When the special importation of streptomycin ameliorated George Orwell’s tuberculosis in 1947 he finally gave up smoking and moved back to Buckinghamshire with his new wife Sonia, and his adopted son Richard. His lungs continued to trouble him for the rest of his life, but his death in late 1978 was due to a heart attack.
The success of 1984 meant that for the first time Orwell was free from financial worries. After a period of rest lasting almost nine months, Orwell began to write again. He began to plan a new novel to be called Everything Under the Sun, a story about the atomic attacks in Japan, but didn’t complete it. Instead he travelled both to Germany and Japan, and two years later published Among the Ruins, a reflection on the post-war world, which was one of the first books to question the usefulness of both the carpet-bombing of German cities and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
‘I once wrote that bombing is not especially inhumane,’ he said in the preface. ‘This now seems to me to be a ludicrous assertion.’
In a BBC broadcast of 1951 Orwell suggested that Air Vice Marshall Bomber Harris who had co-ordinated the RAF carpet-bombing of German cities should be considered a war criminal. This hugely controversial broadcast led to Orwell being banned from the BBC. He did not return to the BBC until 1964, with his now legendary interview with the young John Lennon.
To escape from the BBC controversy Orwell went to the USA with his wife and son. Orwell had long wanted to visit the US and his account of his trip, From the Bible Belt, exposed the ultra-conservative paranoid heart of America. Orwell later said that if he had been to the US before he had written 1984, it would have been an even bleaker document. Orwell was scathing of Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Orwell produced a savage critique of McCarthy later published as Wolf at the Door. His description of McCarthy as ‘a cheap advertising shill crossed with a Gestapo interrogator’ was immensely damaging to McCarthy, and didn’t help when McCarthy took the stand at the Army-McCarthy Hearings two years later. When Orwell arrived in the US he created little interest. By the time he left his comments were making headlines in the New York Times and 1984 was back in the bestseller lists.
Being famous did not improve Orwell’s temperament. He was often moody and did not suffer fools easily. In the late 1950s he and Sonia separated for what was to be a three-year period. This was a difficult time for Orwell. He had frequent fights with his 16-year-old son who had become an enthusiastic skiffle fan. Orwell could not abide skiffle or rock and roll, though he recognised that something radically different was taking place with the experience of young people. Richard left Buckinghamshire to live with Sonia in London.
Orwell was extremely depressed. He had not completed a novel since the publication of 1984. He was in his late 50s, living alone and his health was fragile, especially in the colder months. Friends who visited him found him morose and short-tempered. Rayner Heppenstall, who had once been attacked by Orwell with a shooting stick, visited Orwell in the winter of 1960. The visit was short. Orwell reportedly threw Heppenstall into a duck pond, and Heppenstall was then chased out of the yard by Orwell’s pet goat Muriel.
In the autumn of 1961 Orwell received a telegram from the American broadcaster Ed Murrow. Murrow had accidentally heard some of Orwell’s wartime BBC broadcasts in which Orwell had broadcast to India in the hope of turning radio into a tool of radicalisation.
Murrow felt that Orwell’s low-key diffident style of presentation might work well on American radio. Orwell’s reputation for controversy wouldn’t hurt either. If Orwell had not been in such a desperate state of mind he may well have refused the invitation. In early 1962, Orwell returned to the US this time alone and began a new career as a radio interviewer. Murrow’s idea was that Orwell would interview a variety of public figures, politicians, writers and celebrities. The hook for listeners was that Orwell would interview them as people with serious opinions, hit them with hard questions and expect serious answers. This was a radical step for American journalism.
What have become known as The Manhattan Interviews changed Orwell’s life. Over a period of eight months he interviewed Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker, the recent Presidential contender Richard Nixon and numerous others. This last interview was to be crucial in Nixon choosing Orwell over David Frost when attempting to rehabilitate himself after Watergate, a decade and a half later.
Orwell’s interview with Monroe was a revelation. He was obviously smitten with her and she with him, and the dynamic between them produced extraordinary disclosures and eloquence from Monroe. Their discussion about Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that both Orwell and Monroe loved, made headlines around the world.
The Presley interview was almost a disaster. Presley’s relentless politeness, and his obvious prepping from Colonel Tom Parker made the interview very hard work. Orwell was not a natural media presence. He relied on his interviewees at least wanting a discussion. It was only when Orwell was able to shift Presley to memories of his mother and his childhood that Presley abandoned his script. Somehow Orwell’s conjuring of Presley’s vulnerability seemed to make the malign shadow of Parker even more visible.
Of great effect on Orwell was his interview with John Lee Hooker. Two more different men it is hard to imagine. Orwell’s clipped, diffident and incisive questioning and Hooker’s low sardonic stuttering growl make electric listening even today. Monroe’s interview had alerted the entire country.
Orwell’s interview with a Black musician brought home to him with great force the situation of Black Americans, and was responsible for his long essay The Klan published a few years later. Hooker played two songs live, the Robert Johnson standard ‘Dust My Broom’ and Hooker’s own ‘Boom Boom’ then riding high on the US charts. Orwell later said that he thought he had never really understood music until he heard John Lee Hooker play live. He was to be a blues fan for the rest of his life and his long essay on Robert Johnson is still a standard critical reference for Johnson’s music. Orwell used to say that if anyone wanted a sense of who George Orwell really was they should put his famous essay on Henry Miller and his essay on Johnson side by side. When Orwell died he had a vast collection of blues LPs including many rarities and bootlegs.
Orwell returned to Britain for Christmas 1962. He was reunited with Sonia, who remarked after Orwell’s death that America had changed him. She said that he seemed to have become more conscious that ‘George Orwell’ was someone who could command a great deal of influence, but that Eric Blair needed to have a life that was somehow protected if ‘Orwell’ was to survive. Richard, now almost nineteen, stayed with Orwell and Sonia over Christmas, and neighbours reported that Richard and his father were frequently seen walking around the village deep in conversation, Orwell rugged up in a voluminous overcoat and swathed in scarves. Richard has consistently refused to discuss those conversations, except to say that for Christmas that year his father gave him a record player and a selection of blues records he had brought back from the US, records suggested to him by John Hooker.
In the new year of 1963, Orwell began to write a new novel, work he continued on without a break for six months. It was of course Black/White: his excoriation of the white treatment of Blacks in the US. It’s the story of an executioner in a federal prison who lives on the fringe of a Black community, and one of the community’s leaders has been sentenced to death on the evidence of compromised white witnesses.
Black/White sold slowly in the UK. It was its publication in the US in 1964 that made waves.
Orwell’s financial affairs were by now becoming extremely complicated, and various financial chicanery on the part of his accountant followed him well into the 1970s. By the mid-60s Orwell had a regular column in the Manchester Guardian, in which he laid into English social and political life with gusto. Orwell’s health no longer left him inclined to travel much, but he was writing more than ever. In 1964, at the urging of his son Richard, Orwell interviewed John Lennon for the BBC’s Light Music program.
Orwell had been intrigued by Lennon’s ‘rattle your jewelry’ comment to the Queen Mother at the previous year’s Royal Variety Performance and his earlier caustic mocking of Ted Heath. The clincher was Richard’s assertion that Lennon was highly knowledgeable about blues music. The interview produced Lennon’s famous statement that ‘if someone threw the Queen and her sprogs into the Mersey I wouldn’t lift a finger to save them.’ At the time the controversy surrounding this comment overshadowed Orwell and Lennon’s illuminating conversation about Chicago blues.
In the mid to late 60s, Orwell’s literary production was immense. He wrote two novels, The Queen’s Visit, about events in a small Lancashire mill town on the eve of the first ever visit by the Queen, and The Arenas, a kind of prequel to 1984. He also produced four volumes of essays, The Blacksmiths Trade, The Klan, The Dole Queue, and Women’s Work. The last included his essays on My Lai and on the Six Day War, both of which had been published in the Guardian to intense controversy. About a third of his work was literary criticism. Orwell’s analysis and endorsement of marginal or controversial writers (Sylvia Townsend Warner, James Agee) and his dismissal of writers he saw as fraudulent (Kingsley Amis, Ted Hughes) showed the same verve that he had in the 1930s and 40s when he was writing about Henry Miller and James Joyce.
By 1970 Orwell was in semi-retirement. Sonia began to have serious health problems and Orwell remarked to friends that he was feeling tired. He was happy gardening when he could (he planted numerous apple trees), sitting with Sonia, drinking tea and listening to blues, and firing off Guardian columns. He was something of a grand old man of English letters, but refused several honorary doctorates. When asked why he replied, ‘Blair might like them, but Orwell never would.’
Orwell had settled down to a comfortable sedentary life in the house he had lived in for nearly 30 years, when in early 1976 he received a call from his agent. David Frost had been negotiating with Richard Nixon and US TV to interview Nixon about Watergate. Despite Frost’s offer of $600,000 as payment for the interviews, Nixon was suspicious of the young Frost who he saw as trivial, flashy and out to serve his own interests. While keeping Frost at arms length Nixon began to make enquiries about being interviewed by Orwell. Nixon had fond memories of his 1962 interview with Orwell, which he thought had given him the gravitas he so much desired. Orwell was reluctant. His health was poor and he tired easily. He was also nervous about appearing on television, and feared that any interview would be a disaster. He had no wish to make himself a laughing stock at the end of his life. However he was fascinated by the Watergate scandal and had written extensively about it in the Guardian.
Orwell phoned his old friend Ed Murrow. Sonia later said that it was the only international phone call Orwell ever made. Murrow enthusiastically endorsed the idea and though very ill with cancer himself, offered to act as Orwell’s media advisor and negotiate with Nixon and the US TV networks on his behalf.
The story of Orwell’s epic journey to the US, his coaching by the dying Murrow, the labyrinthine negotiations with Nixon, the public outbursts by David Frost and the subsequent series of four interviews with Nixon have been recounted ad nauseam and even made into a recent and somewhat sensationalised film, Nixon/Orwell with Frank Langella as Nixon and Pete Postlethwaite as Orwell. (The title was a play on Orwell’s novel Black/White.)
Orwell’s conversations with Nixon made startling TV. The cadaverous Orwell, now 74, his rasping voice, the sweating Nixon, who early on realised he had made a huge mistake contracting with Orwell, were enthralling adversaries. Gore Vidal wrote that it was like watching Hamlet’s Claudius being interviewed by the Angel of Death. Hunter S. Thompson said ‘Being dragged naked and bleeding through the streets of Washington by a pack of ravening diseased wolves would have been less humiliating for Nixon.’ Before the interviews Orwell said to Murrow that he couldn’t understand why Nixon asked for him, given the searing criticisms Orwell had written about Nixon in the pages of the Guardian. It turned out that neither Nixon and his notoriously ill-informed advisors were even aware of this aspect of Orwell’s life.
Orwell returned to England late in 1977 exhausted. On Christmas Day the following year he died of a heart attack sitting in his armchair listening to his stereo. The LP on the player was an Elmore James compilation that opened with his blistering version of ‘Dust My Broom’.