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Orwell Among the Headlines

Phil Tinline


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Editor's Note: What led avowed socialist George Orwell to write a novel that is beloved of the Right? Listen to Archive on 4: The Road to Nineteen Eighty-Four from 8pm from Saturday 9 February

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been mining the BBC Archives for material on George Orwell.

As part of BBC Radio 4’s The Real George Orwell season, my presenter David Aaronovitch and I have made an Archive on 4 about how Nineteen Eighty-Four was shaped by the lurches of world politics in the preceding decade – from the Spanish Civil War, to our anti-Nazi alliance with Stalin, to the Cold War.

The A-bomb

One of the most chilling items I found was this news headline, broadcast on 6 August 1945: “Scientists, British and American, have made the atomic bomb at last. The first one was dropped on a Japanese city this morning.”

And the more I read Orwell’s work, the clearer it became that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a huge influence on how he saw the world.

It’s sometimes forgotten that Nineteen Eighty-Four is set a few decades after an atomic war.

Like the real 1984, it takes place amid a ‘cold war’ – a phrase Orwell coined just weeks after the obliteration of those two Japanese cities.

It was the A-bomb and the permanent stability of Cold War that Orwell feared would allow for the triumph of totalitarian superstates.

"Terrifying vision of the future"

In one item, I discovered his friend, Observer editor David Astor, recalling his disbelief at Orwell’s terrifying vision of the future.

A European Union

But the real surprise was what Orwell thought was the only way of dispelling these nightmare scenarios: a Western European Union. Had he lived a few months longer, he would have seen the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in June 1950.

Whether the nascent European Union would have impressed him is another matter. He was suggesting a union of socialist republics, with Africa and the Middle East thrown in. It was, he admitted, not very likely.

Political antenna

Along the way, I came across clip after clip testifying to Orwell’s acute political antenna.

Sometimes excessively so. His publisher and fellow Home Guard volunteer, Fred Warburg, recalls his suspicion that several of the locals in their north London unit were fascists.

David Astor, meanwhile, recalls this avowed socialist’s enthusiasm for the government-free plains of mid-nineteenth century America.

One of the most striking things I came across was a perky broadcast from a munitions factory in 1942. ‘Arms for Russia,’ presented by Wilfred Pickles, was a full-throated cheer for the Red Army.

Stalin's tyrannical regime

In the context of the fight against Hitler, this was all part of the war effort. Yet it was the kind of thing that Orwell feared was prompting support for Stalin’s tyrannical regime.

His friend Julian Symons told Arena in 1983 that it drove him to expose the truth about the USSR.

Perhaps Orwell heard the programme – he certainly worked at the BBC at the time.

Radio silence

Despite his broadcasting career, though, the one thing neither I nor anyone else has found is a recording of Orwell himself. Alas, it seems, no such tape survives.

Archive on 4: The Road to Nineteen Eighty-Four is on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Saturday, 9 February.

Listen to more from The Real George Orwell season

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