Later this year, a statue of George Orwell will stand outside BBC New Broadcasting House, cigarette in hand, looking quizzically at passersby. In the Oxfordshire studio of the sculptor Martin Jennings, the tall, thin figure of Orwell is gradually taking shape, his maquette instantly recognisable as the writer who did so much to shape our thinking on politics and political language. He is known as “the patron saint of political journalism”.
I wonder, as I peer down at Orwell’s lined, intelligent face, what he would make of us all in 2017. His struggles during the Spanish Civil War are well known, as are his writings on totalitarianism and the uses of populism and nationalism; his struggles with religion less so, though the last book that visitors to his hospital bed saw him reading before he died was Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The road to where Orwell’s statue will stand on the edge of New Broadcasting House has not been direct. Initially, the BBC rejected the idea, thanks to worries that honouring a writer most associated with the political left would open the floodgates to demands for statues of other writers, until the piazza at New Broadcasting House became so festooned with writers of every political stripe that health and safety would have to be called in to stop BBC staff tripping over them on their way to work.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. Eventually, the BBC relented, and so one of the greatest writers in the English language will soon be watching over the BBC’s smokers as they congregate in the cold. There, on the corner of Hallam Street in W1, we shall pay homage to our late colleague as we puff away; albeit more often on our e-cigarettes because real smoking – with all its deliciously deadly toxins – has become rather unfashionable these days.
Today, it is hard to picture Orwell at his desk devotedly smoking his black shag tobacco inside the BBC building where he worked during the war. Although I do remember a merciful editor allowing me to smoke in the studio while presenting the double edition of the World Service Newshour programme in 1995, on the practical grounds that it was better to have a smoking presenter inhaling happily next to the microphone (and able to introduce the second edition of the programme) than to have nobody at all in the studio while the presenter was outside having a fag. As this new year dawns, it is clear that we live in less tolerant times.
I was delighted when I was asked to report on Orwell’s statue for Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme, because it gave me the excuse to revisit not only Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but also Orwell’s essays on everything from working in bookshops to politics and the English language – and indeed books versus cigarettes – and to be struck anew by how much his work still speaks to us almost 70 years after his death.
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