by Fiachra Gibbons, Arts correspondent
The Guardian, 24 June 2003
A founding member of the SDP who appeared on George Orwell's list of communist sympathisers yesterday dismissed it as the work of a dying man whose mind was clouded by illness and bitterness about the Spanish Civil War.
Professor Norman Mackenzie, now 82 - and the only known surviving member of the 38 "crypto-communists and fellow travellers" who Orwell claimed should not be trusted - said the writer was gravely ill with TB and "losing his grip on himself" when he handed over the list to a murky Foreign Office propaganda unit in 1949.
Orwell died within the year, but the list has stained his legend. The author of Animal Farm handed over the names to the beautiful IRD operative Celia Kirwan, one of three women the widower proposed to in his last days in the hope of finding a mother for his son.
But yesterday Professor Mackenzie, who knew for some time he had been fingered, described the list as "the sort of tittle-tattle you often heard in Red Lion Square... It's a very shaky list. He was definitely right about Peter Smollett (aka Smolka, who worked for the Daily Express) and Commander Edgar Young, both of whom were nasty shits, but he is wildly off the mark elsewhere," the historian said.
"Tubercular people often could get very strange towards the end. I'm an Orwell man, I agreed with him on the Soviet Union, but he went partly ga-ga I think. He let his dislike of the New Statesman crowd, of what he saw as leftish, dilettante, sentimental socialists who covered up for the Popular Front in Spain [after it became communist-controlled] get the better of him."
The fact that the magazine's editor was Kingsley Martin, who rejected Homage to Catalonia, Orwell's dispatches from Spain, where he survived being shot in the neck, may have been the root of his loathing. "[The list] represents everything he hated about the New Statesman - that it was full of fluffy-headed fellow travellers and that it was intellectually dishonest, which is probably true."
While Orwell only queried whether Mackenzie was a communist, the academic yesterday confirmed that he had been a party member until he joined Labour in 1943.
The author and former Guardian journalist Ian Aitken, who worked on Tribune magazine, the home of some of Orwell's best journalism, said it was "preposterous and utterly ridiculous to think that Mackenzie was a danger. My eyebrows went up when I saw Norman's name and poor Margaret Stewart's. When I knew her she was very rightwing Labour. I can't think why Orwell did it. I think his brain must have been addled."
Prof Mackenzie said he suspected that Leonard Woolf, the husband of the novelist Virginia, may have had something to do with his appearance on Orwell's list.
"They knew each other and shared similar views. I know he once described me rather strangely in a letter as 'the most dangerous man in the New Statesman'."
But fellow historian Timothy Garton Ash, who revealed the full list, said the point of the exercise was not so much the people Orwell suspected of being spooks, but those who should not be used as propagandists for the west. "I think probably nothing much happened to the people he listed. What people forget is that Orwell was not yet the Orwell we think of. He was seen as a bit of an eccentric."
Professor Peter Davison, editor of Orwell's Complete Works, said the really disappointed people will be those who claimed to have been on the list but were not.
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