In January 1950, his health broken by the effort of completing Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell was planning to go to a sanatorium in Switzerland. He never made it. On the night of 21 January 1950, his tubercular lung haemorrhaged and he died alone in a London hospital bed.
Despite the Swiss pipe-dream, all the evidence suggests that Orwell knew he was dying. Shortly before his death he’d made a new will which included detailed instructions for his funeral. It also included the request that no biography should be written. Fortunately for us, Bernard Crick (with the agreement of Orwell’s widow Sonia) eventually defied this request and in 1980 Penguin published his George Orwell: A Life. The taboo having been broken, several other Orwell biographies have followed but Crick’s remains far and away the best; it’s presently out of print, which is a scandal. On the 60th anniversary of Orwell’s death I can think of no better tribute than to quote from the closing passages of Crick’s book – which include a section from Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write‘:
“Let a paragraph from the same essay that Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus printed at the very beginning of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters serve as his own epitaph at the end of his first full and unwanted biography:
“‘What I have most wanted to do throughout the last ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the suface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.’
“‘…Our prerogatives as men’ wrote Louis MacNeice, ‘Will be cancelled who knows when…?’, if we cannot radically alter our relationship with public power; but neither a transformed nor a reformed public realm will be worth having if individual creative values do not flourish, indeed fructify in abundance for the majority of people, not just the chosen or even the self-chosen few. In striving to keep a deliberate balance between public and private values, between creative work and necessary labour, between politics and culture, Orwell’s life and his writings should both guide and cheer us. He hated the power-hungry, execised intelligence and independence, and taught us again to use our language with beauty and clarity, sought for and practiced fraternity and faith in the decency, tolerance and humanity of the common man. And what is even more heartening, he was all that and yet as odd in himself and as varied in his friends as a man can be.”