George Orwell passed away on January 21, 1950 — an untimely death. He was only 46 years old. The anniversary of his death leads some to wonder what the great author would be doing if he were still alive. Some believe that he would be a food / restaurant critic. Or perhaps he would still, at the age of 109, be writing about injustice, falsehood and hypocrisy. One suspects that he might still be speaking truth to power as he did back in the 1940s, the difference being that this time power is in private hands versus the public sector. Corporate Big Brother is now watching you.
[div class=attrib]From the Guardian:[end-div]
What if George Orwell hadn’t died of tuberculosis in 1950? What if, instead of expiring aged 46 in University College hospital, he had climbed from his sick-bed, taken the fishing rod a friend had brought him for his convalescence and checked out? What if today he was alive and well (perhaps after a period in cryogenic storage – the details aren’t important now)? What would he think of 2013? What, if anything, would he be writing about?
In many respects Orwell is ubiquitous and more relevant than ever. His once-visionary keywords have grotesque afterlives: Big Brother is a TV franchise to make celebrities of nobodies and Room 101 a light-entertainment show on BBC2 currently hosted by Frank Skinner for celebrities to witter about stuff that gets their goat. Meanwhile, Orwellian is the second-most-overused literary-generated adjective (after Kafkaesque). And now St Vince of Cable has been busted down from visionary analyst of recession to turncoat enabler of George Osborne’s austerity measures. Orwell is the go-to thinker to account for our present woes – even though he is 63 years dead. Which, in the Newspeak of 1984, is doubleplusgood.
As we celebrate the first Orwell Day this week, it’s irresistible to play the game of “what if”? If Orwell was fighting in a war akin to the Spanish civil war in 2012, where would he be – Syria? Would he write Homage to Aleppo, perhaps? Or would he have written Homage to Zuccotti Park or Tottenham? If he was writing Down and Out in Paris and London today would it be very different – and, if so, how? If he took a journey to Wigan pier in 2013, what would he find that would resemble the original trip and what would be different? Would there still be a full chamber pot under his hosts’ breakfast table? Let’s hope not.
Would he be working in a call centre rather than going down a mine? Would he feel as patriotic as he did in some of his essays? Would the man born Eric Arthur Blair have spent much of the past decade tilting at the man born Anthony Charles Lynton Blair? The answers to the last three questions are, you’d hope: yes, probably not, and oh, please God, yes.
“It’s almost impossible to imagine,” says Orwell’s biographer, the novelist and critic DJ Taylor. “One of his closest friends, the novelist Anthony Powell, suggested in his journals that Orwell’s politics would have drifted rightwards. He would have been anti-CND, in favour of the Falklands war, disapproved of the miners’ strikes. Powell was a high Tory right winger, but he was very close to Orwell and so those possibilities of what he would have been like had he lived on shouldn’t be dismissed.”
Adam Stock, an Orwell scholar at Newcastle University who did his PhD on mid-20th-century dystopian fiction and political thought, says: “If he were alive today, then Orwell would surely be writing about many of the sorts of areas you identify, bringing to light inequalities, injustices and arguing for what he termed ‘democratic socialism’, and I would like to think – though this may be projection on my part – that at this moment he would be writing specifically in defence of the welfare state.”
You’d hope. But Stock reckons that in 2013 Orwell would also be writing about the politics of food. “Orwell’s novels are marked by their rich detailing of taste, touch and especially smell. Tinned and processed food is a recurring image in his fiction, and it often represents a smoothing out of difference and individuality, a process which mirrors political attempts to make people conform to certain ideological visions of the world in the 1930s and 1940s,” says Stock.
Indeed, during last week’s horsemeat scandal, Stock says a passage from Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air came to mind. The character George Bowling bites into a frankfurter he has bought in an milk bar decorated in chrome and mirrors: “The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For a moment I just couldn’t believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was fish! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish! I got up and walked straight out without touching my coffee. God knows what that might have tasted of.”
What’s the present-day significance of that? “The point, I think, is that appearances mask quite different realities in the milk-bar modernity of mirrors in which the character is sitting, trapped between endless reflections,” says Stock. “Orwell had an abiding interest in the countryside, rural life and growing his own food. One thing I suspect he would be campaigning vociferously about in our time is issues surrounding big agribusiness and the provenance of our food, the biological commons, and particularly the patenting of GM crops.”
[div class=attrib]Read more after the jump.[end-div]
[div class=attrib]Image: George Orwell. Courtesy of the BBC.[end-div]