Orwell: The Lost Writings (reviews)

George Woodcock
The New Leader, 9 September 1985


ONE READS this book with a sinking heart, yet with a morbid kind of fascination. Although it has biographical value, as literature it is arguably the worst Orwell work to appear to date.

W.J. West has uncovered a great mass of Orwell material--long suspected but never confirmed to exist--filed under wrong headings in the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Archives. Besides providing us with an intriguing story of literary archaeology, West's find does add significantly to our knowledge of the conditions Orwell worked under during the three years he spent at the BBC.

I found its revelations about the extent of the Ministry of Information's World War II radio censorship astonishing, for example, despite having been an occasional broadcaster myself at the time. My involvement was limited to a highly fabricated program called Voice, one of several series produced by Orwell for broadcast to India. Theoretically, these shows engaged poets in ad lib discussions of politically neutral subjects. Actually, at the recording sessions we had to read a prepared script that a censor had approved, and we were expected not to stray by a word in the course of this "spontaneous" performance.

Far worse, however, were the restrictions applied to those who dealt with potentially controversial political topics. Both the Ministry of Information and the BBC censors vetted their scripts. Then, when they went on the air, sitting alongside them was "switch censor" who would immediately cut off a program if a speaker deviated from the approved text. Such policies indicate that Orwell really did not need much inventiveness to transform wartime British institutions into the horrific ministries of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

West explains the background to his enterprise in a 60-page Introduction. Through clues in the discfered documents, he was led to a number of Orwell's BBC associates whom Bernard Crick, the writer's biographer, had not tracked down. Especially interesting are their recollections of how uneasily Orwell fitted into the routine, how difficult he found it to reconcile patriotic duty with his hatred for any kind of intellectual restriction, and hence how perpetually suspect he was to the people in the War Office and the Ministry of Information who kept watch over broadcasts to India.

Unfortunately, West's account contains a few major inaccuracies, and numerous small mistakes as well. One of his informants (an old friend of Orwell's and mine), evidently deciding he had a fine opportunity for self-glorification, told some splendid tall tales. West's uncritical acceptance to these statements suggests the limitations of his biographical judgment.

I was thrown into even greater doubt about his literary judgment--indeed, about the wisdom of the whole undertaking--once I got beyond the Introduction and read the "lost writings" themselves. To begin with, not everything West discovered is included here: A second volume will contain 75 weekly commentaries on the War's progress that Orwell prepared (mainly for reading by others, since he had a poor radio voice) during his tenure at the BBC. Thus we have in the present volume a collection of the less cohesive material.

The best of the lot, nine talks on literature and other subjects, really are miniature essays and seem to be forerunners of Orwell's "As I Please" columns in the Left-wing weekly Tribune. Then there are those painfully done Voice scripts. Four pedestrian adaptations of short stories for dramatic readings serve merely to demonstrate Orwell's inadequate sense of dramaturgy. West points to one of them, an adaptation of Ignazio Silone's "The Fox," as having inspired Animal Farm, yet all the two works have in common is that they are situated on a pig farm.

Finally, a hundred pages are devoted to correspondence between Orwell and various individuals he persuaded, or tried to persuade, to take part in his programs. Most of these letters are so mundane, they would be of little interest to a biographer. But there are a few good ones from literary celebrities, notably E.M. Forster, who delivered a weekly commentary on recent books.

An observation in one of Forster's letters neatly summarizes my attitude toward West's project. Orwell had suggested to Forster that some of his talks might be published in a pamphlet, and Forster replied: "I don't much like other people's reprinted talks--they read so chatty and scrappy--and I don't recall six presentable talks of my own."

Anyone familiar with writing for radio will know exactly what Forster meant. It is not that what you say on the air is intrincially less important than what you commit to print; as statements, the two surely can be of equal weight. The demands of the electronic medium, however, almost invariably result in prose tht is too loose and tentative--or in Forster's words, "chatty and scrappy"--to stand up to publication. In my own case, I think turning out radio scripts did indirectly help give my other writing a conversational fluency. Nevertheless, I rarely felt that the pieces I produced specifically for reading or performance were suitable for print. The different requirements of the ear and the eye--the time, for instance, the eye can linger compared with the ear--necessarily diminish the lasting value of most radio writing.

I suspect Orwell's experience was similar to mine. Significantly, his high period of journalism, when he developed that marvelous colloquial manner, began immediately after his arrival at the Tribune from the BBC. Three years of radio work clearly helped loosen his style. I strongly doubt, though, that he would have wanted the process preserved in black and white.

Orwell was extremely self-critical. He refused to allow the reissue of Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and A Clergyman's Daughter (1935) during his lifetime. In 1946, while writing an essay about his work, I was unable to find the later novel and dropped him a note asking if he had a copy. He answered:

"I haven't a copy of Keep the Aspidistra Flying.... There are two or three books which I am ashamed of, and have not allowed to be reprinted or translated, and that is one of them. There is an even worse one called A Clergyman's Daughter. This was written simply as an exercise, and I oughtn't to have published it, but I was desperate for money, ditto when I wrote Keep The A. At that time I simply hadn't a book in me, but I was half-starved and had to turn out something to bring in 100 [pounds sterling] or so."

The two novels have now been reprinted and sell widely in paperback editions as Orwell classics. I do not believe Orwell would be pleased. And I am virtually certain he would be displeased to find the sweepings of his broadcasting career reproduced as unselectively as they have been in George Orwell: The Lost Writings. Perhaps he might have agreed to the publication of a few of the talks, but even that is questionable because he did not keep copies of them. His broadcasting career was important mainly for the nightmarish images it later inspired in his most famous book.

Critical integrity clashes at times with antiquarian thoroughness. West has put together his potpourri without a shade of the ruthless judgment Orwell applied to himself. We are treated to mostly minor literary bric-a-brac that happens to have been written by or was connected with a prominent writer in a period of patriotic hackwork. No reader is going to gain much edification or pleasure from it; the only people who might benefit are scholars and biographers, and they would have been as well served if the material had been moved into a carefully catalogued archive. To publish it as a book is an insult to Orwell's idea of what a book should be, and therefore, obliquely, to his values as a writer.


Jeffrey Meyers
National Review, 29 November 1985


WHEN I wished to study the Orwell papers at the British Broadcasting Company archives in Reading, England, I was given a radically incomplete file. The amateur scholar William J. West, searching for material on C. K. Ogden's Basic English, had accidentally found that radio talks by Orwell--a producer in the Indian section from August 1941 until November 1943--had been mysteriously placed under the name of the Indian lady who introduced the program. This eventually led to West's astonishing discovery of many of Orwell's weekly war commentaries (to be published in a later volume), of 16 political and literary talks and adaptations, and of one hundred pages of letters from Orwell to his contributors. Unfortunately, this impersonal, routine, and repetitive correspondence could have been written by any bureaucrat.

Though Orwell was born in India and had been a policeman in Burman, he seemed too independent and outspoken for this essential but soul-destroying war work. His novel Burmese Days had been banned in India, and in "Looking Back on the Spanish War" (June 1943) he wrote: "Official war-propaganda, with its disgusting hypocrisy and self-righteousness, always tends to make thinking people sympathize with the enemy." This volume, like his later novels, charts his progress from idealism to disillusionment.

Orwell complains about the desperate search for appropriate subjects, laments the poor quality of the transmissions ("it was a complete muck-up and consisted largely of scratching noises"), maintains the "broadcasts are utterly useless because nobody listens to them," notes in his diary that he is forced to lie for propaganda purposes but denies this in his letter of resignation. He is frustrated by the impossibility of getting anything done and feels like "an orange that's been troden on by a very dirty boot"--a brutal image that recurs in his essay and in 1984. He must leave in order to "be near-human again and able to write something serious." Still, the BBC was not all bad. It continued to pay Hilter royalties, during the war, for excerpts from Mein Kampf.

West's sound introduction to this small-print edition (though marred by a dozen minor errors) shows that Orwell's biographer was ignorant of the BBC background and (despite Orwell's complaints) that these years were not wasted. West usefully confirms that Basic English influenced the creation of Newspeak in 1984; that wartime censorship inspired the portrayal of Winston Smith's work; that Senate House, the headquarters of the Ministry of Information (which controlled censorship), was the physical model for the Ministry of Truth; and that its chief, Brendan Bracken, known as "BB," was the forerunner of Big Brother. But West's claim that Orwell's adaptation of Ignazio Silone's story "The Fox" (September 1943) "directly inspired him to write Animal Farm" is not convincing. The inspiration, as Orwell states (and West quotes), came before the war; and Silone's work, in any case, is entirely different from Orwell's.

The material in this volume is of uneven interest. The content of the broadcasts, like Comrade Napoleon's speeches to the farm animals, is extremely over-simplified. Despite the contributions of T. S. Eliot, William Empson, and E. M. Forster (whose Passage to India was broadcast to India as German propaganda), they do not deal "with political and literary matters in the highest intellectual context." Rather, as Forster more realistically observed, they are "chatty and scrappy."

The talk on "British Rations and the Submarine War" was spoken by an Indian as if he, rather than Orwell, had written it. Some of the non-discussions are absurd ("ORWELL: The second poem is more like a ballad. EMPSON: Actually it's a savage attack on militaristic sentiment. ORWELL: Possibly, but as I was saying") or unintentionally funny: "It's a pity Wilfred Owen isn't here to read it. He was killed. But we've got Edmund Blunden here today."

What is needed, to place these talks in their proper context, is a discussion of the war in Europe and in South Asia, and a relation of the broadcasts to Orwell's other works. When Orwell was a propagandist, the Nazis were masters of Europe from Norway to the Black Sea. There was a strong possibility that the Japanese might invade India after the fall of Burma in January 1942, or even that the Axis might win the war if Hitler broke through Russia to the Persian Gulf and India joined Japan.

Orwell's talks on Edmund Blunden, Jack London, and Jonathan Swift were early versions of his review of Blunden's Cricket Country (1944), his introduction to London's Love of Life (1945), and his essay on Gulliver's Travels (1946), which meant more to him "than any other book ever written." The third "Voice" talk on poetry reveals that David Copperfield influenced Such, Such Were the Joys, his essay about "education as an instrument of torture." The first sentence of Orwell's part of a story by five different writers recalls the opening of 1984; the reluctance to kill an enemy reecalls Orwell's own unwillingness, in Spain, to shoot a Fascist who was holding up his trousers and was "visibly a fellow-creature"; and his observation that Blunden's poems express "a love of the surface of the earth" exactly anticipates his famous statement in Why I Write: "So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth."

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