If he were alive today, would he be writing about call centres and Occupy? Or would he have become a rightwing food writer? It’s not as crazy as it sounds
What if George Orwell hadn’t died of tuberculosis in 1950? What if, instead of expiring aged 46 in University College hospital, he had climbed from his sick-bed, taken the fishing rod a friend had brought him for his convalescence and checked out? What if today he was alive and well (perhaps after a period in cryogenic storage – the details aren’t important now)? What would he think of 2013? What, if anything, would he be writing about?
In many respects Orwell is ubiquitous and more relevant than ever. His once-visionary keywords have grotesque afterlives: Big Brother is a TV franchise to make celebrities of nobodies and Room 101 a light-entertainment show on BBC2 currently hosted by Frank Skinner for celebrities to witter about stuff that gets their goat. Meanwhile, Orwellian is the second-most-overused literary-generated adjective (after Kafkaesque). And now St Vince of Cable has been busted down from visionary analyst of recession to turncoat enabler of George Osborne’s austerity measures. Orwell is the go-to thinker to account for our present woes – even though he is 63 years dead. Which, in the Newspeak of 1984, is doubleplusgood.
As we celebrate the first Orwell Day this week, it’s irresistible to play the game of “what if”? If Orwell was fighting in a war akin to the Spanish civil war in 2012, where would he be – Syria? Would he write Homage to Aleppo, perhaps? Or would he have written Homage to Zuccotti Park or Tottenham? If he was writing Down and Out in Paris and London today would it be very different – and, if so, how? If he took a journey to Wigan pier in 2013, what would he find that would resemble the original trip and what would be different? Would there still be a full chamber pot under his hosts’ breakfast table? Let’s hope not.
Would he be working in a call centre rather than going down a mine? Would he feel as patriotic as he did in some of his essays? Would the man born Eric Arthur Blair have spent much of the past decade tilting at the man born Anthony Charles Lynton Blair? The answers to the last three questions are, you’d hope: yes, probably not, and oh, please God, yes.
“It’s almost impossible to imagine,” says Orwell’s biographer, the novelist and critic DJ Taylor. “One of his closest friends, the novelist Anthony Powell, suggested in his journals that Orwell’s politics would have drifted rightwards. He would have been anti-CND, in favour of the Falklands war, disapproved of the miners’ strikes. Powell was a high Tory right winger, but he was very close to Orwell and so those possibilities of what he would have been like had he lived on shouldn’t be dismissed.”
Adam Stock, an Orwell scholar at Newcastle University who did his PhD on mid-20th-century dystopian fiction and political thought, says: “If he were alive today, then Orwell would surely be writing about many of the sorts of areas you identify, bringing to light inequalities, injustices and arguing for what he termed ‘democratic socialism’, and I would like to think – though this may be projection on my part – that at this moment he would be writing specifically in defence of the welfare state.”
You’d hope. But Stock reckons that in 2013 Orwell would also be writing about the politics of food. “Orwell’s novels are marked by their rich detailing of taste, touch and especially smell. Tinned and processed food is a recurring image in his fiction, and it often represents a smoothing out of difference and individuality, a process which mirrors political attempts to make people conform to certain ideological visions of the world in the 1930s and 1940s,” says Stock.
Indeed, during last week’s horsemeat scandal, Stock says a passage from Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air came to mind. The character George Bowling bites into a frankfurter he has bought in an milk bar decorated in chrome and mirrors: “The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn’t believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was fish! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.”
What’s the present-day significance of that? “The point, I think, is that appearances mask quite different realities in the milk-bar modernity of mirrors in which the character is sitting, trapped between endless reflections,” says Stock. “Orwell had an abiding interest in the countryside, rural life and growing his own food. One thing I suspect he would be campaigning vociferously about in our time is issues surrounding big agribusiness and the provenance of our food, the biological commons, and particularly the patenting of GM crops.”
Cartoonist Ralph Steadman, too, reckons Orwell would be writing about food. “I was re-reading Down and Out in Paris and London recently,” says Steadman who is responsible for a marvellously scabrous illustrated edition of Animal Farm. “I think if he were to be down and out today he could survive on the bins behind the superstores. He wouldn’t have to go hungry because there’s so much free stuff that they throw away – perfectly good food. If he was writing that book today, he’d probably express himself in gratitude for that.”
Sketches of George Orwell by Ralph Steadman.
Later, Steadman emails over one of his illustrations of Orwell. Steadman has put the writer in his own Room 101, his own private hell: a cage full of rats is wrapped around his neck. Perhaps that’s what all these “what ifs” amount to – a lot of savage bites on a dead man’s posthumous reputation.
The problem in deciding what Orwell would write about in 2013 is that Orwell the man was incessantly, in 21st century newspeak, off-message. Orwell had a habit of changing his mind abruptly. “He was against going to war with Germany until the very last minute when he suddenly came out in favour of it as a result, he claimed, of a dream,” says Dr Stock. Taylor also argues that Orwell was too unrealistic to work out a practical political programme. “He was always an idealistic dreamer. In 1945, when Attlee’s Labour government was elected his immediate response was to write saying the House of Lords should be abolished and so should public schools. Reading that, you can’t help but think that with the best will in the world it wasn’t practical. Whatever he approached politically, he came at from an odd angle.”
This chimes with the point Margaret Atwood made in her herogram to Orwell in the Guardian earlier this month: “People who run counter to the current popular wisdom, who point out the uncomfortably obvious, are likely to be strenuously baa-ed at by herds of angry sheep.” If Orwell were around now, he would have been baa-ed at, perhaps, though by whom is less certain. We tend to think that were he alive now he would be excoriating those things we think of as Orwellian – CCTV, the communications data bill (AKA snooping bill) that would force email providers to keep records of who messages whom and when, all the choke-holds an overweening state puts on our collective throat. But perhaps he would not have done so. In fact, there is the grotesque possibility that Orwell, had he been living and writing now, would not have won the Orwell prize, the political writing award set up in his name. “His last writings, from 1949, were the sketch for a novel called The Smoking Room Story about a character called Curly Johnson who, like Orwell, was returning from Burma,” says Taylor. “It’s set in the 1920s and reads like Somerset Maugham. Perhaps there weren’t any more dystopian fictions to come and had he lived longer he would have drifted rightwards.”
Perhaps, then, instead of imagining what he would have written were he alive we would do better to go back to the books and see if what he wrote has anything to say to us now. Try this passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four where Orwell writes about of the 20th century as the period in which “human equality became technically possible” and in which, simultaneously “practices which had long been abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years – imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations – not only become common again, but were tolerated by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive”. In our era of extraordinary rendition, Guantánamo, massive expenditure on foreign wars this doesn’t seem so irrelevant. We don’t have public executions, you might retort. Yes, but given how much we like spectacle of others suffering, that might only be a matter of time – hangings downloadable to your funky new Google glasses.
Or consider how Julia earns her living in Nineteen Eighty-Four. She works for Pornosec, nicknamed Muck House, “which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles”. If Julia were alive today, she might well have been an editor on Fifty Shades of Grey or at least working on its multi-platform global branding; what was it Julia calls it? Oh yes, “ghastly rubbish. They’re boring, really. They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit.”
True, today’s muck houses have multiplied beyond Orwell’s imaginings. Porn is ubiquitous. The sexual commodification of women’s and girls’ bodies is so commonplace as to pass scarcely noticed, and TV or internet porn are accessible at the push of a button. We don’t yet have the “feelies“, Huxley’s cinemas in Brave New World – where the cinema spectator is titillated by the images and by what sounds like a vibrating seat. But, as with public executions, only a fool would rule out the possibility.
Labour’s shadow health minister Diane Abbott, for instance, this week worried that Britain was becoming “increasingly pornified … It’s hyper-sexualised British culture in which women are objectified, objectify one another, and are encouraged to objectify themselves,” she said. What academic Richard Rorty took to be the most hideous thing about Orwell’s vision of 1984 was that it was a world in which human solidarity was made impossible. When we objectify someone sexually – that is, when we treat someone as less than human – then human solidarity is surely impossible. Perhaps if Orwell were alive today, he might be writing about that. Not so much “I told you so”, as “This is far worse than I imagined”.
That said, Orwell’s writings aren’t easily citable by those fighting the sexist exploitation of women and girls. Stock argues: “His views on women, hardly progressive even in his own day, would appear entirely regressive now.” He cites the sequence in Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Winston Smith fantasises about raping and murdering Julia. Later, when they are about to first make love, she becomes “utterly unresisting, he could do what he like with her”, and her body becomes “as yielding as water”. The treatment of Dorothy in The Clergyman’s Daughter, adds Stock, “is similarly sexist, bordering on misogynistic”.
But if Orwell was hardly a proto-feminist, his vision of the capitalistic commodification of human experience surely captures something of our glum times. “There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama and entertainment generally,” he wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means.” If Orwell’s 1984 speaks to 2013 it is in such passages. As Orwell’s late biographer Bernard Crick put it: “He really did believe that capitalism controls the ‘proles‘, the common people, not by physical oppression, but by bread and circuses, as it were, by cultural debasement, ‘dumbing down’ as we now say.”
Or consider another passage in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Orwell describes a feature of life on Airstrip One (Britain). “The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention.” Orwell would have recognised a lot of things from his dystopia in our world – not just the lottery, but the loss of privacy through intruding technology, the degradation of language, the waging of proxy wars by superpowers, the disappearance and sequestration of political dissidents.
Indeed, there’s a better game to play with Orwell than “What would he be writing about were he alive?”. It’s called “What did he get right?”. To be sure, Orwell said that what he wrote in his dystopian novels were warnings rather than predictions, but let’s forget about that for a moment. Taylor says: “He got a lot of things right – deforestation, the national lottery, the loss of privacy at the hands of intruding technology, the suborning of the proletariat with porn.”
But surely the most important thing he got right is that gap between the fact that “human equality became technically possible” and the deepening human inequality that is our reality. Stock says he’s looking forward to a new film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was reported to be in the pipeline last year, especially if it topically deals with “the wealth gap and social inequality in the text between the lives of the impoverished ‘proles’, who comprise the vast majority of the population of Oceania, and the shadowy elite of privileged inner Party members, with their servants, luxurious apartments and black market gourmet foodstuffs.”
It’s surely not just me who, reading this, thinks of the government telling us, in the brazen untruth akin to O’Brien convincing Winston Smith that two plus two equals five, that we’re all in this together. Perhaps 2013 isn’t so different from Nineteen Eighty-Four.