George Orwell
George Orwell (Eric Blair)

Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) was born in 1903 in India, where his father worked for the Civil Service. The family moved to England in 1907 and in 1917 Orwell entered Eton under a scholarship.

From 1922 to 1927 he served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, an experience that inspired his first novel Burmese Days. He worked variously as a private tutor, schoolteacher and bookshop assistant, and contributed reviews and articles to a number of periodicals.

Orwell described himself as middle-class, but he had strong sympathy for the plight of the poor. Politically, he was a socialist, but he was not adverse to criticising socialism, especially when he believed it had become repressive, like Stalin’s Soviet Russia.

At the end of 1936 Orwell went to Spain to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He was wounded in the neck and was admitted to a sanatorium in 1938. From then on he was never fully fit. His political allegory, Animal Farm, was published in 1945, and Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. It was these two novels which brought him world-wide fame. He died in 1950.

Interviewer’s note: This is a fabricated account, but all the words attributed to George Orwell were expressed by him in a wide variety of contexts.

Barnhill, Jura
Barnhill is a farmhouse in the north of the island of Jura in the Scottish Inner Hebrides overlooking the Sound of Jura. This image shows Ronald Pickup as George Orwell in the BBC drama, Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura, which was shot on location at Barnhill

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George Orwell lived intermittently at Barnhill farmhouse on Jura Island between 1946 and January 1949 when he left to receive treatment for his tuberculosis. He used Barnhill as an escape from the pressures of journalism as well as to enjoy the cleaner environment of the island which he believed would benefit his condition. Orwell wrote most of Nineteen-Eighty Four at Barnhill.

The farmhouse still belongs to the same family who rented it to Orwell in the 1940s and has remained almost unchanged since he occupied it.

In the summer of 1946 while hiking on the island of Jura, an island off the west coast of Scotland, I hurt my ankle and spent a week resting on a farm. As the leg got stronger I began to hobble around the surrounding countryside, which was bleak and dry owing to a drought. One day I came upon a very tall, very thin, very shabby man carrying a gun. We stopped to talk and, in his case, to smoke a home-made cigarette. He had a gaunt and lined face, with dark hair and a scrubby moustache running across his top lip, and looked to be in his late fifties. For clothes he had on a pair of brown corduroy trousers, very baggy, a black shirt, and a very old Harris tweed jacket which matched the colour of the landscape. It was George Orwell, who had become mildly famous since the publication of Animal Farm in the previous year, and he was 46. He was living in a farmhouse called Barnhill and, on discovering that I was familiar with most of his work, invited me back for high tea, later that day.

When I arrived, Orwell fussed around organising an elaborate tea, with Scottish oat cakes, kippers and toast, Gentlemen’s Relish, Cooper’s Oxford marmalade, and several jams. It was a delightful cross between cuisine and stamp-collecting. He made the tea himself, in a large earthenware pot, and told me there were eleven rules for this process.

“On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement,” he told me with a self-deprecating smile that faded quickly as he became involved in the subject, “but at least four others are acutely controversial.” His voice was flat and almost toneless, a result of the damage caused by the bullet which went through his neck in Spain in 1937.

Spanish Civil War
Group photo of the P.O.U.M. militia, with George Orwell and his wife, Eileen Blair, on a visit to the front

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Orwell left for the Spanish Civil war immediately after he completed his book about the working class, The Road to Wigan Pier, in December 1936. He was committed to fighting against Franco’s fascist government. Eileen Blair, Orwell’s wife, remained in England to finalise issues concerning the publication of her husband’s new book, before joining him in Spain.

The photo above shows Orwell and Eileen, circled, with other fighters in Spain.

Orwell endured long periods of inaction during the war, and was shocked by the lack of food and even ammunition on the front line. But he also saw hand-to-hand action and attacked a rifle position. But Orwell’s height made him vulnerable in the trenches and he eventually was wounded by sniper fire in the throat in May 1937. He was lucky to survive.

Before Orwell could re-join the fighting the political situation declined in Barcelona. His workers’ party, POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) was outlawed by the pro-Soviet Communists in June 1937. Orwell and Eileen managed to escape Spain by train in July, and they were tried in absentia the following year, along with other members of the party.

Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil war inspired his book Homage to Catalonia

“The pot should be warmed beforehand,” he told me urgently. “This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.”

“Why – ”

“The tea should be strong. I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than 20 weak ones. All true tea-lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes. One should take teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.”

He set out the cups and saucers as he was talking, and then began to pour the tea. Trying to enter into the spirit of the thing, I remarked that he had not yet put in the milk.

“One should pour tea into the cup first,” he urged. “This is one of the most controversial points of all. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and then stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk, whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

At the end of tea, Orwell stood up suddenly and announced that he was going up to his room to do some work. He looked at me with what I thought was a fleeting expression of guilt, and invited me to come out in his boat the next day. Then he was gone.

George Orwell drinking tea
Animal Farm
This cover is from the first UK edition, second impression, from 1945. Animal Farm was a satire directed at Stalin and what Orwell saw as his betrayal of the ideals of the Russian Revolution.

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Animal Farm was first published in August 1945 with a subtitle, A Fairy Story. This subtitle was later abandoned in all subsequent editions.

The story is a beast fable that parodies the events of the Russian revolution and its objectives, as well as the subsequent years as Stalin comes to power during years Orwell felt the original objectives of the revolution had been betrayed. The original revolution is represented by the ousting of drunken Mr Jones from Manor Farm and the animals working as a collective to keep the farm running. The betrayal of the animals’ ideals is represented by the growing power of the pigs under Napoleon, their walking upright like humans and the phrase, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, a bastardisation of the original tenets of Animalism.

Orwell initially had trouble publishing the book because Stalin was an ally of the Western forces arrayed against Hitler during World War II. Even Victor Gollanz, the left-leaning publisher who had published other books by Orwell, rejected it.

Since its publication the book has been selected by TIME Magazine as one of the best one hundred English novels ever and has retrospectively won a Hugo Award. Like Nineteen-Eighty Four, Animal Farm has become a part of the language of political discourse.

Animal Farm had been turned down by several publishers before being taken by Secker and Warburg. In at least one case the manuscript was sent to the Ministry of Information, which suggested it would not be in the national interest if a book insulting Britain’s great ally, Stalin, were to be published. T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber wrote to its author that “we have no conviction . . . that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the present time.” Fortunately, once it was published the book was warmly received and sold well, with a second printing soon being required. By the time I met Orwell, his reputation had extended well beyond intellectual circles.

The next evening I went with him in his small rowing boat to check the lobster pots. On the way to the beach we met a farmer and his family, and once we were on the water Orwell began to talk about the English common people. Their characteristics, he opined, were “artistic insensibility, gentleness, respect for legality, suspicion of foreigners, sentimentality about animals, hypocrisy, exaggerated class distinctions, and an obsession with sport.” I asked why they were so xenophobic. “The peculiarities of the English language make it almost impossible for anyone who has left school at fourteen to learn a foreign language,” he explained. “The English language has two outstanding characteristics to which most of its minor oddities can be finally traced. These are a very large vocabulary and simplicity of grammar. Every person in every tense of such a verb as [to kill] can be expressed in only about thirty words including the pronouns, or about forty if one includes the second person singular. The corresponding number in, for instance, French would be somewhere near two hundred.” So, he said, “the English are very poor linguists. Their own language is grammatically so simple that unless they have gone through the discipline of learning a foreign language in childhood, they are often quite unable to grasp what is meant by gender, person, and case. In the French Foreign Legion, for instance, the British and American legionaries seldom rise out of the ranks, because they cannot learn French, whereas a German learns French in a few months.”

He had a theory that the English of literary and other educated people — so-called standard English — “has grown anaemic because for long past it has not been reinvigorated from below. The people likeliest to use simple concrete language, and to think of metaphors that really call up a visual image, are those who are in contact with physical reality. A useful word like [bottleneck], for instance, would be most likely to occur to someone used to dealing with conveyor belts. The vitality of English depends on a steady supply of images of this kind. It follows that language, at any rate the English language, suffers when the educated classes lose touch with the manual workers. As things are at present, nearly every Englishman, whatever his origins, feels the working-class manner of speech, and even working-class idioms, to be inferior.”

The weather was very warm, the sea gentle. I rowed on, saying nothing, while Orwell explained aspects of the shoreline to me with the air of a geography teacher conducting a school excursion. To change the subject, I asked him about the English enthusiasm for pets.

“Britain today has a million and a half less children than in 1914 and a million and a half more dogs,” he said. “Perhaps the most horrible spectacles in England are the Dogs’ Cemeteries in Kensington Gardens, at Stoke Poges (it actually adjoins the churchyard where Gray wrote his famous ‘Elegy’) and at various other places. But there were also the Animals ARP Centres [during the Blitz], with miniature stretchers for cats . . .” Orwell shivered, paused for a moment, and went off on a tangent. “Dislike of hysteria and ‘fuss’, admiration for stubbornness, are all but universal in England, being shared by everyone except the intelligentsia. Millions of English people willingly accept as their national emblem the bulldog, an animal noted for its obstinacy, ugliness, and impenetrable stupidity.” He pulled up a pot, spilling water all over his trousers. “A profound, almost unconscious patriotism and an inability to think logically are the abiding features of the English character, traceable in English literature from Shakespeare onwards.”

The next day Orwell was going to the mainland, and I was to recommence my holiday. We shook hands on the beach and he tried to give me one of his lobsters, which I declined as gracefully as I could.

“Are you writing anything at the moment?” I asked.

“Actually I have at last started my novel about the future.”

“A novel about the future? Sounds interesting.”

“I’ve only done about fifty pages and God knows when it will be finished.”

“Well, goodbye.”

He stood on the rocks, looking at the ground, then shook his head, smiled at me and strode off, no doubt thinking about his novel about the future.

Back in London I conceived the idea of doing an article about Orwell. During the winter I wrote to him and he agreed. I sought for people who knew him and found that many of them had something in common — they had no idea of the identity of each other. Whereas most of us have a fairly cohesive circle of friends, Orwell seemed all his adult life to have had pockets of friends scattered here and there, isolated from each other geographically, politically and socially. I later came to the conclusion that this helped him maintain his independent perspective — having to listen to widely diverging views all the time perhaps forced him to work out where he himself stood.

Anthony Powell
Like Orwell, Powell attended Eton College and is best known for his 12 volume work, A Dance to the Music of Time, one of the longest works in the English language which has earned Powell comparisons to Marcel Proust

One surprising friend was Anthony Powell, admittedly an old Etonian, like Orwell, but also a conservative. Powell recalled that when Orwell and he met for the first time as adults he was wearing a fairly pretentious uniform. Aware of Orwell’s reputation as a wild socialist, he was concerned at what effect this apparel might have on him.

“Do your trousers strap under the foot?” were Orwell’s first words.


“That’s really the important thing.”

“Of course.”

“You agree?”


“I used to wear ones that strapped under the boot myself.”

“In Burma?”

“You knew I was in the police there? Those straps under the foot give you a feeling like nothing else in life.”

Orwell’s wife, Eileen, had died the previous year in the course of what was expected to be a routine operation. In the next twelve months he proposed to a number of women and was turned down by all of them. During this time an American publisher was finally found for Animal Farm. As many as twelve companies were reported to have turned it down; American authorities in Munich seized 1,500 of the Ukranian edition of the book, and handed them over to the Soviets.

In 1947 I returned to Jura for my summer holidays. Earlier in the year it had been dry — there had been six weeks without rain — but the drought was now over. I found Orwell ill, with some chest problem, but cheerful. He had finished over a third of his novel about the future and cheerfully recounted several accidents that had occurred. In one, Orwell, who had obtained a motor boat, had misread the tide chart and taken it into a dangerous patch of water, with whirlpools, where it had capsized. Orwell, his young son Richard and two guests escaped drowning more by luck than anything else.

I had several long and slightly formal conversations with Orwell. I started by asking him about his early life.

Eileen Blair (née O'Shaughnessy)
Eileen Blair was Eric Blair's (née George Orwell's) first wife. She collaborated with him and may have even helped inspire the basis four Orwell's novel Nineteen-Eighty Four

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Eileen O'Shaughnessy studied English at Oxford University. After graduation she held a series of jobs, including the position of an assistant mistress of a boarding school, an officer worker, a secretary and even worked as a freelance journalist. She sold several pieces of her writing to the Evening News.

She met Eric Blair in 1935 and they were married the following year. In 1937 she took responsibility for the publication of The Road to Wigan Pier while Orwell, now Eric Blair’s nom de plume, went to Spain to fight against the Fascists in the civil war. Eileen later joined Orwell in Spain where she helped to coordinate the arrival of British volunteers and sometimes visited her husband at the front.

At the start of World War II she worked in the Ministry of Information in London, and later worked in the Ministry of Food.

She died in 1945 while under anaesthetic to remove her uterus. Orwell and Eileen had no biological children of their own (they adopted a boy in 1944) but this was due to Orwell’s sterility, not hers.

Some believe Eileen Blair may have helped inspire Orwell’s novel, Nineteen-Eighty Four. She wrote a poem entitled ‘End of the Century, 1984’ in 1934, the year before she met him, in which some read themes of futuristic mind control and a police state.

Click here to read the poem in its entirety

  • Death

  • Synthetic winds have blown away
  • Material dust, but this one room
  • Rebukes the constant violet ray
  • And dustless sheds a dusty gloom.
  • Wrecked on the outmoded past
  • Lie North and Hillard, Virgil, Horace,
  • Shakespeare's bones are quiet at last,
  • Dead as Yeats or William Morris.
  • Have not the inmates earned their rest?
  • A hundred circles traversed they
  • Complaining of the classic quest
  • And, each inevitable day,
  • Illogically trying to place
  • A ball within an empty space.

  • Birth

  • Every loss is now a gain
  • For every chance must follow reason.
  • A crystal palace meets the rain
  • That falls at its appointed season.
  • No book disturbs the lucid line
  • For sun-bronzed scholars tune their thought
  • To Telepathic Station 9
  • From which they know just what they ought:
  • The useful sciences; the arts
  • Of telesalesmanship and Spanish
  • As registered in Western parts;
  • Mental cremation that shall banish
  • Relics, philosophies and colds --
  • Manana-minded ten-year-olds.

  • The Phoenix

  • Worlds have died that they may live,
  • May plume again their fairest feathers
  • And in their clearest songs may give
  • Welcome to all spontaneous weathers.
  • Bacon's colleague is called Einstein,
  • Huxley shares Platonic food,
  • Violet rays are only sunshine
  • Christened in the modern mood,
  • In this house if in no other
  • Past and future may agree,
  • Each herself, but each the other
  • In a curious harmony,
  • Finding both a proper place
  • In the silken gown's embrace.
The Blair Family, circa 1914
Eric Blair (who would later adopt the pen name George Orwell) sits on the left, next to his mother, Ida, holding his younger sister, Avril, six, with their father Richard on the right. Not appearing in this photo is Marjorie, who was five years older than Eric

“How old are you?”

“I was born in 1903 at Motihari, Bengal, the second child of an Anglo-Indian family. I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my ‘story’ ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw.”

“When did you know you wanted to be a writer?”

“From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”

“Why do you write?”

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

“And yet you’ve produced a lot, haven’t you?”

“Even at the periods when I was working ten hours a day on a book, or turning out four or five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, and in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying because the next one is not begun, and am haunted by the fear that there will never be a next one.”

“But surely you must be reassured by looking back at everything you’ve produced already?”

Orwell laughed ruefully. “It simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness and a fertility which I have now lost.”


“I was educated at Eton as I had been lucky enough to win a scholarship, but I did no work there and learned very little. I served with the Imperial Police in Burma. I gave it up partly because the climate had ruined my health, partly because I already had vague ideas of writing books, but mainly because I could not go on any longer serving an imperialism which I had come to regard as very largely a racket.”

“Burma made you, in a sense, didn't it?”

“Anyone able to hold a pen can write a fairly good novel of the unpretentious kind, if only at some period of his life he has managed to escape from literary society. There is no lack nowadays of clever writers; the trouble is that such writers are so cut off from the life of their time as to be unable to write about ordinary people. A “distinguished” modern novel almost always has some kind of artist or near-artist as its hero.”

I mean no disrespect of George Orwell when I say that his reputation as the greatest independent political and social writer of our time demonstrates how easy it should be to be independent. He was simply a socialist who criticised the bad things in socialism, which, at least in theory, you would imagine an easy trick to pull off. That Orwell achieved the trick in practice should be unremarkable. It is not, because so few others have done it. Much of the fascination of Orwell, then, lies in wondering why he did something apparently so easy which the rest of us, no matter how intelligent and imaginative, cannot do. The reason why this is of interest, of course, is because the rest of us, despite the orthodoxies of our own lives, have some instinctual awareness that what Orwell has done is very much worth doing.

My theory is so crude that I might as well throw it in your lap right away: for an English writer, Orwell had an unusual upbringing. I am thinking of the time between his birth and his return from Burma, at the age of 24, in 1927. I don’t pretend what happened in these years explains many important things about him, such as why he became a writer in the first place, but then I don’t believe such things are capable of explanation. But his upbringing provided him with a body of unusual experience which gave him (compared with other writers) an independent imagination. The crux of the matter was his decision to join the Burmese police force instead of going to Oxford. Until that moment he had led the life of a typical member of the English lower-upper-middle class, at Eton and other schools that were also attended by future writers such as Anthony Powell, Cyril Connolly, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Unlike most of these people, he was a scholarship boy, therefore something of an outsider. But what really mattered was that they all went on to Oxford and he did not.

Imperial Police, Burma
Eric Blair, later to adopt to the nom de plume George Orwell, can be seen in the back row, third from the left, in this photo taken in 1922

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Eric Blair’s maternal grandmother lived in Moulmein, Burma, which influenced Blair’s choice to take a posting there as an imperial police officer at an age when many of his contemporaries were at university. He spent five and a half years there before returning to England in 1927 due to illness. He decided not to return to Burma and instead take up writing. His novel Burmese Days is based upon his experiences of working in Burma.

The above photo shows Eric Blair in the top row, third from left with other officers of the Burmese police.

Blair was unhappy in his role as a police officer and his conflicting feelings against imperialism. In the following extract from his essay ‘Shooting an elephant’, he describes the experience:

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so . . .

As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

Extract from ‘Shooting and Elephant’, Essays, Penguin Books, London, 1994, pp.18-19

Orwell’s House, Burma
This old colonial house is thought to be one of Orwell’s residences during his five years in Burma as a police officer. There have been some calls to help restore it.

If what he did not do was important, what he did instead was perhaps even more so. The decision to join the Burmese police was an obvious one — his family could not afford to send him to university. His father had served in Burma and there were contacts there, including his maternal grandmother who still lived in Mandalay. He could not enter the Imperial Civil Service because he had not been to university, and of the other services the police was perhaps the most interesting. But however obvious it was for Eric Blair to go to Burma in 1922, the fact that George Orwell the great writer went to Burma is extraordinary. Who of all England’s leading writers in several centuries of empire had a similar experience? Only Kipling. This, almost certainly, is why Orwell can be so appreciative of Kipling. “I worshipped Kipling at thirteen,” he said, “loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five, and now again rather admire him.” So much so that when Orwell speaks of Kipling he is sometimes, one suspects, speaking of himself.

“Because he identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which ‘enlightened’ people seldom or never possess,” Orwell said slowly, “and that is a sense of responsibility. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you [do]?’ whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. The nineteenth-century Anglo-Indians, to name the least sympathetic of his idols, were at any rate people who did things. It may be that all they did was evil, but they changed the face of the earth, whereas they could have achieved nothing, could not have maintained themselves in power for a single week, if the normal Anglo-Indian outlook had been that of, say, E.M. Forster.”

Now to most writers, and certainly most socialist writers, the idea that there is anything admirable in ‘doing things’ is anathema. The whole tide of modern writing is in the direction of passive experience, of a narrow sense of ‘being’, certainly not ‘doing’. I suspect that it is Orwell’s fondness for action, and the contemplation of action, which actually made him a political writer — as an imaginative writer he simply could not, in the England of the 1930s, have tackled the themes of action to which he is drawn.

So how did Kipling come to have his experience in the east? Said Orwell: “Much in his development is traceable to his having been born in India and having left school early. With a slightly different background he might have been a good novelist or a superlative writer of music-hall songs.” (Ah, George!) “He travelled very widely while he was still a young man, and some streak in him that may have been partly neurotic led him to prefer the active man to the sensitive man. Civilized men do not readily move away from the centres of civilization. It took a very improbable combination of circumstances to produce Kipling’s [work].”

It is, I think, impossible not to see Orwell himself in this description of Kipling. For over five years in Burma he sided with the ruling power and had to make decisions on what he would [do], decisions sometimes of life and death. “In Moulmein in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people,” Orwell said, “the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” This, when he returned to England and began the struggle to become a writer, gave him a body of experience unique among his contemporary men of letters, and unusual enough among writers in general. It gave him a centre, perhaps, a sense of common sense that never deserted him. And also, perhaps, a taste for being reviled.

It appears that in Burma, Orwell was viewed by other English people as a book-reading eccentric but no worse. Only gradually did he turn against his fellows.

“In Burma I listened to racial theories which were less brutal than Hitler’s theories about the Jews,” he said, “but certainly not less idiotic. I often heard it asserted, for instance, that no white man can sit on his heels in the same attitude as an oriental — the attitude, incidentally, in which coal miners sit when they eat their dinners at the pit.” Whether such opinions worried Orwell at the time is uncertain; as the last example shows, his memories seem usually to be selected because of their relevance to subsequent experience and ideas.

What is clear is that for a sensitive young man the whole thing must have been an ordeal. He was mixing with English people who were simply not like himself — they were those he has called, when talking of Kipling, ‘active’ rather than ‘sensitive’ men. He further recalls that “most of the white men in Burma were not the type who in England would be called ‘gentlemen’.” He did not forge any close relationship with the native Burmese, who in fact contributed to his sense of uneasiness. “In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves,” he says of his time at Moulmein.

Many people have quit the East for reasons of temperament. The fact that Orwell transformed this into a political rejection is of course a vital part of his development, and memories of his Eastern experience continued to be important to him throughout his life. “All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham,” he told me, “because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue.”

As a structural criticism of socialism this is perceptive, but as a criticism of socialists it is merely bilious. It is also confusing: how then could Orwell justify his own years as a socialist? There is no apparent answer. What the words do suggest is that Orwell’s Eastern experience was still gnawing at him, some of its implications still unresolved decades later. Writers need this sort of confusion deep within them. Usually it is provided by their family, but Orwell came from a family which was both short on passion and long on stability and loyalty. For Orwell the writer, perhaps Burma provided that unhappy youthful experience that neither his family nor (despite his claims to the contrary) his schools had been able to give him.

Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling was born in British India, Bombay, in 1865. He was a novelist, poet and journalist. Much of his work is inspired by his experiences in India

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Rudyard Kipling’s literary output focuses heavily upon a 19th century concept of British India. Kipling died in 1936 before Britain ceded India its independence, and these days Kipling is criticised for his now-outmoded sense of empire as much as he is praised. But during Kipling’s lifetime he was a well-respected writer. In 1907 he became the first English writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (and also the youngest recipient at that time). He was also courted to be the Poet Laureate and offered a knighthood, but he declined both.

These days his work is possibly best remembered for Disney’s various adaptations of his Jungle Books. His novella, ‘The Man Who Would be King’ was adapted by Hollywood into a movie starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. His poetry includes ‘Gunga Din’, the story of a heroic Indian water bearer, ‘The White Man’s Burden’ – its very title reflects the thinking of Kipling’s time – and ‘If’, a poem about the traditional qualities valued in men during Kipling’s era.

The Road to Wigan Pier
The Road to Wigan Pier documents the poverty of the working class, particularly in mining towns in England’s north, and is a warning against the dangers of Fascism in England

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Soon after returning to England, Orwell began his bizarre period of tramping, during which he donned fancy dress and slept in doss houses for periods of between one night and several weeks. He has acknowledged the ridiculousness of this as a method of getting closer to the working class: “I knew nothing about working class conditions, I did not know the essential fact that ‘respectable’ poverty is always the worse. My mind turned immediately towards the extreme cases, the social outcasts: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. These were ‘the lowest of the low’, and these were the people with whom I wanted to get into contact. What I profoundly wanted, at that time, was to find some way of getting out of the respectable world altogether.” This tendency towards the picturesque was to colour all Orwell’s social reporting, and to affect the accuracy of the picture of working class life given in The Road To Wigan Pier when it was published ten years later.

Having said that, it must be stressed that Orwell’s attempts to get to know his subject were noble, and possibly unique for a writer of his generation. Most English writers, including most socialist writers, are sensitive and middle class, and the discomfit of moving out of their own class is too much to contemplate. Orwell could do it because, after his recent experiences in Burma, he was used to being alone and to physical discomfit. And of course he had the motivation, the need to get out of ‘the respectable world’ which so few others of his class seem to have felt. He saw his need to get down among the lost as a form of penance. “Once I had been among them and accepted by them,” he has written, “I should have touched bottom, and — this is what I felt: I was aware even then that it was irrational — part of my guilt would drop from me.”

It is difficult to see how else he could have done this in a society where class counts for so much — had he tried to live among the working class, his accent would have isolated him. But, as he has pointed out, with tramps this was no problem.

Homage to Catalonia
Homage to Catalonia is a personal accunt of George Orwell’s experiences of fighting in the Spanish Civil War

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In 1936, George Orwell volunteered as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. In Homage to Catalonia, first published just before the outbreak of World War II, Orwell documents the chaos and bloodshed of that moment in history and records the voices of those who fought against rising fascism.

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism as I understand it,” Orwell wrote following his experiences as a militiaman in the Spanish Civil War.

His experience of the civil war would spark a significant change in his own political views, that readers today recognise in much his later literary work; a rage against the threat of totalitarianism and control.

Burmese Days
Burmese Days is a novel that draws upon George Orwell’s experiences as a police officer in Burma, and is set in declining period of the British Raj

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Burmese Days focuses on a handful of Englishmen who meet at the European Club to drink whisky and to alleviate the acute and unspoken loneliness of life in 1920s Burma—where Orwell himself served as a policeman—during the waning days of British imperialism.

One of the men, James Flory, a timber merchant, has grown soft, clearly comprehending the futility of England’s rule. However, he lacks the fortitude to stand up for his Indian friend, Dr. Veraswami, for admittance into the whites-only club. Without membership and the accompanying prestige that would protect the doctor, the condemning and ill-founded attack by a bitter magistrate might bring an end to everything he has accomplished. Complicating matters, Flory falls unexpectedly in love with a newly arrived English girl, Elizabeth Lackersteen. The novel focusses on whether he find the strength to do right not only by his friend, but also by his conscience.

Orwell drew upon his own experiences in Burma, his colonial Indian roots and his personal experience seeing the “dirty work of Empire at close quarters” when he wrote Burmese Days.

A Clergyman's Daughter
A Clergyman’s Daughter is a novel about Dorothy Hare, the titular daughter of Reverend Charles Hare, who suffers a bout of amnesia. Orwell asked the novel not be reprinted after his death. Early editions of the novel were alternatively title The Clergyman’s Daughter

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Intimidated by her father, the rector of Knype Hill, Dorothy performs her submissive roles of dutiful daughter and bullied housekeeper. Her thoughts are taken up with the costumes she is making for the church school play, by the hopelessness of preaching to the poor and by debts she cannot pay in 1930s Depression England. Suddenly her routine shatters and Dorothy finds herself down and out in London. She is wearing silk stockings, has money in her pocket and cannot remember her name. Orwell leads us through a landscape of unemployment, poverty and hunger, where Dorothy's faith is challenged by a social reality that changes her life.

There was also a literary model. In 1902 Jack London had slept in the slums of the East End to write The People Of The Abyss, a book Orwell read at school. In 1928-29 Orwell lived in Paris, writing and working, and failed to publish any of his literary productions. It was perhaps the example of London’s book that encouraged him to turn his experiences into Down and Out In Paris And London, his first book, published in 1933. It was a strange sort of book for an old Etonian to write — in 1931 Anthony Powell had published his clever novel, Afternoon Men, and Graham Greene entered the same general field with Stamboul Train. These were the sorts of books English writers wrote, and for many years Orwell was to struggle to produce just such novels, even though the results were not much good. The decision to write what are basically documentaries was therefore highly unusual, and is central to Orwell’s achievement, as books like The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage To Catalonia are (by general consent) superior to his conventional novels. Why he made the decision we may never know, and yet, given the sort of life he was leading at the time, and the example of Jack London, it may have seemed to him simply the ‘natural’ next step in his career, given his lack of success with more conventional literary efforts.

After Down and Out was published to modest success, Orwell laboured for several years, working by day as a schoolteacher or bookshop assistant, and in his spare time writing the unsuccessful novels: Burmese Days (1934), A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), and Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936). These, together with Coming Up for Air (1939) might be considered a waste of his time, but had he not kept his hand in as a writer of fiction, it is unlikely we would ever have seen his best and most famous book, Animal Farm, such an unusual mixture of fiction and politics.

* * *

Orwell is a bully. His habit of claiming to speak for the people (“Take for instance the fact that all sensitive people are revolted by industrialism and its products”) reminds one of the worst sort of socialist ranter. His extremism should be absurd (“People know that in some way or another ‘progress’ is a swindle”) but it is strangely refreshing. The only reason I can think of to explain this is that we all tire of real life at times — and particularly those parts of it about which we are sick of hearing verbose nonsense — and are vulnerable to the charms of the straight talker. Hence, dare I say it, the appeal of fascism. Orwell is more attractive when he makes an absurd statement which nevertheless contains a half-truth never spoken before. When we were out in the boat he said: “Who has not felt when talking to a Czech, a Pole — to any central European, but above all to a German or a German Jew — ‘How superior their minds are to ours, after all!’ And who has not followed this up a few minutes later with the complementary thought: ‘But unfortunately they are all mad?’”

As one would expect from someone with extremist tendencies, Orwell’s predictions have not always been right. In June 1940 he wrote a letter to Time and Tide which began with the declaration ‘It is almost certain that England will be invaded within the next few days or weeks’ and went on to urge that the population be armed immediately with hand grenades and shotguns, and urged that the brewers’ names on the front of pubs be painted over as ‘Most of these are confined to a fairly small area, and the Germans are probably methodical enough to know this.’ Fortunately England was not invaded. Of more interest is his complete turnaround on the subject of pacifism. Not long before the war he wrote: ‘If one collaborates with a capitalist-imperialist government in a struggle ‘against Fascism,’ ie, against a rival imperialism, one is simply letting Fascism in by the back door’. Yet by 1940 he was writing that the ‘soft-boiled intellectuals’ who were ‘pointing out that democracy and fascism are the same thing etc depress me horribly’.

On my last day on Jura, our interviews finished, I dropped in to say goodbye. Of course Orwell made tea, and then we went for a walk, taking in his vegetable garden and the tent he had erected near the house, where he slept at night to get as much fresh air as he could. His lungs were in poor shape. Our talk was mainly idle, but there was one thing he said which puzzled me, a rare acknowledgement of the spiritual dimension of life, which was so chilling — and yet spoken in an offhand way — that it is worth ending on.

“Which writers do you enjoy?”

“Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Samuel Butler, Zola, Flaubert and, among modern writers, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence.”

I asked what it was he admired in a writer, and he talked a little of the horrors of capitalism and the waning of Christianity in the nineteenth century. “Consequently there was a long period during which nearly every thinking man was a rebel,” he said. “Literature was largely the literature of revolt or of disintegration. Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Shelley, Byron, Dickens, Stendhal, Samuel Butler, Ibsen, Zola, Flaubert, Shaw, Joyce — in one way or another they are all of them destroyers, wreckers, saboteurs. For two hundred years we sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses at all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.”

“You’re thinking particularly of Germany and the USSR in the 1930s?”

“It is as though in the space of ten years we slid back into the Stone Age. Human types supposedly extinct for centuries, the dancing dervish, the robber chieftan, the Grand Inquisitor, have suddenly reappeared, not as inmates of lunatic asylums, but as the masters of the world.”

“Would it have helped had we not lost religion?”

Orwell answered almost absentmindedly, looking at a hawk flying high above us. “It was absolutely necessary that the soul should be cut away. By the nineteenth century it was already in essence a lie, a semi-conscious device for keeping the rich rich and the poor poor . . .”

“And yet?”

“It appears that amputation of the soul [isn't] just a simple surgical job, like having your appendix out,” he concluded. “The wound has a tendency to go septic.”

Jack London
Best known for his novel’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang, set in Alaska and the Yukon, Jack London was also a writer of science fiction and social commentary. His non-fiction work, The People of the Abyss (1903) attempted to document the poverty of London dwellers in Whitechapel, a work which was to later influence Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.
Down and Out in Paris and London
Down and Out in Paris and London was George Orwell’s first major publication. It documents the poverty of working class people living in Paris and London

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This unusual fictional account, in part autobiographical, narrates without self-pity and often with humour the adventures of a penniless British writer among the down-and-out of two great cities of the title.

Written when Orwell was a struggling writer in his twenties, it documents his ‘first contact with poverty’. Here, he painstakingly documents a world of unrelenting drudgery and squalor - sleeping in bug-infested hostels and doss houses of last resort, working as a dishwasher in Paris’s vile ‘Hôtel X’, surviving on scraps and cigarette butts, living alongside tramps, a star-gazing pavement artist and a starving Russian ex-army captain. Exposing a shocking, previously-hidden world to his readers, Orwell gave a human face to the statistics of poverty for the first time - and in doing so, found his voice as a writer.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a novel about Gordon Comstock, a copywriter who abandons his job to assume principles against acquisition and money to instead write poetry.

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Disgusted by society's materialism, Gordon Comstock leaves his job in advertising, his family responsibilities, and the kind of security symbolised by the homely aspidistra plant that sits in every middle-class British window, to pursue an ill-fated career as a poet. In his race to the bottom, only Rosemary, his long-suffering girlfriend, challenges Gordon's self-destructive course. The novel contains the most sustained reflections on the role of the author and the artistic imagination anywhere in Orwell’s fiction, as the book’s protagonist struggles (and ultimately fails) to reconcile his romantic-aestheticist sensibilities with the pressures of the literary marketplace and with social expectations.

Working in a small bookshop and living in a bedsit in London, Gordon dreams of completing an ambitious poem in rhyme royal and devote his entire life to literature. But when poverty begins to damage his own self-esteem and taint his worldview, and his romantic and professional lives start falling apart, his ideals begin to be challenged.

Completed while Orwell travelled north to work on The Road to Wigan Pier, this novel is a key transitional text in his career. Keep the Aspidistra Flying offers a powerful portrayal of the emotional toll of a precarious existence and the desire to break with capitalism.

Michael Duffy
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The People of the Abyss is a work of non-fiction by American writer Jack London. Written after the author spent three months living in London's poverty-stricken East End, The People of the Abyss documents the difficulties faced by hundreds and thousands of people every day in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Inspired by Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, London hoped to expose the indignities faced by those left behind by industrialization.

In 1902, Jack London travelled to England to live in the slums of London's East End. Hoping to learn about the lives and experiences of the city's working class, he spent three months staying in workhouses, sleeping on the streets, and lodging with a poor family in the area. Drawing on his own experience as a working-class American, and informed by his dedicated understanding of socialism, London recorded what he saw of the lives of London’s poor, the hundreds of thousands of humans held back from the nation’s progress toward modernization.

The People of the Abyss was a popular and critical success upon publication and would inspire the young George Orwell to conduct his own research on poverty and urban life, which he recorded in his ground-breaking work Down and Out in Paris and London. Although he is known more for his contributions to fiction, London was a talented journalist whose experiences as a world traveller and worker allowed him to capture the deprivations of impoverished life while preserving a sense of humanity and advocating for much needed change.

Published in 1931, Afternoon Men focuses on the romantic adventures and discontents of William Atwater, together with a circle of his friends and acquaintances, in London around the end of the 1920s. Atwater, a museum clerk, pursues a never-fulfilled relationship with Susan Nunnery throughout the novel, while other characters carry on similar dissatisfying quests for emotional fulfilment.

The novel portrays British society and its subtly stratified interconnections by focusing in detail on individual behaviour both in social situations – at parties, country weekends, at work – and in solitude. Like Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, Afternoon Men is a satirical novel set in the era of “the Bright Young People”.

Afternoon Men was Powell’s first published novel. Its characters and themes anticipate A Dance to the Music of Time, a twelve-volume widely considered Powell’s masterpiece, and sometimes compared to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

The Stamboul Train was Graham Greene’s second novel. It was published in 1932. In America it was renamed The Orient Express. It’s air of mystery, danger and intrigue was a more obvious route for an author to take who hoped for popular success.

This is a summary of the plot found on

“In The Stamboul Train the Orient Express has embarked from Ostend for a three-day journey to Cologne, Vienna, and Constantinople. The passenger list includes a Jewish trader from London with business interests in Turkey and a score to settle; a vulnerable chorus girl on her last legs; a boozy and spiteful journalist who’s found an unrequited love in her paid companion, and her latest scoop in second class, a Serbian dissident in disguise on his way to lead a revolution; and a murderer on the run looking for a getaway. As the train hurtles across Europe, the fates of everyone on board will collide long before the Orient Express rushes headlong to its final destination.”

In 1946, the time of this purported interview, Orwell had only begun to write Nineteen-Eighty Four, one of his two most famous novels. Most of the novel was written at Barnhill farmhouse on Jura Island.

While Orwell describes this novel as being “about the future”, it is only nominally so. Like Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty Four is a satire on the repressive regime of Stalin and the Soviet State. It uses a common trope of science fiction to displace the present to another time and place.

Nineteen-Eighty Four is set in a future England that has now been subsumed by a larger world state, Oceania. In Oceania the population is under constant surveillance and must give its devotion to Big Brother, a representation of Stalin.

Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, an ironically named government organisation which controls information consumed by the people of Oceania and, when needed, doctors history to satisfy current political needs.

When Winston meets Julia and they begin a sexual relationship and so become guilty of ‘sexcrime’, since their devotion is no longer exclusive to the demands of the state and Big Brother. In fact, their affair is a subversive act carried out because it is against the tenets of the state. When caught, Winston and Julia are tortured, not so that they will submit to physical coercion, but so they may truly come to believe the error of their ways and resubmit themselves to the ideals of the state and Big Brother.

Nineteen-Eighty Four coined several terms now commonly used in political parlance: Thoughtcrime; Doublethink; Big Brother; Newspeak. Any regime that is considered to be overly repressive and/or uses surveillance to control its population is now described as ‘Orwellian’.

Richard Burton (O’Brien) and John Hurt (Winston Smith) in a scene from Michael Radford’s movie adaptation of Orwell’s novel, released in 1984

Orwell discusses language in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ as an important tool for political obfuscation and the means by which the stark realities of atrocities could be abstracted and sanitised. It is a theme in Nineteen-Eighty Four, the novel which coined terms like Newspeak, Doublethink, Thought Police and Big Brother, where language is used to lie, confuse, indoctrinate and ultimately pacify the population of Oceania, a fictionalised future Britain.

Orwell was an advocate for plain speaking, wherever possible, that was rooted in the reality of the world rather than first conceived as a linguistic tool.

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Extract from ‘Politics and the English Language, Essays, Penguin Books, London, 1994, p.359

Orwell uses the world of the working class, which is concerned with the concrete realities of life, as a model for language:

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Extract from ‘Politics and the English Language, Essays, Penguin Books, London, 1994, pp.358-359