“For him political truth was sacrosanct”

“We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves” hears Winston, the main character and narrator of the famous novel 1984, although his life had in many ways already predicted this end. Many words and phrases that are now familiar in our day-to-day world were first written in 1984: Big Brother, Room 101, doublethink, falsespeak, thought police and telescreens (watching our every move and word), but they were science fiction in 1949 when the novel was first published. Now, in a world characterised by artificial intelligence and social media distortions of the truth, are we in 2019 seeing the culmination of Orwell’s worst fears?

In the novel, Winston Smith is a low-ranking member of the ruling Party in London, in a nation called Oceania. The Party and its ever-present leader, Big Brother, watch everyone through telescreens and there are no hiding places for anyone to live their own true lives. Winston himself works in the Ministry of Truth, a department that changes the truth that was written (like newspapers and official reports) to lies that always support the policies of the Party – be it war, food rations or even bootlaces. People now use Newspeak and it stops rebellion amongst the masses, even in your mind, where alternative ideas that threaten the status quo are known as thoughtcrime.

But Winston is frustrated by this oppression. He illegally buys a diary to set down in his own words his true beliefs and political thoughts and he looks to find a secret flat above a shop in which to be alone. He also wants to be part of the Brotherhood, a group that legend states, through its leader Emmanuel Goldstein, works to overthrow the Party. When Winston meets the beautiful Julia, he realises she thinks like he does, and they begin an affair (again, sex is monitored by the Party). Winston has also discovered that co-worker O’Brien seems to feel like he does and wants to overthrow the Party and join the Brotherhood. Winston moves into dangerous and secretive territory.  But are Winston and Julia safe from Big Brother? Can O’Brien be trusted? And, if they are arrested for treachery by the Thought Police, what awaits Winston in the terrifying Room 101?

George Orwell (25 June 1903 to 21 January 1950), born Eric Arthur Blair, was a novelist, essayist and critic best known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984. He was a man of strong opinions who questioned many political movements of the time, including imperialism, fascism and communism. He fought in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco in 1936 and was badly injured. He and his wife Eileen were later indicted for treason in Spain. During WWII, when because of his health Orwell was deemed unfit to fight, he worked as a producer for the BBC, but he hated being asked to produce propaganda to advance the country’s interest and so resigned in 1943, becoming a literary editor for the socialist newspaper Tribune.     

In an excellent, recently published book entitled Barnhill, written following thorough research by Norman Bissell to commemorate on 8th June the 70th anniversary of the publication of 1984, we find George leaving post-war London for Barnhill, a remote farmhouse on the Isle of Jurra, to write what was, in his mind, the second novel in a trilogy about politics, the first, Animal Farm, having been a huge success and bringing Orwell to the attention of many. He was driven by a passionate desire to undermine the enemies of democracy and to make plain the dangers of dictatorship, surveillance, doublethink and censorship. Typing away in his damp bedroom overlooking the garden he lovingly created and at the sea beyond, he wrote what became a famous masterpiece.

The book reveals the private man behind the celebrated public figure of Orwell, his turbulent love life (although he and wife Eileen had agreed on an open relationship) and the change when Eileen’s brother dies and they decide to adopt a son. Orwell’s devotion to his baby son, Richard Horatio Blair, is clear. When Eileen tragically dies of cancer, Orwell’s sister Avril moves in to help bring up Richard and Orwell realises he needs to escape and complete his next novel.

Barnhill cottage was owned by Orwell’s friends Robin and Margaret Fletcher (and today can be visited to see the place virtually untouched since Orwell’s last stay). He needed to be in the open countryside and alongside the sea due to ill health that had plagued him since childhood and he had spent many months in Preston Hall Sanatorium trying to overcome tuberculosis. Another of the narrators in the novel is Sonia Brownell, who had been one of Orwell’s lovers and was a leading editor amongst many leading literary figures of the time like TS Eliot and EM Forster, but she refused to leave the glitz of London life to be with him in Barnhill. Near the end of his life, Orwell proposed to Sonia (he had a habit of proposing to all women almost the moment after meeting them!) and she inherited his estate and made a career out of managing his legacy.

Other books by Orwell include:

Animal Farm (1945) – Personally, I find this anti-Soviet satire set on a farm where pigs lead the farm animals to revolt against the farmer, but then become dictators and cruel to the other animals themselves, a far more revealing story than 1984. It seems to clearly show how quickly minds can be overtaken and how standing up to oppose dictators can lead to oppression and often torture.

Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) – Orwell’s first work explores his own life in poverty living in these two cities. It shows how brutal the lives of the poor were. Even though the author himself had had a fairly comfortable upbringing (including attending Eton), he had noticed he was treated differently from the richer pupils from more elitist families. He had an uneasy relationship with his father and called his childhood ‘beastly’. A desire to avoid embarrassing his family is why Blair changed his name to the now well-known George Orwell.

Burmese Days (1934) – Orwell had joined the India Imperial Police Force in 1922 (he had been born in India) and his father, a civil servant remained there, when George, his sister and mother returned to England. The book gives a dark view of colonialism in Burma, then part of the British Indian Empire. His political views were developing rapidly.

Shooting an Elephant (1936) An essay in which Orwell discusses his work as a police officer in Burma (now known as Myanmar, with its own current dictatorship problems) and it was the first in a collection that also included titles such as My Country Right or Left, How the Poor Die and Such, Such were the Joys. Orwell’s need to explore and describe his political views was expanding as the world itself was heading to war.

Politics and the English Language (1946) These essays were published in the literary magazine Horizon and explored English oppressive ideology and the vague or meaningless language that often hides the truth. Think no further than President Trump’s ‘fake news’!

Ironically, a statue of Orwell was put up outside the BBC in London, despite his disdain for the institution. The inscription on it perhaps sums up the writer and what he produced for us, but overall what a loss his early death was  – “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

Those interested in learning more should look out for a talk by Orwell’s son, Richard Blair, about his father’s literary achievements and his lasting impact on our view of the 20th century and beyond when he appears at HastingsLitFest on Friday 30th August. Venue: St Mary in the Castle, Hastings at 17:30. For more details, visit www.hastingslitfest.org

Philipa Coughlan
May 2019

Barnhill: A Novel by Norman Bissell
Luath Press Ltd 9781912147878 hbk May 2019