The Orwell Diaries: Insights into a Human Legend

Thanks to Twitter and the Think Politics blog, I have been alerted to the existence of one of the most extraordinary blogs on the web and a significant anniversary: George Orwell, one of the most influential and visionary writers of the 20th century, died 60 years ago today.  He was just 46. 

Immediately after leaving Eton, Orwell passed the entrance exam for the Indian Imperial Police and worked for 5 years in Burma, a rather unhappy period in his life which also permanently damaged his health.  He returned to the UK for medical reasons in 1927 and retired from the Burma Police.

The next five years were spent in and around the family home in Southwold, Suffolk, with occasional spells teaching in private schools and travel in Europe, including his time pretending to be a tramp in Paris which led to his first published work, Down and Out in Paris and London.  Ill health led to a further spell in Southwold and more time writing novels such as The Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Around this time he also met and married his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy.

Towards the end of the 1930s he published some of his more penetrating works such as The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, based on his experiences as an anti-Franco volunteer in Spain: He was shot in the neck in Catalonia and narrowly avoided execution by Soviet-sponsored hit-squads while in hospital in Barcelona.  His experiences in Spain were probably the most influential in shaping his political views, making him “believe in Socialism for the first time” while awakening a deep hatred of political totalitarianism. 

Ill health continued to plagued Orwell and he was rejected for military service.  He spent most of the war years tending his country smallholding, working with the BBC and writing several political pamphlets and Animal Farm which was published in 1945.  Sadly his wife also died around this time leaving him to raise his adopted son with the help of his sister.

With his life in disarray and failing health , Orwell moved to Scotland, living on the island of Jura.  Here he researched and wrote his seminal work, 1984, which was published in June 1949 and achieved almost international success.  Sadly this success was too late for Orwell: The stress of completing the work lead to a complete physical breakdown and his hospitalisation in London with advanced tuberculosis.  He died on 21st January 1950.

The Orwell Diaries publishes Orwell’s diaries from 9th August 1938 to 1942 in “real time”, one day at a time, 70 years after the event.  They start as Orwell travelled to Morocco from Spain and end in the dark days of the Second World war.  They cover all aspect of Orwell’s life, from the mundanties of  running a smallholding to commentary on the events unfolding in Europe. The extract from 1.9.39 reads:

Invasion of Poland began this morning. Warsaw bombed. General mobilization proclaimed in England, ditto in France plus martial law. [Radio]
Foreign & General
1. Hitler’s terms to Poland boil down to return of Danzig & plebiscite in the corridor, to be held 1 year hence & based on 1918 census. There is some hanky panky about time the terms were presented, & as they were to be answered by night of 30.8.39,[1] H.[2] claims that they are already refused. Daily Telegraph [a]
2. Naval reservists and rest of army and R.A.F. reservists called up. Evacuation of children etc. begins today, involving 3m. people & expected to take 3 days. [Radio; undated]
3. Russo-German pact ratified. Russian armed forces to be further increased. Voroshilov’s speech taken as meaning that Russo-German alliance is not contemplated. Daily Express [b]
4. Berlin report states Russian military mission is expected to arrive there shortly. Daily Telegraph [a]

One week later, the entry for 8.1.39 reads:

Hot. Blackberries not ripe yet. Have lifted the remained of the early potatoes, which are very poor, only about 5 potatoes to a root.

8 eggs.

The entry for today, 21st January 1940, ten years before his death reads:

Colder, more wind, & a good deal of light & rather damp snow. Tom Ridley says the best way of thawing out pipes is to run a blowlamp along them.

12 eggs (best for some months past).

Said to have been 21° frost yesterday.

Orwell Diaries is an extraordinary website and has been published by The Orwell Prize to coincide with the launch of the Orwell Prize for the blog which comes closest to George Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art”.


About Stephen Oliver

I am a management consultant/non-executive director and charity trustee based in Switzerland.
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