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From Eton to Barcelona

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A new film charts George Orwell's journey from a privileged background to socialism
Issue 1855

THIS YEAR is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the writer and socialist George Orwell. BBC2 is showing documentary – drama George Orwell: A Life in Pictures this Saturday, which charts both his artistic and political development. The most intriguing question about Orwell is how an Eton schoolboy went on to become perhaps the greatest critic of class privilege and tyranny writing in the English language.

Orwell was the product of successive elite institutions of the British Empire at a time when it still directly controlled vast swathes of the world. From a ‘lower upper middle class family’, as he very precisely described it, Orwell went to public school and suffered the usual brutalities. Eton’s role, then as now, was to prepare the sons of the ruling class for taking up the reins of power. Orwell left Eton and joined the imperial police force in British-run Burma, and became, in his words, ‘part of the machinery of despotism’.

This experience left him revolted. He left the Burmese police and was to become increasingly radicalised in the 1930s as economic depression swept the advanced capitalist countries, throwing millions onto the dole. He began to identify with the poor and dispossessed. He worked as a waiter in Paris and lived among the homeless in London. He wrote about these experiences in Down and Out in Paris and London.

He then embarked on a journey through the industrial north ravaged by mass unemployment. For all his sympathy with the poor and the working class, this is still a picture of workers as victims.

It was Orwell’s decision to go to Spain to help in the fight against Franco and fascism that was to be a decisive turning point in his life. Something more than Orwell expected greeted him there. The workers of Barcelona, where Orwell had headed, had not been content just to fight Franco but had taken power themselves.

As Orwell puts it in his brilliant record of these events Homage to Catalonia, ‘workers were in the saddle’. The working class were not mere victims, but actively transforming society. This revolution was crushed. The Communist Party played a crucial role. Orwell witnessed this first hand as he had returned from the front in May 1937 when the revolution was suppressed.

Fascism triumphed in Spain and Orwell was determined to halt its further advance. The film shows how he grappled with finding a socialist response to the imminence of war.

He was convinced that the threat from Hitler would produce the same response among British workers that Franco’s threat had evoked in Spain. He even thought that the home guard created by the government (of Dad’s Army fame) would radicalise into Spanish-style workers’ militias! Yet with the failure of any revolution to materialise, Orwell became increasingly disorientated and pessimistic.

He even joined the BBC’s war propaganda unit for two years. Unable to stomach this any longer, Orwell left and wrote the novels for which he is best known, his parable of revolution Animal Farm and the big brother world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The film is done as a series of mock newsreels with an actor playing Orwell. This is interspersed with interviews with people who knew Orwell and genuine contemporary news footage. This is slightly confusing. The film tends to take the common sense view that all revolutions end in tyranny.

Despite this it is still well worth a watch. Above all it should act as a good reason to read Orwell himself, especially Homage to Catalonia.
Mark Thomas

  • George Orwell: A Life In Pictures is broadcast on BBC2 this Saturday at 9.05pm. All of the books mentioned above are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


    Prison is not a ‘holiday camp’

    From the Inside
    Ruth Wyner
    Aurum Press, £16.99

    RUTH WYNER and her colleague John Brock were sentenced to five and four years in prison in 1999. Their crime was to respect the confidentiality of the homeless people who used their hostel.

    The police charged them with wilfully allowing drugs to be used and sold on their premises. Their conviction had huge consequences for all of those workers who, against all obstacles, attempt to support the most vulnerable in society. This is an account of Ruth’s experience of prison life and her battle to retain her sanity.

    She points out that most of the women in prison are victims themselves. Many are addicted to alcohol or drugs as a way of dealing with a life of poverty and isolation. Prison is rife with drugs. Ruth points out that in 1999 out of 84,911 mandatory drug tests in prisons 17,789 were positive. Some of the most interesting parts of this book are the points Ruth makes about young offenders, women prisoners, homelessness and the legal system. She points out that Britain’s prison population is the highest per capita in Europe and it is expected to increase further.

    If you were ever in any doubt about the reality of prison this harrowing, emotional and painful account will shatter any illusion. Prison is not a ‘holiday camp’. It is one of the most degrading, dehumanising, and soul-destroying environments.
    Beccy Palmer

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