Nobody who’s ever put their hands on George Orwell’s 1949 novel and cautionary tale Nineteen Eighty-Four and its disturbing predictions of a dystopian future of totalitarianism, Thought Police, mass surveillance and repressive regimentation of people and behaviours and who isn’t so purposefully shortsighted not to interrogate themselves about what’s been happening to the world since 2020 can resist wondering: “What would George Orwell think of this and that if he had been alive today?”
To avoid any such allegations at all costs was the main condition under which this interview has been allowed, and, after all, this is largely reasonable: over the last few years, random speculations and conjectures about what George Orwell would say about whatever subject, consumer good or political party have led to the proliferation of tonnes of fake Orwell quotes that went viral on the Internet but never belonged to the late English novelist who, by the time of his death in 1950 – had inadvertently but accurately predicted a global society which isn’t far from what we’re witnessing these days, especially in terms of people not being allowed to have opinions or thoughts that dissent in any way from the corporate state.
Nevertheless, even though based on the things he wrote almost a century ago, we somewhat feel like George Orwell is still with us, we still have no idea about the opinions he would have today.
We don’t know, for example, what he would think of the University of Northampton in the UK which shamelessly dared to issue a trigger warning for Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2022 on the grounds that it contains “explicit material” that some so-called “students” may find “offensive and upsetting”.
How would he define this? We will never know and we really have to accept that we ignore everything but the fact that Eric Blair, known by his pen name George Orwell inspired by the River Orwell in the English county of Suffolk, will forever be one of the world’s most influential writers, and certainly, one of the most visionary authors of all time who gifted us with a precious literary estate made up of magnificent novels like Animal Farm, Coming Up for Air and Burmese Days, articles and essays like Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging, non-fiction classics such as Down and Out in Paris in London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, eyewitness reporting from the Spanish Civil War, reviews and letters where you will probably find a lot of answers, especially answers to the questions you didn’t even think of.
George Orwell’s son Richard Blair, who was just five-and-a-half when the man passed away, very gracefully accepted to give an interview about his world-renowned father which has also been the chance to present The Orwell Society and its mission of promoting the understanding and appreciation of the life and works of George Orwell through events, trips, webinars, talks and other opportunities available to those who wish to become members, together with The Orwell Foundation which maintains a plethora of Orwell resources and organises school and book prizes.
In the end, if there’s one single thing we can be certain about as of today, is how proud George Orwell would be of Richard and the dedication, love and respect he shows in taking care of a monumental and invaluable literary legacy.
Richard, why do you dislike questions and speculations like “What would Orwell think of this and that”?
Well, the answer to that is the moment someone flatlines – if you understand what I mean by flatlining – then all bets are off. To kind of say what someone’s going to think in the future is just an impossibility.
Was there a moment in your life when you suddenly realised the impact your father’s work had on the world?
I don’t think there was ever any one moment that crystallised my realisation of my father’s thing as it were, it is, something I’ve lived with all my life. He died in 1950 when I was five-and-a-half, and at that time, of course, he was world-famous within a certain area of the intelligentsia, but not to the wider world. It was only as time went on, after his death, during the 1950s, in the 1960s rising to the 1970s, that he became famous worldwide. It was really only as I was growing up at school that people would say “Oh, you know, what’s this connection about Blair and Orwell?” and it then began to dawn on me that my father was actually quite well-known, so I started reading his writing. The first book I read across at the age of eleven was Animal Farm, followed by Nineteen Eighty-Four later on when I was about 13 or 14. Thereafter, of course, I’ve read all his stuff since then, I really do need to get back and read a lot of it again as I rather forgot it, but I read his essays quite a lot. So yes, there was no particular moment that I could say I realised how important my father was.
Which piece of Orwell’s work are you most attached to?
I think the essays, of course, are wonderful bits of work to read, and the thing about his essays is that also his books were written in segments, his novels are essays in their own right, they stand alone. If you read things like The Road to Wigan Pier, you can pull out pieces that can absolutely stand alone. It’s the same in Homage to Catalonia, it’s the same in all his works, it’s the same in Down and Out in Paris and London: all these have specific essays built into them that are wonderful to read. So, is there a favourite one? Well, of course, I think the two best essays of all are Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging, they are wonderful, they are wonderful bits of prose, and although he wasn’t actually personally present, he may well have seen something similar to that when he was in Burma. But nevertheless, they are bits of brilliant prose, they punch well above their weight, and they’re just simply brilliant bits of work to read.
What are your views on common intellectual property disputes in consideration of the fact that the copyright for Orwell’s works has now expired in the UK?
Well, obviously copyright is absolutely right. Anybody who writes something is entitled to be rewarded for it. How long it lasts, then, of course, is dependent on governments. In the UK, it lasts for 70 years; in the United States, it lasts for 95 years from the date of publication. It worked well for The Orwell estate because the two best-selling novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, were written at the end of his life, so obviously, they’re the ones that lasted the longest and yielded the best returns. During their lifetime span, there were also new elements written into them that became copyrighted like some new editions that were changed, and that, of course, comes under copyright. In the UK and Europe, the copyright ran out in 2020 – except that we had an agreement in Spain that would last for another 10 years. But what happened there is that the UK left the EU, so that contract no longer existed, but Spain was very generous in saying, “Okay, we will actually continue this for five years at 50% of royalties, because it’s in our interest to do so”. So in Spanish-speaking countries, the copyright still runs it all, and all the titles still run into copyright in the United States. But by large, all the titles that came out originally as copyrighted are now free, whether you like it or not.
How do you feel when you see your father’s quotes being used to promote a variety of social and political causes?
Well, we do our best to try and find it and stop all this nonsense. Especially after the copyright expired, it is very difficult to keep track of T-shirts, mugs and any other bits of rubbish that people think they can make a bit of money out of. At the time the copyright was still running you could take them to court, but there were some people who didn’t care anyway and so you had to take them to court, but to take someone to court costs money and you have to balance up the damage being done versus what they were promoting, and occasionally you just say: “Forget it”. But we have been very fortunate actually, we haven’t been too badly damaged by major copyright intrusions. I mean, if you go to Burma, and I was in Burma in 2013, they now sell Burmese Days for $10 with every other chapter upside down. It was quite funny and surprising that the Burmese government allowed itself to be linked to it, which I found quite extraordinary. But by large, I don’t think we’ve been too badly damaged by copyright infringements.
How about the fake Orwell quotes circulating on social media?
The issue with fake quotes is definitely something we have an ongoing battle against even if we don’t fight it necessarily because it’s like fighting the tide, but the problem with the thousands of fake Orwell quotes circulated on social media is definitely something we are worried about, and it’s very difficult to control because every man and his dog thinks he could think of a quote that could be attributed to Orwell and you’d be chasing yourself day in and day out trying to learn how to stop it.
A popular WikiLeaks t-shirt has a quote on it saying “1984 is not an instruction manual”.
Over the years, the estate has allowed certain things to happen that they have considered to be reasonably serious and true to Orwell’s beliefs, and so they have come onto the market over time. Crikey, I can’t remember how many there would be, but certainly, they have been allowed, so they’re still squirrelling around in the world, I guess. But anything after 2020 is not something we can really control.
What was your reaction when you first became aware of the TV show called Big Brother in the late 1990s?
I just thought somebody was trying to make money out of Big Brother and out of my father. Interestingly, they very quickly made absolutely certain that there was no reference whatsoever to Orwell or to Nineteen Eighty-Four by the contestants or within any of the conversations; it was absolutely forbidden to say anything. Interestingly, the guy who owned the copyright of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the United States at that moment [Chicago lawyer Marvin Rosenblum acquired movie and TV rights to the book “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in 1980 after flying to London to meet with Orwell’s widow Sonia and eventually became an executive producer of the UK film Nineteen Eighty-Four released in 1984 and directed by Michael Radford] took ViacomCBS to court over Big Brother saying that they were infringing copyright. He won an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed fee which not even I know. All I know is that when we ceased those rights in 1980, we didn’t put in what percentage the estate was going to make out of such use, and so that was whatever they decided to give us, I can’t remember how much it was, but it wasn’t a huge amount and yes, it killed Big Brother in the United States.
What’s the difference between a good writer and a genius?
Well, I think the genius of Orwell was his ability to think with clarity of thought, and his ability to write in simple English so that everybody could understand what he was trying to say, and yet he could get over complex thoughts in a way that a lot of other people could not do, and I think that was something to do about the clarity of thought and using good prose, simple prose. You only have to look at his famous “six rules for writing” to see what he was saying, like never use a long word where a short one will do, never use a cliché and a blah blah blah. And rule number six was to break any of these rules rather than say anything outrageous. It’s quite a good guideline for writing. There are lots of good writers, but are they all genius? It’s an interesting point, what’s genius? I think he was just such a good writer because of his ability to write so clearly and to see that people just enjoy reading what he writes, it’s everlasting, it has no beginning and no end, and it can be read for generations to come. And it’s quite interesting that some people criticise and say “Oh, Orwell was this, Orwell was that” – and my answer to that is: are you going to be selling your books 70 years after your death?” Charles Dickens of course is a writer that is still read today for the same reason Orwell is still read today: because they just had a genius for words.
Why do some literary works survive for centuries without ever becoming outdated or irrelevant?
Again, you see, he was writing about something that had been going on for some centuries, millennia, which is simply men trying to control other men, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, as you know, puts no specific end to it; therefore, it is continuous, it’s happening all the time. So, therefore, it’s relevant all the time. There’s a lovely detail about the fact that when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the US shot up by 6,000%. Also, at the beginning of the 1980s, certain things happened that caused the estate to expand exponentially in terms of new contracts with various publishing houses; it would be very boring and very long-winded if I went into the details, but there was a legal case that had to do with my stepmother dying, and her regaining her full control of the copyright which was recognised in law. So, that allowed the literary executor she appointed before she died to exploit all the titles through their company as they saw fit. It would be boring to list all the reasons here as this has been going on for years, but yes, up to the 1980s the book was being sold in large numbers and copies, of course, and the money was being made, but unfortunately, it was not being properly managed, it was being squandered.
Was there any change in the sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four during Covid?
Sales have always been strong. It’d be very difficult to tell, you’d have to sit down and analyse sales year by year to see if there were any spikes or dips due to the pandemic. Also, don’t forget that when the pandemic struck, we were running out of copyright. And really, from 2020 to 2021 we were simply mopping up previous contracts because they always run a year late. So it was very difficult to kind of put your finger on and say whether Covid has made any difference. But I guess it probably did.
What happened to Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984? Perhaps a special edition?
There were special editions, but I think the first, the only real special edition was the publication of the facsimile of the original Nineteen Eighty-Four manuscript, of which only 50% exists. That manuscript resides with Brown University in the United States, but we did have a chap called Professor Peter Davison who obtained the manuscript and he then translated it – because being a working manuscript, if you looked at it, some of it was tight, some of it was handwritten, a lot of it was crossed out; a lot of it was overwritten and sometimes overwritten two or three times and almost illegible in many places, and so he produced an enormous facsimile of that manuscript alongside interpretation and photocopies of the pages with it, so you can actually read precisely what my father had written.
What could be found in the way Orwell looked at society that led him to unintentionally predict the future?
Well, he wasn’t trying to predict the future, what he was trying to do was to raise awareness about the way that the ordinary man in the street, like you and me, can be manipulated by those who wish to manipulate us, either by governments or corporate companies, because if you let somebody manipulate you, then, of course, you are under their power. And that’s what governments do, they like to skew the truth as much as possible and control or suppress the media to make them look good. What made his way of looking at society special is because of what he experienced in Burma which was British imperialism, and what he experienced in Spain, which was communism and totalitarianism. And everything he wrote, later on, is against totalitarianism as he saw it, and for social democracy as he saw it, at the time, because he was absolutely appalled by totalitarianism – and of course, totalitarianism can be either left or right.
What kind of life would he live today? Would he be on social media?
Well, social media is just an extension of technology, isn’t it? Who knows? He might have embraced it, he might not. I cannot say.
In your opinion, would he have accepted an Order of the British Empire from the Crown if he was offered one?
This is interesting, I don’t know. It’s a bit like what would he think about certain things today. He was a patriot; when push came to shove, he was a patriot of his country. During World War II he tried to join the Armed Forces, but was declared unfit, so he joined the Home Guard [a voluntary armed citizen militia supporting the British Army in war times]. He also wrote about the people whom he considered to be anti-British and he wrote his famous list, slightly tongue-in-cheek, I think [in 1949, shortly before his death, Orwell wrote a list of 38 notable people, including actor Charlie Chaplin, whom he suspected of being communist sympathisers. He sent the list to a close friend who worked for the Information Research Department – IRD, a secret propaganda wing of the UK Foreign Office. The list was made public in 2003], but he wrote it, which spoke about people who he thought were unpatriotic. Then you might argue that was he awarded some sort of reward from the Crown he might have accepted it – I am not saying anything one way or the other, all I’m saying is he was a patriot who would have died for his country. He was English through and through, and so when push came to shove, if the Germans had travelled across the UK into England, he would have fought against them, and I could say that for sure, without any contradiction. He said he would die for his country in one of his essays.
How does The Orwell Society promote Orwell’s legacy and what activities do you offer to members?
What we do is to promote the work of Orwell through the society, through the magazine, and also through events which are very important. There are places we take our members to like Spain where he fought [Orwell travelled to Spain in December 1936 and joined one of the groups fighting against General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War], like [the Scottish island of] Jura where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, his graveside in Sutton Courtenay in England where we go once a year to commemorate his birth, and we are actually in the process of trying to arrange to go to Morocco because that’s where he went to recover from his first bout of tuberculosis and where he wrote Coming Up for Air. We go to places where he was brought up as a young boy, we have been to Southwold, where his parents lived in the 1930s. So, these are the sorts of things that we can do for our members that they find interesting. We also take them for walks in London, to go around the pubs in Fitzrovia where he used to drink during the war. And we also go to Paris – we were taken there by a member who lives in Paris and was a young man when Orwell was writing Down and Out in Paris and London. So, from that point of view, we’re always coming up with things to do for our members who find them very interesting. Already we have been to Wigan where he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, we have a very good relationship with Wigan because people were getting a bit disappointed with him and the book as they told it is negative, and we are trying to kind of say that well, no – that wasn’t what he was focusing on, he was very, very appreciative of people of Wigan, for instance – it was just the social conditions that they lived in which he was trying to emphasise. So, yes, from the membership point of view, we have lots of things that we can do with them, and they’re always well-subscribed. As soon as the chairman puts out the calls to go somewhere, he immediately gets all the places filled, so from that point of view, the members love going to these places. And also, we’re just promoting Orwell and his writings, and we run the prizes, the bursaries for journalists and young people through The Orwell Foundation that runs the book prizes, school prizes and journalism prizes – but this is a separate entity and we don’t get on each other’s terms.
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