Even without his bronchial difficulties, it seems unlikely that Orwell would ever have lived to see today—his 118th birthday—but, as we sat around the blooming roses on his grave, we couldn’t help speculating on what he might have made of the political world that we have (in the mot du jour) ‘co-created’.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is famous for its depiction of a totalitarian society held in a state of perpetual war, all citizens constantly under surveillance and swiftly and invisibly punished for any break from orthodoxy.
You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.
The irony is that, while Orwell imagined the imposition and central control of surveillance by ‘Big Brother’, what we actually have is a kind of popular surveillance.
We freely choose, even pay for devices and apps that monitor much of our lives and that data is used in inscrutable ways by basilisk technology companies. In return we get to know exactly how many steps we’ve done in our new running shoes. It’s pretty cool.
Surprisingly, there’s not much in the published work of George Orwell on the subject of refugees. Perhaps that’s because refugees were a more established and less maligned demographic during the violent decades in which Orwell wrote. Certainly his view of Russian refugees in Paris was by-and-large positive:
In general, the Russian refugees in Paris are hard-working people, and have put up with their bad luck far better than one can imagine Englishmen of the same class doing.
The longest Orwellian passage I could find on the topic of forced migration is not in any of his journalism, but actually in the first few pages of that enduring novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Winston Smith is at home in Victory Mansions, where the electricity is cut-off during daylight hours and where the hallways smell of ‘boiled cabbage and old rag mats’. Upstairs in his flat, Winston hides from the all-seeing eye of Big Brother by tucking himself into an alcove designed for a bookcase and begins to write an illicit diary.
April 4th, 1984.
Orwell tells us that Winston writes in a ‘sheer panic’, vomiting out onto the page the ‘interminable restless monologue’ that he’s been carrying around inside his head for years. Capital letters, grammar, full stops are lost in Winston’s literary blood-letting. It’s an assertion of humanity, a purging of sin—for which, ultimately, he will pay.
It’s also a film review.
Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Seventy-five years split the writing of that sentence and today, with a shocking resonance. In his work and war, Orwell met countless refugees and, as both citizen and BBC propagandist, would have seen countless reels of cinema footage of people fleeing violence.
Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank.
Orwell was a journalist who wrote novels. What events inspired Winston’s diary? And what history have we made that ships full of refugees today inspire similar contempt in the comments section of our major media?
then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms.
Both during and after the Second World War, many thousands of Jewish refugees crammed into often leaky boats and were set adrift on the Mediterranean. Their reception wasn’t always welcoming.
In 1947, the SS Exodus, carrying 4,500 Jewish refugees, was stopped by British authorities off the coast of Palestine and the ‘illegal immigrant’ passengers returned to camps in Germany.
little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood.
Like all humans, Orwell was very much a product of his age and upbringing. Despite his BBC career, the only extant footage of the man is as a schoolboy, playing the Wall Game at Eton College. Enough said.
Orwell may have spent the majority of his career fighting the war of words ‘directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism’, but his age and upbringing also invested him (for example) with what fan-boy Christopher Hitchens called ‘a marked dislike of the Jews’.
This tension between solidarity and hate ran through British society in the 1940s and, I would argue, that it runs yet deep. Not only with regard to Jews—I use that as a specific example in Orwell’s work—but with regard to the whole question of the alien outsider, the migrant, the refugee.
With the twin benefits of both posthumous and historical distance, Orwell is a valued and objective observer of our modern times. See if you can draw parallels between the internment of the refugees in Orwell’s 1940 and what is happening in our name, in this country, today:
Naturally, every thinking person felt that it was his duty to protest against the wholesale locking-up of unfortunate foreigners who for the most part were only in England because they were opponents of Hitler. Privately, however, one heard very different sentiments expressed.
[…] A very eminent figure in the Labour Party—I won’t name him, but he is one of the most respected people in England—said to me quite violently: ‘We never asked these people to come to this country. If they choose to come here, let them take the consequences.’
Even today, we can still hope that every thinking person in Britain feels it’s their duty to protest the detention, destitution, deportation and death of ‘unfortunate foreigners’.
But what shall we do about the violent suspicion, the daily hate and the perpetual war on outsiders, from the highest ranks of The Party to the lowest feed in your timeline?
Thank you to Documentally and all attendees, intentional and serendipitous, for creating the #1984Symposium and allowing these conversations to evolve.