A couple of years ago, I wondered whether, if George Orwell were alive today, he would be allowed to address a university, or to appear on television, or even to be published.
Successive biographers have found unsavoury incidents in the life of this great writer.
As an officer in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, Orwell paid regular visits to the waterfront brothels of Rangoon and, later, to brothels in Morocco. A friend remembered him saying that ‘he found himself increasingly attracted by the young Arab girls’.
Not long ago, incriminating letters from Orwell’s childhood friend, Jacintha Buddicom, were uncovered. These letters revealed that the 15-year-old Orwell had attempted to rape Buddicom, but she had fought him off, and managed to escape with a bruised hip and a torn skirt.
In old age, Buddicom wrote of ‘the public shame of being destroyed in a classic book’. In Orwell’s novel 1984, she had been portrayed as the doomed Julia. ‘In the end he absolutely destroys me, like a man in hobnailed boots stamping on a spider.’
Furthermore, anyone reading his travel book Down And Out In Paris And London will be staggered by Orwell’s persistent anti-Semitism. On page 65 of my Penguin edition, he fits as much offence as possible into 17 little words as he approvingly repeats an offensive proverb.
Were he alive today, Orwell would not be allowed to join any major — or minor — political party. He might even find himself prosecuted for historic sex abuse, as well as incitement to racial hatred.
‘A couple of years ago, I wondered whether, if George Orwell were alive today, he would be allowed to address a university, or to appear on television, or even to be published,’ writes Craig Brown while pondering how some icons seem to remain untouched by the sins of their pasts. Pictured: The writer George Orwell [File photo]
Judging by what has happened to today’s authors, he might well find himself dropped by his publishers and cancelled by universities — like historian Dr David Starkey, who caused a furore by making offensive remarks about slavery. He later apologised.
However, Orwell remains a liberal icon. Long sanctified by all shades of the political divide, and now safely dead, his sins have been forgiven. His works are all still published, taught in schools and revered the world over.
And so they should be: left to themselves, readers can easily distinguish between the virtues and vices of any given author. But what of another great secular saint, whose 80th anniversary was celebrated this year?
Throughout his youth, he was anti-Semitic, once loudly complaining that ‘Hitler should have finished the job’. Historic film footage exists of this icon performing the Nazi salute on the balcony of a town hall in the early 1960s.
A colleague remembered him in a drinking den, where ‘he took a dislike to a Semitic-featured piano player named Reuben, who seemed like a pleasant enough gentleman to me.
‘While Reuben manfully continued to jangle the ivories, he . . . persisted in disrupting the performance with [anti-Semitic] taunts. In the end the poor fellow was reduced to tears.’
Which ‘secular saint’ whose 80th anniversary was celebrated this year was known to have made several anti-Semitic, xenophobic comments and to have behaved abusively towards young women? Brown promises to reveal the man ‘universally regarded as a crusader for peace and justice, as well as a towering creative genius’ in his next column [Stock photo]
He was routinely rude about foreigners. Talking to a journalist in 1966, he spoke of his plans to send his little boy to the French Lycee in London. ‘Seems the only place for him in his position. I feel sorry for him, though. I couldn’t stand ugly people even when I was five. Lots of the ugly ones are foreign, aren’t they?’
He could be deeply abusive to young women. On a concert tour in 1962, one of his colleagues recalled a knock on the door of their shared dressing room.
‘A girl kept asking if she could come in. In his usual way, he told her to f*** off, but she kept knocking and asking to come in. He said, ‘Well, you can come in if you take all your clothes off.’ So he let her in and she stood there all shy and then he said, ‘Well, get your clothes off then.’
The poor girl — she was a trainee nurse — duly stripped off and she was stark naked when the theatre manager walked in, and then promptly walked out again. It was typical. He could be as crude and coarse as they come.’
Forty years since his death, this man is universally regarded as a crusader for peace and justice, as well as a towering creative genius.
The National Trust conducts guided tours of his childhood home and, so far as I know, has not yet issued an apology for his historic crimes.
Who is he, and how has he got away with it? These are questions I will try to answer in my next column.