In February 1937, an idealistic and ungainly Englishman in his thirties traveled to Spain to take his place in the trenches at the Aragón front to defend the Republic. His name was Eric Arthur Blair, remembered by history as George Orwell. This month, 80 years after the start of that adventure, Richard Blair, the writer’s only son, now a 72-year-old retired agricultural engineer, visited Huesca to take part in the opening of a major exhibition about his father.
Talking to EL PAÍS during his brief stopover in Madrid on his way back to London, Blair evoked the figure of Orwell and commented on the relevance of his legacy and the enormous interest in his final novel, 1984, which has become an international best-seller since Donald Trump became US president.
Some details from ‘1984’ that once seemed like science fiction are now part of our everyday life
“It’s true that in recent weeks, with the references in the United States to ‘alternative facts’ [cited by Kellyanne Conway, one of the president’s top advisors], there has been increased interest in his book. But my father has never gone out of fashion.” The book was not so much a prophecy as a fable about Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism, says Blair, although as he points out, some details from the novel that once seemed like science fiction have been part of our everyday life for some time, such as security cameras that watch our movements, or what some companies know about us from our internet activity, or how we use our credit cards. “Society has evolved toward what he saw. The world is becoming Orwellian,” he says.
Blair is patron of the Orwell society, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to spreading knowledge about the life and work of the writer, as well as debate about ideas, and that remains scrupulously neutral about politics. Which might explain why he is so careful in choosing his words when talking about Trump.
“I think that there is a lot of tension and compression in the White House right now. It is true that Trump is attacking the press, but he is a complete enigma, they are all maneuvering and learning to live with each other,” he says.
Nevertheless, he says he cannot help but be happy at the hike in sales of his father’s books, particularly as he inherited the publishing rights (“which expire in 2020,” he points out). But he recognizes concerns that this has been due to the public finding parallels between the current situation and the dystopia Orwell described.
Blair is particularly concerned about the lack of dialogue in contemporary society
Orwell and his wife Eileen adopted Richard in 1944. Ten months later, Eileen died on the operating table. Some of the friends of the tuberculous-stricken writer suggested that he give up custody of the child but he ruled out the possibility. The relationship between Orwell and his adopted son became closer when the two of them moved to the Scottish island of Jura, chosen because it was a healthier location for Orwell to overcome his illness and where it was so cold that “if you move six feet away from the fireplace, you freeze.”
Blair’s memories from those days are of a loving father who made wooden toys, who had a strange sense of humor, and whose parenting style had none of the political correctness of modern upbringings. On one occasion he allowed the three-year-old Richard to smoke from a pipe filled with tobacco collected from his cigarette butts. The result, aside from a vomiting fit, was that the child saw himself temporarily vaccinated against the vice of smoking.
It was on Jura that Orwell finished 1984, writing in his room during the day and spending the evenings with the child. One of their favorite activities was fishing, especially for the lobsters that filled out a diet otherwise made frugal by post-war rationing. One weekend in August 1947, however, on a journey back from a weekend of relaxation on the west side of Jura, their boat sank and they almost drowned. Blair says Orwell’s health suffered as a result. David Astor, owner of The Observer newspaper, which published the writer’s work, asked to be allowed import the newly discovered antibiotic streptomycin from the United States, with which he was treated between December 1947 and July 1948 in a hospital near Glasgow. But his efforts were in vain: Orwell developed an allergy to the medication. “His nails fell out and blisters appeared on his lips,” Richard recalls. The writer died in January 1950 at age of 46, when his son was about to celebrate his sixth birthday.
What is the most important lesson that Orwell taught us? For journalists, says Blair, there are many. “To be honest. The most important things are facts which can be corroborated, not reality as you want it to be. Journalists today do not have time to check facts, and errors are perpetuated and multiplied on the internet until they become true.” The writer’s son also recalls Orwell’s six rules for clear writing from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print; Never use a long word where a short one will do; If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; Never use the passive where you can use the active; Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”
Blair finished up with his father’s definition of liberty: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Blair is particularly concerned about the lack of dialogue in contemporary society. “All people do is shout at one another, without actually listening.” And he is surprised to see young people who, instead of speaking face to face, spend all day staring into their smartphones. “Even couples in restaurants! Are they communicating with each other via text messages?!” he jokes. And what would Orwell make of the 21st century, the era of the internet, great scientific advances and post-truth?
“Ah, now that’s the million-dollar question. But it’s impossible to get into anyone’s head. Nor to come up with the answer by reading his books. If he were still alive he would be 113, and would have had a lot of new influences… There’s no point in speculating.” As such, we don’t know, and we can’t know. But he does go as far as to assume one thing: whatever his thoughts, they would be characterized by common sense.
Richard Blair was visiting Spain to take part in the inauguration of an exhibition entitled Orwell has a coffee in Huesca, which details the participation of his father in the Spanish Civil War. The show, which has been organized by the regional government, the provincial authority and the city council, opened to the public on February 17, coinciding with the 80th anniversary of the writer’s arrival on the Aragón front. It will run until June 25.
The name of the exhibition is a nod to a phrase that Orwell included in Homage to Catalonia, his memoir about the conflict. The sentence was attributed to a general who led the Republican troops after the capture of a municipality called Siétamo: “Tomorrow we will have coffee in Huesca.” But the Aragonese city did not fall, although some loyal newspapers in the area went as far as to publish the story on their front pages.
Orwell never had that coffee, but his son Richard did, accompanied by the son of another protagonist of his Spanish adventure: Quentin Kopp, the organizer of Orwell Society events and the son of Commander Kopp, the superior of the author in the Trotskyist militias of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM, to give it its Spanish acronym).
Homage to Catalonia is an honest work, which was not well received among those with a black and white view of the war. Orwell came to fight against fascism, but like other Trotskyists and anarchists, he ended up being pursued by pro-Moscow communists. Spain still hasn’t explained its recent history properly, according to Blair, and this book, the best-seller on the topic of the conflict, helps to alleviate “that huge black hole that there is between 1936 and 1975.” He concludes: “There are still people who come to me with tears in their eyes and they say to me, thank you for what your father did.”§