Monday, 26 December 2011

Erecting a statue of George Orwell

Someone is suggesting that a a statue of George Orwell be erected just outside the new BBC building.

On the face of it, this seems a splendid idea.

Orwell and the BBC - civility and decency, the qualities that any thinking and sensible person would endorse - together in one place.

What could be wrong with that?

It is true that for a writer of such a considerable reputation there is little in any formal and tangible recognition of George Orwell - there is, for example, no plaque at Westminster Abbey.

Yes, there is a prize in his name and a fine scholarly collected edition; yes, his books are on the shelves of homes and schools; and, yes, phrases and ideas from "Room 101" and "Big Brother" to "Newspeak" and "more equal than others" float freely in our elite and popular culture.

But there is nothing to go and actually see.

One suspects Orwell himself would have loathed the idea of a statue.

For although Orwell was serious about promoting his writing and his ideas, and was assertive in protecting his interests about payment and publication, he rarely promoted himself in any direct manner.

He was a modest and gentle man, and the notion of any personal ostentation would have riled him, as it would have done for many of his time and social background.

It was not the done thing.

Even his grave shows this lack of fuss.

Stuck in an Oxfordshire village, which he himself did not visit - the funeral was arranged by a friend - the gravestone's epitaph is simple as could be.

No mention of his famous pseudonym and no mention of "writer" - and certainly no crude tribute or awkward versifying - it just has his birth name and dates.

If you want to go and see something about Orwell, go and see his grave.

A statue would undoubtedly have smacked to Orwell - and it really should smack to us - of a cult of personality - the wrongful detachment of the person from their substance.

Indeed, a more appropriate physical monument to Orwell would be based on one of his essays, where he sought to depict the significance of things - a cup of tea, say, or a common toad.

The last thing the legacy of Orwell requires is a statue.

The intellectual and cultural significance of Orwell should not be some fixed monument, promoted by do-gooders to the approval of those in power.

What would be far better would be for people not only to read Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm and the brilliant essays like Politics and the English Language - but to re-read and think about them so as to see if there is anything in there still of general application.

And if we are to have this statue of Orwell, why not have more?

"...the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shinning and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no color in anything except the statues that were erected everywhere. The black-mustachio'd face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one by the house front immediately opposite.

"GEORGE ORWELL IS WATCHING YOU, the inscription said..."


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David said...

That's all absolutely right. A statue would be the complete opposite of what Orwell was about.

Aneliya said...

Just settle for a plinth. Then there's nothing to nick and nothing to venerate.

Adam Wagner said...

Not sure how Orwell would feel about being venerated outside of a state-owned media giant either.

MrPickwick said...

Maybe slightly OT but... We already have a square dedicated to George Orwell in Barcelona, it's far from what he deserves but better than notning; here:

SadButMadLad said...

Orwell and the BBC? The person who invented the term "Newspeak" and the organisation using it every day.

Charon QC said...

Good piece... enjoyed reading it.

I suspect that Orwell would have been appalled by the Orwell Prize as well.... the good thing...? He can't win it and has the last laugh.

I understand that people who wish to win the Orwell Prize have to apply to enter it and register their names with 'the Authorities'. How deliciously ironic.


Ann Kittenplan said...

Orwell at the BBC??

I'm pro-Orwell, and I'm a pro-BBC fundamentalist.

I like pilchards, and I like custard, but I don't like pilchards and custard.

What better way to devalue, even degrade, Orwell than to celebrate him?

Actually there's an answer to that. CCTV. We love it. We can't get enough of it. It's for our benefit you see?

I was told 1984 was a nightmarish vision of a dystopian future, turns out it was (also) a textbook.

Oh and btw Feynman on Honours

JoannaMG22 said...

Well observed and so true. It would be ironic to have a statue of Orwell outside the BBC. Maybe there was gentle irony in the suggestion...

Terence Eden said...

How on Earth would it be ironic to put a statue of Orwell up outside the BBC?

George Orwell worked for the BBC!

Now, they certainly had their differences - Orwell resigned after two years - and the BBC has changed somewhat from his day. But is it really such an affront that a statue could be placed there?

Personally, I think his statue remains in his work.

Undine said...

Considering that the world leaders are increasingly treating "1984" as a "how-to" guide, I think Orwell would certainly appreciate the unwitting irony of the tribute.

Ben Murphy said...

there seemed to be no color in anything except the statues that were erected everywhere.

Surely, Orwell would have written 'colour', unless perhaps this is a deliberate comment on the dominance of Oceania over Airstrip One.

(Orwell himself missed a trick by using The Times rather than The London Times).

Incidentally, the square named after him in Barcelona has a particularly fitting tribute:

fromthechalkface said...

Some whataboutery/ fusspottery of the highest order, but if Thatcher gets a state funeral I will personally fashion Orwell's statue from my incandescent liberal anger, regardless of its unsuitability for his legacy.

Phil Brennan said...

One minor correction. George Orwell did not coin Room 101 - that was Anthony Burgess in "A Clockwork Orange".

Andy. said...

"A statue would undoubtedly have smacked to Orwell - and it really should smack to us - of a cult of personality - the wrongful detachment of the person from their substance."

Telling the reader how they should think and feel about a proposed statue of Orwell is pretty darn funny in itself.

Barry said...

I disagree. There are two issues here. First, is it reasonable to erect a statue or some other commemoration of Orwell? Second, should it be at the behest, or located outside, of the BBC?

On the latter I say definitively "NO". The reasons already mentioned are suffice.

On the former I say yes, just not outside the BBC. Focusing reasons against on presumptions of what Orwell himself would have wanted is to arrogantly put yourself in his mind. I know of very few individuals who would openly welcome this kind of veneration, but why should this be a factor influencing the decision? A visit to Stratford, of course, shows why we need caution, but Orwell's literary stature is huge. His significance to 20th century English literature is unquestioned. I also thinks it broadens our perspective away from just the standard veneration of political, religious and military leaders in a way that symbolises the importance of literature to the masses who have still not heard his name.


DrBlighty said...

To be honest, I think there are much larger issues than the trivial matter of whether Orwell should get a statue.

That said, he should be acknowledged. One fitting tribute might be to have a slogan erected above the entrance gate to the House of Commons. Now what might this slogan be? Hmmm. How about, "All animals are equal, some are more equal than others". Hmmm. I wonder whether those who pass through those gates would agree to it.

Barbara Nash said...

A Pub where people could meet and talk would be a better idea.
Barbara Nash

Andy J said...

Phil Brennan said...
One minor correction. George Orwell did not coin Room 101 - that was Anthony Burgess in "A Clockwork Orange".

A quote from Wikipedia:
"Room 101 is a place introduced in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It is a torture chamber in the Ministry of Love in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia.
You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world” — O'Brien"

Paysan said...

@ P Brennan
Orwell write 1984 in 1948 and Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in 1962. Sorry if this is a bit pedantic.

Neuroskeptic said...

I'd much rather we erected statues to the people who didn't want to be immortalized in statues, than the ones who did.

Renideo said...

His essay on political english in particular really does deserve to be given serious consideration. It contains many stark admonishments about precisely the way his own works are so often used and understood-- as mislaid shortcuts to meaning. Cliche and shibboleth.

I couldn't agree more that you honour the man by trying to understand his endeavour, to gain something valuable to put into practice in your own life by means of his efforts and passions.

It's a good deal better than worrying about where his statue is placed and what symbolism this does or doesn't convey.

Ian Preston said...

Why suggest reading his books as an alternative to erecting a statue as if they were not compatible? If seeing his statue makes people think of the connections between what Orwell said and what might be in their heads at the time then wouldn't it send them to his books? That's how statues and other memorials of figures around London affect me - as reminders of the city's past, as drawers-in to its intellectual heritage, never as objects of veneration. The more diverse those memorials are the better and that's the obvious reason why one statue of anyone is quite enough. But what is sinister about the imagined London of 1984 is just as much, I would say, the absence of statues of others as the number of statues of Big Brother. A city without public memorials seems to me a creepier place than one with. There is a reason why totalitarian regimes attempt to erase collective memory by demolishing their cities' monuments.

That said, Orwell is already commemorated, by the way, by a blue plaque in Kentish Town and if you want to drink in a pub you can go to the Fitzroy Tavern where he drank and sit there next to his picture.