January 2020 is the 70th anniversary of Orwell's death in 1950 – a neat enough milestone in itself for a fresh look at the man who wrote the enduring "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and "Animal Farm" – and Bradford does offer a straight enough recap of his life. At the same time he takes the occasional foray into examining Orwell's lingering relevance today in the age of Brexit, Donald Trump, populism and "fake news".

Thus, a biography where the index has almost as many entries for Brexit as it does for "Animal Farm", and where Nigel Farage, leader of the libertarian United Kingdom Independence Party and then the Brexit Party, has more entries than Orwell's second wife Sonia.

The issues – including anti-Semitism, populism, nationalism and political lies – concerned the thoughtful Orwell throughout most of his life, during which this book maintains that he foresaw the creation of the European Union and then predicted the post-imperial xenophobia that would cause Britain to leave it.

For instance, Bradford shows how Orwell's struggle with his own anti-Semitism as a young man has a parallel in the current Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Orwell was able to take a step outside himself, to recognise what he saw as evil, confront its causes and eventually repent. His atonement involved both self-loathing and a terrible recognition that many of his fellow countrymen were as bad as he had been.

By bringing Orwell into the present day, Bradford wishes to show that questions Orwell asked of his generation remain unanswered and sometimes unaddressed. As we learn, "No author can predict the future, yet Orwell's talent as a foreseer is extraordinary. From the early 1930s onwards he was astute in picking out things about us that would endure and resurface many decades later: antisemitism – especially on the extreme left; the toleration by the free world or authoritarian regimes, now because we need them economically; dim-witted materialism; populist politics; brainless nationalism; doublethink as the motor for political discourse – that is, outright lying; the resurgence of seemingly endemic xenophobia; and, of course, Brexit."

Even so, the great majority of the book – some 90 percent, perhaps – can be read simply as a straighforward account of an influential man's life. Here are the basic facts: Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in India in 1903, his father Richard Blair was a quintessential Victorian and, as a civil servant in India, busily supervised plantations and organised supplies of opium to China, where addicts were providing the imperial government of India with their most profitable income from exports.

In 1904, eight years after their marriage, Ida Blair chose to move back to England with their children, Marjorie, six years, and Eric, still a baby. They settled in a comfortable, modestly appointed house in Henley-on-Thames, minus Richard who stayed in India and did not retire until 1912 after 37 years of colonial service. His fleeting appearances to see the family made him a complete stranger to his son.

Thereafter, Eric spent less than half the year in the family home after being sent to board at St Cyprian's Preparatory School in Eastbourne, becoming something of an oddball, a misfit. Richard and Ida led separate lives and when Eric was at home an atmosphere of cold alienation pervaded.

Eric, sternly forbidden by his father from even speaking with the children of the lower orders, learned his first lesson in the strict ordinances of class distinction, "a very English form of apartheid that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life".

At St Cyprian's, pupils were schooled to obtain places at the best public schools, referrably Eton or Harrow, and then proceed to Oxford or Cambridge: it was a conveyor belt to positions of power in the nation and the Empire. But filth, pain and humiliation were key features of St Cyprian's programme of moral strengthening and advancement.

Orwell loathed it but excelled academically and duly proceeded to Eton in 1917, part of the conspiracy of exclusion by which the private eduction system and the upper classes ensured that the proles would not even be able to conduct themselves in the same way as the ruling elite, let along become guests at the party.

Here, author Bradford tells us that nothing has changed and cites the rise of Boris Johnson through the infrastructure that "effectively regulates and governs Britain, from the politcal hierarchy through the judiciary to the arts and the media ... Lies are the gift of the elite and everyone else has to put up with a conspiracy of untruth. Eton today has come to resemble the training camp for the Inner Party of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four', an assembly of figures who, for no other reason than that they belong, seem able to control our destiny."

Orwell never commented on why, age 19 in 1922, he followed his detached father into Colonial Service, becoming a member of the Indian Imperial Police Force in Burma, then a British colony. He grew to detest white "superiority" and resigned in 1927, deciding to become a writer. In 1928 he moved to Paris but lack of success forced him into a series of menial jobs.

He described his experiences in his first book, "Down and Out in Paris and London", published in 1933. He took the name George Orwell shortly before its publication. This was followed by his first novel, "Burmese Days", in 1934, exposing the racism and brutality of British rule.

An anarchist in the late 1920s, by the 1930s he had begun to consider himself a socialist. In 1936 he was commissioned to write an account of poverty among unemployed miners in northern England, which resulted in "The Road to Wigan Pier" (1937).

Late in 1936, Orwell travelled to Spain to fight for the Republicans against Franco's Nationalists. He was wounded, then forced to flee in fear of his life from Soviet-backed communists who were suppressing revolutionary socialist dissenters. The experience turned him into a lifelong anti-Stalinist and resulted in "Homage to Catalonia" (1938).

Between 1941 and 1943 Orwell worked on propaganda for the BBC. In 1943, he became literary editor of the Tribune, a weekly left-wing magazine. By now he was a prolific journalist, writing articles, reviews and books.

In 1945 "Animal Farm" was published. This political fable set in a farmyard but based on Stalin's betrayal of the Russian Revolution made Orwell's name and ensured he was financially comfortable for the first time in his life.

"Nineteen Eighty-Four" was published four years later. Telling of an imaginary totalitarian future, the book made a deep impression, with its title and many phrases – such as "Big Brother is watching you", "newspeak" and "doublethink"' – entering popular use. By now Orwell's health was deteriorating and he died of tuberculosis on January 21, 1950.

Richard Bradford is an English professor at Ulster University, and his previous subjects include writers Philip Larkin, Ernest Hemingway and Kingsley and Martin Amis.


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