apotheosis has come about, I think, because of two or three key elements in his biography - not just his early death, but the fact that he went to the poshest school in the land and became a socialist, which makes him the right sort of class traitor. More important even than that is his status as a genuine war hero, shot in the throat during the Spanish Civil War and thus a touchstone for generations of pugilistic commentators - Christopher Hitchens naturally comes to mind - who have not had their mettle tested in crossfire.

Orwell has a kind of authenticity these wine-bar warriors conspicuously lack, which is why they treat his every utterance as though it were scriptural authority. When it comes to clinching an argument, even the most impassioned atheist needs his St George.