Why George Orwell would have liked the 21st century

Why George Orwell would have liked the 21st century

George Orwell spent the first half of his life being against things and the second half being in favour and against. Here are five things the author of Animal Farm and 1984 would have been unreservedly glad about if he were alive today.

1. The NHS

First off, he’d be glad to be alive. Orwell died of TB in 1950 aged 46. If he had managed to hold on just a little longer the NHS would have had the chance to show what it could do, and the drug isoniazid (marketed in 1952 as Ramiro) might have saved his diseased lung. Its predecessor, streptomycin, had been administered to Orwell in 1949 with terrible side effects and no cure.  On death, disease, and miserable treatment, read his ‘How the Poor Die’ from November 1946.

2. End of the Soviet Union

Second, above all else, and certainly above his own well-being, Orwell would be glad to see the back of the old Soviet Union. He was one of the first on the hard left to see Stalinism for what it was – a monstrous tyranny based on mass surveillance and manipulation. For Orwell’s far-sighted comments on the USSR, see his reviews of Eugene Lyons’ ’Assignment in Utopia’, and Franz Borkenau’s ‘The Communist International’ in New English Weekly, 1938. Mind you, you’d not find him writing essays in praise of Putin’s Russia either, and Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the surveillance activities of the American security services would have given him considerable food for thought. 

3. Technology

Food for thought? What about thought of food? Well, Orwell wasn’t much interested in fine dining and other useless advances in bourgeois technology. On the other hand, he would have been glad to have a PC – an Apple in his case I think, as thin as a blade and as sharp as a peeling knife. On home cooking, see his ‘In Defence of English Cooking’, Evening Standard, 15 December 1945.

4. The end of Empire

Fourth, Orwell would also be terrifically buoyed by the end of the British Empire and the decline of racism – though the political correctitude that has accompanied that would surely have drawn his best and most generous anger. For imperial justice meted out by him in Burma, see his ‘A Hanging’, The Adelphi, August 1931.

5. Twitter

Finally, Orwell never had any real influence until the end of his life when it was too late to enjoy. I think he would have loved the possibilities provided by the mass media and mass higher education. He would have blogged and tweeted his way through the day and one can just see him now on 1950s TV – face to face with presenter Daniel Farson in a darkened studio or wheezing his way up a Wigan slag heap with a World in Action team behind him. For Orwell’s love of cheap gags and (what we now call) ‘social media’ see his wonderful essay on dirty seaside postcards, ‘The Art of Donald McGill’, Horizon, September 1941.

All six published pieces by George Orwell are contained in Peter Davison’s Complete Works of George Orwell.

George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls is published by OUP on 24 October.


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