The entrance to BBC Broadcasting House has this week been the centre of controversy — possibly for the first time since Eric Gill’s statue of Ariel prompted questions in the Lords over the size of its genitals. This time the focus of attention is the proposed statue outside the building of George Orwell. Baroness Bakewell says she was informed by the outgoing director general, Mark Thompson, that Orwell was “too Left-wing a figure for the BBC to honour”. Although considered a propagandist during his wartime stint as a journalist for the BBC’s Eastern service, you can’t imagine Orwell comfortably fitting the label of “Left-wing”. As the late Christopher Hitchens argues so well in Orwell’s Victory, the writer was appropriated by both Left and Right. Just as he was unwilling to align himself with institutions, he avoided the limitations of the Left-wing stereotype. His patriotism and his prejudices were simply too apparent.
In fact, Orwell’s finest moments came when he was exposing the ignorance, hypocrisy and double standards of those who considered themselves socialists. His approach to this subject, and the manner in which he wrote about it, resonates as much with the present as the past.
“If you are going to harp on about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, it is an elementary precaution to start by explaining who the proletariat are,” he wrote in The Road To Wigan Pier. Although he was accused by Richard Hoggart of seeing the working classes through “the cosy fug of an Edwardian music hall”, Orwell despised the manner in which the Left saw England as split between the mythologised masses and the wicked capitalist in his top hat and fur coat. It was assumed that there was no one in between, when in truth “in a country like England about a quarter of the population is in between.”
England remains a country of in-betweeners. Were he here today, Orwell would be writing for them, about them and the popular culture that appeals to them (he was one of the first to write seriously and respectfully on this subject). His voice would be raised against the creeping totalitarianism of a liberal orthodoxy about which there is as much to rail at as in the conservative age in which he lived.
We should at least honour him with a statue. The BBC is the obvious backdrop, notably because the move might go some way to making up for it erasing all the recordings he made, leaving us without his voice.
It’s been suggested that a further reason for the rejection of an Orwell statue is simple BBC bureaucracy; something said to have played a part in his resigning from his post in the building that inspired 1984’s Room 101.
The Orwell Memorial Trust has raised an initial £60,000, with further donations no doubt likely — so there is no pressure on the public purse. Westminster City Council is considering Portland Place, within the eyeline of that modest and moderately hung Ariel. Failing that, there are plenty of options in a city that was no stranger to Orwell’s footsteps, from the Bermondsey hostel where he once lodged to the site of the Waterloo bookshop where he worked, the municipal libraries in which he wrote and beyond.
words: michael collins