Thursday June 08, 2017

Doublethink and Big Brother: George Orwell's son talks about 68 years of 1984

 Richard Blair, son of George Orwell, reading the beginning of the novel 1984.

Richard Blair, son of George Orwell, reading the beginning of the novel 1984. (Robin Boot )

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It was 68 years ago today that George Orwell's 1984 was released to the public.

The classic novel, about a dystopian future where critical thought is suppressed under a totalitarian regime, has been referenced throughout the decades to reflect on world events. This year, the book became a bestseller once again, soon after U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

Earlier this week, the University College London Festival of Culture held a live reading of Orwell's famous book. From morning to evening, a host of actors, journalists and members of the public took turns reciting a part of the book.

One of the readers was Richard Blair, the son of Eric Arthur Blair, who was better known by his pen name, George Orwell. 

The younger Blair spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the book's influence, and how his father would react if he saw how things are today. Here is part of their conversation:

Carol Off: You were just a boy when your father was writing 1984. Can you remember much of that?

Richard Blair: As a little boy, after we left London and went up to the remote Isle of Jura, on the west coast of Scotland, I remember certain things that happened during that time. And one of them was, generally speaking, he was busy in his bedroom writing 1984.

But, he would appear for lunch at midday, and then he would go back and continue writing in the afternoon. And then he would come down early evening and we would have supper together. If it was summertime, we would go out in our little rowing boat and go fishing and do all the things that fathers and sons like to do together.

CO: The book 1984, would be impossible for a boy to understand. But as an adult reading the book, what do you see as being related to your life, family and your father's world that might have inspired or influenced the book?

'Maybe what he wrote was a little bit closer to home than he realized.' - Richard Blair

RB: The world of 1984 bears no relationship to the life that I have led. Only very indirectly in the sense that over the decades, world affairs have clashed with it from time to time. Immediately, of course, people then sit back and say, "Oh look! Good heavens, this is very Orwellian, very 1984." This has happened many times over the decades where things have happened in world politics, which has become sort of Big Brother-ish.

Books-Amazon-Orwell

George Orwell, author of "1984." (The Associated Press)

CO: It has become a bestseller once again. I hear what you're saying that "Orwellian" and 1984 is something that we often hear referenced to. But why, particularly now, do you think it has become so important?

RB: I think this probably came about when Donald Trump became [president]. And, of course, we then had somebody conveniently falling into the trap of talking about the alternative truth. Which of course, is pure 1984. People saying things with a double-meaning, hoping that people don't understand what's being said. Governments are very good at being able to smooth talk their way through what might be termed as lies.

CO: You mentioned Winston Smith, the character that you were reading about. He was entering the Ministry of Truth where he works in 1984. His job is to rewrite news to support the party line. You mentioned the Trump administration. Do you see parallels to Winston Smith's world?

RB: I think there is a tendency for advisors to put as much spin as possible on bad news.

CO: What about fake news?

RB: There's always that, of course. Some people simply make it up as they go along. You hear somebody put out a statement and you think, "Where on Earth did that come from? It's patently rubbish." But of course, if you put it out and no one picks it up or argues, you can put it out again and again and eventually, of course, it becomes fact.

CO: How do you think your father, George Orwell, would feel about the way things are if he were alive today?

RB: He would probably be disappointed, and thinking that maybe what he wrote was a little bit closer to home than he realized.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our interview with Richard Blair​.