By Roger Chambers | Columnist
This is an unusual biography of George Orwell. Born as Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in India where his father was stationed, Blair changed his pen name to George Orwell in the early 1930s to avoid embarrassing his family by his years in poverty, described in his 1933 book “Down and Out in Paris and London.”
Orwell’s years of governmental service in Burma, today known as Myanmar, was the basis for his novel, “Burmese Days,” and critically acclaimed essays. In 1928, back in England for health reasons, he resigned his service to become a writer. He taught briefly at two schools in West London.
He was badly wounded in 1937 supporting the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Observing the war firsthand, he became disillusioned with the various leftist factions that supported the Republicans, opposed to General Franco. After his injury, he returned to England, unfit for military service.
Orwell spent World War II in London. Eileen O’Shaughnessy, his wife since 1936, worked for the censorship department, while he wrote numerous essays and literary criticisms. He also worked for the Indian service of the BBC. After the war, Orwell spent much time on the isolated Scottish island of Jura, where he wrote “1984.”
Respiratory illnesses throughout Orwell’s life frequently led to months of recuperation. These recurrences were aggravated by heavy cigarette smoking, time spent researching coal mines in northern England and the terrific air pollution of London from burning coal. Tuberculosis led to his early death in 1950 at the age of 46.
Orwell is best known for the fairy tale allegory of “Animal Farm” and the dystopian anti-totalitarian novel “1984.” He is perhaps the only writer to have his name immortalized as an English adjective. Orwellian describes the uneasiness with thought control, propaganda, surveillance, and the corruption of language and manipulation of truth to assure the dominance of a totalitarian state. Many of the words and phrases in “1984” have become part of the English language. He coined “newspeak,” “thought police,” and “Big Brother,” the supreme dictator. He also may have been the first to use the term “cold war” in the 1945 essay “You and the Atom Bomb.”
Orwell had a long-time interest in the natural world, birds, gardening, and husbandry. He had a life-long affinity for flowers, especially roses. Recognizing the impersonality and contradictions of a dismal political authoritarianism, planting a garden remained an important part affirming future aspirations throughout his life. He recognized that long-term happiness may be unachievable, but even the worst of times are filled with fleeting moments of beauty, pleasure, joy and hope.
This book has several tangents that may seem peripheral but are important additions. There is a comprehensive history of roses. Solnit also describes the cut flower industry in Colombia. Large floral companies such as Sunshine Bouquet are a major source of roses and other flowers flown daily in large planes for U.S. markets. Uniformed workers sport coveralls with a slogan inscribed across the back, such as “Effort and passion make us feel satisfied in our work.
These uniform slogans are interpreted by the author as Orwellian statements. With little pay, one hundred hours work week around Valentine’s Day, no job security or health/family leave benefits, and strong anti-unionism, it is unlikely that the workers believe the slogans on their uniforms.
This book is timely related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both “Animal Farm” and “1984” are reflections on the ultimate inhumanity of totalitarian governments, exemplified by Stalinism in Russia, slightly less restrictive after his death in 1953. In the 1930s, three to five million people died of starvation in Ukraine. When criticized for this famine, much of it a result of poor agricultural policies, Stalin simply denied it ever happened. Those who openly expressed opposition to the government were often arrested, exiled to Siberia, or executed.
The equation “2 + 2 plus workers’ enthusiasm = 5” from Russia of the 1930s is one example of perversions of propaganda falsely claiming Russia as a worker’s paradise. The author notes the attempted rehabilitation of Stalin by Vladimir Putin. Orwell wrote in 1944, “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future.”
That idea would evolve into his characterization of Big Brother. Holtin provides her own further analysis with, “The first victim of war is truth, goes the old saying, and a perpetual war against truth undergirds all the authoritarianisms from the domestic to the global.” (emphasis added).
Even prior to the current war in Ukraine, trends towards authoritarianism have been increasing the past decade in many countries, including Brazil, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Venezuela, Myanmar and the United States. The phrase “alternative facts” was coined by Kelly Ann Conway on live TV, trying to justify differences in political opinion.
This is a classic modern example of dangerous corruption of the English language to advance political aims of retaining power at all cost. This all too real modern “newspeak” has expanded and continues still with the far too many overt lies of her boss, the former President Trump.
Orwell’s writings are certainly worthy of reexamination. Despite the dystopia of “1984,” Soltin’s book reveals Orwell’s humanity and hopeful aspirations of a better future by his great interest in the natural world and lifelong love affair with roses.