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Wednesday, 3 July, 2002, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Why Orwell Still Matters
George Orwell was a writer who shunned many of the political trends of his day. But, says Christopher Hitchens in this video essay, his fierce independence has earned him an enduring legacy.

What do you think? Is Orwell still a political force today? Does he still matter?

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Transcript of Christopher Hitchens' essay:

Why Orwell Still Matters

George Orwell only just made it into the second half of the 20th Century, dying in January 1950 of a tuberculosis that could probably have been cured if he was richer, or had lived in a richer country.

That thought in itself, with its echo of "consumption", seems to push him back somewhat into the Victorian epoch. His own preferred era would probably have been the Edwardian, if that supposed golden age had not resulted in the horror and misery of the First World War.

However, as the new century opens, and brings his centennial along with it, first-time readers are experiencing this lonely and peculiar man's prose for the first time, and discovering that it remains strikingly relevant to our own day.

Why should this be?

Well, partly it is because Orwell's actual "period" was the 1930s, a decade of war and strife and ideological combat which still resonates for us, and which was the prelude to the Second World War.

Nobody who is interested in the arguments of those days, from Nazism to Stalinism, can revisit them (or become acquainted with them) without reference to Orwell's work. And social historians, still interested in the time of mass unemployment and industrial stagnation, find Orwell's first-person accounts of posing as a tramp or acting as a journalist to possess continuing usefulness.

Nor does this exhaust Orwell's contribution. As a volunteer soldier in the Spanish Civil War he left us an imperishable account of the realities of the conflict; a conflict in which he nearly lost his life to a bullet in - of all places - the vocal chords.

He also presented a first-person version of the truth about the civil war within the left: a version which has been vindicated by subsequent historians. And here, I think, we approach the crux of his influence.

Brave men are fairly rare and honest men, perhaps, rarer still. It was a singular quality of Orwell that he possessed both honesty and courage, and simply would not agree (in a later-famous phrase) to cut his conscience to suit that year's fashions.

He possessed no great educational qualifications and never attended any university. His style as a writer was direct and memorable, but not exceptional by the standards of English letters.

The infusing element in his work, and the thing that gives it continuing influence, was integrity.

It is almost impossible to overstate the influence that Josef Stalin's horrific regime then had over the minds of intellectuals. By refusing to agree that Russia was on course for Utopia Orwell took a position that put him in a very small minority.

As a result, he was often defamed and slandered, and very often denied the chance to publish his work either in magazine or book form. He never experienced a day of freedom from poverty, and was only recognised or rewarded for his Animal Farm or 1984 as he lay dying.

The other day I was lunching with one of London's better-known crusading journalists, and the talk turned to Orwell. My younger friend was not an expert on the subject by any means, but he had read enough to know what he thought.

"Every time you feel 'is it worth the trouble that will be caused by printing this piece'," he said. "And every time the editor says, 'Well, perhaps we should wait for a more opportune time', you can suddenly feel Orwell reproaching you, and then you remember why you came into the journalism business in the first place."

One could ask for no more handsome - or indeed understated - tribute. In politics there are always enough people who will prefer even the shabbiest compromise. In times of moral crisis, there are always enough people who prefer to look away or turn aside.

In moments where clarity is required, there are always enough writers and intellectuals who will seek refuge in euphemism, or in the consolations of nearness to power.

If I was asked to summarise Orwell's importance in a phrase, I would say that his life and his work and his personality have come down to us as a counter-example to all that, and as an encouragement for us to believe that such forces need not - and in fact do not - always win.


Talking Point - some of your comments so far:

Orwell matters today because too few journalists pay him anything other than lip service. Most newspaper OpEd pages seem to avoid any view that is unfashionable or politically incorrect. The reason is, as I think Orwell pointed out, that many writers are turning out work for the dinner-table approval of their chums and colleagues and baulk at addressing issues with a stark clinical moral approach which may cause these familiars anguish or, at the very least, assault their lazy, received intellectual and moral conventions. Whether they actually, really believe what they write is another matter altogether.
Barry Lynch, Dublin, Ireland

Orwell remains a moral and political leviathan compared to the swarthy cowards in Parliament.
Julius, London, UK

As usual Mr Hitchens delivers a voice of sanity in a sea of mediocrity. His incisive and timely comments, remind many of us that we need not work in a historical vacuum. I often wonder whether under or non-recognition of Orwell's work is as much down to certain publishers and media outlets wanting to avoid close analysis of his work for fear that it will stir up thoughts and realities which they'd prefer were not laid bare before their readers and viewers.
Eamonn O'Neill, Edinburgh, Scotland

Ok, Orwell was always his own man. But some of his views are terribly dated these days. The most obvious example is that he was a virulent homophobe. This however, has been conveniently overlooked by Orwell's present day cheerleaders. Maybe because they are afraid it will denigrate a man who is frequently championed by liberals and the left. This is the problem with canonising historic figures - the myth inevitably comes apart.
Craig Davies, Leicester, UK

Central European's marval at how 1984 portrays the type of society they knew. It is important to remember that it is a realistic account of a possible British society. It is not only chance which prevented the UK from avoiding the course of Germany or Russia, but the danger is universal and eternal.
Ian, Wroclaw, Poland Ex UK

I remember in the early 70s while traveling alone by train through then Communist Czechoslovakia striking up a conversation with a young Czech lady. She confessed that she had not heard of George Orwell so I promised on my return to London to mail her certain "educational materials" and include some Orwell. Some months after I sent her 1984 and Animal Farm I received a letter from her thanking me profusely for she believed Animal Farm to be a perfect description of Czech society of that dark time. She felt comforted that a writer understood and expressed so perfectly the corruption of her society. I will never forget her, or how Orwell's brave words helped her then and how they still remain relevant today.
Peter MacKinnon, Los Angeles USA

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