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Recalling George Orwell: still a writer of our times

Biography: Orwell ­- A Man of Our Time

Richard Bradford, Bloomsbury €25

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George Orwell in a photo taken around 1940

George Orwell in a photo taken around 1940

Orwell: A Man Of Our Time

Orwell: A Man Of Our Time

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George Orwell in a photo taken around 1940

Richard Bradford is a prolific writer of biographies. His go-to studies of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, as well as his authorised biography of Alan Sillitoe are written with the kind of verve and insight that caused The Sunday Times to call his biography of Ernest Hemingway "a bombshell".

In Orwell - A Man of Our Time, Bradford casts his critical eye on Eric Blair, the man and the writer. But rather than a warts-and-all brand of biography, Bradford reflects on the life and work of George Orwell through a determinedly contemporary lens and places his work at the centre of the current political landscape. Brexit, Boris, and Trump are regularly referred to, as is Harvey Weinstein, the Me Too movement, and many other names and trends in current affairs.

Bradford makes the convincing case that Orwell is a 'foreseer', that 'Doublethink' is the forerunner to fake news, and that many of the issues he grappled with in his prose are still with us.

Born in 1857, Orwell's father was an 'opium agent' in India. At Eton, Orwell was a misfit where Aldous Huxley was his teacher. He was considered intellectually gifted, if feckless. His class-consciousness begins to develop and instead of going to university which would have been expected of him, Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police Force out of which came his novel Burmese Days,  and the memorable essays, A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant.

As a colonial autocrat, Orwell documents the end of Empire and returns to England where "social justice and inequality were his exclusive concerns".

His parents are relieved that he assumes a pseudonym when Down and Out in Paris and London appears, a book in which Orwell makes clear that "the homeless were being treated as an inconvenience". It's at junctures like this that Bradford can be at his most scathing, bringing us from the 1824 Vagrancy Act to The Guardian's current homeless figures for London. ('According to the Combined Homeless and Information Network, 8,855 people were recorded as bedding down on London's pavements.') Again and again, Bradford brings us from Orwell's life and times to the current state of affairs. This type of contemporary contextualisation means that Orwell - A Man of Our Time is not a paean to a great writer, but a study of a writer whose influence can still be felt.

Bradford does not shy away from the unpleasant side of Orwell's character either - namely his homophobia and antisemitism, but he does contend that Orwell recognised his own antisemitism and confronted its causes and even repents.

There's an exploration of the Labour Party's own issues with antisemitism. How did Orwell reconcile his principles of social justice with an apparent contempt for Jews? There are no easy answers here, but Orwell tackled the issue head on in his essays Notes on Nationalism, and Antisemitism in Britain, and Bradford makes no bones that Nineteen-Eighty Four "beckons us towards the Labour Party today".

Orwell's time fighting for the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War devolves into "the attraction of Islamic State for foreign born jihadists" and draws "commentators to ISIS/Spain comparisons like dim-witted moths to the flame". He cites [George] Monbiot's Guardian article from 2014 entitled, 'Orwell was hailed a hero for fighting in Spain'. Today he'd be guilty of terrorism.

By 1940, after writing hundreds of articles, Orwell publishes Inside the Whale and Other Essays, where he "spares no one, aiming particular contempt against the modernists who had become obsessed with the nature of 'writing' immediately following the years when a continent had absorbed itself in an orgy of self-annihilation".

Animal Farm appears in 1945, after being rejected by most publishers, including a ridiculously self-contradicting missive from TS Eliot at Faber and Faber.

Interestingly, Cape accepts, and then rejects the manuscript after taking advice from the Ministry of Information, which Bradford astutely recognises as 'exactly the kind of political conspiracy between the political establishment and the intelligentsia that Orwell would portray in The Prevention of Literature. '

Of Nineteen-Eighty Four, Bradford writes - it "is the most important work of the past hundred years". His arguments are convincing. And on Orwell's 'List', Bradford deflates any furore. Approached by the Information Research Department, a branch of the Foreign Office primarily concerned with Soviet propaganda, Orwell was asked to recommend conscripts and the names of those whose "sympathies for the Soviet cause might bias their support of the West". Orwell did so, and despite the backlash when the list was released posthumously, Bradford lends a sensible perspective. 

He has written a brilliant biography of George Orwell, reminding us that his work is more relevant than ever.

In his own words, "Orwell is a writer of our time because the issues he foregrounded and tackled in his work are timeless". Hard to disagree.  

Sunday Indo Living