A is for Animal Farm
First published on August 17 1945 by Secker & Warburg, Orwell's allegory about Stalinism in which a revolutionary uprising by the animals of Manor Farm brings about a self-inflicted totalitarian system made him famous and has since become a modern classic. It was written in 1943 and 1944 after his experiences fighting for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. He later explained that his first-hand experience escaping the Communist purges in Spain and their misrepresentation by the Left back home taught him ''how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries''. The book was ready for publication in April 1944, but Victor Gollancz, who had published his first five books, refused to publish it because it attacked the Soviet Union, then an ally. Jonathan Cape agreed to take it but withdrew support a decision believed to have been influenced by Peter Smollett, who worked at the Ministry of Information and was later revealed as a Soviet agent. This year, further information has come to light about how T S Eliot rejected the piece on the grounds of its unconvincing Trotskyite politics. As director of Faber and Faber, his 1944 letter made public by his widow Valerie praised the book's ''good writing'' and ''fundamental integrity", but said: ''We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the current time.''
B is for Burma
Orwell spent five formative years in his twenties in Burma, joining the Indian Imperial Police in 1922. He acquired considerable responsibilities; when posted to Twante as a subdivisional officer, he was responsible for the security of 200,000 people. His experiences would form the basis of his debut novel, Burmese Days (1934), and two key essays, A Hanging (1931), and Shooting an Elephant (1936). The latter, written from a policeman's perspective, describes conflicted attitudes disgust at the Empire and at the native population that many have ascribed to Orwell: ''With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.''
C is for 'Coming Up for Air'
Coming Up for Air (1939) is regarded as Orwell's most autobiographical novel. Although its protagonist, the harried and unhappy insurance inspector George Bowling, was a constructed archetype of the worried middle-classes, the rural England that Bowling reminisces about, and attempts to flee to, resembles the Oxfordshire of Orwell's own childhood. In 1905, his mother and two sisters settled in Henley-on-Thames (his father worked in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service). The family moved to nearby Shiplake before the First World War. Orwell's biographer Bernard Crick described Lower Binfield, Bowling's hometown, as ''very recognisably Henley''.
D is for 'Down and Out'
Down and Out in Paris and London was Orwell's first full-length work, published in 1933 and drawing on his previous five years' experience of low-living on the breadline. Orwell proved a class-A tramp, showing indefatigable curiosity and courage about the grinding life of Europe's homeless and penniless. He was an undercover investigative journalist avant le lettre, dressing like a tramp, dropping his accent as best he could although it was remarked upon that his middle-class origins were swiftly detected.
E is for Eton
Orwell was a King's Scholar at Eton (191721), where for a while he was taught French by Aldous Huxley. The general attitude he took towards his education in later life was dismissive and in the case of his preparatory school, St Cyprian's, despairing. In his essay Such, Such Were the Joys he declared: "Reunions, old boys' dinners and such-like leave me something more than cold, even when my memories are friendly. I have never even been down to Eton, where I was relatively happy As for St Cyprian's, for years I loathed its very name so deeply that I could not view it with enough detachment to see the significance of the things that happened to me there.''
F is for Fishing
Fishing features as the fondly remembered, yearned-for childhood pastime that the adult George Bowling can no longer find time to indulge in. Bernard Crick's biography tells us that, ''All his life he [Orwell] retained the boyish pleasure and skill of coarse fishing."
G is for Gags
Orwell is not all apocalyptic foreboding he had a constant eye for the aphoristic flourish. "Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times. The beauty of the building society swindles is that your victims think you're doing them a kindness. You wallop them, and they lick your hand" (Coming Up for Air). "The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed up in a new suit" (Down and Out in Paris and London).
H is for Homage to Catalonia
Orwell's landmark account of his experiences (1936-37) fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, containing an uncensored view of what he saw of Communist actions. The experience transformed his writing career: "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism as I understand it,'' he wrote. Orwell was wounded in action (shot in the throat), which forced him to abandon the fight, then the country and left his voice permanently damaged.
I is for India
Eric Arthur Blair was born June 25 1903 in Motihari, Bihar, India. He was brought to England as a one year-old.
J is for Jura
An island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, where Orwell, battling with tuberculosis, wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 1946, in mourning for his wife Eileen, Orwell took up an invitation from David Astor, the editor of The Observer, to spend a few weeks on the island. He then moved there permanently, renting Barnhill, a farmhouse at the north end of the island. There was no electricity, or phone and mail came only twice a week. His companions were his adopted two-year-old son, Richard, and his sister Avril.
K is for 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying'
Gordon Comstock, the protagonist of Orwell's sourly funny novel, is a bookshop assistant, boiling with frustrated literary aspiration. The joyously misanthropic detail of his observations drew on Orwell's own experiences. In October 1934, his aunt Nellie Limouzin found him a job as a part-time assistant in Booklover's Corner, a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead. In the novel, Comstock gets overcome by nausea at the sight of the tomes around him: ''Dull-eyed, he gazed at the wall of books. He hated the whole lot of them, old and new, highbrow and lowbrow, snooty and chirpy. The mere sight of them brought home to him his own sterility. For here was he, supposedly a 'writer', and he couldn't even 'write'!''
L is for Laurel
Orwell was once dubbed ''Laurel'', after Stan Laurel, by a member of a family he worked for. He was sometimes regarded as a figure of fun by his friends "He was awfully likely to knock things off tables, trip over things," said one (George Gorer); Stephen Spender described him as having real entertainment value ''like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie". D J Taylor, his biographer, notes: ''Practically everyone was agreed on the faint air of 'unreality' that Orwell carried around with him, his bouts of abstraction, stark wonder at some of the most elementary social usages, disinclination to take sides."
M is for Marriage
Orwell married Eileen O'Shaughnessy on June 9 1936. He was devastated when she died under anaesthetic, undergoing a hysterectomy operation in March 1945. On October 13 1949, he married Sonia Brownell in a room at University College hospital with David Astor as best man. Orwell was in terminal decline and died on the morning of January 21 1950, when an artery burst in his lungs. He was 46.
N is for 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'
It is impossible to overstate the enduring significance of Nineteen Eighty-Four (published June 1949), which has become a key text around the world in holding a mirror up to the actual and potential abuses of state power. That Orwell looked at the incoming technology of television and foresaw a time when the box in the corner of the living room might be capable of monitoring people not just being watched is just one example of his prescience. The novel is packed with bleakly satirical inventions, and components of the fictional world he constructed have entered into the lexicon as real-world signifiers. ''Doublethink'', the capacity to hold true to a thought that is patently false, in subservience to a prevailing orthodoxy, has become common currency, as has "thought police" and ''thoughtcrime". Variations on the phrase ''Big Brother is Watching You'', have become synonymous with today's surveillance society not to mention reality TV shows.
Some of the themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four echo Orwell's earlier work. In his essay, Looking Back on the Spanish War (1942), he wrote: ''Nazi theory specifically denies that such a thing as 'the truth' exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as 'science'. There is only 'German science', 'Jewish science' etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, 'It never happened' well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.''
O is for Orwellian
A testament to the scale of Orwell's achievement as with Kafka and Dickens, his name acquired an adjectival application connoting a totalitarian-minded system, along with equivalent tendencies of thought and action.
P is for Pseudonym
Eric Blair pondered a number of pseudonyms before settling on George Orwell in 1932. Also considered were P S Burton a name he adopted when tramping Kenneth Miles and H Lewis Allways. He adopted the nom de plume George Orwell because, he explained, ''It is a good round English name.''
Q is for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother
Bernard Crick's biography mentions that Orwell put it about that when Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, sent the Royal Messenger to Secker & Warburg for a copy of Animal Farm in November 1945 they were completely sold out, so he had to go in a top hat and carriage to the anarchist Freedom Bookshop. The truth was a little more prosaic the book was fetched by a man in a bowler hat and a taxi.
R is for Rats
In his excellent biography of Orwell, D J Taylor talks about Orwell's abiding fascination with rats "the rodent tide flows endlessly through his work: an unappeasable furry brood piped in and out of the darkest reaches of his consciousness''. Rats are the worst thing in the world waiting for Winston Smith in Room 101. They were there in Burma, in Spain, on Jura and in London. When fighting in Spain, he once made the mistake of pulling out his revolver to shoot a rat that had invaded his trench the reverberations of the shot sent both sides into action, causing the destruction of a cookhouse and ''two of the buses used to ferry reserve troops up to the front''.
S is for Sutton Courtenay
Orwell is buried in All Saints' Churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, at the instigation of David Astor, who lived there. Orwell had no connection with the village.
T is for Tea
Orwell's love of strong tea was legendary. He had Fortnum & Mason's tea brought to him in Catalonia and in 1946 published an essay, A Nice Cup of Tea, on how to make it. His friend, the writer Paul Potts, said: ''He thought in terms of vintage tea and had the same attitude to bubble and squeak as a Frenchman has to Camembert.''
U is for Urgency
Orwell died young but his output was prolific an estimated two million words. And yet he was consumed by a sense of having done too little. He wrote in his notebook that all his writing life "there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, and that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out four of five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time.''
V is for Victory Square
London, chief city of Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the London that Orwell lived in albeit with place-names refashioned to suit his conjectured idea of a subjugated people, living in the wake of an atomic war. Victory Square is Trafalgar Square on top of Nelson's Column, Orwell conceived a statue of Big Brother.
W is for Wigan
The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), documents his investigation into working life in industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire. As he explained in a 1943 BBC interview, Wigan Pier doesn't exist: ''At one time on one of the little muddy canals that run round the town, there used to be a tumbledown wooden jetty; and by way of a joke someone nicknamed this Wigan Pier. The joke caught on locally, and then the music-hall comedians get hold of it, and they are the ones who have succeeded in keeping Wigan Pier alive as a byword, long after the place itself had been demolished.''
X is for Chapter X
The 10th chapter of Animal Farm contains the notorious rewritten commandment: "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others", and some of the most famous concluding lines in British fiction: ''Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.''
Y is for YouTube
There is no extant recording either audio or video of Orwell. Despite working as a presenter on BBC radio in the Forties, all traces of him have been lost, like some unwanted piece of archival material liquidated in the Ministry of Truth. He lives on, in some shape, on YouTube, where clips have been uploaded from the 2003 television biography A Life in Pictures, which starred Chris Langham as Orwell. There are copious clips from the various film versions of Nineteen Eighty-Four online, too, and even a digitally animated sequence in which Orwell himself appears to ''discuss'' his masterpiece.
Z is for Zog
In Coming Up For Air, which begins early in 1938, the trigger for George
Bowling's crucial moment of Proustian reverie on the Strand is the sight of a headline
referring to ''King's Zog's Wedding Postponed''. King Zog of Albania said to
have survived more than 55 assassination attempts, and a man addicted to perfumed
cigarettes eventually married in April 1938. Zog reminds Bowling of ''Og, the king
of Bashan'' from the Old Testament, a name recalled
from his churchgoing days as
'Orwell: a Celebration' comprising 'Coming Up for Air', the essays 'Shooting an Elephant' and 'A Hanging', plus an extract from '1984' is at the Trafalgar Studios, London, June 8July 4. Tickets: 0870 060 6632; www.orwellcelebration.org
26 May 2009