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Interview with George Orwell

Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:46 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

In my last blog post "Legends of Bush House" I promised that I would attempt to write an interview with George Orwell - inspired by Orwell's fictional interview with the satirist and author Johnathan Swift.

So without further ado, imagine that George Orwell himself is here, back in in Bush House today, and has kindly granted me an interview...


Ismailov: Welcome back Mr Orwell! You hated so-called 'dying metaphors' but just to tease you to life (and please make allowances to my non-native English), 'without further ado' how do you find your country, coming back from the hereafter?

Orwell: When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations?

Ismailov: That was in fact my question. I don't know how the post works in your current home or whether you have wireless access there, but here in Britain we just had a General Election and naturally the issue of national identity or 'devolution' (what you have called 'Pretentious Diction') was widely discussed. So what's your take on that?

Orwell: One gets a better view of this question if one considers the minor point first. It is quite true that the so-called races of Britain feel themselves to be very different from one another. A Scotsman, for instance, does not thank you if you call him an Englishman. You can see the hesitation we feel on this point by the fact that we call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. Even the differences between north and south England loom large in our own eyes. But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European.

Ismailov: Yes one party in particular would echo those sentiments... But since you've brought the issue of Europe and other nationalities into our conversation, the issue of immigration (be it by Eastern Europeans, or Muslims, or others) was one of the hottest items during the elections. Some parties were ready to wage war against it...

Orwell: In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the 'Rule Britannia' stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious. They do not retain among their historical memories the name of a single military victory. English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

Ismailov: As you are talking about wrong direction, I feel somehow that you are following what happens not just in Hereafter, but also in "Herenow" and dare I say in "Herebefore". So let's talk about the expenses scandal, which many say cost Labour their government. Any thoughts on why voters felt so strongly about this particular issue?

Orwell: Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in 'the law' as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible. It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like 'They can't run me in; I haven't done anything wrong', or 'They can't do that; it's against the law', are part of the atmosphere of England... Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered.

Ismailov: I won't be asking you about economy - you spirits don't carry wallets, do you? Similarly I won't ask about the NHS, or education. Let's turn to civil liberties, your great area of concern. You might've heard that as a result of our elections we have a coalition government of Tories and Lib Dems, and they promise to scrap Labour's plan to introduce ID cards. But I guess that in Hereafter you are also registered, numbered, labelled... What are your thoughts on the British people's most important civil liberties?

Orwell: It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker. It is obvious, of course, that even this purely private liberty is a lost cause. Like all other modern people, the English are in process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, 'co-ordinated'. But the pull of their impulses is in the other direction, and the kind of regimentation that can be imposed on them will be modified in consequence.
Ismailov: Now I know for sure that you guys there are aware of what we do here. And I feel you might've heard several words buzzing in the air, one of them definitely being 'change'. So are there any predictions (God, the same 'Pretentious Diction'!) which we can use here?

Orwell: Meanwhile England, together with the rest of the world, is changing. And like everything else it can change only in certain directions, which up to a point can be foreseen. That is not to say that the future is fixed, merely that certain alternatives are possible and others not. A seed may grow or not grow, but at any rate a turnip seed never grows into a parsnip. [Orwell's voice fades away]

For those of you with an agnostic or skeptical disposition: George Orwell's answers are taken from his 1941 'England Your England' essay...

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