Saving Orwell

“It was a bright cold day in April,” said Richard Blair, “and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Blair is seventy-three and the son of George Orwell. To witness him stand at a lectern and read the opening line of his father’s great final novel, 1984, is to experience a sense of completion, an equation solved.

We were in Senate House, now part of the University of London, for 1984 Live. For the first time in the United Kingdom, the book was to be read aloud publicly from start to finish. It had been estimated that it would take sixty or so readers—well-known journalists, academics, actors, activists—thirteen hours, that Orwellian number, to get from the bright cold day to the gin-scented tears.

The event was being staged as part of the University College London Festival of Culture and organized by the Orwell Foundation, a charity celebrating the author’s work and values. Its director, Jean Seaton, explained that the idea had come “last summer, just after Brexit, but before Trump. The world felt dark and full of lies. Still does.”

Since then, 1984 has taken on a strange currency; the electric charge of Orwell’s thinking hums and crackles through the culture. In January the novel topped Amazon’s bestseller list, almost seventy years since it was first published in 1949. Demand began to rise, according to Penguin Random House, shortly after Kellyanne Conway used the expression “alternative facts” to defend Sean Spicer’s claim that Donald Trump had attracted the largest audience ever to witness a presidential inauguration, period. By July 2017 sales had doubled over the same period in 2016. Half a million copies were printed in January alone.

All political moments are Orwellian, but some are more Orwellian than others. Reading 1984 “hurts” right now, according to Jean Seaton, but perhaps there is also something soothing in the recognition that the novel’s darkness looks so much like our own. “It feels like 1984 is here in our faces,” she told me.

George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, wrote the novel between the summer of 1946 and the winter of 1948, mostly on the island of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, where he had taken a house, moving there from austere post-war London. It tells the story of Winston Smith, a citizen of the state of Oceania, and his attempted rebellion—through sex and love and the written word—against the Party, which observes and controls every aspect of life. The novel has given us familiar concepts such as Big Brother and Room 101. Published in the United Kingdom on June 8, 1949, and five days later in the United States, the reviews at once recognized its significance. Mark Schorer wrote in the New York Times that “no other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fullness.”

Orwell grew concerned that the novel was being interpreted across the Atlantic as an anti-communist or anti-left polemic, rather than the warning against totalitarianism that he had intended. True, he said, the name he had given to the political ideology of Oceania was Ingsoc—or English Socialism—but he could easily have chosen something different: “In the USA the phrase ‘Americanism’ or ‘hundred per cent Americanism’ is suitable and . . . as totalitarian as anyone could wish.” One thinks of Trump’s inauguration, Capitol Hill within a belfry of cloud, and the tolling bell of his promise: “America first, America first.”

I had walked the short distance to Senate House from Euston railway station. Filthy weather, heavy rain, the morning sky a tubercular grey.

Down-and-outs dozed in doorways on Euston Road, nested in flattened boxes, dirty duvets. Old newspapers, spread out upon the cardboard to absorb the rain and cold, were damp and blurred, but some Orwellian headlines were legible: “Terror at London Bridge”; “Massacre in the Market”; “May: Trust Me to Keep You Safe.” Photographs showed armed police in black face masks. Three days before, not far from here, eight people were killed and forty-eight injured in a terrorist attack, the third in Britain in just over two months. The Grenfell Tower fire, taking the lives of up to eighty people in a high-rise apartment block, was eight days away from happening, but would—in its ferocious injustice—bring to mind the title of Orwell’s 1946 essay “How the Poor Die.”

I walked down Gower Street past the red-brick hospital where, on January 21, 1950, Orwell died of a hemorrhage of the left lung, drowning in his own blood. Suddenly, Senate House loomed out of the murk. There could be few more appropriate venues. Orwell took it as his model for the government building where the Party manufactured lies. “The Ministry of Truth,” he wrote, “was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” In fact Senate House is only sixty-four meters high, although this was enough to make it London’s first skyscraper and the tallest secular building in Britain upon its completion in 1936. Evelyn Waugh, in his novel Put Out More Flags (1942), wrote of its “vast bulk . . . insulting the autumnal sky.”

During World War II, Senate House was home to the Ministry of Information, the British government department concerned with propaganda and censorship. Three thousand people worked here, among them Orwell’s first wife, Eileen.

Chancellor’s Hall, a long narrow room on the first floor of the tower, with marble pillars and a walnut floor, was used during the war by the Home Guard volunteer defense force. According to University of London professor Simon Eliot, “We must imagine this room as a cross between an armory and a command post, with machine guns at the windows, at least one pointing east and one pointing west.”

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