What do you make of a biography of George Orwell where the index has almost as many entries for Brexit as it does for Animal Farm, and where Nigel Farage has more than Orwell’s second wife Sonia? Welcome to the weird world of Richard Bradford’s Orwell: A Man of Our Time, which tries to do two things at once and fails at both.
The conceit here is that the book will “bring [Orwell] into the present day” by showing us that his “talent as a foreseer is extraordinary.” But the examples that Bradford focuses on – including anti-Semitism, populism, nationalism and political lies – were always there, and Orwell’s gift was not in predicting that these endemic parts of human nature would endure but in his creative warning of the consequences.
In a relatively short book like this, it just isn’t possible to adequately cover Orwell’s life and his work, let alone the misconceived second string to the book about his foresight of modern day politics. (“So, seventy years on, how have we done?”)
There is value in some biographical elements for those coming fresh to Orwell’s life. We get useful information on childhood: his strained relationship with his father, his friendship with Cyril Connolly, his time at the notorious St Cyprian’s School (the subject of Orwell’s essay, Such, Such Were the Joys). There’s interesting detail about Orwell’s time in Myanmar, the publication of his major works and his decline into ill-health.
But Bradford’s insistence on an angle quickly rears its head. So in the middle of the school stuff we get a three-page rant about Boris Johnson, citing first his similarities with Orwell then his differences, all capped by a broadside against – wait for it – celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (“River Cottage is his oligarchy… his prole-like neighbours appear suitably grateful”) that is so inapt it made me laugh aloud.
This crowbarring of contemporary references continues throughout. Orwell’s landmark books on work and poverty, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, are inevitably linked to the TV series Benefits Street. Elsewhere we get pages on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, screeds on Brexit, and references so timely that the book at times reads as though devised by an SEO algorithm.
All this is in the service of saying “Plus ça change…” – but what does any of it have to do with Orwell and his work specifically? Not a lot. Sometimes Bradford ties himself in knots trying to make connections. He writes “I would not venture that Orwell anticipated Me Too…” but on the next page “ventures” that a scene from Orwell’s debut novel A Clergyman’s Daughter “bears a striking resemblance to a majority of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein”.
There’s a lot of this sort of sloppiness. One story, about Orwell being asked to provide to a foreign office department a list of people who might be sympathetic to Stalin, is told once near the start and again in the epilogue. On consecutive pages we are told twice about Donald Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway coining the phrase “alternative facts”.
And overall, the book is disorganised: structured chronologically but with little indication of a vision for how the story will be told – which may explain the repetitions and sense of facts scattered for the reader to pick through.
Even in the chapter on Animal Farm, which is one of the more interesting parts of the book, the style too often reads like first-draft journalism, with a reference to something that happened “in May” (meaning May 2019) and personal references to the British leader of the Opposition, without specifying Jeremy Corbyn. By the time the paperback comes out, it will need footnotes.
Perhaps worst, though, is Bradford’s desire to press his own views on the reader. He has a pedestrian, literalist reading of books, always looking for direct correspondences between the life and the work.
He inserts himself into the narrative with odd statements that sound more like Amazon reviews (“I found it rather moving”) or YouTube comments (“Orwell did not hate homosexuals per se, even the moderately paedophilic types with a particular taste for younger men and teenagers.” The moderately what?). At one point Bradford embarks on what can only, even by those who agree in principle, be described as an hysterical rant about Islamic State (“brainless, murderous ideologues … cretinous ... incapable of thinking…”).
Or how about this? In the final chapter, on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bradford rails against David Bowie, who wanted to make a musical based on the book, a proposal “which Orwell’s second wife treated with awestruck contempt, with some wisdom. [...]One wonders what a drug-addicted, hedonistic rock star who had given little attention to recent history and literature would have done with the book. Mutilated comes to mind.”
Could this be the musician David Bowie who was well known for his literary and cultural interests, whose album Diamond Dogs took Nineteen Eighty-Four as the inspiration for several of its songs? Whose widely publicised list of 100 must-read books included Homer, Flaubert, Camus, Bulgakov … and two books by George Orwell? This makes up just one paragraph of Bradford’s book, but if he’s so wrong about this, how can we trust the rest of it?
George Orwell is big business: last year was the 70th anniversary of the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four; this month marks 70 years since Orwell’s death. Penguin Books, which owns the rights to his work in the UK and Ireland, currently has six editions each of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm in print, making hay ahead of next year when his work drops out of copyright.
In other words, there is a guaranteed market for books about Orwell, and that can be the only reason for publishing this scrappy work. But Orwell: A Man of Our Time does ultimately provide us with one valuable service. It enables us to ask “What do we want from a biography?” And the answer is: not this.