Sunday, June 25, 2017

Birthday: The man who invented #AltFacts

Eric Arthur Blair, author and journalist, was born on this day in 1903. His family were gentry who'd come down in the world, and he keenly felt the ceiling his class status imposed.

Bright but not brilliant, Blair won a scholarship to Eton, then left after he turned eighteen.

Too poor to go to university, and with poor enough marks to rule out a scholarship, he joined the Imperial Police and was posted to Burma. He soon was responsible for security for over 200,000 people in his district.

A bout with dengue fever in 1927 entitled Blair to home leave, and while visiting his family he decided to resign from the force and be a writer. He wasn't much missed by colleagues, who didn't consider him much of one.

Blair didn't go for the exaggerated Englishness of the ex-pat in the Raj; he kept to himself and pursued eccentricities like becoming fluent in Burmese and getting his knuckles tattooed with blue circles. The locals said that protected one from bullets and snake bite.

Afflicted by solidly lower-middle-class, traditionalist views (he was C of E and keenly homophobic) and the nag of a social conscience, he lived long periods of rootlessness, carving out a living with journalism and reviews for left-wing periodicals. He spent two years living a destitute life to write a book called Down and Out in Paris and London (1935), but to avoid embarrassing his parents- with whom he lived in the mid- Thirties- he published it under a pseudonym, George Orwell.

He went to fight with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Tall (6'2") for the time, he kept forgetting advice not to stand up in the trenches and was sent home in 1937 after getting shot in the neck by a sniper who couldn't pass on such a gangly target. His late 1930s books, Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier, got him under surveillance by the UK Special Branch for the rest of his life for their bolshy tone.

Orwell married in 1938 and settled into a steadier life in magazine journalism, and, once the war came on, with the BBC. They adopted a son.

His wife died of unanticipated complications of surgery in 1945, leaving him so bereft he left the BBC and moved to a hovel on the Scottish Isle of Jura. Diagnosed with TB, the cold clear air was an improvement over London, but the privations and isolation took their toll.

He proposed to a series of women, all of whom turned him down. He was not at all gregarious; when his brother took him out to a pub once, the owner told him never to bring Orwell back again.

Orwell's last years were a mixed bag of sudden fame and relative wealth. Animal Farm (1944) was rejected by a number of publishers fearful of provoking Britain's wartime ally, the Soviet Union; once it saw print, it was a critical and financial hit.

Commissions flooded in, leaving Orwell strapped for time and energy to complete his last work, 1984.

It is left to few authors to imagine a story so transformative of language and political discourse. "Orwellian" is a term known to everyone, and when the current American president was elected in 2016, 1984 became an overnight US bestseller all over again.

Orwell's Eton French master, Aldous Huxley, wrote his former student a snippy letter explaining why his own Brave New World was the superior dystopian fantasy. History has found otherwise.

One example of 1984's power is the Apple computer company ad that ran on television, in the book's title year, exactly once. It remains one of the most widely-known and viewed ads in history:

He finally found Sonia, his second wife, and married her. Three months later, he died at the age of 46.

Having written the last words on the misuse of words (besides 1984, his essay Politics and the English Language (1946) explains the career of Republican pollster Frank Luntz down the ground), it is no surprise that American liberals and conservatives alike clasp him to their bosoms for defensive- and offensive- citation.

For a while in 1936, Orwell worked in a bookshop at the border of the Hampstead and Camden Town neighborhoods of London (what would he be writing of the Roman candle tower block for the poor in the latter district today?).

Here is a link to his essay, Bookshop Memories. It is vintage Orwell: nostalgic, yet bracinglyingly unsentimental. Not surprisingly, he confessed it was working in aa used bookshop that cost him his love of old books.

Modern purveyors of the trade will find not much has changed, either of conditions or customers.

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