George Orwell

Twenty-one was one of the happiest years of my life. I was finishing off my degree, and by lucky coincidence all my lectures and tutes were jammed into Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving five days of the week where I didn't absolutely have to go into uni. Because of that, I was able to read more in that year than ever before or since. There's nothing like sitting down next to a heater in the middle of a Tasmanian winter, starting a book at 10 am or so, and finishing it at 5 or 6 pm.

That was the year I discovered one of my heroes, George Orwell. His clear and incisive writing style was an inspiration to me, and is the standard by which I've measured my own writing ever since. Whenever I see a 'web style guide' telling people to 'write shorter' for the Web, I think that what they should be doing is pointing people to 'Politics and the English Language'. It's not about whether you write 10,000 words or 1,000: it's about making every word count.

Having lived through the 1984 hype of 1984, I avoided his most famous novel at first. Instead, I read his non-fiction: Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Barcelona—all of them alive with the grit and texture of life in the 1930s. From there, I ploughed through most of the Collected Essays. Orwell made the concerns and problems of the '30s seem as real to me as if they were happening that day. To a child of the latter half of the Cold War, his accounts of the years leading up to WWII were much more readable and immediate than the endless war-reminiscences of late-twentieth-century popular culture.

I'm glad I read his non-fiction first, because it spelled out so unequivocally where his sympathies lay. When I finally read Animal Farm I was amazed that anyone could misread it as a right-wing piece. It's surely one of the enduring injustices of the 1950s that a man who fought against Franco was left with a lasting popular reputation as an anti-communist.

I never did get around to reading 1984 or his other novels (though I saw the film of the eponymous year). I meant to save them for last; but then my glorious reading year gave way to Honours, and I discovered another literary hero.

Orwell died on 21 January 1950. One of the worst aspects of the extension of copyright in the UK and US from life plus 50 to life plus 70 years is that it will be 2020 before his works can be made available through Project Gutenberg.


First published in Seven Weeks to Madagascar, 29 May 2000.
This page: 13 February 2001; last modified 16 February 2001.

©2000-01 Rory Ewins