George the hero, Eric the contrary

As the centenary of his birth approaches, George Orwell's alarming predictions appear even more apt, says his biographer Michael Shelden

If you want to listen to the sound of George Orwell's laughter, or watch him stroll down a country lane in a video, you're out of luck. Though we have silent films of Mark Twain and a wax cylinder of Tolstoy reciting homilies, there are no voice recordings or moving images of the most influential British novelist of the 20th century.

We don't even have a colour photograph or a portrait of him smiling. He may as well have lived and died a Victorian.

Yet this old-fashioned character - whose pencil-thin moustache, funny haircut and tweedy outfits gave him the appearance of a retired major - was so ahead of his time that we are only now catching up with him. The concepts of Big Brother, the Thought Police, Doublethink and Newspeak are all his inventions, and they resonate in our time with even greater force than they did in his.

More than Orwell's contemporaries, we understand the dangers of the telescreen and the constant electronic surveillance conducted by the totalitarian regime in his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. We have seen the face of Big Brother staring down at us from posters in China, North Korea, Iraq and several other places where the novelist's nightmares are brought to life every day. The world that he imagined is now all around us, and his name has become a convenient adjective for describing its terrors - Orwellian.

Even in apparently benign democracies, various versions of his Thought Police are busy at work, tracking our electronic footprints or intimidating people who dare to entertain politically incorrect ideas. In the media, the academic world and the social services, we find the guardians of correctness gleefully pouncing on the slightest word or phrase that might hint at a forbidden thought and promoting rigid rules and laws to punish offenders.

Absurd examples are easy to find. At one American university in Pennsylvania, a recent "speech code" was instituted that uses a form of Newspeak jargon to warn against free thought. Faculty and students are told to avoid "unconscious attitudes towards individuals which surface through the use of discriminatory semantics". In other words, they must learn to banish ideas they didn't even know they had.

So how did a crusty Englishman who was born 100 years ago, and who died in 1950, see all these horrors coming our way? Was he simply gifted with incredible foresight?

If anything, his genius was inspired by hindsight. As his old friend Cyril Connolly liked to joke, Orwell was a revolutionary in love with 1910. He was fascinated by anything obsolete or eccentric and was always keen to celebrate useless facts, trivial hobbies and quaint pastimes.

At the height of the Second World War - when Britain's future was darkest - he took time to write a long essay analysing the appeal of seaside postcards featuring rude pictures and comic captions. He loved their low humour and kept a small collection of them in a drawer at home, along with old copies of boys' weekly magazines.

Orwell has a reputation as a serious intellectual who wrote about complex political questions, but he was just as happy - if not more so - to indulge in long discussions about making tea, rolling his own cigarettes, reading murder mysteries or planting trees and rose bushes. Unlike many modern intellectuals, he liked working with his hands as well as his mind. He kept a goat and chickens, built his own furniture and knew how to kill snakes.

What he dreaded about the future was that an increasingly powerful political and social authority would stamp out not only the past but the pleasures that went with it - the odd, individual joys that make freedom worth having. He wanted the right to be obsolete; to smoke bad tobacco, read forgotten novels, walk instead of drive and measure things in yards instead of metres.

These are not irrelevant freedoms. When he chose to call his newspaper column of the early Forties "As I Please", he was making the point that the grand heroic notions of liberty begin with the right to make simple choices: defying the herd by insisting on individual preferences in even the smallest things. The Thought Police are so insidious because they work at such a basic level, banishing common ideas and phrases until they corrupt language and reason and exert control over the most elementary choices.

Like all good champions of individual liberty, Orwell was a dedicated contrarian, always taking the path he wasn't supposed to choose. After leaving Eton, he should have followed Cyril Connolly and other friends to Oxford or Cambridge, but he shocked everyone by joining the Indian Imperial Police and going out to serve in the remote jungles of Burma. Then, just as he was beginning to climb the ladder of promotion in a career that was supposed to last a lifetime, he quit and came home to become a common tramp.

His experiences in the underworld of east London and other impoverished areas led him to write his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, a work that any writer would be proud to call his own. But not Eric Blair, who changed his name at the last minute to George Orwell and kept two distinct identities for the rest of his career.

A favourite theme of his was that of the little man of ordinary tastes who lurks inside the great man of accomplishment. "There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or saint," he wrote in 1942, "but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul."

Orwell was the hero and Blair the quirky version of the "unofficial self". Quirky because he sought failure instead of contentment, quitting good jobs, wandering from place to place and foolishly risking his life in the most unpopular unit fighting for the losing cause in the Spanish Civil War.

For his troubles in Spain, he got a sniper's bullet through the throat and was placed in grave danger, first from the damages of his wound, and then from the Soviet agents who later wanted to execute him as a traitor in Barcelona.

It was his experience in Spain that did the most to shape his vision of the future. In their eagerness to remake the world, his Communist allies in the war showed him that the individual meant nothing to their struggle. The power of the party was all that mattered. Ruthlessly, they crushed every form of dissent and every expression of personal will.

Almost in a flash, he saw what lay ahead of the world as ideologies struggled to conquer independent thought. The lies, the betrayals, the manipulation of facts, the spying, informing and the brainwashing would all be done in the name of a greater good, but the end result would be less freedom for most people and a great deal more power for a few.

As Orwell the writer, he made it his mission to warn the world of the dangers ahead. At first, very few people listened. For a time it seemed as though both Orwell and Blair were doomed to fail. The book he wrote about Spain - Homage to Catalonia - sold only 700 copies.

The true believers didn't want to hear that Stalin and his agents were undermining the cause of freedom. Instead, they turned on the messenger and denounced him as a liar and traitor.

Fifty years later, documents in the Soviet archives proved conclusively that Orwell's version of events was absolutely correct. But at the time the recriminations against him threatened to overwhelm him. It became even more convenient for Blair to separate himself from Orwell. The author could take the heat and fight the public battles while the man could continue to lead a private life that paid little heed to fame, fortune or popular opinion.

Eric Blair took grim satisfaction from his wayward life, going from one crisis to the next and never complaining. He suffered from bouts of tuberculosis, financial setbacks and then, tragically, lost his first wife after a botched operation during the war. Their adopted son, Richard, was only an infant at the time, and Blair really couldn't take care of him on his own, but he did his best and developed a deep love for the boy. The only photos in which he looks genuinely at ease are the ones that show him with his child.

But while Blair struggled, the writer Orwell finally found success. The name grew in importance and became one to conjure with. He was lavished with praise after the international success of Animal Farm in 1944-1945.

It was a triumph to be savoured, but Blair turned his back on fame and fled to the isle of Jura to farm and to write a dark novel tentatively called The Last Man in Europe. In 1949 - after two years of intense effort, when his lungs were so bad at times that he was coughing up blood - he finished the book and called it Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Six months after the novel's publication, the meteoric rise of Orwell came to an end. In January 1950 Eric Blair died, at the age of 46.

"As I please" is exactly the right phrase to describe Blair's independent progress through life. He wouldn't have had it any other way, as he demonstrated conclusively at the end.

When he was dying of tuberculosis, he astonished his friends by marrying a much younger woman and handing his literary estate over to her. He was so ill that the ceremony had to take place at his bedside in hospital, but he saw it through and was able to make arrangements for the final break between his mortal self and his public persona.

A few weeks before his death he instructed his friend David Astor to find a place to bury his remains. He didn't want it to be just any convenient cemetery. No, he insisted that he wanted to be laid to rest in an English country churchyard.

Astor found a spot beside the Thames near the pretty village of Sutton Courtenay, and there the body remains to this day. The 13th-century church tower is magnificent, and the grounds seem a perfect resting place for a man who loved the simpler pace of 1910. The only other famous grave in the cemetery is that of the man who was Prime Minister when Blair was a boy - Herbert Asquith.

You can't miss Asquith's imposing tomb, but you could easily overlook Orwell's grave. Contrary to the end, Blair wanted to be buried under his own name, without any reference to his more famous self. It was the final way of separating the man from the writer. In Blair, we have the person whose life belonged only to himself. It is the author who now belongs to the world. (telegraph, 4.28.2003, Michael Shelden)

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