7th January 2013 - Steve Newman
No list of great writers in English is complete without the name George Orwell. Novels such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have spoken to generations of young readers, as well as introducing new terms to the language. There is also perhaps no finer essayist in British history.
For many young readers, Orwell's books are amongst the first works of great literature they encounter and his non-fiction has awakened political awareness in many too. For Steve Newman, from our Westfield Stratford City branch, it took some time to put unplesant associations from his schooldays behind.
Relationships can be based on paradoxes; this is as true with authors as it is with any other relationship in our lives. I was introduced to George Orwell when I was eleven as a form of punishment. An English teacher at my secondary schools, favourite hobby seemed to be giving me detention. So for a couples of hours after school, with no sense of irony, I would copy lines from Orwell's Animal Farm. Starting at Old Major's death, I would continue until my hands hurt, my eyes were sore and my neck stiff with concentrating. I left school despising Old Major, Animal Farm and George Orwell's very existence.
Here's the paradox. In 2013 sitting as a permanent fixture on my bedside table I have a collection of his essays, a Penguin edition of his diaries and Bernard Crick's biography of him. They're not just books but companions, friends even. They're there to browse, to inspire me, to help me question my surroundings but most of all to remind me why I write. So what changed? Thirty years is long time in a relationship, so I'll keep it short.
It was a step-by-step process, slow at first, occasionally non existent. I was growing up during the last years of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall was still standing, The Soviet Union was the Great Enemy and my class teacher was telling us not to worry if there was nuclear war because we would all be vaporised in a first strike. "It's better than surviving", I remember him saying, cheerfully trying to keep our moral up. So he became a metaphor for that time. Newspeak, Big Brother, doublethink all became an easy way for television at the time to explain the Soviet Union. The language was there before I had read him properly.
On midnight on the first hour of 1984 the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a televised speech on the year of Big Brother. He used Nineteen Eighty-Four the book to warn of the tyranny of dictatorship and the importance of vigilance. Yet the awareness of Orwell's work was coming second-hand through media and that particular period. My only first-hand experience was my English teacher's introduction so, deep down, I still despised him. I tried reading Nineteen Eighty-Four the year the Wall came down, reading the first two paragraphs of the book, then putting the book away thinking, "That's ridiculous, that will never happen". Then the Soviet Union collapsed and he seemed less relevant to everyone.
To understand a person though sometimes you need to see a fresh side to them. I'm not sure when I picked up his essays, but it was at a time when my reading was changing, becoming open to new ideas, with a new willingness to experiment.
The essays were short, digestible in small chunks. They were written over a period of time and you can see Orwell's writing develop, covering a whole range of subjects from the anti-imperialism of Shooting an Elephant, the literary analysis of Charles Dickens' works, through to The Lion and the Unicorn, which opens with this line: "As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me." There was even an essay on working in a bookshop. Sharp, incisive and not afraid to tackle different subjects, it was the book that opened my eyes.
Looking back there were two essays that stood out. The first was Why I Write, not so much an essay as manifesto for the reasons as to why he wrote but it also crystallised why I wanted to write as he phrased it: "Good prose is like a window pane". And I wanted my prose to be a window pane.
The other was 'Looking Back on the Spanish War' (found in Shooting an Elephant) because this led me to Homage to Catalonia. The Spanish Civil War is the reason why both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four exist. His experiences with the POUM, the radical socialists that opposed not just the Fascists but the Communists that were running the Republic, the Battle of Barcelona when the communists defeated POUM and the Anarchists who where running Catalonia, his injury that ended his war: these were the experiences that he funnelled to write those two novels or, to quote 'Why I Write' again, "Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it." As well as satisfying my love of history, Homage to Catalonia became the window pane into his two major works.
It was the first year of the new millennium and I was working in a call centre with time to spare when I decided to give Animal Farm another chance. The phones were quiet and there was nothing to do. It can take weeks for me to read a book, sometimes months and often or not I don't finish them at all: that's the nature of my dyslexia. I had tried re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four and had got as far as O'Brien's toast to Emmanuel Goldstein before I lost concentration and that had been the last I had read of Orwell before that day. So for me to read a book in just a few hours and one sitting is a rare event. To read a book in that time that I had spent so long despising was moment when I questioned the past.
From the opening line - "Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes" - to that great ending - "The creatures on the outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from man to pig again: but already it was impossible to say which was which." - was in a way an epiphany, a realisation that my childhood hatred for Animal Farm had been misplaced.
Up to that moment the book had been a punishment that had made my hands hurt, my eyes sore, my neck stiff and equated with good rollicking from my English teacher because I hadn't copied it out to his satisfaction. After that moment the book was how literature should be. It was short, but every word, every sentence achieved what Orwell was trying to say. It was perfect. It was what I wanted to achieve as a writer. In the end the man I had despised when I was younger had become my role model.
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