Sixty-years ago this week, author (if we’re being reductive in our terminology here) George Orwell published his masterwork 1984. The Telegraph looks at his enduring legacy and genius through the lense of his non-fiction work.
If you want to learn how to write non-fiction, Orwell is your man. He may be known worldwide for his last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But, for me, his best work is his essays.
Who would have imagined that sixteen hundred words in praise of the Common Toad, knocked out to fill a newspaper column in April 1946, would be worth reprinting sixty years later? But here it is, with many of the characteristic Orwell delights, the unglamorous subject matter, the unnoticed detail (”a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature”) the baleful glare, the profound belief in humanity. Because what the piece is really about, of course, is not the toad itself, but the thrill of that most promising time of year, the spring, even as seen from Orwell’s dingy Islington flat.
When he produced articles like this, hair-shirted fellow socialists got cross. Why wasn’t he spending his time promoting discontent, denouncing the establishment, glorifying the machine-driven future? It is a mark of his greatness that Orwell didn’t care. They – whoever they might be – cannot stop you enjoying spring. The essay ends: “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”
I would have to agree with this assessment. Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London pretty much changed my life.