Later this year, a statue of George Orwell will stand outside BBC New Broadcasting House, cigarette in hand, looking quizzically at passersby. In the Oxfordshire studio of the sculptor Martin Jennings, the tall, thin figure of Orwell is gradually taking shape, his maquette instantly recognisable as the writer who did so much to shape our thinking on politics and political language. He is known as “the patron saint of political journalism”.
I wonder, as I peer down at Orwell’s lined, intelligent face, what he would make of us all in 2017. His struggles during the Spanish Civil War are well known, as are his writings on totalitarianism and the uses of populism and nationalism; his struggles with religion less so, though the last book that visitors to his hospital bed saw him reading before he died was Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The road to where Orwell’s statue will stand on the edge of New Broadcasting House has not been direct. Initially, the BBC rejected the idea, thanks to worries that honouring a writer most associated with the political left would open the floodgates to demands for statues of other writers, until the piazza at New Broadcasting House became so festooned with writers of every political stripe that health and safety would have to be called in to stop BBC staff tripping over them on their way to work.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. Eventually, the BBC relented, and so one of the greatest writers in the English language will soon be watching over the BBC’s smokers as they congregate in the cold. There, on the corner of Hallam Street in W1, we shall pay homage to our late colleague as we puff away; albeit more often on our e-cigarettes because real smoking – with all its deliciously deadly toxins – has become rather unfashionable these days.
Today, it is hard to picture Orwell at his desk devotedly smoking his black shag tobacco inside the BBC building where he worked during the war. Although I do remember a merciful editor allowing me to smoke in the studio while presenting the double edition of the World Service Newshour programme in 1995, on the practical grounds that it was better to have a smoking presenter inhaling happily next to the microphone (and able to introduce the second edition of the programme) than to have nobody at all in the studio while the presenter was outside having a fag. As this new year dawns, it is clear that we live in less tolerant times.
I was delighted when I was asked to report on Orwell’s statue for Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme, because it gave me the excuse to revisit not only Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but also Orwell’s essays on everything from working in bookshops to politics and the English language – and indeed books versus cigarettes – and to be struck anew by how much his work still speaks to us almost 70 years after his death.
Big Brother, Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, the Thought Police: all concepts from just one novel (Nineteen Eighty-Four) that have passed seamlessly into the English language, and are often themselves misused for writers’ own political ends. Orwell’s very name has become an adjective to describe the impact of an authoritarian and untruthful state.
Some of Orwell’s knowledge of the dark art of propaganda – and indeed of bureaucracies – may well have come from the years that he spent at the BBC from 1941 to 1943. The inscription behind Orwell’s statue will be his own words: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
He was a writer who had witnessed the atrocities of Soviet Russia, the rise and fall of the fascist dictatorships of Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, and who had survived being shot while fighting against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.
After all he experienced within his brief 46 years on earth, the honest and responsible use of language became crucially important to Orwell. His six rules on writing with clarity – which include “Never use a long word where a short one will do” and “Never use the passive where you can use the active” – have stood many journalists in good stead ever since.
“One ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end,” he concluded in his “Horizon” essay of April 1946.
I hope that we heed his plea today, in our “post-truth” era of fake news, Twitter’s 140-character assassinations and the hyperbole of hatred online. While reporting from the BBC Baghdad bureau during some of the worst months of the Iraq War, our office had a blackboard listing the journalistic clichés that our news editor, Chris Booth, had put up as a health warning. The phrases were not quite banned, as dictatorship had fallen out of fashion in Iraq in the days after Saddam, but they were to be avoided if possible.
This made us think harder about the impact our words could have: were they fair or biased? Did they reinforce prejudices and divisions between Sunni, Shia and Christians? Would what we said in our reports further inflame an already explosive situation? Even on the tightest of deadlines, we weighed up each word before broadcast, well aware of how much language shaped perception.
Whatever your religious beliefs, or lack of them, language – and how we use it – matters.
Orwell himself, while nominally Anglican, was no fan of organised religion. He claimed to have lost his faith as a teenager, around 1917, at a time when hundreds of thousands of soldiers were losing their lives in World War I. He was not a spiritual writer, although the language and poetry of the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible echo through his work.
For much of his life, Orwell was openly hostile towards the Catholic Church. The Inquisition had provided a template for future dictatorships, he believed, while Catholic capitalists did not seem to be perceptibly different from any others, he noted acerbically. And as a man who spent so much of his life among or writing about the poorest of the poor, the apparent hypocrisy of some avowedly religious public figures appalled Orwell.
Yet he retained a fondness and affection for Anglicanism, and a firm belief that socialists were wrong to suggest that spirituality would simply die out once mankind’s basic needs for warmth, food and shelter had been met. He wrote in 1944 that the opposite was the truth. “When one’s belly is empty, one’s only problem is an empty belly. It is when we have got away from drudgery and exploitation that we shall really start wondering about man’s destiny and the reason for his existence. One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity.”
In Notes on the Way, written in 1940 as the world went to war yet again, Orwell wrote that the Kingdom of Heaven may have failed, but so had Marxist realism: “It appears that amputation of the soul isn’t just a simple surgical job, like having your appendix out. The wound has a tendency to go septic.”
He also wrenched Marx’s famous saying that “religion is the opium of the people” back to its rather more complex origins. “Marx did not say, at any rate in that place, that religion is merely a dope handed out from above,” Orwell wrote. “He said that it is something the people create for themselves to supply a need that he recognised to be a real one. ‘Religion is the sigh of the soul in a soulless world. Religion is the opium of the people.’”
Towards the end of his life, in an essay on Gandhi, Orwell wrote that our job as mankind is “to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have”. And despite his stated lack of belief in an afterlife, what motivated Orwell were many of the values that are deeply embedded within the Christian faith.
Orwell’s own life was lived writing and fighting for what he believed in: a more just world, with greater equality between rich and poor. A world in which we should never allow our language or ourselves to be twisted into the “hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness” of the Two Minutes Hate.
Caroline Wyatt is a BBC journalist and presenter
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.