George Orwell

Anthony Powell is celebrated for the lifelike characters he has been creating in his MUSIC OF TIME novels, and his close friend George Orwell is now recalled for us with equal vividness. As paradoxical a personality as might be found in fiction or reality, Orwell was a confirmed adherent of the left wing who had a strong taste for things Victorian, who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War but became world famous and was denounced by the Communists for his great polemics against the totalitarian state, ANIMAL FARM and 1984.

A Memoir by Anthony Powell

GEORGE ORWELL was about two and a half years older than myself. He once complained I was too fond of drawing attention to a difference in age that put him, he felt, at a disadvantage. A school list recalls with almost uncomfortable clarity the features of most of those of his seniority. For some reason Orwell’s face eludes me. Even one of those carte de visite photographs taken at the age of sixteen or seventeen did not suggest a boy I knew by sight. I have absolutely no recollection of him at Eton. This is strange because we were, I think, in the same company of the Officers5 Training Corps, and must often have seen each other hurrying across Cannon Yard on the way to Monday morning parades. In those days Orwell was, of course, called Eric Blair — “Blair K.S.55 in the list, since he was a King’s Scholar.

He wrote under the name of “Orwell,” partly because he preferred separate identity as an author, partly because he disliked the idea of family origins in Scotland. Later, he had a house in Jura, where I think he would have settled had he lived, but in his early days he was irritated by what he regarded as overemphasis on kilts, tartan, bagpipes, and so forth, above all by the comparatively recent innovation in popular journalism of writing “Scottish” for “Scotch.” The Orwell is a river in Suffolk; “George,” the most characteristically English Christian name. I once asked if he had ever thought of legally adopting his nom de guerre. “Well, I have,” he said slowly, “but then, of course, I’d have to write under another name if I did.”

When Down and Out in Paris and London appeared in 1933, someone recommended it, adding: “You’ll never again enjoy sauté potatoes after learning how they’re cooked in restaurants.” I read the book, and was impressed by its savagery and gloom. At the same time, I cannot claim to have immediately marked down Orwell as a writer of whom one would obviously hear more. However, a year or two later, when I saw a copy of Keep the Aspidistra Flying in a secondhand bookshop, I bought it. Again, I liked the novel for its violent feelings and presentation of a young man at the end of his tether, rather than for its form or style, which seemed strangely old-fashioned in treatment, as in a sense did much of the author’s point of view. I spoke of this book one night dining with Cyril Connolly. Connolly then told me Orwell was one of his oldest friends, acquaintance dating back to their private school (described in Such, Such Were the Joys) and continued in College at Eton. They had, as it happened, just recently remet. Connolly gave a sobering account of Orwell, his rigid asceticism, political intransigence, utter horror of social life, at the same time emphasizing, in his physical appearance, the heavy lines of suffering and privation marked deep in Orwell’s hollow checks. The portrait was a disturbing, one. However, Connolly, in his own special way, was enthusiastic about Orwell. He urged me to write him a fan letter. This I did, thereby making my first Orwell contact, in 1936.

Connolly’s picture of a severe, unapproachable, infinitely disapproving personage was to some extent borne out by the reply I received. Orwell was at that time running, with His first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a small general shop near Baldock in Hertfordshire. His letter, perfectly polite and friendly, had also something about it that cast a faint chill, making me feel, especially in the light of Connolly’s words, that Orwell was not for me. I was so sure of this that when opportunity arose of meeting him in the flesh, I was at first unwilling to involve myself in so much hard living and high thinking — more especially in wartime, when existence was uncomfortable enough anyway. That was in 1941. I was on leave, and my wife and I were dining at the Cafe Royal. An old friend. Inez Holden, a writer at that time working in an aircraft factory, came across to us from a table at the far side of the room. She said that the man and woman with her were George and Eileen Orwell, and suggested we should join them after we had finished dinner.

To make it slightly more of an occasion, as one did not “go out” much in those days, I had changed into “‘blues,” patrol uniform, an outfit with brass buttons and high collar. I felt certain Orwell would not approve of that. It was no doubt bad enough in his eyes to be an officer at all; to have dressed up in these pretentious regimentals, at once militaristic and relatively ornate, would aggravate the offense of belonging to a stupid and brutal caste. However, in spite of such apprehension — made light of, I admit, by my wife — we moved over in due course to Orwell’s table. I sat down with some trepidation. Orwell’s first words, spoken with considerable tenseness, were at the same time reassuring:

“Doyour trousers strap under the Joot?”


“That’s the really important thing.”

“Of course.”

“You agree?”


“ I used to wear ones that strapped under the foot too,”he said, not without nostalgia.

“In Burma?”

“You knew I was in the police there? Those straps under the boot give you a feeling like nothing else in life.”

His voice had a curious rasp. Evidently it was consciously designed to avoid striking a note that could possibly be regarded as “public school”; at the same time, its tone made no concession whatever to any other known form of “accent” or dialect. This was a manner of speaking absolutely in keeping with the rest of Orwell’s carefully controlled approach to life, though when, after the Independence, returned Indian Civilians (Orwell’s father had been in the Indian Civil Service) were more often met with in England than formerly, I was once or twice reminded of Orwell’s tone. Nevertheless, it would be true to say that he had, as it were, resigned from the world in which he had been brought up, or anything like it, while never really contriving to join any other.

Tall — as has more than once been remarked, closely resembling the Gustave Dore conception of Don Quixote — he also looked remarkably like Cézanne’s portrait of the painter’s friend Monsieur Choquet, a Customs House official. The grooves in the checks of which Connolly had spoken were at once apparent on either side of Orwell’s mouth. He wore a narrow mustache, neatly clipped, along only the lower level of his upper lip. This mustache, as long as I knew him, was always a bit of mystery to me. I never quite had the courage to ask about it. It was perhaps Orwell’s only remaining concession to a dandyism that undoubtedly lurked beneath the surface of his self-imposed austerity, momentarily revealed, for example, by the strapped trousers. Indeed, contemporaries at school even speak of a tendency in those early days toward the mannerisms of a P. G. Wodehouse hero. Perhaps the mustache, although in itself essentially un-Wodehousian, partook to some extent of this rigorously suppressed side of Orwell’s nature. Perhaps, on the other hand, it had something to do with the French blood inherited through his mother, which also made him look like the Cézanne portrait, or those fiercely melancholy French workmen in blue overalls, pondering the philosophy of life at the zinc counters of a thousand estaminets. Certainly this last image was the nearest Orwell ever achieved in the direction of an even faintly proletarian appearance. It was the mustache, the mustache alone, that provoked thoughts of France, because nothing could have been more English than his consciously old tweed coat and corduroy trousers, which always maintained exactly the same degree of shabbiness, no worse, no better.

“Does it matter, my coming in these clothes?” he once asked, before entering the room at a party we were giving.

The question is an example of the extraordinary unreality of much of Orwell’s approach to life. By that time he and I knew each other well. The clothes were the clothes he always wore. Why should I have invited him if I thought them inadequate? It was hardly to be expected that he would turn up in a brand-new suit. Did he half hope for an unfavorable answer?

“Ye.s, George, it does matter. They won’t do. You can’t come in. We will meet another time.”

Injustice to him, some of his suppositions regarding social behavior were so strange that he might not have been surprised by a reply in those terms.

I am certain that denial of entry on such grounds would have made little or no difference on his side to our friendship. It would merely have confirmed his worst suspicions, perhaps even pleased him a little to find his views on conventional tyranny so well justified.

AFTER the first meeting at the Café Royal, we arranged to lunch together, a year or two later, when I was stationed in London. For some reason we failed to make contact at the small but very crowded Greek restaurant in Percy Street he had suggested, each thinking the other had not arrived and eating his meal there alone at a table.

I saw Orwell on the way out.

“Come and sit for a moment,” he said; “ I ordered a bottle of wine. Pm afraid Pve drunk most of it, as I thought you weren’t going to turn up, but there’s still a drop left, as I couldn’t get through it all.”

Wine, at that period of the war, was hard to get and expensive. It was characteristically generous of him to have provided it. At this time he was,

I think, employed on some broadcasting service, not in want, but certainly not particularly well off, as none of his books had yet begun to sell to any extent, though his name was becoming known. With all his willingness to face hard times — almost welcoming them — Orwell was by no means a confirmed enemy of good living, as the bottle of wine shows, though tortured by guilt when he felt indulgence was overstepping the mark. This sense of guilt is, of course, generally attributed to Orwell’s “social conscience.” He himself would, at least by implication, ascribe such feelings to that cause. My own impression is that the guilt lay far deeper than anything having its roots in mere politicosocial convictions acquired by reading and observation. Guilt had, I think, been deeply implanted in him at an early age; no doubt inflamed to some extent by experiences as a schoolboy about which he wrote, possibly contrasting these, like Kipling, with a happy childhood; for although he was inclined to let it be thought his home had been Victorianly severe, his sister’s memories suggest that he was, in fact, rather “spoilt.” Guilt, so it seems to me, always pursued him, perhaps because of that, for one suspects that an emotion so deeply engrained must have had very precocious origins.

If you went for a country walk with Orwell (he came down for the day to Shoreham, in Kent, where my wife and elder son lived during the latter part of the war), he would draw attention, almost with anxiety, to this shrub budding early for the time of year, that plant growing rarely in the south of England. He was, it is true, very fond of flowers, but there was something about this determined, almost scientific, concentration on natural history or agricultural method that seemed an effort to excuse the frivolity of our ramblings.

“Interesting to note the regional variation in latching of field gates,” he remarked, “Different even in the same county.”

Guilt, naturally enough, harassed him in matters of sex.

“Have you ever had a woman in the park?” he asked me once.

“No — never.”

“I have.”

“How did you find it?”

“I was forced to.”


“Nowhere else to go.”

He spoke defensively, as if he feared I might blame him for this urban pastoral. It was a Victorian guilt, and in many ways Orwell was a Victorian figure, for, like most people “in rebellion,” he was more than half in love with what he was rebelling against. What exactly that was, I was never quite sure. Its name was certainly legion, extending from inequities of government to the irritating personal habits of certain individuals. For example, he complains (in the essay “How the Poor Die”) that English hospital nurses wear Union Jack buttons. This used to puzzle me, because, even at the period of which he wrote, if you wanted, in an excess of chauvinistic fervor, to sport a Union Jack button,

I do not believe you would have been able to procure one for love or money. Then one day it occurred to me that the button in question probably indicated the hospital at which the nurse had qualified. some such insignia possibly resembling design of the flag. To see such an emblem as a piece of flaunting jingoism was, in its way, a mild form of persecution mania.

Many of Orwell’s prejudices seemed equally to belong to this world of fantasy. I may be unjust. Our mental surroundings are, after all, always subjective enough. It is largely the way you look at things. At least no one would deny the nightmare world envisaged by Orwell, if a true one, was in drastic need of reform.

“Take juries now,” he would say. “They’re mostly drawn from the middle classes. Some fellow comes up for trial on charge of stealing. He’s not wearing a collar. The jury take against him at once. ‘No collar,’ they say, ‘suspicious-looking chap.’ Unanimous verdict of guilty.”

Orwell himself was not at all unaware of the manner in which his own imagination strayed back into the Victorian Age, or, for that matter, of the paradoxes in which some of his enthusiasms involved him. Indeed, he liked to draw attention to the contradictions of his own point of view. He was fond of repeating that if some sort of agreement could be reached by the nations, “world economics could be put right on the back of an envelope,” but never revealed how this was to be done. To his Victorianism he constantly returned, both in conversation, and so far as possible, in life, the latter represented by the places he inhabited. He was delighted, for example, with the period flavor, certainly immense, of the basement and ground floor he took during the war in a small house in Kilburn, North London. The terrace had been built about 1850. It conjured up those middle-tolower-middle-class nineteenth-century households on which his mind loved to dwell, particularly enthroned in the works of his favorite novelist, Gissing.

“They would probably have kept a ‘Buttons’ here,” he said, enchanted by the thought.

We dined with the Orwells at this house one night, prior arrangements being made for sleeping there too, owing to the exigencies of wartime transport. The sitting room, with a general background of furniture dating from more prosperous generations of bygone Blairs, had two or three eighteenthcentury family portraits hanging on the walls.

“When George went to the Spanish War,” said Eileen Orwell, “we panicked at the last moment that he hadn’t enough money with him, so we pawned all the Blair spoons and forks. Then, some weeks later, his mother and sister came to see me. They asked why the silver was missing. I had to think of something on the spur of moment, so I said it seemed a good opportunity, George being away, to have the crest engraved on it. That was accepted.”

I never knew Eileen well. My impression is that she did a very good job, in what were often difficult circumstances. At the same time, it was, I think, an exception for her to tell a story like that. She was in general not much given to making light of things, always appearing a little overwhelmed by the strain of keeping the household going, which could never have been easy. Possibly she was by temperament a shade serious for Orwell, falling in too easily with his own tendency to gloom, when he may have required a wife to shake him out of that natural state occasionally. It is at least permissible to wonder whether that were not so. Orwell’s egotism, which was, as he himself was always pointing out, considerable, took a deeply melancholic form, which may well have needed some counterirritant in a constant companion.

“If I have a dog, I always think my dog is the best dog in the world,” he used to say, “or if I make anything carpentering. I always think it’s the best possible carpentry. Don’t you ever feel the need to do something with your hands? I’m surprised you don’t. I like even rolling my own cigarettes. I’ve installed a lathe down in the basement. I don’t think I could live without my lathe.”

The night we dined there, I slept in a camp bed beside the lathe. It was an unusual, though not entirely comfortless, apartment, and anyway, by that stage of the war, one had become used to sleeping anywhere. At about 4 A.M. there was an air raid. The local anti-aircraft battery sounded as if it were based next door, because the noise of the guns was absolutely deafening, far louder than usual. Orwell came blundering downstairs in the dark.

“I’m rather glad to have been woken up,” he said. “It means we shall get some hot water in the morning. If you don’t restoke the boiler about this time, it runs cold. I’m always too lazy to leave my bed in the middle of the night, unless, like tonight, there’s really much too much noise to sleep anyway.”

THERE can be no doubt that the bad health that prevented him from taking an active part in the war was a terrible blow to Orwell. He saw himself as a man of action and felt passionately about the things for which the country was fighting. When he heard Evelyn Waugh was serving with a Commando unit, he said: “Why can’t someone on the Left ever do something like that?” He himself was a sergeant in the Home Guard, always speaking with enjoyment of the grotesque do-ityourself weapons issued to that force, ramshackle and calculated to explode at any moment. Goodness knows what he would have been like in the army. I have no doubt whatever that he would have been brave, but bravery in the army is, on the whole, an ultimate, rather than immediate, requirement, demanded only at the end of a long and tedious novitiate. It is even possible Orwell might have found some of army routine sympathetic. He was not without a love of detail. Nevertheless, his picture of the army, as of the rest of life, was based on an earlier period.

“Did you ever handle screw guns?” he asked me.

Admittedly pikes were issued — and strongly recommended — at the beginning of the war, when invasion seemed about to take place at once; even so, the term “screw gun” can scarcely have survived into the twentieth century. I once inquired how discipline had been maintained in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

“You appealed to a man’s better side,” Orwell said. “There was really not much else you could do. I took a chap’s arm once when he was being tiresome, and was told afterward I might easily have been knifed.”

Orwell was in his way quite ambitious, I think, and had a decided taste for power; but his ambition did not run along conventional lines, while he liked his power to be of the éminence grise variety. This taste was no doubt partly due to his sense of being in some manner cut off from the rest of the world; not allowed by an irresistible exterior force to enjoy, more than very occasionally, such few amenities as human existence provides. That did not prevent his strong will and natural shrewdness from making him an effective negotiator. Indeed, his genuine unworldliness, in the popular sense, was used by him with considerable effect when handling those who were rich or in authority. He would somehow unload on them the whole burden of his own guilt, until they groaned beneath the weight. He was not at all afraid of making himself disagreeable to persons whom he found in their dealings disagreeable to himself.

“If editors, or people of that sort, tell you to alter things, or put you to a lot of trouble,” he used to say, “always put them to trouble in return. It discourages them from making themselves awkward in the future.”

It is interesting to speculate how Orwell’s life would have developed had he survived as a very successful writer. The retirement to Jura, even at the preliminary warning signs of financial improvement, was probably symptomatic. Orwell could,

I think, only thrive in comparative adversity. All the same, one can never foresee the effect of utterly changed circumstances. Prosperity might have produced unguessable changes in him and his work. It would inevitably have invested him with still more complications of living; complications which, according to his system, would each have to be rationalized to himself and weighed in the balance. His gift was curiously poised between politics and books. The former both attracted and repelled him; the latter, close to his heart, were at the same time tainted with the opium of ease and escape. So far as day-to-day politics are concerned, Orwell could never have become integrated into any normal party machine. His reputation for integrity might be invoked, his capacity for martyrdom relied on, his talent for pamphleteering made use of, but he could never be trusted not to let some devastatingly unwelcome cat out of the political bag. With books, on the other hand, in spite of an innate “feeling” for writing and criticism, he always had to seek the means of attacking some abuse or injustice to excuse his attention to them. This did not prevent them, in my opinion, from being his true love. In his own works, he returns more than once to the theme that had he lived at another period of history, he would have written in a different manner. I do not believe this to be a correct judgment. I find his talent far removed from that objective sort of writing which he saw as an alternative to what he actually produced. His interest in individuals in books or in life — was never great. Apart from the projections of himself, the characters of his novels do not live as persons, though they are sometimes effective puppets in expressing his thesis of the moment. Orwell had a thoroughly professional approach to writing and a finished style, though his literary judgments were sometimes eccentric. As mentioned above, he would canvass Gissing, quite seriously, as the greatest English novelist.

Orwell liked to keep his friends in watertight compartments, pursuing various interests with various groups. He was fond of saying that it was a pity writers quarreled amongst themselves so much, because, in the last resort, they were much more like each other than like other people. Toward the end of the war, I suggested introducing Malcolm Muggeridge to him. “I shall probably sock him on the jaw,” Orwell said, but they got on well, and there was a time when the three of us used to lunch together once a week. Orwell always had a weakness for the presence of a disciple or two of his own in attendance, changing these from time to time. The first to be initiated at these luncheons was the writer Julian Symons, who has amusingly described his introduction there as a “left-wing understrapper.” Under the impact of additional Orwell henchmen, less acceptable or merely too numerous, the meetings lost their personal character and gradually faded away. Again, one suspects, Orwell found the earlier luncheons “frivolous,” insufficiently directed toward a practical aim like placing articles or founding a magazine.

He was easily bored, if a subject did not appeal to him, he would make no effort to take it in, falling into dejected silence, or jerking aside his head like a horse refusing an apple it suspects of sourness. On the other hand, when his imagination had been caught, especially by some literary question, he would discuss it endlessly. He was one of the most enjoyable people I have ever met with whom to mull over such things, full of quotations, though far from verbal accuracy in these.

THE adoption of a child, the sudden death of Eileen, the worldwide success of Animal Farm, the serious worsening of his own health all combined within the space of a few months to revolutionize Orwell’s life. The loss of his wife just after the much meditated acquisition of the boy especially created a situation that would have caused many men to throw in the sponge. No doubt some arrangement for re-adoption could have been made. It would have been reasonable enough. No such thought ever crossed Orwell’s mind. He had enormously desired a child of his own. Now that the child had become part of the household, he was not going to relinquish him, no matter what the difficulties. In fact, one side of Orwell — the romantic side that played such a part — rather enjoyed the picture of himself coping unaided with a baby. Let this point be made clear: Orwell did cope with the baby. It may have been romanticism, but, if so, it was romanticism that found practical expression. This was characteristic of him in all he did. His idiosyncrasies were based in guts.

He would still go out at night to address protest meetings — “probably a blackguard, but it was unjust to lock him up" — and the baby would be left to sleep for an hour or two at our house while Orwell was haranguing his audience.

“What was the meeting like?” one would ask on his return.

“Oh, the usual people.”

“Always the same?”

“There must be about two hundred of them altogether. They go round to everything of this sort. About forty or fifty turned up tonight, which is quite good.”

This down-to-earth skepticism, seasoned with a dash of self-dramatization, supplied a contradictory element in Orwell’s character. With all his honesty and ability to face disagreeable facts, there was always about him, too, the air of acting a part. He came to see me one day when our younger son was lying, quiet but not asleep, in a cot by the window. I went upstairs to fetch a book. When I returned, Orwell was assiduously studying a picture on the wall the far side of the room. The child made some sign of wanting attention, and I went over to the cot. Straightening the coverlet, which had become disarranged, my hand touched a hard object. This turned out to be an enormous clasp knife. I took it out and examined it.

“How on earth did that get there?”

For the moment the mystery of the knife’s provenance seemed absolute. Orwell looked away, as if greatly embarrassed.

“Oh, I gave it him to play with,” he said. “I forgot I’d left it there.”

The incident, infinitely trivial, seems worth preserving because it illustrates sides of Orwell not easy to express in direct description: his attitude to children; his shyness, part genuine, part assumed; his schoolboy leanings; above all, his taste for sentimental vignettes. Why, in the first place, should he wish to burden himself in London with a knife that looked like an item of a fur trapper’s equipment? Why take such pains to avoid being found playing with a child, a perfectly natural impulse, flattering to a parent? If some authentic masculine sheepishness made him hesitate to be caught in such an act, why leave the knife as evidence? It was much too big to be forgotten.

I think the answer to these questions is that the whole incident was arranged to create a genre picture in the Victorian manner of a kind which, even though he might smile at the sentimentality, made a huge appeal to Orwell’s imagination and way of looking at things. He was, so to speak, playing the part of a strong, rough man, touched by the sight of a baby, but unwilling to confess, even to himself, this inner weakness. At the same time, he had to be discovered for the incident to achieve graphic significance.

Orwell would not, I think, deny that sentimental situations had a charm for him. I can imagine him discussing them in relation to another favorite theme of his, “good bad poetry.” It should, of course, be added that in his own books Orwell is too practiced a writer to be betrayed into presenting sentimentalities in their cruder form, though he is fond of showing them, so to speak, brutally in reverse; for example, his taste for such episodes as lovers’ assignations ruined by forgotten contraceptives or “the curse.”

IN DUE course the trouble with Orwell’s lung became so bad that he had to take to his bed. It was fairly clear that he was not going to recover. Only the length of time that remained to him was in doubt.

“I don’t think one dies,” he said to me, “so long as one has another book to write — and I have.”

During these last months he married Sonia Brownell, first met some years before when she was on the staff of Connolly’s magazine, Horizon. In spite of the tragic circumstances of Orwell’s failing condition, marriage immensely cheered him. I saw a good deal of him when he was in hospital. In some respects he was in better form than I had ever known. There was a flicker now to be seen of the old alleged Wodehousian side.

“I really might get some sort of a smoking jacket to wear in bed,” he said. “A dressing gown looks rather sordid when lots of people are dropping in. Could you look about and report to me what there is in that line?”

War shortages still persisted where clothes were concerned. Nothing very glamorous in male styles was to be found in the shops. Decision had to be taken ultimately between a Jaeger coat with a tying belt, or a crimson jacket in corduroy. We agreed the latter was preferable. It was a small concession to an aspect of human existence that Orwell had for years strenuously denied himself. Sitting up in bed now, he had an unaccustomedly epicurean air — only, unhappily, his conviction that having an unwritten book in you preserved life proved untrustworthy. I have often wondered whether he was buried in that coat.

The Orwell legend, now substantially launched in a shape scarcely capable of modification, presents on the whole a tortured saint by El Greco (for whom Orwell would certainly have made an admirable model), a figure from whom all human qualities have been removed. From time to time angry arguments rage as to where precisely Orwell stood politically. I am not here concerned with that side of him, although I think it worth remarking that it took courage in that now largely forgotten, but then rather nauseating, political climate of the immediately post-war period (where the things attacked in the book were concerned) to fire the broadside of Animal Farm — especially on the part of a writer of left-wing principles, liable to be smeared in a manner that could do him real professional harm. I want to put on record not so much that—his courage — but what I remember of him as a friend, one for whom you felt a curiously protective affection, with whom, in spite of differing opinions on almost every subject, I seem so often to have had such oddly enjoyable times.