A Christmas entertainment: an imaginary biography of George Orwell

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’.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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  1. Cool post. Hard to think of Orwell being cool though, but I’ll run with the thought, it coming on Christmas and all. Cheers! (Great Xmas gift.)

    1. Yes, the equivalent of the joke you get in an Christmas cracker. Which is not unlike a lot of my posts – novelty items.
      Yes, it is maybe a bit of a stretch imagining a cool, blues-loving Orwell, but better than a crotchety old Orwell complaining about young people and their incomprehensible. Did Orwell even listen to music? I can’t recall him writing about it anywhere.

      1. Best bits for me: being smitten with Monroe; resolving oedipal conflicts with son through blues music; adopting Lennon; Nixon’s total incomprehension.

        Would indeed make a great Christmas entertainment – TV stage play.

  2. The blues – all you need at Christmas. For me it will be a bottle of ginger beer and Elmore James.
    Yeah, screw plays about Frost and Nixon or Stalin and whoever. Give me the one about Orwell and Monroe discussing their shared love of Joyce

  3. THank you, Stephen for another interesting and entertaining post. I’m especially appreciative of your highlighting a number of Orwell books which I was completely unaware of. I’ll search them out and read them over the next ten years or so as they’ll joint the list of hundreds of other books I mean to read before I pass. Years ago, I read his classics like Catalonia (three times) and Down and Out in Paris and London and, of course, the obligatory 1984. Raymond Williams, another favourite writer of mine, wrote some lengthy literary criticism about Orwell in, if my memory serves me correctly, The Long Revolution or, at least, one of Williams’s earlier books.

    1. Ok, didn’t know about the Williams essay.
      Yeah, I’d love to read an essay by Orwell on Robert Johnson. I imagined the imaginary Women’s Work to be about Orwell’s late conversion to feminism.
      My own copy of Catalonia is in actual pieces and I have owned for a couple of decades. I refuse to buy another newer copy.

  4. I found Williams on Orwell a bit dry in his book for the Fontana Modern Masters Series; likewise, the collection of critical essays on Orwell that he edited. Guess I’m more of an imaginary biography lover: because our prevailing ideologies seem to (re-)discover causality after the event and all too briefly – when it is too late. I couldn’t believe also that I could get through Keywords without coming across any reference to Orwell (unless I fell asleep). So I guess Orwell will be in the Cadillac John car too when I travel down Rick Stein’s Food and Blues Highway 61 on Christmas Day, through the Mississippi Delta, drinking iced tea and pretending it to be whatever hootch it is they sell at those roadside stalls.

  5. Did a pig stand on its hind legs and watch through Orwell’s window as he died?
    Thanks for this fun read, Stephen.

  6. Damn Stephen, You had me fooled. I really thought I was reading a genuine synopsis of Orwell’s life, which of course speaks to my ignorance more than anything else. But it was beautifully written and very convincing, and it was only on the second reading I noticed the word ‘imaginary’. I feel quite silly, but I intend to check him out a bit more if I get the chance in the hope that he might even come close to the person you portray him as in your imagination. Nice essay Stephen.I can hardly believe that was written over coffee in a cafe. I would have had to edit and edit…:)

    Just changing the subject slightly, it’s Christmas after all :), I wonder if I can ask you about your affiliation with Freud and his theories? Dennis Garvey referred to good old Oedipus in the comments, and you mention Freud and Oedipus often in your other blogs.

    I am very much at a loss to understand why so many seem to hold his theories in such high esteem. To me he is a man of his time, much like the character of James Bond actually, only with a lot more shame. He was swimming in it, like a fish in water. He lived at a time when all sexuality, especially that of a female, was cloaked in mystery and shame. His thoughts were bound to be affected. And at a guess, I suggest he had some serious personal issues, over and above the zeitgeist of his time. Freud sexualised everything, even children, a step too far for me, to take anything he says as applicable to the whole human race. He doesn’t even fit the profile of a Wounded Healer. He seems far too lost to his time to be helpful today, except perhaps as a precursor. Freud’s theories look like unresolved shame to me, but then that’s MY theory, so I WOULD think that, and I do know how dangerous it can be to believe your own rhetoric, but that’s another story.

    I also shake my head when I try to understand how Freud managed to end up so far from the original meaning of the tragedy that was Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex’.

    I remember very clearly my introduction to Greek Tragedy, as part of a belated H.S.C.. Sophocles, surrounded as he was by a Pantheon of Gods, was asking whether we were fated to live our lives by the consensus of the Gods, or did we have free will, an argument that has been going on for as long as humanity, and given new life by St Augustine of Hippo when he wrote “The Doctrine of Free Will” and inserted it into our culture via Catholicism, once again quite another story.

    The whole point seems to have been lost on Freud, and in so many ways it seems to methat Sophocles was well separated from his mother. He seems to cite sleeping with her as very ‘uncool’, and he uses it to illustrate a completely different philosophical question. I think we need to look further than Freud to understand ourselves and our motivations. Any thoughts?
    I do hope some of that makes sense. Wishing you well, Karen.

    1. Orwell kicked it in the late 1940’s I’m afraid. (Also Ed Murrow, who I have left alive til the 1970’s died in 1965.) If you want to check out Orwell’s writing, his essays are a good place to start, because they are really the core of what he was about. Politically, he was light years ahead of his time,and even though he can be occasionally annoyingly old-fashioned (he was writing in the 1930’s and 40’s) on the fraught politics of the time and its import for the future he is always right on the money.
      Freud – this might take some time I think.
      It’s very interesting to me that Freud still takes so much flak. After all, if he was completely irrelevant why would anyone bother? What is it about Freud that still gets up people’s noses? Even those two other makers of the 20th century who appeared a little earlier, Marx and Darwin, don’t take so much heat.
      Freud still takes some stick because of his abandonment of his discovery that sexual abuse of women and children was rife in turn-of-the-century Vienna where he lived. It’s not surprising really. As the English writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has pointed out, a lot of what Freud was discovering (that child abuse is a common event in Western societies, that someone telling you their dreams can often tell you more about them than they wish to know, etc etc) really freaked him out. He must have wondered what he was getting himself into.
      Psychoanalysis has a long feminist history. Many of its most significant theorists, reinventors and practitioners have been women, right from the early days: Melanie Klein, Susan Isaacs, Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter), Paula Heimann, Hannah Segal, right up to Juliet Mitchell, Jacqueline Rose and a zillion others. These women were not stupid or deluded. They knew Freud was onto something, that was both psychologically and politically disruptive. Juliet Mitchell in her book on psychoanlaysis and feminism argued that Freud’s invention of psychoanalysis was not an expression of patriarchy but a critique of it.
      Freud’s use of the Oedipus myth was an attempt to symbolise the fraught terrain of being a baby. He was probably the first thinker to take babies and mothers seriously. That’s a big deal I think.
      Simply put, the baby needs for a time to believe that it and the mother form the entire universe.But at some stage the baby starts to negotiate a very difficult landscape – that the mother has desires beyond satisfying it. Toddlers can really struggle with this, and try to situate themselves where they think the mother’s desire is located, thinking ‘What does Mum want me to be?’ Children can often know their parents much better than parents know their children, a fact that many parents find it difficult to accept.
      Any practitioner of psychotherapy who is interested in psychoanalytic theory doesn’t practice like Freud. That would be as weird as biologists who read nothing published since Darwin. For me, who works as a counsellor with women, men and children who have experienced violence and abuse I find the theories of Jacques Lacan, Donald Winnicott, Wilfrid Bion and so forth (all major psychoanalytic thinkers) incredibly useful and practical. Everyone needs a theory of listening, something sensitive, robust and politically sophisticated. That’s a large part, though not the whole, of mine.

  7. Thankyou for that Stephen. We are complex creatures. My view of the role played by childhood in the development of an adult differs slightly, but I agree, it is necessary to have a framework to hang counselling work or psychotherapy on. Your own sounds suitably subtle, and reminds me to be careful not to bring out my own sledgehammer and start swinging it around.

    I met you briefly a few weeks ago at a mutual friend’s dinner-party in Armidale. And I mentioned briefly a book I am writing about a particular form of mental illness,(so far quite misunderstood), and its childhood origins. I wish now there had been more time and space to discuss it with you more fully, in the hope you might have been able to help with some of my concerns about the actual writing of something like that.

    Writing about a mental illness from personal experience seems so fraught with dilemnas, especially as my conclusions differ markedly to established theories. I have only myself to quote as I explain the process of that particular mental illness. I also have concerns about my own blindspots, and the possibility of projecting my experience inappropriately onto others has stopped me many times in the writing of the book, as has reliving the experience with the intensity required to write about it convincingly. It can all become very confusing.

    Perhaps I just need to muster up some personal courage. Thanks again Stephen.

    1. You’re Armidale Karen? Well, Hi, nice to meet you again. All I have to say to anyone who wants to write, is go for it. There are many people who think they can write who can’t, and many who think they can’t who can, so just ratchet up your courage and say what you want with as much honesty as possible.
      Mental illness is a tricky subject because it is often the ‘sane’ writing about the ‘ill’ never the other way round. Reliving stuff is always hard, but writing about them can sometimes help them be relived with new descriptions.

      1. Yes, I am Armidale Karen. Well I am now. I used to be Sydney Karen, which is where all of my experiences that are relevant to the book took place. And you are right on the money when you suggest that the view is different from the inside, as opposed to making educated guesses from the outside. The view is even more different when you have been on the inside, and are now back on the outside. A very difficult thing to explain indeed. I think it is a fairly unusual position that I find myself in, to have walked away from a condition that is generally considered at best to be life-long, with management considered to be the most hopeful outcome, and at its worst life-limiting (Anorexia Nervosa). To me this is not unlike getting to walk away from a high-speed, head-on collision with a semi-trailer with not much more than seat-belt bruises, relatively speaking. And now I just need to write a book about it, which is not so easy. Thankyou so much for your encouragement. It is appreciated. As I type, I am girding my loins to go back into the fray, after floundering for about a year. Wish me luck, and thanks a lot Stephen.

        1. Well you should definitely go for it. Anorexia is something that society generally really struggles with. It is such a gendered condition and so threatening, perhaps because it is so close to so many things we’d prefer not to look at. There’s definitely not enough stuff written by those who have experienced a traumatic condition and come out the other side. Even when one has gone through a process of recovery, it seems like there can still be a penumbra of shame around speaking of it. Generally people who write literature pretend to be sane. It’s not a good look. An honest description of what it is like to experience anorexia would be really something. I look forward to it.

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