By Kenneth Roy
When the thinking pensioner’s crumpet, Joan Bakewell, met the director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, at a party earlier this year, she mentioned the grand idea of erecting a statue of a former employee, George Orwell, in the piazza outside the new Broadcasting House in Oxford Circus, London.
She was able to inform the DG that a number of BBC folk, including Jimmy Naughtie and Andy Marr, had contributed towards the cost of the project, that it was being sponsored by the George Orwell Memorial Trust, and that Martin Jennings, the sculptor responsible for the splendid likeness of John Betjeman in St Pancras Station, had been commissioned.
The figure being quoted – £60,000 – is suspiciously low. Unless I’m missing something, I doubt that you would get very much of George Orwell for £60,000. But let us overlook that tedious detail and consider what Mark Thompson’s response might have been to the Bakewell entreaty.
Perhaps he would have appreciated the irony of giving pride of place in the piazza to a man who resigned from the BBC because of the mind-numbing futility of working there. ‘Much of the stuff that goes out from the BBC is just shot into the stratosphere, not listened to by anybody,’ he wrote. But that would not have been a good reason for turning down the statue. Most intelligent people who have ever been employed by the BBC are similarly struck by the mind-numbing futility of working there.
I have related before that Ian Mackenzie, one of the brighter people at Queen Margaret Drive, only managed to drag himself in each morning by pretending that he was working his notice; he went to the length of penning a letter of resignation and kept it on his desk for years. Whatever gets you through this vale of tears, I say.
Perhaps Mark Thompson would have appreciated a second irony – that the BBC was being asked to house a permanent memorial to a man who used the organisation as an inspiration for the terrifying bureaucracy which he called the Ministry of Truth. It is true that Orwell was constantly frustrated by the censorship of his work, but the identification with the fictional ministry can be taken too far. Orwell regarded the BBC as pretty innocuous, ‘in atmosphere something halfway between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum’.
As it happens, Mark Thompson didn’t reject the statue for either of these reasons. What he actually said to Joan Bakewell – according to her – was: ‘Oh, no, Joan, we can’t possibly. It’s far too left-wing an idea’.
Mark Thompson makes a good point here. I would, however, go further and suggest that George might have been gay. Admittedly there is not a lot of evidence to support this exciting theory. The fact that he described his first wife as ‘not a bad old stick’ proves nothing. Then he fell for Sonia, a literary groupie who cruelly refused to visit him on Jura when he was writing ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ and close to death. George had precious little luck with girls. But gay – maybe not. Nevertheless, there would be a controversial revisionist biography to be written arguing this case.
If George wasn’t gay, was he even left-wing? He claimed to be a supporter of the Labour Party at a time when that party espoused socialism in a way that it no longer does and hasn’t done for a long time. But ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, which he wrote on Jura when Sonia wasn’t around, because she couldn’t face the journey and didn’t fancy him anyway, ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ I’ve always taken as an attack on totalitarianism in general regardless of party political ideology, the targets of the satire being the Stalins of this world just as much as the Hitlers. And there, I’ve got to the end of that sentence and it isn’t even Christmas yet, though it soon will be, just as soon as the August bank holiday is out of the way, you bet.
He abhorred the exercise of power politics. He thought better of the common people than he did of politicians of either the left or the right. ‘If there was hope,’ he wrote in ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, ‘it lay in the proles. You had to cling on to that’. Was that not a bit drippy of George? But it still doesn’t prove that he was gay or left-wing or the sort of person who was likely to play golf on the August bank holiday or buy his Christmas cards in September.
But here’s a thought. Or, rather, two thoughts for the price of one. If George hadn’t been dying, and if Sonia, pretending to love him, had dragged her shapely bottom up to Jura, there is a possibility that ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ would have had a happy ending. There is even a possibility that he would have been so preoccupied with Sonia that he wouldn’t have finished the book at all.
These intriguing scenarios, with the gay sub-plot, and strong hints that George was a closet member of the Conservative Party, would guarantee the author of ‘Orwell: The Truth At Last’ a full house at next year’s Olympics of the Mind in Edinburgh. When the organisers of the Olympics of the Mind stuck up a notice saying ‘Ashdown sold out’, someone added the obvious comment: ‘True’. Imagine the greater impact of ‘Orwell sold out’. Mark Thompson would no longer have an excuse for turning down the statue: even he would he compelled to see George in a new light, as a deeply complex, politically and sexually ambiguous figure, beyond the sort of idiotic stereotyping that goes on at London parties.
But it’s too late. Without the deconstructionist masterpiece, ‘Orwell: The Truth At Last’, we must the face the fact that there will be no statue of George in the piazza and that other statues should be considered for the vacant plinth. I rather like the idea of ‘Sir Bruce Forsyth’ with the tasteful engraving ‘Nice to see you. To see you nice’ – or could that also be construed as a bit left-wing? If cost is a factor, and there is only £60,000 to play with, Ronnie Corbett enters the frame as a cutprice alternative. Yet I fear that, in these straitened times, we may end up with one of Andrew Marr’s ears.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review