Orwell Statue unveiled at the BBC
On the 7th November at Broadcasting House in London, the BBC erected a statue to the author of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, with the words “Liberty” engraved on it. Prof. Jean Seaton was there, and gave a speech as part of the proceedings. The speech given by Jean is transcribed below.
A statue? Of Orwell? Eric Blair trembled on the edge of failure for most of his writing life. He was a socialist who valued many conservative things. But his lethal criticism of other socialists was not because he rejected their goal but because he identified the vanity and distorted perceptions of many who claimed to be on the side of the left and freedom. Was he a hero? Or a martyr? A cult has developed around him that pigeon holes someone who consciously wriggled away from definitions. He was, I think we can all agree – awkward.
Orwell worked for the BBC in 1941-2. He would have preferred to be fighting. He said later that it was a waste of time, and that the BBC was ‘something half way between a girls school and a lunatic asylum.’
What did he give the BBC? And the nation, at a time of total war? A cunning way into the Indian sub continent because he provided an international platform for their distinguished (and largely anti-imperialist) writers. Orwell was a journalist – he wrote a 1,000 letters on the way to Wigan Pier, a book in which the horrifying reality of poverty (and the smell of it) is described yet so is the dignity of those who live in it– because they are recognised as particular, individual – not tidied up – and there is a challenge to the reader in it as well. He wrote carefully to the (later great historian and reformer) Alan Bullock when invited to give a BBC broadcast ‘I will do the talk if I can be reasonably frank. I am not going to say anything I regard as untruthful’ I particularly like the ‘I regard’ he knows he is telling us that he is fallible and puts this scrupulous hesitation in every sentence – but that’s what makes its so overwhelming persuasive.
What did he get from the BBC (even though he believed himself to have been wasting his very finite time)? A sense of a big bureaucracy, the ferocious discipline of broadcasting to audiences who were taking risks to listen and who were hearing, not like a reader -in their own head – but in the mysterious collective space of the ether. How to edit and cut (1984 Live punctuation perfect) He learnt the innards of propaganda – all of that goes into 1984. Oddly the BBC found itself in many ways during WW2 so perhaps these two national institutions Orwell and the BBC come out of that moment.
Orwell has a voice that is peculiarly authoritative, impartial, aloof. It hovers over everything. But it is also disconcertingly personal: Orwell is present in his own work. Given a sentence of Orwell you know you are in Orwell –land. It is a mental space (The BBC is also a mental space where the values can be discerned in every word and image). But the special – peculiarly disconcerting and uncomfortable aspect of this is self-analysis: Orwell invites you into his own failures not the nice acceptable ones – the nasty ones. Unflinchingly (apparently) self-observant. He opens up his own cowardices, mistakes. It can bring you up sharp.
Everything Orwell ever wrote is an extended polemic of seeing the truth, however ugly, in ourselves. Perhaps this was a product also of the war – but seems to me a mark of democratic principle – its motes and eyes…The breaking down of the barriers between people and nations depends for Orwell on shared reality. Surely the object of the BBC .
As only Orwell could, he marked the BBC as he left – almost pricilly ‘I feel that I have been treated with the greatest generosity and allowed very great latitude…on no occasion have I been compelled to say on air anything that I would not say as a private individual’ Poor in time but rich in integrity – a guardian of decency.