George Orwell would have been horrified by the riots – and our celebrity culture too
George Orwell, the inspired fighter for democracy who wrote 1984 and Animal Farm, would have been horrified by the riots that have torn apart London and other major cities.
He would have opposed today’s celebrity culture and a consumer society of greed in which too many teenagers believe they have a right to enjoy – and have no responsibilities.
And he would have accused the Labour Party for introducing an immigration policy that has fundamentally changed the culture of Britain, and for its failure to provide social housing for those in need.
That is the belief of Professor Peter Davison (pictured), the acclaimed editor of Orwell’s complete works, as well as editing Orwell’s newly published diaries and letters, who will be one of the star performers at next month’s Marlborough Literary Festival.
George Orwell: A Life in Letters
edited by Professor Peter Davison
He admits, apologetically: “I like to believe I am thinking along the lines Orwell might have suggested, but that is not to say that I am always entirely successful.”
But as he graphically recalls the grim results of the violence of the looters, which he believes are the worst since the Gordon Riots of 1780, Professor Davison declares: “George would have been horrified by all this.”
“People were killed in these riots – six have died so far, and 36 people have lost their homes and everything they had as a result of buildings being set ablaze. George would have been repelled by all that.”
As he approaches his 85th birthday at his home in Barton Park, he finds it an ironic backdrop to his own self-educated life, brought up in an institution after his father died and leaving a Masonic school at 15 with no prospects of university education, now available to so many.
“I’ve been out of work several times, I’ve been made redundant, I’ve been constructively dismissed, but I never ever thought of rioting,” he insists.
“There are at least two things George would have warned about. One of them which he would have found extremely distasteful is the celebrity culture syndrome.”
“I have never looked at the Celebrity Big Brother show. However, from the publicity trailers, which one cannot avoid, I should think he would have been appalled.”
“It seems to me to be a denigration of what makes us human, and not conducive to a good happy society.”
“And he would probably have pointed to the things the Labour government was very guilty of doing. Its immigration policy encouraged thousands of people to come here. Yet their record on building social housing was even worse than that of the Conservatives in providing anywhere for these new people to live.”
“So you’ve got this problem of dodgy landlords and you’ve got this other system where by a woman who has 10 or 11 children by four different men, none of whom support her, who receives £31,000 a year, and no doubt other benefits too.”
“If I’ve got the figure right, that is more than I’ve earned in a year – and I’ve worked for 70 years.”
He refers to changes in our culture which have gone unrecognised. While phoning for NHS help when his wife injured herself one weekend and a doctor wasn’t available, and the first question she was asked was, “What is your ethnic group?”
And he protests: “I thought what the hell has that got to do with it? If somebody asked me now, I would say, ‘I’m an Angle’. I don’t know if they would know what I meant.”
“I can trace my family back to Northumberland in Shakespeare’s time, to a lot of stonemasons and cobblers. To me, now I live in a foreign country. I must be a foreigner if someone has to ask me my ethnic group?”
Yet he has lived among and met Austrian and German Jewish refugees, Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain and has lectured to thousands of students.
Orwell too “loved things that were French and Spanish” and spoke at rallies calling for Indian independence. He would have also believed that education and reading was one antidote to today’s dilemmas.
“It may be thought of as a joke, but nobody raided Waterstones’s bookshops when all this rioting was going on,” adds Professor Davison. “They didn’t want books.”
He fears that the media – and in particular television – has brainwashed generations of children by portraying life in which fictional soaps rely on rape, arson, theft and fraud as the reality facing those living in London’s East End or Manchester’s Coronation Street.
“Because I’m old and jaundiced, I tend to think that greed, moral corruption, and the belief that we are owed what we don’t have and haven’t earned is undermining the striving for a democratic world,” he points out.
“The greed of our MPs surely has undermined our democracy, and the sense that politicians have, understandably, to win over those who wield considerable power in the media – not just the Murdoch-type press but the BBC too, which is far from guiltless in this respect.”
Nevertheless, like Orwell, Professor Davison does not share the belief that the system is no longer fit for purpose.
“Orwell had tremendous faith in the good sense of ordinary people,” he proclaims. “Despite all our shortcomings, I’m sure he would have retained hope for the future.”
“The man who wrote that ‘if there was hope, it lay in the proles’, would not give up on what good human nature is capable of.”
Peter Davison speaks on An Orwellian Nightmare at The Merchant’s House, Marlborough, at 5.15pm on September 23. For tickets at £8 phone 01249 701628 and www.marlboroughlitfest.org.