The statue least likely to need Sadiq Khan’s protective box is, surely, that of George Orwell alongside Broadcasting House.
But we should remove half his halo – the half smirching the name he began life with, Eric Blair. The Blairs were enriched, generations back, by slave-trade investment. Eric’s father worked in the Indian Opium Office – one of the filthier commerces of the British Empire. Indentured Indians grew opium for export to China which was, thanks to Queen Victoria’s gunboats, epidemically addicted. In return, as the biggest drug dealer in history, Great Britain got silken underwear, its national beverage and the delicate china in which to serve it. And Hong Kong. Meanwhile Eric Blair’s maternal family had for three generations lived by plundering Burma’s forests for their teak.
That Master Blair was educated at Eton was thanks to opium traffic and teak-theft. On leaving Eton, for reasons no biographer (I’m one) can explain, Blair signed up with the Indian Police force in Burma for five years. He was not there directing traffic or shooting wayward elephants. The police kept the Burmese down for the timber industry and, in Blair’s day, “Burmah Oil” (Denis Thatcher’s firm, you’ll recall).
“I did terrible things in Burma,” Blair told a friend. The Burmese have a joke that George Orwell’s first novel (Burmese Days) is about Burma and so is his last: Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Eric Blair came home, and something wonderful happened. He became George Orwell, and remade himself into the greatest truth-teller of his age. Orwell deserves his half halo. But not Eric Blair.
Orwell died aged 46. If he’d held on for two years antibiotics would have saved him. I’ve written a book on him and other writers who mean much to me. They are Thackeray, who died aged 52; Jane Austen, 41; Dickens, 58; Charlotte Brontë, 38; and Anthony Trollope – a Methuselean 67.
When I came round after my cancer operation, the surgeon told me, with a smile, “I’ve given you 10 years.” After my double bypass the surgeon said the same. Faustus, I thought, sold his soul for 12 years. I’ve got 20 free of charge.
Three questions. How have I (coming up to 82) lived longer than writers who achieved so much? Answer: the NHS and pills. Secondly, how did those writers get so much done so quickly? Answer: because their clocks, biological and mental, ticked faster: they somehow knew their genius needed hurry.
Thirdly, how should I use my extra time? Answer: gratefully read and re-read great literature.
Time, said Orwell, is the only literary critic you can trust. We jump the gun with the Booker Prize for the “best novel of the year”. I’ve served on the panel twice. It’s the poisoned chalice of the London literary world. You make one friend and a hundred don’t like you because you didn’t put them on the longlist.
Orwell also believed there were no good Catholic novelists – only good novels by Catholics. There’s one writer who, I respectfully think, might slip into either category. Andrew O’Hagan. Many readers of the Herald will know it is Be Near Me I’m thinking of.
I get new novels for preview because it’s thought I’m an influencer, which I no longer am. But I rejoice to have received an early copy of O’Hagan’s next novel, Mayflies. The subject is male friendship. I can already recommend it but I’m racking my brains to think of a great novel on that subject to put alongside O’Hagan’s, and momentarily can’t. Suggestions welcome.
For whom, where, and why would I raise three statues in London?
1. Don McCullin, outside the Imperial War Museum. His photographs dissolve the false heroisms of war. Medicine we need.
2. Ronnie Scott, sax player and jazz club owner. In Soho Square. Scott spent his career demonstrating that black genius created the only genuinely American art form America has.
3. Diana Athill, who showed that great writing can flower in age. In Highgate, at the gate of the Lady Mary Feilding Residential Home for Active Elderly People. None more so than Ms Athill.
John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London
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