GEORGE ORWELL had a “bright and witty side” according to a leading academic and chair of the Orwell Society at the University of London recently.
As the author of the dystopian novel ‘Nighteen Eighty-Four’, Orwell tended to be associated with gloom, failure and the horrors of living in a Big Brother society.
Yet Professor Richard Keeble claimed Orwell was a cultural icon who had a “fascination with wit” while at the same time was able “to evoke totalitarian terror” in his novels which has now formed a major contribution to the English language.
Such terms as “Cold war”, “Big Brother”, “double think”, “thought crime” and “Room 101” are the bread and butter phrases these days, thanks to Orwell who made political writing into an art with reportage infused with “droll, self-depreciating wit”.
Professor Keeble was speaking at Goldsmiths College, University of London, in a talk called ‘There is Always Room for One More Custard Pie: Orwell’s Humour’, where the first conference on ‘Orwell, The University and the University of Life’ was held in January this year when the new George Orwell Studies Journal was announced.
A familiar name for thousands of journalism students, Prof Keeble has played a central role in the development of journalism teaching in higher education, writing and editing 20 books. His Newspapers Handbook (now in its fourth edition, Routledge) is regarded as the seminal textbook on reporting skills.
The acclaimed investigative journalist John Pilger said of it: “The author clearly has a passion for informed, honest and humane journalism.”
Prof Keeble said Orwell, who wrote ‘Animal Farm’ along with articles about cups of tea, the common toad, Dickens, had written stories “trivial and unworthy of attention by the cultural elite.”
While Orwell went to Eton College like Prime Minister David Cameron, he made a name for himself as the underdog and believer in the British working class, lowering himself among the poor and homeless in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’.
Like a clown with custard pie thrown in his face, he said, Orwell fought against English repression and saw the ‘revolutionary potential of humour’ in his prose. A member of the audience however argued that Orwell “was never going to be a stand-up comedian”.
Known for his commitment to authentic and truthful eye witness reporting, Orwell began his career in the Burmese Civil Service and honed his comedy chops at the Spanish Civil War where he got shot. In his column ‘As I Please’ he took on the role of ‘court jester’ challenging the dominant discourse – a prototype blogger.
In the audience at Goldsmiths was George Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair who claimed his father “not only had a dry humour but was also a show-off” who while writing about the nuclear hollocaust was busy activating the “revolutionary potential of humour”.
After the event, I asked Professor Keeble whether Orwell was also a psychologist beyond his political and social journalism. Saying otherwise, he asked for more time to consider Orwell’s psychological journey.
Other speakers at the event where Professor Jean Seaton, the Director of the Orwell Prize, who spoke about Orwell’s Women, argued that Blair “often wrote uncomfortably about women … Why? Or was he just a chap of his time?”
Professor Tim Crook’s talk was on “Orwell and the Radio Imagination’ about the creative relationship between Orwell and the BBC. Tim argued that Orwell’s legacy was his caution over remaining impartial and a warning to the BBC on the ‘propaganist use of language in news and current affairs’.
The Orwell Prize http://theorwellprize.co.uk/