(From YouTube episode)

D.J. Taylor [00:00:00]:
Orwell said that the reason why Jack London could foresee fascism was because he had a fascist streak in himself. And so I would extrapolate from that and say one of the reasons why Orwell was such a powerful commentator on the idea of the autocratic state was that he had powerful tendencies that way himself.

Dan Riley [00:00:22]:
For a lay audience that is not particularly familiar with Orwell, that are not the Orwell nerds that you and I most likely are. Who was this man in the broadest of strokes to start? And then we can dig into more of his life and more of his character.

D.J. Taylor [00:00:41]:
George Orwell was a british writer born in 1903, died prematurely in January 1950, who had a long and, to me, fascinating literary career for about 15 years in the 1930s and 1940s, before he wrote two books, Animal Farm in 1945, and 1984 in 1949. That more or less kind of changed the way in which we think about a great many things and provide a kind of a how to guide to understanding the nature of totalitarian society, which seems, and still seems enormously prescient and seems to tell us all kinds of things about the modern world that we couldn't otherwise anticipate. And the number of times you, even today, or even more so today, you read an op ed article in a newspaper online that asked the question, what would Orwell have thought about something that's going on in the world? And you think, yes, yes. You know, this was what he said, had such foresight and such. And beyond that, beyond the two books stretch out a whole another 18 volumes of his collected works that examine all kinds of things about literature and politics and popular culture that have enormous relevance and interest to us today just as much as they did when he wrote in the 1930s and forties. So that's how I would sum him up for the layperson. But what I would also say is that in terms of all, there are very few non sort of all well educated people about. Because I was in.

D.J. Taylor [00:02:09]:
I did two or three gigs in the Boston area in the US back in last fall. And just as a little kind of sort of entree, I used to say, put up your hands to the audience if you read 1984, and every hand would go up. And then I would say, put up your hand if you're at Animal Farm. And again, almost every hand would go up. Now, of course, I. I may have been preaching the converted, but one of the fascinations and one of the benefits of writing and talking about Orwell is that everybody more or less knows where you're starting from. It's not as if you've written a biography of one of those people where you have to spend the first five minutes explaining who they were and what they did and trying to draw people onto your side. I find that most of the people are there to begin with, which is a great thing.

Dan Riley [00:02:51]:
Yeah. You are one of the world's foremost scholars on George Orwell. You literally have spent decades researching this man, writing about this man. What is he? What is it about him to you that has kept you so engaged, so curious, so interested for all this time?

D.J. Taylor [00:03:08]:
Well, there are several reasons, Dan. I suppose one of them is that he was the first, you know, in those formative years when you're a child reading books written for children, and then you make those first tentative steps into the world of what we'll call adult literature. And Orwell was the first grown up writer that I ever discovered. I never grew tired of him. And every fresh piece of his writing that I came across, I liked, if anything, even more than the one before. He was. When I was a teenager, he was my guide. He was.

D.J. Taylor [00:03:41]:
He was my kind of the person who told me about books and about politics and about things that I didn't, I hadn't previously known about. And I'm sure you've experienced this. The older you get, I find the more you tend to fall out of love with the writers that you loved when you were young. I find this increasingly with the british writers that I liked when I was in my twenties. Almost all of them failed to cut it for me when they got into their fifties. But Orwell has never let me down. And I can read a piece of writing of his that I've read half a dozen times, a dozen times, and still get something out of it or get more out of it than I did the time before and see things in it that weren't previously there and realize that the extraordinary power of the language and the emotions and the deductions that he's conveying. And he does that for me, I suppose, more than any other.

D.J. Taylor [00:04:33]:
I mean, he's not. He's not the. He's not my favorite novelist, and he's not, you know, there are all kinds of departments where. But overall, he is the writer who has stayed with me the most all the time that I've been reading books and writing about them.

Dan Riley [00:04:46]:
You talked about how, when you speak to audiences, most people are relatively familiar with, with Orwell, and it's common to people, for people to be curious about what Orwell would think about modern times. I think your first biography of Orwell was published in 2003. And I would love to give you some space to talk about the relevance in Orwell from that day 20 years ago to today. And you can take this question however you would like in terms of what you witnessed in global events in western civilization. What about him is still relevant to you today that has endured over those 20 years? And, again, you're welcome to address that question just broadly in any way that you would like.

D.J. Taylor [00:05:33]:
Well, it's very interesting that you should immediately hone in on those two points of focus. A book that was written in 2003 and a kind of successor, I don't call it revised edition, because I sat down and worked from scratch and used all kinds of new data and information that had come along. But you're right, they're two different perspectives. And I think that the thing is, Orwell's foresight in 2003 is amplified in 2023. And so in 2003, I think if somebody had looked at Orwell and said, how has he kind of foreseen the state of the world? I think they would have thought about power blocks and contending land masses and, to use a rather elevated word, hegemony. Hegemony the way the world intersects and the way that. And this is all something that he foresees in the 1940s. I think 20 years later, we would probably be more interested in things like surveillance technology, the manipulation of language, the obfuscation of objective truth.

D.J. Taylor [00:06:36]:
I mean, interestingly enough, when I was in the states last, in the autumn, I was very struck by the difference between the various audiences, because usually when you talk about Orwell, you get a bookish audience, you get literary people. And this happened. And then I did an event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Steven Pinker. And I found the first time I had a completely different audience. They were physicists. They were technically, they were some technophenes. They were cosmologists. And they were interested, as was Pinker, in the manipulation of language, in AI, in all kinds of things, you know, the technological parameters of the world, which Orwell might have been thought to foresee.

D.J. Taylor [00:07:29]:
And I thought, and I really had to up my game because it wasn't the usual kind of Orwell audience. And yet here were these mostly scientists. You know, there was predominance, obviously, of scientific people at Mi tech, and they were coming at Orwell from a completely different angle that seemed pertinent to them in 2023. So that's how I think, in some way, the perspective has changed over that time. Although all the other, you know, the contending land masses and the, you know, the balance of power. All that is still as relevant as ever. But there are extra dimensions, I think, that will come into play here.

Dan Riley [00:08:03]:
You correct me in anything that I'm about to say about his biography that is wrong or somewhat off base. My understanding is that this is a man who never spent a day of his life in America or the Soviet Union. People who read his books, the two that you just mentioned, his most famous books, Animal Farm in 1984, were often astonished at the fact that he had never visited the Soviet Union or a totalitarian country, and yet was able to write about such places in such incredible detail and to give some space to his biography. I was just reading this this morning in an essay about his early life, that the capacity for the man to write about totalitarianism may be rooted in his experience as a young boy in English prep school. I'd love to have you correct any of that and to give your take on what it is about totalitarianism that he was able to convey in such an enduringly captivating manner. It dovetails, to some degree, I think, in what you just said about the audiences that you've spoken to and what he captured that is so evergreen for all people, especially those in freedom loving societies. But I'd love to put that to you and give you an opportunity to respond.

D.J. Taylor [00:09:31]:
I wouldn't dispute any of the essentials of anything you just said. I think that's a very astute analysis. No, Orwell never visited America, and he never visited the Soviet Union. But the first people in Eastern Europe who read pirated versions of the novels in the early 1950s remarked on how he seemed to know all about a place and a society and a set of institutions that he'd never visited or had firsthand experience of. The prep school essay is fascinating because this, for those of you, your listeners who haven't read it, is an extraordinary, excoriating 15,000 word rant about a preparatory school that he went to when he was between the ages of eight and 13, called St. Cyprian's on the south coast of England. And the place is presented to the reader pretty much as a secret state with an all powerful headmaster with a spy system to root out that nefarious behavior. And the curious thing is that we don't quite know when this essay was written.

D.J. Taylor [00:10:49]:
My own view is that it was written more or less the same time that he was starting work on 1984, and that the two kind of leech into each other. And so O'Brien, Winston Smith, chief interrogator in 1984, is at one point described as a teacher, you know, resembling a teacher, having some kind of pedagogical aspect. And so what we did, it's a chicken and egg thing, as we don't know which was written first. But there is this sense in which the world of 1984 is, in some respects, like a school, and the world of the school is, in some respects, like 1984, and separating them out is very difficult. And so all certainly, or I don't. My own view is that Orwell exaggerates in that essay, because hundreds of small boys who went to english prep schools in the early 20th century wrote about their experiences later, and some of them weren't too happy about what they had to undergo. But none of them, not one, managed the level of bitterness and resentment and unhappiness that Orwell does. And to me, this is a kind of.

D.J. Taylor [00:11:55]:
Orwell was a great self mythologizer. He was always conjuring up visions of himself that he used in public consumption. And that book. I mean, Orwell was a brilliant. A brilliant child. I mean, Orwell won a scholarship to Eaton College, England's most prestigious public school. And yet he says in the essay that he left St. Cyprian's with a sense of failure.

D.J. Taylor [00:12:16]:
Failure before me, failure behind me, nothing but failure. And you think to yourself, how could he have possibly failed? Or thought then that he'd fail? I think it's a backwards hindsight. It's a backward projection. And as I say, I think there's a very, very symbiotic relationship between those two pieces of writing that it is very, very difficult to disentangle, because we don't know the chronology, we don't know the dates. But certainly his essential idea is that the idea of totalitarian. The idea of being controlled by other people, the idea of having your thought processes kind of controlled by some omnipotent being, doesn't necessarily have to happen in a totalitarian state. There are other thought, other forms of mind control that could perhaps exist closer to home. So the totalitarian world is a giant metaphor, I think, is, again, one of his great sort of things.

Dan Riley [00:13:16]:
I kept thinking about a line from Viktor Frankl as I was preparing for this conversation over the last few days or so, which is one of his most famous lines about how the line between good and evil runs not between countries or groups, but among. Between every human heart. That basically, that we're all of the capacity for evil and a will to dominate and a desire for totalitarian aspects. And my understanding is that. And I'd love for you to comment on this, that a lot of what Orwell perhaps saw in himself was such an impulse. And I know just in the little I understand about the chronology of his life, he was an imperial police officer in Burma. He seemingly suddenly quit that position. I think Christopher Hitchens is of the view that he did that because he feared he was becoming a sadistic.

Dan Riley [00:14:13]:
He seems like a man who grappled with that dictatorial, totalitarian impulse in himself, and that this was not a saint, this was not someone who was naive to the world. Rather, he seems more clear eyed about that impulse in all people and the importance to fight back against that tendency in human nature. And I want to see if you agree with that assessment and give you a chance to comment on that idea.

D.J. Taylor [00:14:49]:
I think that's a very astute point. And I suppose the thing I would say first about that is that Orwell was a great fan of the american writer Jack London, who wrote those absolutely basic stories about life on the Yukon trail and pure, sort of natural, pure, what we would call naturalism, determinism, life, things working themselves out, natural forces. Orwell said that Jack London wrote, again, another dystopia, which might in some ways be said to foreshadow 1984, called the Iron Heel. And Orwell said that the reason why Jack London could foresee fascism was because he had a fascist streak in himself. And so I would extrapolate from that and say one of the reasons why Orwell was such a powerful commentator on the idea of the autocratic state was that he had powerful tendencies that way himself. As to why, you're correct. He served as an officer in the imperial police force in Burma between 1922 and 1927. And he left.

D.J. Taylor [00:15:52]:
He resigned and came home in the middle of 1927. I don't much as I venerate the memory of Christopher Hitchens, I would have to say that I don't think he's completely right about that, because again, somebody asked me, I was doing a podcast the other week, and somebody, again with an american commentator who said, said to me, what did Orwell think about Burma when he was in Burma? And I said, we don't know. There is nothing. There is no evidence of anything. And that's true. No letters survive all the pieces of writing. He wrote a retrospective. And when he came home from Burma on the boat in 1927, the middle of 1927, he did so not because he'd resigned his post.

D.J. Taylor [00:16:33]:
He wasn't making a protest or a stand against british imperialism and the Raj. He was ill. He'd had dengue fever, which is a tick borne viral infection. He was very ill, and he had to come home on furlough for six months leave. And it was while he was back in England that he made the decision that he wasn't going to return to Burma. His motivations, his motives at the time, we just don't know. One of the other things, though I would say amongst the new pieces of research that I did, we now know, which I didn't. In 2003, we know that he came back from Burma with an engagement ring, which he intended to present to his childhood sweetheart, a woman called Jacintha Vatican.

D.J. Taylor [00:17:14]:
And if she'd accepted him, what would the two young people would have done? His only income was being a servant of the British Raj in Burma. I think they would have just turned around and gone straight back to the east, and he would have carried on with his career, because I don't see what else he could have done. As it was after that, he suddenly announced to his horrified parents that he was going to be a writer and began on the trajectory that it took him six years to write his first book, down and out in Paris and London. But I think it was a very near run thing. And had he been accepted by Miss Muddacombe, I think they would have gone back to Burma.

Dan Riley [00:17:50]:
Fascinating. I remember years ago learning about Orwell in the spanish civil war, and I just last night finished. There's a terrific new documentary about Ernest Hemingway that Ken Burns just made and was published on PBS. Terrific. And there's a section in there about Hemingway and the spanish civil War. There's no mention of Orwell in that documentary, but this is another example to me of a unique quality of Orwell in his commitment to his beliefs and his ideas. My understanding is that he, without a requirement to do so, put his body in the line of fire, literally, I know, was shot through the throat, which I think mildly affected the way that he spoke the rest of his life and was an indication of a quality in the man of putting his money where his mouth is. And I'd love for you to talk about that component to his character, his personality, the physicality of Orwell, the willingness to commit his life and really risk his life for the beliefs that he really committed his life to.

Dan Riley [00:19:09]:

D.J. Taylor [00:19:11]:
Well, to me, the Spanish, the six, seven months he spent in Spain are crucial and galvanizing politically because he set out for Spain with, as far as we can tell, with the most romantic notions. He was actually. He went around saying goodbye to people in London at the end of 1936. Almost in tone. He was. He was supposed to have said, no. Oh, Terry. Terrific chaps.

D.J. Taylor [00:19:35]:
The Spaniards, you know, the Spanish, can't let them, you know, can't let them down. Gotta go over there, kill some fat. And his original idea, he says, in homage to Catalonia, was that he wanted to write newspaper articles, be a war correspondent, journalist. And as soon as he got there, he was so impressed by the atmosphere of revolutionary Barcelona, where he thought that he'd actually stumbled for the first time in his life upon a society that was running in terms of genuine quality. You couldn't tip waiters and the servants in hotels, looked you in the eye and called you you instead of sir. He was very impressed by this. And as soon as he got there, he decided that he wanted to fight. And you underwent a prestigious military training and was off to the front.

D.J. Taylor [00:20:21]:
Whereas you say he was shot through the throat by a fascist sniper. The bullet missed his carotid artery by a few millimeters. He was very, very lucky to survive. He only survived by dint of his great height, because he was shot. He stood up in a trench, and as he was seven or eight inches taller than the average Spaniard, he was shot through the throat rather than through the head. So he was very lucky to survive. But as you say, it affected. He.

D.J. Taylor [00:20:43]:
He spoke in a. He spoke in a. In a husky, kind of quavering monotone for the rest of his life. And if he was having dinner with more than three or four people, he would never. He could never say anything because he couldn't make himself heard over the. Over the din of the conversation. So it affected. But again, I think that it was.

D.J. Taylor [00:21:03]:
I mean, he himself said that it was in Spain that he first saw the propagandist techniques of totalitarian societies used to great effect and read newspaper articles describing battles that hadn't happened and things that he knew had not taken place. And he also, you know, the soviet infiltration of the spanish republican army and administration by this time was, by the end of his stay, that was almost complete. And he was pretty much run out of Spain by a, you know, by government sponsored hit squads and was very lucky to escape with his life, really. I mean, he. As soon as he got over the french border, he discovered his name on a list, you know, in the first newspapers he read. So he was very, very fortunate to get away with his life in some ways.

Dan Riley [00:21:43]:
I want to read a quote and then make a comment and get your. Your thoughts on it. And this is from Orwell, why I write, and this is the line quote. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts. And I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. The power of facing is a phrase that I have had in my brain ever since I heard it. And we were just talking a minute ago about the spanish civil war and what the propaganda he noticed on the left. My understanding is that during the spanish civil War, there was a bit of a civil war within the left fighting against the fascists.

Dan Riley [00:22:30]:
And I wanted to get your comment on that power of facing the perceptiveness, of looking reality in the eye about what is really happening in front of him and a refusal to lie. It seems to me that part of what makes Orwell such an admirable character is not only his perceptiveness, but the courage that he exuded in refusing to go along with a lie, even if that lie was in the name of a cause that he believed in. You can speak better to this than almost anyone, given your knowledge of the man. But I'd love to get your comments on Orwell as a perceptive observer of reality and human nature and the courageous quality to tell the truth, or at least a refusal to lie.

D.J. Taylor [00:23:30]:
You're very kind. One of the things that Orwell wrote about Spain after he come back was an essay called spilling the Spanish beans. And that's what he spent a lot of his time doing, spilling the spanish beans, because it was not as soon as he got there, although it has to be said, he was very imperceptive politically about spanish politics. And he didn't quite understand for a long time what the situation was on the left. So there he was. He'd gone to Spain as a man of the left to fight the right, to fight Franco's nationalist insurgency. And yet he found that the terrible thing that he found himself experiencing when he was in Spain and which he knew immediately needed to be called out, was the fact that he was being shot by both sides, literally. So he's fighting the fascists, but he's joined a Trotsky of splinter group called the Poum.

D.J. Taylor [00:24:23]:
And they were held in very bad odour by the marxist left. The international brigade, with most of the english volunteers joined. And it got to the point where I say at one point, rather naively, Orwell, who thought that nothing much was going on on the particular front where he was fighting, expressed a wish to join the international brigade. And one of his fellow soldiers said, but they'll rub you out. They will literally erase you. You'll be Persona ungrata. You will probably be shot for having been a member of the poum. When Orwell got back, he immediately began writing essays and articles for left wing magazines, pointing out some of these things and pointing out how badly the left had betrayed against how badly the left had behaved against the left in Spain.

D.J. Taylor [00:25:11]:
And there was a famous set, too, with Kingsley Martin, the editor of the left wing news statesman, who refused to print one of his pieces. And Orwell, that was the end of their relationship. And ten years later, Orwell was once having dinner with a friend in a restaurant and asked the friend to sit so that Kingsley Martin's face, he was on the other side of the restaurant, was obscured on the grounds that I cannot bear to see that corrupt face. And a lot of his time was spent in facing those unpleasant facts, facing the fact that the soviet dominated republican movement in Spain was increasingly autocratic and totalitarian, was prepared to. Was prepared to raise people who might, in other circumstances, been regarded as his own supporters. And these hypocrisies and this duplicitousness extended, even extended to Orwell's own literary profession and the idea that because a certain poet was fighting in Spain, therefore his poems had to get a good review, you know, simply because, again, everything else can, all other sort of tests of merit and aesthetics are canceled out by your, you know, by your political affiliation. So he spent the rest of his life, I think, trying to face those unpleasant facts in terms of political affiliation.

Dan Riley [00:26:32]:
I would love to also bring up your. The idea of where that personality quality came from in the man, how he was able to maintain a commitment to not lying, telling the truth in that moment and other moments in his life. My understanding is he was not a religious man in the traditional believing sense. My interpretation of him is that he seemed more like a cultural christian than an actual believer. And another takeaway for me in understanding his life, and please correct me if I'm wrong about this, is that in the century after the death of God, as the sciences were shedding doubt on the foundation of a lot of traditional, truly religious christian belief, anglican belief, there seemed to be, in Orwell, an understanding that there would be a natural human tendency to gravitate towards other borderline or overtly border or overt supernatural causes. Something was going to fill that void. And two of them were the rise of Nazi Germany and the utopian aspirations of the Soviet Union. That's a mouthful there, but I'd love.

D.J. Taylor [00:28:03]:
To give your opinion on. Remember, of course, that regarded the Roman catholic church as totalitarian.

Dan Riley [00:28:08]:

D.J. Taylor [00:28:09]:
And I mentioned earlier that O'Brien, Winston's interrogator, is on one occasion compared to a schoolteacher. He's also compared to a priest. But no, I mean, Orwell was one of the greatest analysts, sorry, of the huge reservoir of displaced religious sensibility that began to flow across the world in the 1940s. All these people who, as you say, could no longer believe in God in the way that their victorian forebears had had, but were desperate to believe in something. And so to me, Orwell is the great proponent of what well call secular Christianity. In other words, transferring the moral messages of the New Testament into ordinary, into public and domestic life, while conceding the fact that immortality was probably not either there or desirable. So to me, oil is a kind of a sort of a secular Christian a lot of the time, you know, a christian socialist without the Christianity. And so it's a question of.

D.J. Taylor [00:29:19]:
I mean, there are several occasions which he explicitly says, you know, what do we do in a world where there's no long. Where there are no spiritual, there are no sort of supernatural checks or balances? The totalitarian believes that he or she can behave badly because there is no. There will be no retribution. If there's no life after death, then no one can get you for what you do. And somehow we have to convince people of the fact that you have to behave well as an end in itself, rather than for any kind of posthumous benefit. And he said once, the test of a proper sort of functioning human being is that they're actually interested in what happens after they die.

Dan Riley [00:30:01]:
Yeah, the. I feel like so much of this is still, like so much of his work is so relevant to today, and the issues that people are continuously struggling with to try to answer those questions. And we've talked a lot about what Orwell was against, what he was not for, what he was in opposition to. I'd love to give some space to talk about what Orwell was for. I think he has come to be kind of a stand in for someone who is against totalitarianism, against a surveillance state. But Orwell, the man in his personal life, what were his delights? What was he in favor of? What did he think could answer that question?

D.J. Taylor [00:30:46]:
I think first I'd make the general point about what was he in favor of? The conclusion to his essay on Charles Dickens is very powerful in this respect. Where he regards. He says, you know, he has this idea that he can see Dickens face when he's reading his books. And it's not quite the face of the portraits, it's a slightly different kind of face. It's of a man who he describes as being generously angry, fighting against things he doesn't like, but fighting in the open and managing to have a sense of humour. And he also says that if you wanted to sum up Dickens's message in two words, those words would be behave decently, which is either a gigantic cliche or it's the most powerful thing you can say to anybody about anything. And I think my own view is that you could sum up Orwell's whole, you know, the 21 volumes of his collected works in the phrase behave decently as to what behaving decently meant. One thing, Orwell, I mean, always a great.

D.J. Taylor [00:31:50]:
You can only, I think, discuss this in the context of what Orwell thought about englishness. He wrote very. He wrote very powerfully about the idea of England, the idea of Englishness, always England, never Britain, always England. Although the joke being, of course, that he was half french and scottish, so there was very little english blood in him at all. But there's a kind of what he appreciated in english life, I think, was its gentleness, its lack of violence, its ability to see opposing sides, its small c conservatism. This is the other thing about Orwell. His friend Antony Powell once said that, of course, that he was a conservative in everything but politics. And I think this is true.

D.J. Taylor [00:32:32]:
He was, you know, he was a creature of his time. He was. He described himself with characteristic precision as a member of the upper. The upper, lower, sorry, the lower, upper middle classes, which meant that most of his social professional expertise was theoretical rather than practical, you know, theoretical. He was supposed to come from a social class that hunted and shot and had servants, but actually his father didn't have enough money for any of that. So the only reason he got his first class education was because he was ability to win scholarships and be clever, you see. So he has a characteristic upper middle class englishman of his time, with all the situational givens and some of the prejudices that go with that. Having said that, he was notable, I think, given the fact that he was born in 1903 by not having an ounce of racial prejudice.

D.J. Taylor [00:33:24]:
So far as we can tell, when he was working on the BBC's eastern service in the 1940s, he got on exceptionally well with what were then called colonial contributors. You know, people from the West Indies and India always gone on very well with them and was very enlightened in certain ways and very, very old fashioned, and stayed in other ways and, you know, preserved a lot of the hierarchical distinctions that had come with him. From his childhood. I mean. For example, there's a huge mystique attaches to the fact of having been to Eton here in the UK, and Orwell was very much professional old Etonian. And when he was living on the remote Hebridean Ireland of Jura in the late 1940s, and writing 1984, the Laird, in other words, the landowner he went to the land, was another old Etonian. And when the laird came round from meal, he and Orwell ate in one room and everybody else ate in the other, because he. These were the gentlemen, sort of sorting things out.

D.J. Taylor [00:34:24]:
And his attitude to women was, you know, can be seen as very, very old fashioned and authoritarian and hierarchical through the lens of modern age. So I wouldn't want to try and characterize him as the acme of modern day enlightenment, because he very much wasn't. He was a creature of his time.

Dan Riley [00:34:43]:
I really want to get into that part of his life story as well, his views on women and some other subjects. But before we do, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk to you about the last years of his life. It was only recently that I learned about where he wrote 1984. Uh, you just mentioned, I think it's pronounced Jura in scottish islands. And the, you know, from my vantage point of learning about that and reading about his appreciation for that place, this is literally close to as the middle of nowhere, as you can find in the, the orbit of, uh, Orwell's life and in the UK in general, as I understand it. And there seemed to be an, in the manner, a deep desire for solitude, privacy, nature, being on his own in some capacity. And I can to some degree, see a link there between the hatred of totalitarianism and the desire for an internal feeling of personal freedom and autonomy in such remote places. I'd love to get your thoughts on that, if you think there's something there to that comment.

D.J. Taylor [00:36:01]:
Well, he lived on Jura between 1946 and 1948. He ended up with a short interlude in London for the winter, 46, 47, and he was happy on Durer. And although he was ill, it wasn't as bad for his health as might be supposed. The climate was fairly temperate, so it wasn't obviously going to kill him. Other things did that again. Anthony Pohl once said that if, when oil succeeded, which he did with the publication of Animal Farm in 1945, his automatic reaction was to retreat from the success. So he immediately packs up and goes off remote, the remote scottish island 400 miles from London. And I've been there myself, and it is still incredibly remote, and you have to take a four wheel drive to get the last few miles.

D.J. Taylor [00:36:50]:
It's still very inhospitable, even these days. And yet. So, having got to Jura, there's another reason, too, in that in 1944, he and his first wife, Eileen, who died, sadly a year later, adopted a child. Richard Blair, who's still with us, celebrates his 80th birthday next month and is a great supporter of Orwell's studies. And several of Orwell's friends remarked that one of his reasons for going north was so that Richard could grow up far away from any prospect of nuclear explosion. The cold war has begun at this time. And I think all actually said to friends of his that bringing up Richard on a remote island would give him a much better chance if anything went seriously wrong than living in London with the prospect of bombs falling. And so I think you're right.

D.J. Taylor [00:37:42]:
He found the atmosphere there congenial. And the other thing, too, was, you know, it gave him the time and it gave him the space. And when he went back, he went. When he went back. Interestingly, the volume of his collected works, which covers the going back to London period of late 46, early 47, is called smothered under journalism. So there was no way he could actually write the books he thought that he still had in him, living in London. So it was a very logical move, I think, to leave London, to go back. And then there he loved, as you've inferred, he loved that the natural life of Durer.

D.J. Taylor [00:38:17]:
His diaries are full of, you know, sort of one wondrous examinations of the bird life and the animals and the sea and the fish and all this kind of thing. So he. He found a very congenial retreat, apart from the fact that towards the end of it, he was dying.

Dan Riley [00:38:34]:
There's another. Another line from him I'd love to read and ask you about how it might apply to his life. And this is a quote from Orwell. Quote, an autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. And perhaps something similar in some way could be said about biographies of the great men of history or influential men of history. And you talked just a minute ago about how a lot of his views towards women now would be viewed as extraordinarily old fashioned, if not outright offensive. And I'd love to give some space to talk about that aspect of his personality related to women. I read something about his adultery, or at least his extreme interests in women his whole life, to knock him down a peg, not intentionally so, but just to make it understood that this was a human being with a lot of birth.

D.J. Taylor [00:39:44]:
I mean, Orwell's. Yes, Orwell was unfaithful to Eileen, pursued other women. He did so in what could sometimes be a quite sort of very demonstrative and a way which upset the women. And, you know, the. As was always going to happen, the feminists came for Orwell. In fact, the feminists came for Orwell many, many years ago. You know, the recent sort of spate of feminist criticism is nothing new. There was a book by Daphne Pattaya about 40 years ago about Orwell's patriarchal tendencies.

D.J. Taylor [00:40:20]:
And it's very easy to take what might be regarded as discreditable incidents in his life and magnify them and come in at them from angles that will make it look as if he has behaved extremely badly. I mean, I've read. I've read reviews for the Anna funder book, presents him basically as a sadist and sent a misogynist who is supposed to have plagiarized his own, his first wife's ideas and treated her badly and so on and so forth. And it is possible, if you. You know, if you exact, if you accentuate the negative, to build up a portrait of Orwell, as, you know, an appalling husband and another half. And I don't. It's not a view I take myself, because I think the evidence against him has been exaggerated. And a lot of it relies on Eileen's letters, some of which became available, in fact, after I'd written my first biography.

D.J. Taylor [00:41:15]:
So they are extremely tricky. Eileen, it should be said that Eileen, about whom very, very little was known until these letters came up. Because, again, doubtless for reasons that went with the time, most of the memories of her that could have been contributed by Orwell's male friends. And so she's always been seen through a male prism. So it was perfectly right and proper that women should come along and start examining her from there. Coin of vantage. And most of what we know about the way Eileen's mind works comes from letters that she wrote to a very old friend called Nora Miles in the 1930s and forties. And they are very, very subtle and very, very nuanced.

D.J. Taylor [00:41:58]:
And they are the kind of letters exchanged by old friends to the point where they're almost written in a kind of code, and they cry out not to be taken at face value. So when, for example, Eileen writes to her friend Nora a couple of weeks, a few weeks after she's been married to Orwell, you know, for the first two weeks, you know, I'm surprised we didn't kill each other. That is not to be taken at face value. And it goes, the idea, if, you know, if Orwell was so horrible to her, as a lot of people infer that he was, why did she go around all the time telling everybody how wonderful he was? When we know, for example, that when she came to Spain, when all was there and worked in the independent Labour Party office and the other people her colleagues were bored and complained about, all they heard was an unadulterated dialogue of how wonderful my husband is and how fantastic, you know, how fantastic George is doing at the front. So I don't. I dont buy a lot of this. Im quite prepared to believe that he was thoroughly selfish in regards to his marital life. And Eileen herself was very self abnegating about this and used to say, what, to a modern sensibility are piteous things about, that his life is more important than mine is.

D.J. Taylor [00:43:18]:
She was very ill herself and died prematurely. And there are terrible letters written when she's waiting for the operation from which she didn't survive, which she said to me, I don't think I'm really worth the money, which is so sort of self effacing. But I think she had made a decision, rightly or wrongly, that that's how she was going to behave towards Orwell, and that too, that was her side of the bargain and she fulfilled it. And again, it's possible to exaggerate his reaction to her death. He is supposed to have said to a friend who commiserated with him that, oh, she wasn't a bad old stick, you know, but in fact, we know from. From people who met him in the week after she died how terribly, terribly cut up he was about it and how it completely. It completely kind of, you know, it completely traumatized him emotionally for months and years afterwards, and, you know, and afflicted him and influenced the way that he behaved. And so he.

D.J. Taylor [00:44:16]:
He was deeply, deeply upset. The other thing, I think, which is again, a tribute to his, you know, to how he felt about her and the kind of life they constructed together, is that when she died, the adopted son, Richard, was ten months old, and Orwell. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Orwell to return him to the adoption agency. And in fact, he decided he would bring him, bring the boy up himself and prove to be a really excellent father for the remaining four years of his life. And so I think that too has to be taken into account, and it's possible to build up, as I say, a picture of him this terrific woman offending ogre. But I think what really happened is much, much more complicated. And ultimately, what happened in the. What went on in the Orwell's marriage is only known to the Orwells.

Dan Riley [00:45:03]:
Yeah. I would love to give you some time to talk about how you think. Obviously, no one knows, but how Orwell would view some modern tendencies and developments and prefacing this with the certainty that no one really knows. But I think you're probably in as good of a position to be an Orwell interpreter for modern times. You brought up surveillance earlier in the conversation, and I had a conversation a year and a half ago about the situation of the Uyghurs in China. Obviously, people know about the Edward Snowden revelations in the US and the risk that's posed to free people related to digital surveillance. Maybe we can start there and have you give your thoughts on what Orwell would say about the increasingly digital age that we live in and the risk that it poses. I heard once that this kind of throwaway line that modern life is a more brave new world than 1984 in the addictiveness and the way in which people are endlessly consuming content and addicted to it.

Dan Riley [00:46:26]:
But obviously, there's some serious risk here that I'm sure Orwell would have seen long ago. I'd love to have you speak to that.

D.J. Taylor [00:46:35]:
I'm interested you brought up that Huxley quote about Huxley, because I've said that myself once or twice. Orwell was quite disparaging about brave New World and said that he just didn't think that hedonist societies could endure and that people needed blood and guts and drums and lofted torches and so forth. And I'm not so sure. I think your original point I would have to agree with, and I don't want to kind of detach myself from this argument, because it's a fascinating one, but this is a man who died in 75 years ago next January. We don't. And friends of his, interestingly, friends of his, from the same kind of social background and the same kind of position in the british class system, said that they thought that actually the older he got, or, well, wouldn't necessarily have taken up the political positions that we might assume. So, for example, Anthony Pole, who was very right wing himself, but came from exactly the same social class and background as Orwell, had also been to Eton at the same time as Orwell, very important, said that, you know, Orwell would have very much supported the sending of the task force in the Falklands war. He would have been against the campaign for nuclear disarmament, he would have all this kind of thing, and you.

D.J. Taylor [00:47:55]:
And you stop and you think, hang on, Orwell, you know, the great sort of left wing tribune. Would he? And yet there are times in, you know, in his published work where Orwell doesn't quite. Sometimes doesn't quite take the position that you think he's going to take. There is, for example, a fascinating review of Hitler's autobiography, Mein Kampf, where Orwell, A, says that he has to state that he's never been able to hate Hitler, and B, that Hitler's face thinks he assembles Hitler's face. He compares portraits of the crucified Christ.

Dan Riley [00:48:29]:
And you think, this is weird, you.

D.J. Taylor [00:48:31]:
Know, this is really odd. So oil in the 21st century. I mean, all bets are off the table. We cannot know what he would have thought about anything. And this becomes especially interesting when you come to the idea of surveillance technology and all its horrors, because one of the things that I thought I discovered, having gone through 1984 again with the proverbial fine tooth comb, is that although technology is crucial to the way that novel works, you know, the cameras and the telescreen and the microphones and so forth, it's absolutely crucial. But Orwell himself doesn't actually know very much about technology. He doesn't know how it works. And if you examine some of the implications of the surveillance culture of 1984, they don't add up.

D.J. Taylor [00:49:19]:
I mean, he said at one point that, you know, that you were always being watched all the time. If everybody in the inner party is being watched on a telescreen, who's doing the watching? It's half the world looking at the other half of the world. And again, when he goes out into the countryside with Julia and she's always warning him about, they're listening in and you think, well, so where are these? Are they drop microphones? Are they hanging down above your head? It's even the same with the Winston Smith job in the Ministry of Truth, falsifying back numbers of the times. How does this work? How does the system work? Are there machines down there constantly retyping the papers? Orwell hasn't thought any of this out. It doesn't matter from the point of view of the novel, because the technology is a function, it's a means to an end. The reader just goes, oh, yes, everybody's being watched. But Orwell clearly doesn't know very much about technology. And I suspect that were he still about, he would probably know even less about it.

D.J. Taylor [00:50:20]:
And I just wonder, it is possible to speculate that some of his more conservative dependencies might have come to the fore. I mean, what would he have thought about the massive take up, you know, his canonization by the right? I mean, he speculated, I think he knew that this was going to happen. I mean, he wrote worried letters to american friends in 1949, speculating, you know, that the novel will be weaponized by the CIA, which was exactly what happened. But, you know, one has to ask what he might have thought of that as well. So what he would have made of the. There was a tendency there were literary movements in Britain in the fifties and sixties following, you know, very much influenced by Orwell. I'm talking about writers like Kingsley Amos and Philip Larkin and people like that, what was called the movement in english literary circles, very influenced by Orwell, you know, the plain speaking and sort of the plain speaking, the anti. But they ended up being sort of quite right wing, these people.

D.J. Taylor [00:51:24]:
And I'm just, you know, and you wonder what. What would Orwell have thought about all these acolytes with contrary political views to his own? So I. It's. It's a fascinating subject for discussion, but, you know, even, you know, having spent all these years working at all, I would really hesitate to make any pronouncements about it because the whole thing is. Is such a gray area and so, so nebulous and so resistant to understanding.

Dan Riley [00:51:52]:
And maybe your answer to this will be the same, but his concept of euphemism, of newspeak, of twisting words to make them something other than what they mean. And perhaps this is an enduring quality of civilization, that there will always be aspects of this in culture in general. But with that specific idea, I'm curious for you, as his decades long biographer, if you're noticing that in general and how you think he might respond to.

D.J. Taylor [00:52:36]:
I absolutely agree with you, actually. I think that is one of his great legacies is that essay politics in english language from 1946, that really does shine a light on the obfuscations of language that you being used at the moment. But in fact, I was about two or three years ago, actually, somebody. I can't remember the precise circumstances, but as far as I can remember, a newspaper had spotted, I think it was an american senator whose book had been not published by his publishers, I think, largely on grounds of incompetence. You know, it wasn't a good enough book, rather than not preaching the right political message. But the particular senator had said that this was all. Well, Ian, you know, said to me, what does orwellian mean? And I said, well, that doesn't mean that's not orwellian by my definition. I said, my definition of an orwellian atmosphere or an american orwellian world is, firstly, one that has a complete disregard for the concept of objective truth, secondly, manipulates language for propagandist ends, and thirdly, operates a surveillance culture where nobody's, you know, nobody to which managers to sort of bring off that Miltonia, miltonic trigger, looking into men's minds and to the point where your thoughts are not your own.

D.J. Taylor [00:53:55]:
And I suppose the corollary of that, which is, again, all well being very psychologically and culturally astute when it was, is that the really effective censorship is not top down. It's not that which is exercised by a totalitarian society. It's bottom up. It's the census you exercise on yourself because of your fear. And then again, that, I think, was another very, very prescient idea of his.

Dan Riley [00:54:22]:
I totally agree.

D.J. Taylor [00:54:24]:

Dan Riley [00:54:26]:
I'm going to read a few quotes, and I know we're getting towards the end of the conversation. And then there's one final idea or subject I would love to get your comments on. And these are just some of the enduring orwellian quotes or some of his most famous quotes. And the word enduring, when I think about Orwell, is something that comes to mind, and these are just a few from him, from his writing. Quote, who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. Another one. Quote, in a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

Dan Riley [00:55:04]:
A third quote, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. A fourth quote, war is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. And a fifth, which I think dovetails very nicely into what you just said, quote, if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don't want to hear. And maybe, as my closing question to you, I could just ask, and we discussed this a little bit earlier in the conversation, but the enduring legacy of this man, what is it about what he touched on, what nerve he hit that has us having this conversation so many decades after his death that makes him still so relevant to our civilizations, to life itself?

D.J. Taylor [00:55:52]:
Well, it's all those, it's all the themes that you've been adducing and I've been commenting on over the past hour, this uncanny ability to see the way the world was going to work, but not just in practical terms, in the sense of, of political land masses and mighty armies and politicians and dictators and autocrats and so forth, but to foresee some of the consequences in moral terms and the kind of personal mental evasions you have to make, you know, to cut some. Some sort of a figure in the 21st century. But there's more to it than that. And so it's perfectly possible to say, you know, as we've just been saying, oh, yes, surveillance technology, disregard for objectifying truth, you know, manipulation of language, etc. Etc. But ultimately, the way in which any writer works is through his or her ability to connect with the reader. And Orwell wrote a fascinating article about the american novelist Henry Miller, who he very much rated, saying that when he first read tropic cancer in 1936, it was. It was as if it was.

D.J. Taylor [00:57:01]:
It was written for me. He said, you know, he wrote this for me. He knows all about me. And when I first read my first Orwell novel, which must be about 50 years ago now, it was like a bullet heading across time. And I thought to myself, there's only one copy of this book. I happen to have picked it up. It's written for me, and I've never stopped thinking that. And so as well as all the extraordinary foresight and the prescience and the political astuteness and the analysis of motive and, you know, mighty empires writing and rising and falling and hegemony and all that, it's the ability to connect with the individual reader that does it.

D.J. Taylor [00:57:41]:
There are millions and millions of those individual readers. And it's Orwell's genius that he manages to perform that trick every time. Very few writers can do that. Very few writers have that level of attack and understanding, and he does it, and he carries on doing it to the point where he probably has more of effect and effect on the mass and individual consciousness than any other writer, which is an extraordinary feat.

Dan Riley [00:58:06]:
Very good. DJ, thank you so much for doing this. It was a real honor.

D.J. Taylor [00:58:10]:
Oh, it was great fun. I very much enjoyed it. Thanks very much. Very good questions.