[News] Big Brother Kept an Eye on George Orwell for at Least 12 Years

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Tue Jul 19 08:51:41 EDT 2005

The Guardian - July 18, 2005

Big Brother Kept an Eye on George Orwell for at Least 12 Years

by Alan Travis, home affairs editor

George Orwell's novel 1984 provides a fictional warning of the dangers of
a totalitarian society in which the hero, Winston Smith, struggles with
the thought police. It now appears that his vision of blanket surveillance
in the service of Big Brother was more prescient than even he could have
known: a secret Metropolitan police file newly released at the National
Archives shows that Orwell was himself the subject of repeated special
branch reports for more than 12 years of his life.

The special branch (SCOTLAND YARD) file shows that it was Orwell's journey
north in 1936 to research the living and working conditions of the working
class for The Road to Wigan Pier that aroused the suspicions of the
security services. Wigan's chief constable, Thomas Pey, reported to
Scotland Yard that Orwell, the nom de plume of Eric Blair, was staying in
"an apartment house in a working-class district" arranged by the local
Communist party.

The file shows that as far as the intelligence services were concerned,
Orwell was the Eton-educated son of a senior figure in the Indian civil
service, who had left a job in the Burma police for some unknown reason,
drifted to Paris and London, and had written a few books on his
experiences. The Wigan police described him as "six foot, slim build with
a long pale face".

In 1942, when he was working in the Indian section of the BBC in London,
the special branch reported that he had been practically penniless when he
found work with the corporation, and "dressed in a bohemian fashion both
at his office and in his leisure hours".

Orwell's reputation as a hero of the British left took a knock 10 years
ago when it was revealed that in 1948 he had supplied a list of 86
"Stalinist fellow travellers" to a Foreign Office anti-communist
propaganda unit. But the special branch file shows that more than a decade
earlier the intelligence services had Orwell himself down as "a man of
advanced communist views".

According to his biographer, Professor Bernard Crick, Orwell saw himself
as a Tribunite socialist whose experiences in the Spanish civil war had
left him sharply disillusioned with Soviet communism.

His arrival in Wigan in February 1936 - a year before he went to Spain -
to research the book commissioned by Victor Gollancz, the Left Book Club
publisher, about the condition of the unemployed in the industrial north,
was to lead to a series of special branch reports linking Orwell to known
communists and leftwing organisations.

The Wigan police told Scotland Yard that on the day of his arrival in the
town - February 10 - he had attended a communist meeting addressed by Wal
Hannington, the leader of the unemployed workers' movement, and that the
local communist party had been instrumental in finding him accommodation.

"It would appear from his mode of living that he is an author, or has some
connection with literary work as he devotes most of his time in writing.
He has collected an amount of local data, eg number of churches, public
houses, population, etc, and is in receipt of an unusual amount of
correspondence. He had also been asking about local mines and factories."

They reported not only letters addressed to Eric Blair, South End Road,
Hampstead, but also in the name of "George Orwell". He had also been sent
letters from France, including a newspaper which was the "French
counterpart of the Daily Worker".

The police in Wigan wanted to know from Scotland Yard who this man was and
whether he was "associated with the Communist Party". Special branch sent
them an extensive background report on Orwell. It made much of the fact
that he had given no official reason for resigning his job as an assistant
superintendent of police in Burma "but he is reported to have told his
intimate friends that he could not bring himself to arrest persons for
committing acts which he did not think were wrong".

The special branch officers knew he had lived the life of a "down and out"
in Paris and London to collect material for the book of the same name, but
added that while in France he had eked out a precarious living as a
freelance journalist and had taken "an interest in the activities of the
French Communist Party and spent a good deal of time studying L'Humanit
[the Communist daily]. Information is not available to shew whether he was
an active supporter of the revolutionary movement in France, but it is
known that whilst there, he offered his services to the Worker's Life, the
forerunner of the Daily Worker, as Paris correspondent'.'

The file also reveals that special branch was also watching a close friend
of Orwell's, Francis Westrope. Orwell spent much time in his secondhand
bookshop in South End Green, Hampstead, which featured in his novel, Keep
the Aspidistra Flying. Westrope was "known to hold socialist views, and
considers himself an 'intellectual'." They believed he was forwarding
"correspondence of a revolutionary character" to his socialist friends.

In 1937 the police noted that Orwell had gone off to Spain as part of an
Independent Labour party contingent to fight with the Poum [the Spanish
anti-Stalinist Marxist militia]. MI5 took an interest in 1941 when the
author reviewed a book written by Richard Terrell, "a well-known

But it was his activities while he was in charge of broadcasts in English
to India while working at the BBC in 1942 - an experience that inspired
1984's Ministry of Truth and Room 101 - that most alarmed the authorities.

"Eric Blair has been telling some of his Indian friends that his
department was endeavouring to get Mulk Raj Anand [a famous Indian Marxist
novelist] on the staff, but that the India Office was strongly opposed to
the appointment. He assured his friends, however, that he was going to
challenge the right of the India Office to dictate as to which people
should be employed in his department. Blair considers that MR Anand is a
well-qualified candidate for the post."

The file says that not only did Blair have "advanced communist views" and
"dresses in a bohemian fashion" but officers were also concerned that he
had offered BBC jobs to two other Indian figures who featured in their
files: KS Shelvankar and Iqbal Gur Partab Singh. "The former turned it
down as he did not think he would pass the 'India Office security test',
and the latter declined the invitation as he felt it might react
unfavourably on his political career."

Orwell himself left the BBC in 1943 to become literary editor of Tribune
after his BBC bosses objected to him writing articles for the Observer
without first clearing them.

'Sooner or later they were bound to get you'

Archive documents showing the surveillance by special branch of George
Orwell have parallels with his novel 1984 in which he describes how his
hero Winston Smith defies Big Brother and the thought police

On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous
face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so
contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS
WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Whether he wrote DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, or whether he refrained from
writing it, made no difference. Whether he went on with the diary, or
whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police
would get him just the same. He had committed - would still have
committed, even if he had never put pen to paper - the essential crime
that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it.
Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed for ever. You might
dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they
were bound to get you.

The sweat started out on Winston's backbone. A horrible pang of terror
went through him. It was gone almost at once, but it left a sort of
nagging uneasiness behind. Why was she watching him? ... His earlier
thought returned to him: probably she was not actually a member of the
Thought Police, but then it was precisely the amateur spy who was the
greatest danger of all.

"I didn't want to say anything in the lane," she went on, "in case there's
a mike hidden there. I don't suppose there is, but there could be. There's
always the chance of one of those swine recognising your voice. We're all
right here ... Look at those trees." They were small ashes, which at some
time had been cut down and had sprouted up again into a forest of poles,
none of them thicker than one's wrist. "There's nothing big enough to hide
a mike in."

He thought of the telescreen with its never-sleeping ear. They could spy
on you night and day, but if you kept your head you could still outwit
them. With all their cleverness they had never mastered the secret of
finding out what another human being was thinking ... They could lay bare
in the utmost detail everything that you had done or said or thought; but
the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious to yourself, remained

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