February 09, 2013

George Orwell gets a day!

By now he's gotten it, actually, but I've been away in California where among the many memorable experiences California always offers, I had not one but two that were distinctly Orwellian.

The first involved a menu where grilled veggies tacos were dubbed "no-blame", or maybe it was "no-crime", anyway an irksome example of groupthink, a term directly inspired by the newspeak vocabulary of Orwell's 1984; and the second was being threatened with a $285 jaywalking ticket by a policeman strangely reminiscent of Richard Burton as O'Brien in the film version of 1984, pockmarked complexion and all, who, just like O'Brien, came on bland and friendly at first, only to unexpectedly reveal a dark and dangerous side when I didn't seem to appreciate the seriousness of my position, suddenly spewing out a stream of incensed resentment towards all the people, including me, who had ever jaywalked across "his" street, as he called it -- one of the reasons I hadn't understood I was supposed to be taking it seriously.

So yes, George Orwell is as timely as ever, and now the Orwell Estate, The Orwell Prize and Penguin Books have launched an annual "Orwell Day" to recognise him as one of Britain's greatest writers ("of the 20th century" the Estate specified with what might be exaggerated modesty) and to "celebrate his writing in all its forms and explore the profound influence he has had on the media and discourse of the modern world".

The date chosen was January 21st, the anniversary of Orwell's death in 1950, aged just 47, from tuberculosis. I confess to wondering why, with the moving forces behind Orwell Day all being based in Britain, they didn't pick the date of his birth, June 25th, instead of that of his death, so that the celebrations could take place in summer, something British royalty finds so desirable as to institutionalise fictional summer birthdays for their monarchs. Not to mention that January 21 already has a celebration tied to it, namely, Squirrel Appreciation Day.

Of course, if it had been Toad Appreciation Day, that would have been apt for the author of "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad", one of my favourite Orwell essays, the one where he describes the toad emerging from the hole where he has been hibernating all winter like this:

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet-rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.

It had not, on the other hand, occurred to me to conjecture about whether crass marketing was behind the date or indeed the whole initiative, until I read this comment on The Guardian's piece on the inaugural Orwell Day:

 I can see the PR people at penguin rubbing their hands with glee. "Oh look Caroline, golly gosh, what a super wheeze. An Orwell day. Lovely." It is so obviously a crass marketing ploy. Why not a Shakespeare Day, a Chaucer day, Dickens day, Waugh day, Kipling day, Conrad day, Greene day, Larkin day, Austin day, Conan Doyle day, an agatha christie day etc.

I can't help considering a point made that wittily. And there is something to it: Orwell Day is different from say, Bloomsday, or Alice's Day, the first started by Joyce aficionados and the second by a Museum (the Story Museum in Oxford), in being "unilaterally" declared by enterprises who stand to make money by it.

So perhaps instead of lingering on the Orwell Prize website, where a big deal is made out of making one of George Orwell's essays, "Politics and the English Language", available for free when, as another Guardian reader pointed out, since Orwell's books are out of copyright in Australia, you can read all of Orwell's essays for free on Project Gutenberg Australia (I used it just now to get my Toad Appreciation quote), I could highlight the month-long "The Real George Orwell" programme being run by BBC Radio 4, with biographical dramas, serialisations of the novels, and someone reading Orwell's letters aloud with an old-style English accent which nearly had me jumping out of my chair and to attention when it came at me out of my computer. (Orwell's voice was never recorded. In fact, it was deemed unsuitable for broadcast in a 1943 memo included in the BBC Archives' George Orwell collection, where however it was acknowledged that his name "is of some value in quite important Indian circles".)

Penguin Books, on its part, has contributed a clever new cover for 1984:




which you can compare to other 1984 covers from around the world on goodread's 401 editions of 1984.

Guardian Books celebrated the first Orwell Day by starting an Orwell fest on Twitter, getting people to join an #orwellquotes hashtag with their favourite Orwell quotes. This didn't work for me, as my favourite Orwell quote is too long for Twitter, plus it's not a quote from Orwell but from Joan Didion about Orwell. Actually, about Homage to Catalonia, his book about the Spanish Civil War, during which he joined and fought with an anti-fascist militia because, as he explains at the start of the book, what he saw in Spain seemed a "state of affairs worth fighting for". It appears in her novel Democracy, a tour-de-force of writerly skill in which she is able to make an aging CIA agent a plausible love interest even for the young leftie I was when I read it, many years ago. I still have my copy, and although I had to hunt around a bit I eventually found the passage so I can share it at least on Books in the City and pay my own "Homage to George Orwell".

The CIA agent has given Inez, the heroine of the book and his lover on those rare occasions when their paths cross, the key to an apartment in Hong Kong where she can wait for him to get back from Saigon where he has gone to find her missing daughter. The apartment is pretty much empty, the closet containing only a macintosh and some galoshes. She asks the CIA agent who it belongs to. "Somebody in Vientiane" is all he has to say.

She presumed it was a woman because the galoshes and macintosh were small. She presumed the woman was an American because the only object in the medicine cabinet, a plastic botttle of aspirin tablets, was the house brand of a drugstore she knew to be in New York. She presumed that the American woman was a reporter because there was a standard Smith-Corona typewriter and a copy of Modern English Usage on the kitchen table, and a paperback copy of Homage to Catalonia in the drawer of the bed table. In Inez's experience all reporters had paperback copies of Homage to Catalonia, and kept them in the same place where they kept the matches and the candle and the notebook, for when the hotel was bombed.

Homage paid, I leave you with a trailer for the film version of 1984, made in 1984 with Richard Burton as O'Brien (his last role) and John Hurt, looking a lot like George Orwell, as Winston.









 
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