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Mark Thompson vetoed a statue of George Orwell outside the BBC as a ‘Left-wing’ proposal. Winston Churchill would have disagreed

Orwell was one of those indispensable geniuses who transcended politics, and who Catholics too need as part of their mental furniture

By on Thursday, 23 August 2012

George Orwell: Winston Churchill read his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four twice (Photo: PA)

George Orwell: Winston Churchill read his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four twice (Photo: PA)

Some time ago, Joan Bakewell approached the BBC’s director-general, Mark Thompson, to set before him a proposal, backed by a number of journalistic and broadcasting notables, to erect a statue of George Orwell in the empty space that extends behind All Souls’ church and leads towards the brand new entrance of Broadcasting House. The chosen sculptor — an excellent choice — is Martin Jennings, whose splendid statue of John Betjeman now stands in the revitalised St Pancras Station, not raised on a plinth but engagingly among the travellers, typically looking up at that wondrous great arched roof.

Mr Thompson turned the proposal down flat: “Apparently,” writes Lady Bakewell, “George Orwell would be perceived as too Left-wing a figure for the BBC to honour”. What? I can see why Mr Thompson might be careful, in view of all the entirely justified criticisms of too many of the BBC’s commentators as being that way inclined, to avoid unnecessary provocations: but George Orwell? Never was there a more powerful example of a writer who entirely transcended political bias of that kind, one who palpably has as many admirers on the right as on the left, and whose only bias was for liberty and truth wherever it was to be had. Lord Moran, Winston Churchill’s doctor, recorded in his diary that he had found Churchill absorbed in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Have you read it, Charles? Oh, you must. I’m reading it for a second time. It is a very remarkable book.” Churchill, of all people, of course saw the point of it immediately. “Too Left-wing,” indeed. What does he think Orwell was attacking in his naming the ideology of the party of Big Brother as “Ingsoc”? The Tories? Has Mr Thompson ever read Nineteen Eighty-Four? Or Animal Farm?

Mark Thompson’s reaction to Lady Bakewell’s proposal was rejected with scorn in a very good piece by Nigel Jones in his Daily Mail blog.

“There are,” he writes, “several possible explanations for the DG’s reluctance to honour Orwell with a statue on BBC premises. It could be sheer ignorance of Orwell’s work and politics. It could be bureaucratic inertia. Or it could be the hatred still held by many on the Left for Orwell – the man who in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four wrote the most damning indictments of Marxist totalitarianism ever penned… Another reason for Thompson’s horror may be that he knows that Orwell’s view of the Corporation was, at best, ambivalent. He savagely caricatured it in Nineteen Eighty-Four as the Ministry of Truth, pumping out a daily diet of lying propaganda on behalf of the ruling party’s ideology “Ingsoc” (Newspeak for “English Socialism”). Does that sound familiar?”

I’m not sure about some of that: he certainly continued to describe himself as a socialist; but from the late 1930s he defined the word in a very personal way. His suspicion of institutional Socialism of all kinds was ineradicable after his experiences in Spain. In Catalonia, fighting Franco with the republicans, he was shot through the throat by a sniper: then, he was hunted by the secret police of those he had fought with; many of his comrades were arrested, then tortured and killed by the Spanish Stalinists; and his ordeal gave him a profound horror both of Marxism in general and Soviet Communism in particular. His publisher, the socialist Victor Gollancz, refused to publish Orwell’s reminiscences of his Spanish experiences, “Homage to Catalonia”, for fear of upsetting the Russians (Stalin, by now, was the cuddly “Uncle Joe”). But Orwell was never fooled by Stalin. Hence, Animal Farm and then [ital] Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell, of course, was, like most English intellectuals anti-Catholic, almost as a conditioned reflex. But it wasn’t something that obsessed him, and he became less anti-Catholic as he grew older. In 1948 (as he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four) he reviewed Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter for The New Yorker. He opens by saying that “A fairly large proportion of the distinguished novels of the last few decades have been written by Catholics and have been described as Catholic novels. One reason for this is that the conflict not only between this world and the next world but between sanctity and goodness is a fruitful theme of which the ordinary, unbelieving writer cannot make use.” It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of the faith, but he is beginning to see the point.

George Orwell is one of those indispensable literary geniuses whom Catholic believers need to have as part of their mental furniture if they are to understand how far towards the truth an unbeliever can get, by instinctively applying the principles of the natural moral law. Orwell has a nightmare vision of what could happen to our grasp of meaning in a totalitarian culture, a vision which remains as a standing warning, even today, in what we suppose to be a tolerant and libertarian society. Newspeak is still one of his most indispensable inventions: in this age of spin, in which words constantly re-emerge with some new meaning, we see it all around us.

“By 2050 earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared”, he has one of his characters enunciate; “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

His hero, Winston Smith — still surely a hero for our own times — knows that he has to fight to retain his knowledge of the real truth: “How could you tell how much of it was lies? It might be true that the average human being was better off now… The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones, the instinctive feeling that the conditions you lived in were intolerable and that at some other time they must have been different… He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.”

Then the defiant insistence that orthodoxy is not unconsciousness and conformity but intellectual liberty, the liberty to insist that there is such a thing as truth:

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he … was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote:

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

One could say much more about this prophetic figure, of course; but one thing is clear: Orwell should certainly have his statue. I’m not sure, though, that outside the BBC is the appropriate place. He is certainly the greatest writer who ever worked there (he worked in Room 101!) but it might look as though the BBC were laying claim to him in some way, and he despised that institution too much, for reasons that in such a man hardly need any explanation, for that to be at all appropriate.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Excellent article. George Orwell is precisely a figure who transcends left/right politics. Mark Thompson’s reaction is bizarre.

  • karlf

    Hear hear!

  • Adrian Johnson

    As an English teacher in a Business College I always tried to show adult students the need for honesty in communications through precise use of language.  Thankfully Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language” can be found online.  I have recommended this magnificent tribute to truth, logic and the power of words to young people for decades.  

  • JabbaPapa

    Excellent article — Nineteen Eighty-Four may not have killed both literary and political Utopianism, but it certainly put the both of them into a deep coma until after 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union, and the start of the IT Revolution.

    “Too Left-Wing” indeed !!! PSHAW !!!!

    When Orwell was a socialist, the socialist ideology of his time would be considered as a form of hard right-wing radical conservatism by today’s misguided standards.

  • David Lindsay

    It is that very largely Catholic thing, tthe presently resurgent patriotic, morally and socially
    conservative, anti-Communist Left who are the true heirs of the best of George Orwell.

    Orwell is good. He is important. But he is still overrated. Not least, his depiction of Wigan is still resented in the town to this day. His famous remark about the goosestep was just plain wrong, like many of his others. And everyone should read Scott Lucas’s The Betrayal of Dissent, London: Pluto Press, 2004, ISBN 0-7453-2197-6.

    However, Orwell’s patriotism, his moral and social conservatism, and his anti-Communism are vitally important in reminding the British Left that those are indispensable, and indeed definitive, aspects of our own tradition, and that the first two, at least, stand in very marked contrast to everything for which the Conservative Party has stood since that uncomprehending woman facilitated its takeover by the hired help of global capitalism.

    All three, though perhaps especially the last, make him a particularly significant figure when set alongside Christopher Hill and E P Thompson in rescuing demotic culture from what Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity”, even though Orwell himself was not above condescension.

  • teigitur

    Not bizarre, but true to form. He would not know class if it knocked him out.

  • JabbaPapa

    His Down and Out in Paris in London is a ridiculous piece of trash journalism, and particularly offensive to those of us who have actually been down and out in either city (instead of just pretending as he was, and as many well-heeled romanticist poseurs still like to do in Paris up to this very day).

  • Meena

    Thank you so much for this link  Adrian Johnson

    XX.
    I think Dr Woodie has indirectly, and at last, done some good (purely by accident of course).
    It’s an ill wind……… .

  • Recusant

    This is typical BBC. They assume that because Orwell was good, therefore he must have been left-wing. Utterly laughable.

  • JabbaPapa

    Are you constitutionally incapable of writing anything that isn’t unpleasant on the eyes ?

  • Laurence England

    I expect there are people in the BBC for whom 1984 is on the list of books to be banned and then burned. The last thing BBC want is an educated thinking set of viewers.

    They couldn’t hold a candle to Orwell. He was genuinely motivated and interested in the truth.

  • Honeybadger

    George Orwell and Anthony Burgess got everything ‘spot on’ with ’1984′ (Orwell) and A Clockwork Orange (Burgess).

    Even good quality science-fiction can be eerily accurate!

  • JabbaPapa

    Anthony was a bit of a scoundrel, but his Clockwork Orange was basically an ill-conceived and immature attempt at the one-upmanship of Greene’s own rather loathesome Brighton Rock.

    He regretted having written it almost immediately post-publication — but after the success and the censoring of Kubrick’s film, which he despised, Anthony’s efforts to convince them to publish a substantially revised second edition fell on deaf ears.

    From a more objective formal point of view, A Clockwork Orange fails in its pretension to rekindle the Utopian genre after Orwell’s massively powerful total destruction effort.

    It’s a good study of the nature of moral evil though, as well as of the volatility of popular culture in the face of human animality.

  • GFFM

    Doesn’t the BBC completely lurch left? What? Ridiculous. Orwell was an honest and compelling writer who defended the individual and individual freedom against authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

  • CatholicBlogger

    You can get 1984 from

    t/0141036141?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creativeASIN=0141036141&linkCode=xm2&tag=wwwjlpressage-21

  • CatholicBlogger

    Previous post was in error.  Many apologies.  You can get 1984 from Amazon at

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141036141?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creativeASIN=0141036141&linkCode=xm2&tag=wwwjlpressage-21

  • karlf

    JabbaPapa:
    It appears that if you cannot answer a question with the make believe reasoning of your metaphysics, (e.g. If the authors of the Bible did not believe the creation story of Genesis, what did they believe to be the origin of man?) you avoid giving an answer.

  • sce9cmd

    Great article. However, can we please not post links to the daily heil? That disgusting rag will gain advertising revenue depending on the number of ‘hits’ to its website.

  • JabbaPapa

    Your question has been answered several times, and it’s YOUR problem, nobody else’s, if you can’t make head nor tail of the answers provided.

  • karlf

     I didn’t take “Sex?” as a serious answer – nor should I have done – so I’m still waiting.

  • JabbaPapa

    I’m not going to go through the entirety of Genesis counting up all the times the word “begat” is used, nor am I going to patiently explain to you how intimately family and the sexual generation of children and from parents is central to Jewish spirituality and religion, nor am I going to point out that sex is one of the most major themes of the Book of Genesis, nor will I point out that bringing your a prioris along as baggage when you try and understand the meaning of any book will lead you instead to its direct misinterpretation.

    Yes, it was a serious answer.

    Quite apart from which, it is also the answer that is provided by evolutionary biology.

    How about that then !!!

    What an amazing coincidence !!!

  • karlf

     You are dodging again Jabba. I was asking about the origin of mankind, as you’re well aware – not babies. How did they believe mankind originated, if not as told in the creation myth? If you are implying that they believed in the evolution of species through natural selection, please just tell me that straight.

  • Thanks

    the recent Occupy America coalition referred to “the machine”, rather than ‘the system’ or ‘big brother’; in England we are now awaiting a spate of evictions due to the new Housing Benefit ‘ under-occupancy’ rule; (thanks IDS!)
    My favourite current metaphor is GK Chesterton’s battle with the sticking drawer, which is -of course-the dragon.

  • Meena

    185 million generations ago our ancestors were fish – then reptiles…..etc .

    The human foetus goes through these stages as the person slowly develops.

  • Meena

    Beauty and unpleasantness lie in the eyes of the beholder.

  • karlf

    No it doesn’t. We are mammals

  • Meena

    These (fish- reptile…) stages are shown in the earlier months of foetal development. The foetus still has a clear reptilian tail at the “half-way” stage of 4.5 months.

    Yes, we are mammals (primates in fact, which well-explains that which we call “evil”, and many other human qualities), but mammals developed very recently in evolution. Our earlier mammalian ancestors, from their burrows, watched the devastation which destroyed many life-forms.

  • Meena

    The catholic church banned books and burnt books and people.

    This church was the source of the infamous “Index” (lovely word for an unlovely object). Has the Index now gone? Or is it lying low, waiting for more opportune times, that it hopes may one day come?

  • JabbaPapa

    You are dodging again Jabba

    Nope.

    That’s my answer, and I won’t apologise if you dislike it.

    I mean — how many times exactly must I point out that this is my answer for you to understand that it actually is ?

    What exactly is the difference supposed to be between mankind and babies anyway ?

    Hasn’t every single human person in all of History once been a baby ?

    And I’m implying nothing of the sort, I’m simply pointing out that Genesis, Garden of Eden myth excepted, is quite straightforwardly compatible with the theory of evolution.

    I’m not, as usual, responsible for whichever typically weird inferences you might decide to make.

  • karlf

    i dislike your answer because it is clearly contrived to avoid giving an honest answer.
    “I’m simply pointing out that Genesis, Garden of Eden myth excepted, is quite straightforwardly compatible with the theory of evolution” Don’t be so ridiculous jabba. I hope this is a case of self delusion, rather than the outright dishonesty it appears to be. 
    I wonder if you are still refusing to answer as to whether you believe that leprechauns are real or not?

  • karlf

    they are not fish or reptile, but purely mammalian, with features retained from those earlier stages of development

  • grahamcombs

    I recall as a very young boy staying up later at a sleepover to watch the Edmund O’Brien version of 1984 on a late-night movie show here in Detroit, Michigan.   And I highly recommend the John Hurt/Richard Burton version released in 1984.   His essays and nonfiction have been indispensable to my understanding of politics and government and human nature.    I didn’t abruptly stop reading him as an adult convert to the Church some years ago.   On the contrary.   As Mr. Oddie says, Orwell was writing and thinking his way to an understanding that, had he lived, may have led him to the Faith.  Who knows?  I do recall reading that he met Graham Greene and liked him and was somewhat  puzzled by his Catholicism (imperfectly practiced though it was by Greene’s own admission).   I hope the BBC reconsiders this precipitate decision.   

    Graham Combs/Royal Oak, MI, USA

  • JabbaPapa

    i dislike your answer because it is clearly contrived to avoid giving an honest answer.

    This is a preposterous fabrication, with no basis in reality.

    FFS — I’ve just dashed well told you exactly what I think !!!

    And I don’t give a sheep’s dropping about your idiotic accusations otherwise.

    For Your Information :

    conversations proceeding as such :

    Q: Question

    A: Anser

    Q: You’re lying

    are supremely idiotic on the part of Q.

    —-

    You are extremely foolish if you imagine that 21st century catholics will interpret the Bible stories in any other than a 21st century manner.

  • JabbaPapa

    No.

  • GFFM

    I just had a thought: In today’s post modern world, Orwell would be considered a bit of a conservative. Could this be the real reason why the BBC object? Orwell believed in objective reality, right and wrong–all of his work contains a moral vision certainly is more compelling and humane than much of today’s extreme left philosophical posturing. Again, just a thought.

  • JabbaPapa

    Yes.

  • Meena

    Mammals evolved from the earlier forms of life. It used to be thought about 135 million years ago – but recent studies suggest around 160 million years ago.
    Mammalian life evolved from the earlier forms – it did not simply appear as a new “type” of life.
    The lung is a gill derivative and the jaw is a gill arch of a special kind.
    185 million generations ago, of all the life forms which gave rise to other mammals and ourselves, our ancestors were fish. 
    (See G.R. de Beer “Embryos and Ancestors” – Oxford University Press).

  • Meena

    Which question are you answering?

    Has the “index” of forbidden books gone, or does it still exist?
    If it exists, how can one find a copy?

  • Meena

    ” [Orwell] defended the individual and individual freedom against authoritarianism and totalitarianism.]
    No way then could he have tolerated Catholicism. 

  • Meena
  • karlf

    Yes, but a human embryo is always genetically mammalian – the DNA doesn’t change from the first cell to the last

  • karlf

    Why would anyone think that “sex” was their explanation for the origin of mankind, when man would have to already exist to perform the “sex”, and creation myths, as in Genesis, were well established,and had with no other theories challenging them?

  • Meena

    Well, yes

  • Meena

    The generic material has changed slowly over the generations……..,until back some 185 million generations, our ancestors (at that point) were fish.
    That’s all I was saying.

    DNA will continue to change, and at some point in the future we may not be mammals – Given enough time we will most certainly not be human beings. 

  • Parasum

    Better Orwell than (Oliver) Cromwell. Regicides & traitors do not deserve to be honoured. 

  • JabbaPapa

    I don’t know what the Hebrews thought 4000 and 5000 years ago, and I doubt that anybody else knows either — but throughout recorded History, til Darwin came along, the question of the origins was considered to be a mystery — though the first theory somewhat resembling darwinism that has survived is something like 2000 years old or so, give or take a couple of centuries either way.

    Genesis itself describes life as being produced naturally “from the earth”.

    The Ancient scientific theory was that the lower forms of life were produced naturally by the waters and soils, and that the higher forms lived from consuming this produce, whether herbivorously or carniverously.

    This sort of theory goes back to the very earliest text, so that it’s likely to be prehistoric in origin.

    If you want a more detailed answr, you can either find some way of interrogating people who have been dead for thousands of years, or you could research the question yourself – instead of just assuming that 19th-21st century radical Protestant Biblical literalism is some sort of default position.

  • JabbaPapa

    Catholicism went through a period of exaggerated authoritarianism in both the 15th century and the 18th-20th century periods, but it has never been “totalitarian” in any way whatsoever.

    Defending the individual and individual freedom against these things is a Cathoic virtue, notwithstanding Orwell’s own rejection of Catholicism.

  • JabbaPapa

    It’s gone for good ; and book burnings have occurred thoughout history, performed by many diferent groups for the most diverse reasons, so that it’s silly to single out one group for special criticism.

  • Meena

    No it isn’t. The Catholic church is the one which (supposedly) speaks (sometimes infallibly) for the one true and only valid religion and the one true living God. Or so it says.

    As you point out: it’s not much different from the rest of the authoritarian control groups who have been the sorry lot of mankind down the ages.

    Where it IS different, the difference lies in the sheer scale of its actions and the length of time during which it has perpetrated them. On this balance sheet, it is the undisputed winner.
      

  • Meena

    And, of course, together with the more recent mutations, we still carry the DNA of our ancient ancestors – and our more recent ones.