England’s most celebrated performance art piece is the work of Eric Arthur Blair, a man dead for 71 years. A disguise of Englishness was the performance’s core — it was the whole performance — and now gives its name to a society, a trust, a fund, and a memorial prize. In a country where a row can break out over the lowest triviality in half a moment, the goodness, integrity, and decency of the performance is indiscriminately recognised by all — if rarely ever the fact that it was a performance.
When he created his artist’s name — and this is not known for sure, but it is too good not to be true — he thought of England. George for the saint, Orwell for the East Anglian river. The central question of his work is whether he saw Englishness as a tradition in itself and for itself, or as a source of imagery to be exploited for his own political purposes. Most of us don’t get that far though. The performance blocks our view.
A contemporary thought him “as English as the grass that grows alongside the Thames at Runnymede”. Another said “George Orwell walking down the road, was England”. “A quintessentially” wrote J.R. Hammond, “English writer.” “Full of good English qualities” reckoned the American literary critic Edmund Wilson, like common sense and concrete thoughts. Raymond Williams described him as the “most native and English of writers”. We still do. Whenever England or Englishness is the subject, Orwell is ready, the scripture we quote, the trusted authority.
It’s a lovely thing to have, in a way. Orwell there, on the bookshelf, waiting for us to steal ideas about our national identity from. When he imagined Charles Dickens’s face as “as the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of man who is generously angry” it is hard not to transfer the warm feeling these words summon to Orwell himself. It’s a preposterous feeling. They were both writers — so they were never in the open, and if they were they were in the open, then their reality was still their desks, and their words. Orwell’s best essays are always about the best English writers, like Dickens, and Kipling, and Gissing — projecting himself as a peer, and into the canon.
Orwell’s Dickens is a seductive fantasy, and the Orwell that comes down to us is a flattering fantasy, especially if you’re English. Kindly, gentle George, pottering about in his garden, counting the shillings he spends on books and cigarettes, contemplating pubs, all with a newspaper man’s interest in nitty-gritty detail. What elevates him into a figure, rather than a weird Jeremy Corbyn type stroking his marrows in an allotment, is that Orwell is a proper man, not soft or abstract, because he tells us he is prepared to use physical force, extreme violence even, to defend those flower pots, those books, and all those little shillings.
Until relatively recently in England we did not think of ourselves as aggressors. William Hazlitt, writing long before Orwell, said that England was the bravest nation. Why? Englishmen did not “delight in cruelty”. They only fought reactively: “not out of malice but to show pluck and manhood.” This is what Orwell meant 80 years ago when he described the “gentleness” of English life. It’s why he noted that all our war stories are tales of “disasters and retreats.” It’s why we quote him on this, and ignore that Trafalgar Day was toasted for more than a century. He wrote what we want to be true.
In a sense he was born to flatter. Eric Arthur Blair’s family were Imperial agents and bureaucrats. They were well-off, and they feared working people. He called it the “lower-upper-middle class” which meant comfortable, but not mink coat, Rolls-Royce comfortable. No land, no substantial property. They were professionals with salaries — providing service, without being servants, but bag-carriers all the same. Today, they would be setting up all the zoom calls for Davos, or working as expensive personal shoppers.
At school, he was the scholarship boy who was crap at games. He writes about the hatred and resentment he felt against those “whose parents were richer than mine and who took care to let me know it”. The performance grows out of the anger. Reminiscing, describing why he became a writer, he admits that he “created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life”. Orwell never really left the school gates. That’s why his books are best read, and immediately understood by teenagers. In Nineteen Eighty Four, O’Brien is the top prefect, and Big Brother the headmaster, and Winston Smith will stay in detention until he’s written “I Love Big Brother” 50 times on the blackboard in shaky chalk letters.
The other boys recognised him as an intellectual. Today, there is a collective denial about this — like an awful family secret — about what Orwell was. He is usually described as an “intelligence” not an intellect; simple, direct, honest, undeceived. A “light glinting in the darkness” wrote one biographer; “straight as an arrow” thought Simon Heffer; a “national treasure” according to Julian Barnes. Orwell was always saying that the English could not abide intellectuals, that the English people were not capable of abstract thought. Part of his performance was acting this version of Englishness out — an artist pretending to be artless, an intellectual pretending to be stupid, a revolutionary pretending to be conservative.
But he has to be understood as an intellectual. From prep school onwards until the day he died, he thought away. He was prone to daydreams as a child, ennui as a teenager, and abstract schemes for the improvement of mankind as an adult. He smoked roll-ups, to the extent that he should have been French. All of this he knew about himself, and hated, which is how he wrote the best lines ever written about why intellectuals are so dreadful. And only a neurotic, isolated, lonely intellect like Orwell’s could ever have chased authenticity, hardship, and punishment the way he did. In the barbarous Thirties, with all its dismay and havoc, how could it be right to moon over books when real people were fighting real enemies in real wars? To be less than a socialist was a moral disaster.
Choosing socialism made Orwell typical of his generation (not an “English Rebel” as Robert Colls puts it), however pleadingly he later tried to distinguish himself from it. They were all socialist intellectuals too. The Empire was pond-stagnant, Hitler was screaming on the radio, and the volcano they felt beneath their feet was hot. They discovered the people. When W.H. Auden was at Oxford he relaxed by frequenting the dog track, the boxing ring, and the speedway. Orwell, too, slid down by the standards of his day, his class — he wrote about the Burmese, and pan-washers, and Parisian bums. It wasn’t enough.
The breakthrough came in Wigan, where he stayed for 56 days, then never returned. He discovered something less abstract than the proletariat of socialist theory. Here were the English people, the real ones, not the nasty boys at school. In his northern book he remembers a cup of tea with the “lower orders” as “a kind of baptism”. In Wigan he was reborn as one of them. He wanted to use the poor to regenerate the society he despised.
In Orwell’s vision of England, the miners are not so different from the coal they shovelled. They are fuel for his dream of a revolution. “No genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of socialism” he wrote — because ideas were for people like him to grasp. In another essay he equates the struggle of the workers to the growth of a plant: “blind and stupid, but it knows enough to keep pushing upwards…” It’s not far from Lenin’s view of people. For all his famous words about “the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns” and “the old maids biking to Holy Communion”, Orwell did not care much for the English. They are insensible plants, to be trimmed and pruned by a higher intellect. They needed to “breed faster, work harder… think more deeply, get rid of their snobbishness… pay more attention to the world”. After a late baptism, he had a convert’s faith in the English. And the convert’s faith is liable to be disappointed.
The revolution Orwell yearned for never happened in his lifetime. The British Empire did not become “a socialist federation of states”. Country homes were not recast as political “children’s camps”. The Stock Exchange was not torn down, and the House of Lords was untouched. He believed all of it would happen, none of it did, and we remember him as one of our greatest prophets.
These torpedoed expectations generated the hopeless air of Nineteen Eighty-Four. “If there is hope, it lies with the proles” writes Winston Smith — “proles” coldly described as drinking, gambling, singing, fat, anonymous people “who never learned how to think”. Winston wants dogs to take over a kennel. George Orwell was coming back around to the views of Eric Arthur Blair, the school boy who had “no notion” that the working class were human beings. Shortly before he died, Orwell put his son’s name down for Westminster.
A marker was placed with the first obituaries. Good, plain, honest, English George — not the ranting ideologue. He was the “wintry conscience of a generation” wrote V.S. Pritchett, a “kind of saint” who “prided himself on seeing through rackets”. Everyone assented to the performance Orwell made of himself in his writing. Malcolm Muggeridge, who knew him well, referred to Orwell’s clothes as “a sort of proletarian fancy dress”. He knew how kitsch it all was. When he read Orwell’s death notices in 1950, he “saw in them how the legend of the human is created, because although they were ostensibly correct… they were yet inherently false — e.g. everyone saying George was not given to self-pity, whereas it was of course his dominant emotion.”
Orwell would have liked to have been remembered for his “power of facing unpleasant facts”. His solidity and common sense. He would be amazed to find himself lazily cited every week in conservative newspapers by people who he would have put foot-first into a wood-chipper if it meant the brotherhood of man could be realised on Earth, in England.
He has become the opposite of common sense. If Millennials, as is so often argued, use Harry Potter as a kind of moral pattern recognition software, then this is what Orwell has been to three generations of Anglo-American journalists. It wasn’t that long ago that Christopher Hitchens was using Orwell to justify the Iraq War. The Trump administration was endlessly described as Orwellian, as was one of Theresa May’s Brexit deals, as is almost anything that is thought to be bad somehow. The performance has become an ideology. He’s what he railed against, but could never resist: an abstract thought. Maybe on April 23 it’s better to call him a saint — the other Saint George. “Sainthood is a thing human beings must avoid.” That’s one of his lines. It’s quite right. Just ask Eric Blair.