This week marks the 68th anniversary of George Orwell’s death. He died alone, from a massive lung haemmorhage in a private room in University College Hospital in the early hours of the 21st January 1950. He was just 46 years old.
I first came across Orwell when I was 17. I was browsing in the school library one wet winter afternoon when I found a scruffy Penguin paperback of “Down and Out in Paris in London” (I still have it, yes, I liberated it, I confess). The prose instantly captivated me. It was detached and objective, and yet compassionate and empathetic. This writer had clearly suffered alongside the oppressed workers of the subterranean Paris kitchens and the inmates of the London doss houses.
Over the past forty-odd years I have read all of Orwell’s published writings, and works about him, including numerous biographies, the letters, the diaries and the magisterial Collected Works edited by the heroic Peter Davson. I have also visited his grave in Sutton Courtenay, Barnhill on Jura (where, sitting up in bed, he struggled to type out the manuscript of “1984”), and various of his London addresses.
Orwell’s novels are a patchy affair. He tried to suppress two of them – “A Clergyman’s Daughter” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying“, based on his experiences as a schoolteacher in private schools and in a Hampstead bookshop – believing them to be hack works. But his last two novels, “Animal Farm” and “1984” are international masterpieces.
Yet Orwell’s political writings are often touched by genius, expressing complex truths and ideas in simple, direct language. On the two big issues of the twentieth century Orwell stands on the right side of history. He recognised and fought against the dangers of totalitarianism and showed how it is bred in the corruption of political thinking and the suppression of a free media, whether from the left or the right. In “1984” the very language is debased and simplified so that free-thinking and free expression are stifled. “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”. In Oceania, news is manipulated and the mass of the population is kept in ignorance of events. In an era of fake news and alternative facts his message is as relevant as ever. Speak to people who grew up in the Eastern bloc and they will express amazement that Orwell was able to understand their societies so completely, without ever visiting them. Perhaps his time at Eton, in the Burma Police, his dealings with Stalinist apologists like Kingsley Martin and Harry Pollitt, and his cat and mouse escape from the Stalinists in Barcelona all contributed to this knowledge.
On Freedom of Speech Orwell was an absolutist. One of his most well known quotes is, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.” Giving and taking offence is a key part of democratic discourse. It is the grit in the oyster that allows us to move forward. He believed that, once people are afraid to express their thoughts then we are on the slippery slope towards totalitarianism. Our present day Puritans, whether of the right, or, increasingly of the left, should take note.
Orwell was also personally brave. No armchair theorist he. In the Spanish Civil War he fought with the Trotskyists against both Franco’s fascists and the Stalinists who hunted him in Barcelona when sectarian conflict broke out. Allegedly, a cache of his letters and diaries is still hidden in the Moscow archives, seized by Comintern agents just after he fled. For his pains he was shot in the throat and lucky to survive. During the Second World War he joined the Home Guard.
Orwell was also a nature lover: all his life he dreamed of leaving the city and setting himself up as a smallholder. He achieved this in Hertfordshire before the war, and on Jura at the end of his life, keeping a detailed domestic diary recording his daily struggle to keep crops and raise livestock.
What has all this to do with housing or planning? Well, I think Orwell was partly responsible for stoking my interest in housing and wider social conditions. “Down and Out” highlights the horrors of the slums, and the degradation of homelessness, and his explorations in “The Road to Wigan Pier” highlight the importance of good quality municipal housing and the need to escape the clutches of the private landlord. Incidentally, Orwell also wrote about the house of the future – a soulless, hygienic place where meals would be delivered through a hatch in the wall from communal canteens, and where laundry would be delivered from vast communal laundries, allowing its citizens to lead a life of culture and contemplation. It sounds more 1984 than 2018.
Throughout his life Orwell never owned a property. He lived in a succession of rented flats and houses, being bombed out in London on at least one occasion. For much of his life he lived a hand-to-mouth existence, until “Animal Farm” and “1984” brought in substantial funds. By then it was too late. For the last two years of his life his tuberculosis, perhaps contracted in the doss houses of London, confined him to sanatoria and hospitals. His condition was not helped by the cigarettes of heavy shag tobacco that he smoked throughout his life. Had he survived for a few more months he might have lived another few decades as a result of the new drugs that were being developed at that time. Alas it was not to be.
In my view he was the greatest English writer of the twentieth century.