Notes from The Ministry of Truth, The Biography of George Orwell's 1984

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The Ministry of Truth, The Biography of George Orwell's 1984

by Dorian Lynskey

Part One

Page 31 @ October 14, 2019

Another, less spiritual consolation was the supply of chocolate, cigars and Fortnum & Mason tea that Orwell began receiving from his wife Eileen after she followed him to Spain in February to work as McNair’s secretary in Barcelona. The couple had married eight months earlier, having met at a party in 1935, and in many respects they were an excellent match. Both were emotionally reticent, with a tendency towards gloom enlivened by an ironic sense of humour and a spirit of generosity. They shared a passion for nature and literature, frugal tastes, and a carelessness about their health and appearance, rarely seen without a cigarette dangling from their lips. Both had strong principles and the courage to act on them. The difference was ambition. Eileen was a highly intelligent Oxford graduate, universally well-liked, but she subordinated her own aspirations to Orwell’s, dropping out of a master’s degree programme in educational psychology to live with him in a cottage-cum-shop in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington. One friend said, “ She caught George’s dreams from him like measles.”

Page 63 @ October 23, 2019

The future, at any rate the immediate future, is not with the “sensible” men. The future is with the fanatics. —George Orwell, Time & Tide, June 8, 1940

Things haven't changed much.

Page 118 @ October 27, 2019

He had warmer things to say about Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Despite being a dogged defender of the Soviet Union in private, on the screen Chaplin stood, Orwell thought, for “ a sort of concentrated essence of the common man, for the ineradicable belief in decency that exists in the hearts of ordinary people.”

Page 122 @ October 27, 2019

In recent years, the BBC has exploited its Orwell connection in ways that might have amused the man himself. To mark Orwell’s centenary in 2003, it commissioned the artist Rachel Whiteread to produce a plaster cast of Room 101 in 55 Portland Place, revealing only how unremarkable and irrelevant to the novel it was. In 2017, it erected a bronze statue of Orwell outside its headquarters at Broadcasting House, beside an engraved line from the unpublished preface to Animal Farm—“ If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”—which is a good description of what Orwell’s job in the Indian Section wasn’t.

Page 128 @ October 27, 2019

Orwell’s most eccentric piece for the BBC was an imagined dialogue with the ghost of Swift, in which Orwell played the cautious optimist to Swift’s savage misanthrope. His version of Swift was unsurprised by Hitler, Stalin or the Blitz because progress is a con and science merely produces more efficient killing machines. Perhaps Orwell was using Swift to personify his own grimmest impulses, so that he could mount a case against them. However pessimistic he became, he didn’t believe that humans were grubby, worthless, self-defeating creatures. “ He couldn’t see what the simplest person sees,” Orwell concluded after his supernatural telephone line to Swift broke down, “that life is worth living and human beings, even if they are dirty and ridiculous, are mostly decent. But after all, if he could have seen that I suppose he couldn’t have written Gulliver’s Travels.” As Arthur Koestler put it, “ Orwell never completely lost faith in the knobby-faced yahoos with their bad teeth.”

Page 134 @ October 27, 2019

Orwell’s approval rating was a lowly 16 per cent. Only after the war would he learn that his work had any fans in India at all. He never saw the glowing internal report written by Rushbrook Williams, the director of Indian Services, who lauded his talent, work ethic and integrity: “ He is transparently honest, incapable of subterfuge, and in early days he would have been canonised—or burnt at the stake! Either fate he would have sustained with stoical courage.” On the day he left, Orwell’s colleagues threw him a surprise party; had he been forewarned, they suspected, he wouldn’t have showed up.

Page 144 @ October 27, 2019

To Zamyatin, this was artistic suicide: “ True literature can exist when it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics.”

Page 214 @ October 29, 2019

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection,” he wrote, “that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” It was certainly the essence of being Orwell.

Part Two

Page 241 @ November 1, 2019

Screenwriter Nigel Kneale and director Rudolph Cartier had previously collaborated on the sci-fi chiller The Quatermass Experiment. Their confident, intelligent take on Orwell, starring Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, was even harder on the nerves, with its atmosphere of creeping dread and its horrific climax in the Ministry of Love. Cartier thought it was the combination of television and telescreen that made it uniquely potent. When the viewer saw Big Brother, he said, “ cold eyes stared from the small screen straight at him, casting into the viewer’s heart the same chill that the characters in the play experienced whenever they heard his voice coming from their watching TV screens.”

Page 262 @ November 1, 2019

Decades later, Times reporter James “Scotty” Reston explained McCarthy’s success: “ He knew that big lies produced big headlines. He also knew that most newspapers would print almost any outrageous charge a United States senator made in public…McCarthy knew how to take advantage of this ‘cult of objectivity.’ ” Almost everybody, he added, “ came out of the McCarthy period feeling vaguely guilty.”