by Antonia Windsor
The Guardian, 24 June 2003
If, when you mention Big Brother, your friends start babbling about John being evicted, then you will need to do some explaining. You are trying to start a conversation about George Orwell, the "old Etonian chain-smoker and socialist with a terrible haircut" (Times).
Tomorrow marks 100 years since the writer's death, and you're beginning to tire of the endless articles, radio shows and television documentaries, not to mention two new biographies (of a man who wrote in his will he wanted no biography to be written). But, of course, "with an author's centenary coming around only once, some excess is to be expected", you sigh, folding away the Times Higher Education Supplement.
It would be fair to assume your friends know Orwell's final two novels - "Animal Farm, his anti-Soviet farmyard fable, and 1984, his nightmare depiction of a dystopian world in which the suppression of truth and free speech in the pursuit of ideological ends are pushed to their ultimate chilling conclusion" (Independent on Sunday) - but if they continue to look at you blankly, prompt them by shouting the phrases "Newspeak", "Room 101", "The Ministry of Truth" and, of course, "Big Brother".
But Orwell was not just a novelist, you explain as you flick through the New Statesman. He continues to be "the benchmark for judgments on imperialism, fascism and communism". In fact, you add, returning to the THES, he has been "claimed by all sides as the voice of (their) truth".
"Despite minor blips in Orwell's public persona - the over-hyped revelation, for instance [that] he had betrayed the names of suspected crypto-communists to the Foreign Office, he remains a touchstone of our moral seriousness," you say, casting your eye over the Independent on Sunday. "And there is more besides. As perhaps the leading essayist of 20th-century popular culture, Orwell is one of the founding fathers of modern journalism."
"But does anyone really read Orwell any more?" you ponder with the Times. "Sure, the middlebrow papers still use 'Orwellian' to describe anything they don't understand", but you doubt "they can provide a definition of the word that renders it distinct from, say, 'Kafkaesque' _ or 'spooky and bad'."
No, you say knowingly, hiding the Daily Express, "a stickler for precision in language, [Orwell] would not admire the sloppy all-purpose way we use his name".
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