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Episode
158

George Orwell

May 14, 2021
Literature
-
26
minutes
20th Century
English books
Spanish Civil War
British class system
Communism
Totalitarianism
Politics

For many, he is the greatest writer in the history of the English language.

Outside the UK, he is known as the author of two of the most important political fiction books in history: Animal Farm & 1984.

Learn about the amazing life of this fantastic man and the events that shaped his worldview.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about the amazing life, and work, of George Orwell. 

[00:00:29] You probably know him as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. 

[00:00:35] But, although these are the two books that he is most famous for, they only formed a very small part of his fantastically interesting life.

[00:00:44] So, in this episode you’ll learn about who he really was, what motivated him, how he thought about writing, and how he became one of the most important, if not the most important people to have ever picked up a pen and written in English.

[00:01:01] Before we get right into today’s episode, I want to remind you that you can become a member of Leonardo English and follow along with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:16] Membership of Leonardo English gives you access to all of our learning materials, all of our bonus episodes, so that’s more than 150 different episodes now, as well as two new ones every week, plus access to our awesome private community where we do live events, challenges, and much, much more.

[00:01:35] Our community now has members from over 50 countries, and it's my mission to make it the most interesting place for curious minds like you to improve their English.

[00:01:46] 
So, if that is of interest, - and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:55] Ok then, George Orwell.

[00:01:59] Now is the right time for you to be learning about this great man for three reasons.

[00:02:04] Firstly, he lived such an interesting, varied, curious life, that it’s always the right time to learn about George Orwell.

[00:02:13] Secondly, because he is probably best remembered for his criticisms of totalitarianism, and the past decade has seen a rise in exactly the sort of authoritarian regimes that Orwell warned us against.

[00:02:28] Thirdly, because he is an absolute master of the English language, and there is a huge amount that anyone, native and non-native English speaker, can learn from him.

[00:02:40] And I said there were three reasons, but actually there are four, a bonus one, if you are Spanish. 

[00:02:46] And that’s because Orwell spent some of his formative years fighting in the Spanish Civil War, so part of our story will take place in Spain.

[00:02:57] But first, let’s begin our story in London.

[00:03:01] If you stand outside the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation – better known as the BBC – in London, you will see the statue of a tall, messy, unheroic man who has clearly not spent much time or money worrying about his clothes. 

[00:03:19] Cigarette in hand, he is leaning forward as if to address you. 

[00:03:25] Behind him, engraved into the stone, written into the stone, is one of his most famous sayings: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.“ 

[00:03:40] Underneath his feet, carved into the stone below, is his name - George Orwell.

[00:03:46] George Orwell worked at the BBC for only two years, during the Second World War. 

[00:03:52] Strangely enough, he worked in the Propaganda department in Room 101. 

[00:03:57] He didn’t like it much and was quite glad to leave. 

[00:04:01] In fact, he was positively uncomplimentary about the BBC. 

[00:04:06] He commented later that perhaps his presence meant that he kept the propaganda “slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been” and that he felt he was “just an orange that was being trod on by a very dirty boot”, an orange that was being stepped on by a very dirty shoe. 

[00:04:25] These comments show two of Orwell‘s most important traits or characteristics: honesty and a genius with language.

[00:04:34] Instead of being full of compliments about the BBC, a national treasure, he was honest, and true.

[00:04:42] And in terms of the language, the image of an orange being stepped on by a very dirty boot is so vivid that you immediately imagine it and understand what Orwell means.

[00:04:56] In spite of his rudeness about the BBC, when it moved to new offices in 2016 and wanted to have a statue of someone who would represent the core values of the organisation – which are impartiality, honesty, integrity and public service – there was no real contest as to whose statue should stand for those values.

[00:05:22] The London-based newspaper, The Financial Times, spoke for many newspapers, both in the UK and elsewhere, when it said that Orwell is “the true patron saint of our profession”, the patron saint of journalism. 

[00:05:37] A further compliment given to Orwell is that he is one of the very few writers in the world whose name has provided an adjective that has its own meaning: “Orwellian“ is used to describe something particularly sinister and nasty, especially when it is destructive of the welfare of a free and open society. 

[00:06:00] As we will see later, this adjective and references to Orwell’s most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984, are used, both by people aiming to defend freedoms and also, cynically, by those with authoritarian tendencies who are seeking to limit others‘ freedoms.

[00:06:20] It's interesting that one of the other small group of writers whose name is used as an adjective is Franz Kafka; the word Kafkaesque is used to describe situations where bureaucracy and officialdom are so deliberately complex that they frustrate and anger the very people that they should be trying to help.

[00:06:43] In the same way that George Orwell’s name has developed a broader meaning, his two most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm, have established themselves in the imaginations and language of people around the world to such an extent that many people who have never read the books use the language and ideas of the books unknowingly, so completely have their ideas soaked into their culture. 

[00:07:11] Born in 1903, George Orwell had a privileged, but difficult, start to his life. 

[00:07:17] He was British, but born in India, which was still a British colony at the time.

[00:07:23] His family was upper middle class, they were at the top of society socially, but weren’t rich compared to others of a similar social class. 

[00:07:34] Orwell won a scholarship to an English boarding school

[00:07:38] And although he didn’t know that his parents were paying reduced fees, that they were paying less money for his education than the other parents, he felt out of place, he felt poor compared to his classmates.

[00:07:52] He was a gifted student, and won a scholarship to Britain‘s most famous private school, Eton, where he would have received one of the best educations in the country.

[00:08:03] He decided not to go to university but went out to India in order to work for the British Civil Service as part of the imperial police in Burma, in modern day Myanmar. 

[00:08:16] This experience, seeing the injustices and institutional cruelty of the British Empire close up, was highly formative for the young, impressionable man. 

[00:08:29] It generated two of his most powerful essays – The Hanging and Shooting an Elephant. 

[00:08:35] These short works are written with his characteristic clarity and vividness of English. 

[00:08:41] As you can imagine, I would definitely recommend you to read them - they are excellent, and very accessible

[00:08:48] Although Orwell had come from an upper class and well educated background, he didn’t feel that this was real, he didn’t feel that his life thus far was how normal people lived in the real world. 

[00:09:02] For the majority of his early life, he wouldn’t really have come into contact with anyone from a lower social class.

[00:09:09] Because he wanted to find out more about how ordinary people lived, he went and lived and worked amongst some of the poorest people in society – initially in Paris and then in London. 

[00:09:22] He chronicled these adventures in the first full-length book that he published, Down and Out in Paris and London, in 1933. 

[00:09:31] A “Down and Out” is someone who doesn’t have any money, but you can also be “down and out”, meaning without money. So, Down and out is both a noun and an adjective.

[00:09:43] Some of the descriptions in these books are so colourful, they are so vivid and powerful that you need a strong stomach to read them. 

[00:09:53] In particular, I recommend the famous description in Down and Out in Paris and London of how a French chef and waiter treat an expensive steak that is about to be served in a high-end, very expensive Parisian restaurant. 

[00:10:09] It ends with the sentence, “Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”

[00:10:20] If you like to eat steak and sometimes eat in an expensive restaurant, I promise that you will never look at a steak in quite the same way again.

[00:10:29] At this point in his life, he was still a struggling author, with not much published and little income, he wasn't making much money. 

[00:10:37] It was the next major event in his life that was to mark him forever as a political writer. 

[00:10:44] From early in the 1920s it was clear that fascism was on the rise in Europe, with Mussolini‘s takeover of power in Italy, and the rise of Nazism in Germany. 

[00:10:56] For young, idealistic people like Orwell, there was a clear choice between fascism and communism. 

[00:11:03] For those who described themselves as in the political centre or on the liberal side, communism was the only viable way of opposing fascism. 

[00:11:15] The Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936, became like an international crusade for left-leaning writers and thinkers of the time. 

[00:11:26] Orwell, like his fellow writer, the American Ernest Hemingway, headed south to join the anti-Franco forces, the Republicans, in their fight against Franco‘s fascists. 

[00:11:38] It was not just his experience fighting at the front and being wounded with a bullet through his neck that influenced him so greatly, but it was perhaps above all his experience seeing the in-fighting that occurred in Barcelona that affected his subsequent world view. 

[00:11:56] What he witnessed was a bitter and bloody fight on the streets of Barcelona between the group that he was part of, which had been formed out of Spanish working-class people and was known as the Militia, and the Soviet-backed communists; they were backed by the Communist USSR and were acting on Moscow‘s orders to destroy any other leftist groups - and certainly not campaign for democracy.

[00:12:22] Orwell, together with his recently married wife Eileen, therefore had to flee Spain, they had to run away from Spain, because his life was under threat from people he thought were on the same side, the Communists. 

[00:12:37] He wrote later that since his experience in the Spanish Civil War, everything he had written afterwards had been “against totalitarianism”. 

[00:12:47] It is in this traumatic experience that the seeds of his most famous and influential books lie.

[00:12:55] Animal Farm, a brilliant fable or parable, was written in 1944 when the Western Allies, notably the USA and Britain, were in an unlikely alliance with the USSR against the Nazis; it was therefore vital not to offend the USSR’s brutal leader, Joseph Stalin. 

[00:13:18] Orwell dramatised the rise of totalitarianism in the Russian state through the brilliant device of showing animals taking over power from humans on a farm. 

[00:13:30] Most significantly, the pigs abandon their early idealism and ideas of equality; they re-shape the truth of their political movement and eliminate their opponents in order to keep absolute power to themselves.

[00:13:45] You might remember the quote from Animal Farm where the pigs declare that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

[00:13:55] Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the delicacy and importance of the political situation, Orwell had difficulty getting his book published. 

[00:14:05] It was, after all, telling an uncomfortable truth about the USSR, just at a time when that uncomfortable truth was inconvenient to Britain. 

[00:14:15] When Animal Farm was finally published in 1945, the Cold War [as the struggle between the West and the USSR came to be known] was becoming a reality. 

[00:14:26] The book, a clear critique of Soviet totalitarianism, quickly became a bestseller, and it has remained as relevant now as it was 76 years ago.

[00:14:38] Further personal tragedy struck Orwell at this stage in his life when, shortly after he and his wife Eileen had adopted a baby son, Eileen died. 

[00:14:49] His natural instinct always was to go to the heart of things - to go where world events were being shaped. 

[00:14:56] It was this reporter‘s instinct which had taken him to Spain in 1936 and also, against all of the advice, to live in central London when the Blitz – or German bombing – was at its height. 

[00:15:10] Now, in 1945 he went to witness the events unfolding as the Nazi regime fell, and he saw the awful destruction and misery of a ruined Germany.

[00:15:22] The final phase in his life had Scotland as its backdrop

[00:15:28] Orwell had developed tuberculosis – or T.B. as it was then known – and it was starting to reach a life-threatening stage. 

[00:15:37] He knew he was dying but he had a book inside him that he knew he had to write before he died. 

[00:15:45] Therefore in 1947 he moved to a desolate, barely inhabited island off the West coast of Scotland called Jura, which he had bought with the money he had made from Animal Farm. 

[00:15:59] There, with a housekeeper and his little son, Richard, he set out to write his most famous book, 1984. 

[00:16:07] Much of it was written from his bed as he was incapacitated by his illness, as he was unable to move, given how much he was suffering. 

[00:16:17] 1984 is an incredibly powerful book as it is, but when you realise that there was this man lying in bed, knowing he was dying and needing to get this final book written, it takes on an entirely new type of meaning.

[00:16:34] How can one possibly sum up the impact of this powerful work of literature? 

[00:16:40] Well, some facts are a helpful start. 

[00:16:43] 1984 is one of the highest selling political fiction books of all time.

[00:16:49] Its popularity was strong from the start after its publication in 1949; after all, it provided a timely warning about what was evident in the world then. 

[00:17:01] The USSR‘s ruthless occupation of Eastern Europe was under way and nuclear armaments had added an additional, apocalyptic element to the possibility of another war.

[00:17:13] Fast forward to the last 20 years or so, as complacency about the strength of Western-style style democracy has been shaken by the rise of populism and autocratic regimes, 1984‘s relevance to our own times has become yet more clear. 

[00:17:31] There have been dramatic spikes, sharp increases, in sales of the book after troubling world events, such as the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 and the Wikileaks scandal in 2013. 

[00:17:47] Most recently the Trump presidency, with its deliberate spread of misinformation and the attack on mainstream media as “fake news” has led many new readers to 1984, and for it to be continued to be quoted as a point of reference.

[00:18:05] You may well remember the controversy on the day after President Trump‘s inauguration in January 2017; when his advisor, Kellyane Conway, used the expression “alternative facts”. 

[00:18:18] In January of 2021 the storming of the Washington Capitol building caused another increase, pushing the novel once again to the top of the Amazon bestseller list.

[00:18:31] I mentioned earlier that 1984 has also been used by the opponents of free speech, by exactly the kind of people that Orwell was criticising in 1984. 

[00:18:43] Firstly, during the American 2016 presidential campaign there was a meme, an image shared around the Internet, with the words “The People Will Believe What the Media Tells Them They Believe”, and these were attributed to George Orwell.

[00:18:59] This meme was shared tens of thousands of times, and seen by tens if not hundreds of millions of people, who shared it to express the idea that the mainstream media is out to trick the people.

[00:19:14] But George Orwell never said or wrote this. 

[00:19:18] The entire thing was created by a Russian troll farm – i.e. an organisation designed to send out misinformation on social media.

[00:19:27] There is something frighteningly Orwellian about such cynical misinformation and nasty use of his name. 

[00:19:35] As Timothy Snyder, the Professor of History at Yale University wrote: “To understand Putin, read Orwell.“

[00:19:43] My second example is less sophisticated perhaps, but shows how 1984 is used by almost anyone, including people who may well have never read the book, to try to put forward their point. 

[00:19:56] Shortly after Trump was banned from the social media platform, Twitter, in January of 2021, his son, Donald Trump Junior tweeted: “We are living in Orwell‘s 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America…”

[00:20:13] Now, this is not a comment on whether it was right or wrong to remove Trump from social media networks, but rather a comment on the fact that Donald Junior is complaining about the fact that his father doesn’t have a way to spread alternative facts, and likening the modern world to the one in Orwell’s cult novel.

[00:20:33] I think that you will have now understood the ability that Orwell still has to reach into the minds of the powerful and the influential

[00:20:42] He is a common reference point and has become one of the most fruitful sources of powerful, easily understood metaphors or images for the worst tendencies of the modern world. 

[00:20:55] “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you,” is one of his final thoughts.

[00:21:00] But there are also plenty of other reasons for reading his work. 

[00:21:04] Mainly, he is just a fantastic writer, and a master of the English language.

[00:21:09] There is an entire episode on this, episode 38, to be precise, where you can learn about his 5 Rules for Effective Writing, so I’d advise you to listen to that one for a detailed explanation on Orwell’s thoughts about how to write. 

[00:21:23] Let's start with a couple of examples. 

[00:21:23] The most important point for me is about how one should always use simple language, when possible.

[00:21:33] Orwell says “Political language…..is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” 

[00:21:46] He hated seeing people use overly complicated language as a way of twisting a message, and was always a great supporter of simple, clear, simple words.

[00:21:58] I’m always reminded of Orwell whenever I see terrible videos on social media, on Instagram and things, of English teachers saying things like “Don’t say go up, say elevate”, or "don't say people, say inhabitants". 

[00:22:14] It’s just complete rubbish, if you follow this sort of advice you’ll end up talking like a robotic dictionary, and Orwell would be turning in his grave if he could see it. 

[00:22:26] So, don’t do it.

[00:22:28] Finally, I’ll leave you with three curiosities about the great man, three weird facts.

[00:22:35] Firstly, as you may know, George Orwell wasn’t his real name. He was born with the name Eric Blair. 

[00:22:43] George Orwell was his pen name

[00:22:46] He took inspiration from the name of the king for the first name and from the name of a local river for his second.

[00:22:53] Secondly, the script of Animal Farm was very nearly lost when Orwell‘s house was destroyed by a German bomb. 

[00:23:02] The anxious author had to dig in the rubble, to dig through the fallen bricks, in order to retrieve it.

[00:23:10] And finally, as Orwell approached death with tuberculosis he asked three different young women to marry him, wanting companionship and saying that they had an excellent chance of shortly becoming rich widows on the proceeds of his highly successful books. 

[00:23:28] The third one, Sonia Bronwell, accepted him. 

[00:23:32] He is said to have worn a lilac-coloured smoking jacket as he lay in the bed where he would die three months later.

[00:23:39] Orwell was a man of huge talent, and who knows what he might have given us had he lived a longer life.

[00:23:47] His writing is timeless, it is as appropriate now as it was in 1948, and I’m sure that people will still be talking about Orwell in hundreds of years time.

[00:23:58] Like any great writer, the themes that Orwell chooses are universal. 

[00:24:04] We learn through universal human truths, through ideas and subjects that every single person can relate to.

[00:24:11] Joy, food, love, desire, humour, language, and of course, animals. 

[00:24:18] I’ll just leave you with one of my favourite thought-provoking quotes from Nineteen Eighty Four, which comes from the evil character, Big Brother.

[00:24:28] And that’s “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

[00:24:38] OK then, that is it for today's episode on George Orwell, or should I say, Eric Blair.

[00:24:45] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that the next time someone says that a situation is Orwellian or makes a reference to Animal Farm, well, you’ll know a little bit more about the man behind it all.

[00:24:59] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:03] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:25:12] And as a final reminder for those of you that aren’t yet members, if you enjoyed this episode, and you are wondering where to get all of our bonus episodes, plus the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:25:29] I am on a mission to make Leonardo English the most interesting way of improving your English, and I would love for you to join me, and curious minds from more than 50 different countries, on that journey.

[00:25:41] The place you can go to for all of that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:25:46] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:25:51] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


Continue learning

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about the amazing life, and work, of George Orwell. 

[00:00:29] You probably know him as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. 

[00:00:35] But, although these are the two books that he is most famous for, they only formed a very small part of his fantastically interesting life.

[00:00:44] So, in this episode you’ll learn about who he really was, what motivated him, how he thought about writing, and how he became one of the most important, if not the most important people to have ever picked up a pen and written in English.

[00:01:01] Before we get right into today’s episode, I want to remind you that you can become a member of Leonardo English and follow along with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:16] Membership of Leonardo English gives you access to all of our learning materials, all of our bonus episodes, so that’s more than 150 different episodes now, as well as two new ones every week, plus access to our awesome private community where we do live events, challenges, and much, much more.

[00:01:35] Our community now has members from over 50 countries, and it's my mission to make it the most interesting place for curious minds like you to improve their English.

[00:01:46] 
So, if that is of interest, - and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:55] Ok then, George Orwell.

[00:01:59] Now is the right time for you to be learning about this great man for three reasons.

[00:02:04] Firstly, he lived such an interesting, varied, curious life, that it’s always the right time to learn about George Orwell.

[00:02:13] Secondly, because he is probably best remembered for his criticisms of totalitarianism, and the past decade has seen a rise in exactly the sort of authoritarian regimes that Orwell warned us against.

[00:02:28] Thirdly, because he is an absolute master of the English language, and there is a huge amount that anyone, native and non-native English speaker, can learn from him.

[00:02:40] And I said there were three reasons, but actually there are four, a bonus one, if you are Spanish. 

[00:02:46] And that’s because Orwell spent some of his formative years fighting in the Spanish Civil War, so part of our story will take place in Spain.

[00:02:57] But first, let’s begin our story in London.

[00:03:01] If you stand outside the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation – better known as the BBC – in London, you will see the statue of a tall, messy, unheroic man who has clearly not spent much time or money worrying about his clothes. 

[00:03:19] Cigarette in hand, he is leaning forward as if to address you. 

[00:03:25] Behind him, engraved into the stone, written into the stone, is one of his most famous sayings: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.“ 

[00:03:40] Underneath his feet, carved into the stone below, is his name - George Orwell.

[00:03:46] George Orwell worked at the BBC for only two years, during the Second World War. 

[00:03:52] Strangely enough, he worked in the Propaganda department in Room 101. 

[00:03:57] He didn’t like it much and was quite glad to leave. 

[00:04:01] In fact, he was positively uncomplimentary about the BBC. 

[00:04:06] He commented later that perhaps his presence meant that he kept the propaganda “slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been” and that he felt he was “just an orange that was being trod on by a very dirty boot”, an orange that was being stepped on by a very dirty shoe. 

[00:04:25] These comments show two of Orwell‘s most important traits or characteristics: honesty and a genius with language.

[00:04:34] Instead of being full of compliments about the BBC, a national treasure, he was honest, and true.

[00:04:42] And in terms of the language, the image of an orange being stepped on by a very dirty boot is so vivid that you immediately imagine it and understand what Orwell means.

[00:04:56] In spite of his rudeness about the BBC, when it moved to new offices in 2016 and wanted to have a statue of someone who would represent the core values of the organisation – which are impartiality, honesty, integrity and public service – there was no real contest as to whose statue should stand for those values.

[00:05:22] The London-based newspaper, The Financial Times, spoke for many newspapers, both in the UK and elsewhere, when it said that Orwell is “the true patron saint of our profession”, the patron saint of journalism. 

[00:05:37] A further compliment given to Orwell is that he is one of the very few writers in the world whose name has provided an adjective that has its own meaning: “Orwellian“ is used to describe something particularly sinister and nasty, especially when it is destructive of the welfare of a free and open society. 

[00:06:00] As we will see later, this adjective and references to Orwell’s most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984, are used, both by people aiming to defend freedoms and also, cynically, by those with authoritarian tendencies who are seeking to limit others‘ freedoms.

[00:06:20] It's interesting that one of the other small group of writers whose name is used as an adjective is Franz Kafka; the word Kafkaesque is used to describe situations where bureaucracy and officialdom are so deliberately complex that they frustrate and anger the very people that they should be trying to help.

[00:06:43] In the same way that George Orwell’s name has developed a broader meaning, his two most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm, have established themselves in the imaginations and language of people around the world to such an extent that many people who have never read the books use the language and ideas of the books unknowingly, so completely have their ideas soaked into their culture. 

[00:07:11] Born in 1903, George Orwell had a privileged, but difficult, start to his life. 

[00:07:17] He was British, but born in India, which was still a British colony at the time.

[00:07:23] His family was upper middle class, they were at the top of society socially, but weren’t rich compared to others of a similar social class. 

[00:07:34] Orwell won a scholarship to an English boarding school

[00:07:38] And although he didn’t know that his parents were paying reduced fees, that they were paying less money for his education than the other parents, he felt out of place, he felt poor compared to his classmates.

[00:07:52] He was a gifted student, and won a scholarship to Britain‘s most famous private school, Eton, where he would have received one of the best educations in the country.

[00:08:03] He decided not to go to university but went out to India in order to work for the British Civil Service as part of the imperial police in Burma, in modern day Myanmar. 

[00:08:16] This experience, seeing the injustices and institutional cruelty of the British Empire close up, was highly formative for the young, impressionable man. 

[00:08:29] It generated two of his most powerful essays – The Hanging and Shooting an Elephant. 

[00:08:35] These short works are written with his characteristic clarity and vividness of English. 

[00:08:41] As you can imagine, I would definitely recommend you to read them - they are excellent, and very accessible

[00:08:48] Although Orwell had come from an upper class and well educated background, he didn’t feel that this was real, he didn’t feel that his life thus far was how normal people lived in the real world. 

[00:09:02] For the majority of his early life, he wouldn’t really have come into contact with anyone from a lower social class.

[00:09:09] Because he wanted to find out more about how ordinary people lived, he went and lived and worked amongst some of the poorest people in society – initially in Paris and then in London. 

[00:09:22] He chronicled these adventures in the first full-length book that he published, Down and Out in Paris and London, in 1933. 

[00:09:31] A “Down and Out” is someone who doesn’t have any money, but you can also be “down and out”, meaning without money. So, Down and out is both a noun and an adjective.

[00:09:43] Some of the descriptions in these books are so colourful, they are so vivid and powerful that you need a strong stomach to read them. 

[00:09:53] In particular, I recommend the famous description in Down and Out in Paris and London of how a French chef and waiter treat an expensive steak that is about to be served in a high-end, very expensive Parisian restaurant. 

[00:10:09] It ends with the sentence, “Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”

[00:10:20] If you like to eat steak and sometimes eat in an expensive restaurant, I promise that you will never look at a steak in quite the same way again.

[00:10:29] At this point in his life, he was still a struggling author, with not much published and little income, he wasn't making much money. 

[00:10:37] It was the next major event in his life that was to mark him forever as a political writer. 

[00:10:44] From early in the 1920s it was clear that fascism was on the rise in Europe, with Mussolini‘s takeover of power in Italy, and the rise of Nazism in Germany. 

[00:10:56] For young, idealistic people like Orwell, there was a clear choice between fascism and communism. 

[00:11:03] For those who described themselves as in the political centre or on the liberal side, communism was the only viable way of opposing fascism. 

[00:11:15] The Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936, became like an international crusade for left-leaning writers and thinkers of the time. 

[00:11:26] Orwell, like his fellow writer, the American Ernest Hemingway, headed south to join the anti-Franco forces, the Republicans, in their fight against Franco‘s fascists. 

[00:11:38] It was not just his experience fighting at the front and being wounded with a bullet through his neck that influenced him so greatly, but it was perhaps above all his experience seeing the in-fighting that occurred in Barcelona that affected his subsequent world view. 

[00:11:56] What he witnessed was a bitter and bloody fight on the streets of Barcelona between the group that he was part of, which had been formed out of Spanish working-class people and was known as the Militia, and the Soviet-backed communists; they were backed by the Communist USSR and were acting on Moscow‘s orders to destroy any other leftist groups - and certainly not campaign for democracy.

[00:12:22] Orwell, together with his recently married wife Eileen, therefore had to flee Spain, they had to run away from Spain, because his life was under threat from people he thought were on the same side, the Communists. 

[00:12:37] He wrote later that since his experience in the Spanish Civil War, everything he had written afterwards had been “against totalitarianism”. 

[00:12:47] It is in this traumatic experience that the seeds of his most famous and influential books lie.

[00:12:55] Animal Farm, a brilliant fable or parable, was written in 1944 when the Western Allies, notably the USA and Britain, were in an unlikely alliance with the USSR against the Nazis; it was therefore vital not to offend the USSR’s brutal leader, Joseph Stalin. 

[00:13:18] Orwell dramatised the rise of totalitarianism in the Russian state through the brilliant device of showing animals taking over power from humans on a farm. 

[00:13:30] Most significantly, the pigs abandon their early idealism and ideas of equality; they re-shape the truth of their political movement and eliminate their opponents in order to keep absolute power to themselves.

[00:13:45] You might remember the quote from Animal Farm where the pigs declare that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

[00:13:55] Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the delicacy and importance of the political situation, Orwell had difficulty getting his book published. 

[00:14:05] It was, after all, telling an uncomfortable truth about the USSR, just at a time when that uncomfortable truth was inconvenient to Britain. 

[00:14:15] When Animal Farm was finally published in 1945, the Cold War [as the struggle between the West and the USSR came to be known] was becoming a reality. 

[00:14:26] The book, a clear critique of Soviet totalitarianism, quickly became a bestseller, and it has remained as relevant now as it was 76 years ago.

[00:14:38] Further personal tragedy struck Orwell at this stage in his life when, shortly after he and his wife Eileen had adopted a baby son, Eileen died. 

[00:14:49] His natural instinct always was to go to the heart of things - to go where world events were being shaped. 

[00:14:56] It was this reporter‘s instinct which had taken him to Spain in 1936 and also, against all of the advice, to live in central London when the Blitz – or German bombing – was at its height. 

[00:15:10] Now, in 1945 he went to witness the events unfolding as the Nazi regime fell, and he saw the awful destruction and misery of a ruined Germany.

[00:15:22] The final phase in his life had Scotland as its backdrop

[00:15:28] Orwell had developed tuberculosis – or T.B. as it was then known – and it was starting to reach a life-threatening stage. 

[00:15:37] He knew he was dying but he had a book inside him that he knew he had to write before he died. 

[00:15:45] Therefore in 1947 he moved to a desolate, barely inhabited island off the West coast of Scotland called Jura, which he had bought with the money he had made from Animal Farm. 

[00:15:59] There, with a housekeeper and his little son, Richard, he set out to write his most famous book, 1984. 

[00:16:07] Much of it was written from his bed as he was incapacitated by his illness, as he was unable to move, given how much he was suffering. 

[00:16:17] 1984 is an incredibly powerful book as it is, but when you realise that there was this man lying in bed, knowing he was dying and needing to get this final book written, it takes on an entirely new type of meaning.

[00:16:34] How can one possibly sum up the impact of this powerful work of literature? 

[00:16:40] Well, some facts are a helpful start. 

[00:16:43] 1984 is one of the highest selling political fiction books of all time.

[00:16:49] Its popularity was strong from the start after its publication in 1949; after all, it provided a timely warning about what was evident in the world then. 

[00:17:01] The USSR‘s ruthless occupation of Eastern Europe was under way and nuclear armaments had added an additional, apocalyptic element to the possibility of another war.

[00:17:13] Fast forward to the last 20 years or so, as complacency about the strength of Western-style style democracy has been shaken by the rise of populism and autocratic regimes, 1984‘s relevance to our own times has become yet more clear. 

[00:17:31] There have been dramatic spikes, sharp increases, in sales of the book after troubling world events, such as the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 and the Wikileaks scandal in 2013. 

[00:17:47] Most recently the Trump presidency, with its deliberate spread of misinformation and the attack on mainstream media as “fake news” has led many new readers to 1984, and for it to be continued to be quoted as a point of reference.

[00:18:05] You may well remember the controversy on the day after President Trump‘s inauguration in January 2017; when his advisor, Kellyane Conway, used the expression “alternative facts”. 

[00:18:18] In January of 2021 the storming of the Washington Capitol building caused another increase, pushing the novel once again to the top of the Amazon bestseller list.

[00:18:31] I mentioned earlier that 1984 has also been used by the opponents of free speech, by exactly the kind of people that Orwell was criticising in 1984. 

[00:18:43] Firstly, during the American 2016 presidential campaign there was a meme, an image shared around the Internet, with the words “The People Will Believe What the Media Tells Them They Believe”, and these were attributed to George Orwell.

[00:18:59] This meme was shared tens of thousands of times, and seen by tens if not hundreds of millions of people, who shared it to express the idea that the mainstream media is out to trick the people.

[00:19:14] But George Orwell never said or wrote this. 

[00:19:18] The entire thing was created by a Russian troll farm – i.e. an organisation designed to send out misinformation on social media.

[00:19:27] There is something frighteningly Orwellian about such cynical misinformation and nasty use of his name. 

[00:19:35] As Timothy Snyder, the Professor of History at Yale University wrote: “To understand Putin, read Orwell.“

[00:19:43] My second example is less sophisticated perhaps, but shows how 1984 is used by almost anyone, including people who may well have never read the book, to try to put forward their point. 

[00:19:56] Shortly after Trump was banned from the social media platform, Twitter, in January of 2021, his son, Donald Trump Junior tweeted: “We are living in Orwell‘s 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America…”

[00:20:13] Now, this is not a comment on whether it was right or wrong to remove Trump from social media networks, but rather a comment on the fact that Donald Junior is complaining about the fact that his father doesn’t have a way to spread alternative facts, and likening the modern world to the one in Orwell’s cult novel.

[00:20:33] I think that you will have now understood the ability that Orwell still has to reach into the minds of the powerful and the influential

[00:20:42] He is a common reference point and has become one of the most fruitful sources of powerful, easily understood metaphors or images for the worst tendencies of the modern world. 

[00:20:55] “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you,” is one of his final thoughts.

[00:21:00] But there are also plenty of other reasons for reading his work. 

[00:21:04] Mainly, he is just a fantastic writer, and a master of the English language.

[00:21:09] There is an entire episode on this, episode 38, to be precise, where you can learn about his 5 Rules for Effective Writing, so I’d advise you to listen to that one for a detailed explanation on Orwell’s thoughts about how to write. 

[00:21:23] Let's start with a couple of examples. 

[00:21:23] The most important point for me is about how one should always use simple language, when possible.

[00:21:33] Orwell says “Political language…..is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” 

[00:21:46] He hated seeing people use overly complicated language as a way of twisting a message, and was always a great supporter of simple, clear, simple words.

[00:21:58] I’m always reminded of Orwell whenever I see terrible videos on social media, on Instagram and things, of English teachers saying things like “Don’t say go up, say elevate”, or "don't say people, say inhabitants". 

[00:22:14] It’s just complete rubbish, if you follow this sort of advice you’ll end up talking like a robotic dictionary, and Orwell would be turning in his grave if he could see it. 

[00:22:26] So, don’t do it.

[00:22:28] Finally, I’ll leave you with three curiosities about the great man, three weird facts.

[00:22:35] Firstly, as you may know, George Orwell wasn’t his real name. He was born with the name Eric Blair. 

[00:22:43] George Orwell was his pen name

[00:22:46] He took inspiration from the name of the king for the first name and from the name of a local river for his second.

[00:22:53] Secondly, the script of Animal Farm was very nearly lost when Orwell‘s house was destroyed by a German bomb. 

[00:23:02] The anxious author had to dig in the rubble, to dig through the fallen bricks, in order to retrieve it.

[00:23:10] And finally, as Orwell approached death with tuberculosis he asked three different young women to marry him, wanting companionship and saying that they had an excellent chance of shortly becoming rich widows on the proceeds of his highly successful books. 

[00:23:28] The third one, Sonia Bronwell, accepted him. 

[00:23:32] He is said to have worn a lilac-coloured smoking jacket as he lay in the bed where he would die three months later.

[00:23:39] Orwell was a man of huge talent, and who knows what he might have given us had he lived a longer life.

[00:23:47] His writing is timeless, it is as appropriate now as it was in 1948, and I’m sure that people will still be talking about Orwell in hundreds of years time.

[00:23:58] Like any great writer, the themes that Orwell chooses are universal. 

[00:24:04] We learn through universal human truths, through ideas and subjects that every single person can relate to.

[00:24:11] Joy, food, love, desire, humour, language, and of course, animals. 

[00:24:18] I’ll just leave you with one of my favourite thought-provoking quotes from Nineteen Eighty Four, which comes from the evil character, Big Brother.

[00:24:28] And that’s “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

[00:24:38] OK then, that is it for today's episode on George Orwell, or should I say, Eric Blair.

[00:24:45] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that the next time someone says that a situation is Orwellian or makes a reference to Animal Farm, well, you’ll know a little bit more about the man behind it all.

[00:24:59] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:03] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:25:12] And as a final reminder for those of you that aren’t yet members, if you enjoyed this episode, and you are wondering where to get all of our bonus episodes, plus the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:25:29] I am on a mission to make Leonardo English the most interesting way of improving your English, and I would love for you to join me, and curious minds from more than 50 different countries, on that journey.

[00:25:41] The place you can go to for all of that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:25:46] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:25:51] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about the amazing life, and work, of George Orwell. 

[00:00:29] You probably know him as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. 

[00:00:35] But, although these are the two books that he is most famous for, they only formed a very small part of his fantastically interesting life.

[00:00:44] So, in this episode you’ll learn about who he really was, what motivated him, how he thought about writing, and how he became one of the most important, if not the most important people to have ever picked up a pen and written in English.

[00:01:01] Before we get right into today’s episode, I want to remind you that you can become a member of Leonardo English and follow along with the subtitles, the transcript and its key vocabulary over on the website, which is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:16] Membership of Leonardo English gives you access to all of our learning materials, all of our bonus episodes, so that’s more than 150 different episodes now, as well as two new ones every week, plus access to our awesome private community where we do live events, challenges, and much, much more.

[00:01:35] Our community now has members from over 50 countries, and it's my mission to make it the most interesting place for curious minds like you to improve their English.

[00:01:46] 
So, if that is of interest, - and I can't see a reason why it wouldn't be - then the place to go to is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:55] Ok then, George Orwell.

[00:01:59] Now is the right time for you to be learning about this great man for three reasons.

[00:02:04] Firstly, he lived such an interesting, varied, curious life, that it’s always the right time to learn about George Orwell.

[00:02:13] Secondly, because he is probably best remembered for his criticisms of totalitarianism, and the past decade has seen a rise in exactly the sort of authoritarian regimes that Orwell warned us against.

[00:02:28] Thirdly, because he is an absolute master of the English language, and there is a huge amount that anyone, native and non-native English speaker, can learn from him.

[00:02:40] And I said there were three reasons, but actually there are four, a bonus one, if you are Spanish. 

[00:02:46] And that’s because Orwell spent some of his formative years fighting in the Spanish Civil War, so part of our story will take place in Spain.

[00:02:57] But first, let’s begin our story in London.

[00:03:01] If you stand outside the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation – better known as the BBC – in London, you will see the statue of a tall, messy, unheroic man who has clearly not spent much time or money worrying about his clothes. 

[00:03:19] Cigarette in hand, he is leaning forward as if to address you. 

[00:03:25] Behind him, engraved into the stone, written into the stone, is one of his most famous sayings: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.“ 

[00:03:40] Underneath his feet, carved into the stone below, is his name - George Orwell.

[00:03:46] George Orwell worked at the BBC for only two years, during the Second World War. 

[00:03:52] Strangely enough, he worked in the Propaganda department in Room 101. 

[00:03:57] He didn’t like it much and was quite glad to leave. 

[00:04:01] In fact, he was positively uncomplimentary about the BBC. 

[00:04:06] He commented later that perhaps his presence meant that he kept the propaganda “slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been” and that he felt he was “just an orange that was being trod on by a very dirty boot”, an orange that was being stepped on by a very dirty shoe. 

[00:04:25] These comments show two of Orwell‘s most important traits or characteristics: honesty and a genius with language.

[00:04:34] Instead of being full of compliments about the BBC, a national treasure, he was honest, and true.

[00:04:42] And in terms of the language, the image of an orange being stepped on by a very dirty boot is so vivid that you immediately imagine it and understand what Orwell means.

[00:04:56] In spite of his rudeness about the BBC, when it moved to new offices in 2016 and wanted to have a statue of someone who would represent the core values of the organisation – which are impartiality, honesty, integrity and public service – there was no real contest as to whose statue should stand for those values.

[00:05:22] The London-based newspaper, The Financial Times, spoke for many newspapers, both in the UK and elsewhere, when it said that Orwell is “the true patron saint of our profession”, the patron saint of journalism. 

[00:05:37] A further compliment given to Orwell is that he is one of the very few writers in the world whose name has provided an adjective that has its own meaning: “Orwellian“ is used to describe something particularly sinister and nasty, especially when it is destructive of the welfare of a free and open society. 

[00:06:00] As we will see later, this adjective and references to Orwell’s most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984, are used, both by people aiming to defend freedoms and also, cynically, by those with authoritarian tendencies who are seeking to limit others‘ freedoms.

[00:06:20] It's interesting that one of the other small group of writers whose name is used as an adjective is Franz Kafka; the word Kafkaesque is used to describe situations where bureaucracy and officialdom are so deliberately complex that they frustrate and anger the very people that they should be trying to help.

[00:06:43] In the same way that George Orwell’s name has developed a broader meaning, his two most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm, have established themselves in the imaginations and language of people around the world to such an extent that many people who have never read the books use the language and ideas of the books unknowingly, so completely have their ideas soaked into their culture. 

[00:07:11] Born in 1903, George Orwell had a privileged, but difficult, start to his life. 

[00:07:17] He was British, but born in India, which was still a British colony at the time.

[00:07:23] His family was upper middle class, they were at the top of society socially, but weren’t rich compared to others of a similar social class. 

[00:07:34] Orwell won a scholarship to an English boarding school

[00:07:38] And although he didn’t know that his parents were paying reduced fees, that they were paying less money for his education than the other parents, he felt out of place, he felt poor compared to his classmates.

[00:07:52] He was a gifted student, and won a scholarship to Britain‘s most famous private school, Eton, where he would have received one of the best educations in the country.

[00:08:03] He decided not to go to university but went out to India in order to work for the British Civil Service as part of the imperial police in Burma, in modern day Myanmar. 

[00:08:16] This experience, seeing the injustices and institutional cruelty of the British Empire close up, was highly formative for the young, impressionable man. 

[00:08:29] It generated two of his most powerful essays – The Hanging and Shooting an Elephant. 

[00:08:35] These short works are written with his characteristic clarity and vividness of English. 

[00:08:41] As you can imagine, I would definitely recommend you to read them - they are excellent, and very accessible

[00:08:48] Although Orwell had come from an upper class and well educated background, he didn’t feel that this was real, he didn’t feel that his life thus far was how normal people lived in the real world. 

[00:09:02] For the majority of his early life, he wouldn’t really have come into contact with anyone from a lower social class.

[00:09:09] Because he wanted to find out more about how ordinary people lived, he went and lived and worked amongst some of the poorest people in society – initially in Paris and then in London. 

[00:09:22] He chronicled these adventures in the first full-length book that he published, Down and Out in Paris and London, in 1933. 

[00:09:31] A “Down and Out” is someone who doesn’t have any money, but you can also be “down and out”, meaning without money. So, Down and out is both a noun and an adjective.

[00:09:43] Some of the descriptions in these books are so colourful, they are so vivid and powerful that you need a strong stomach to read them. 

[00:09:53] In particular, I recommend the famous description in Down and Out in Paris and London of how a French chef and waiter treat an expensive steak that is about to be served in a high-end, very expensive Parisian restaurant. 

[00:10:09] It ends with the sentence, “Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”

[00:10:20] If you like to eat steak and sometimes eat in an expensive restaurant, I promise that you will never look at a steak in quite the same way again.

[00:10:29] At this point in his life, he was still a struggling author, with not much published and little income, he wasn't making much money. 

[00:10:37] It was the next major event in his life that was to mark him forever as a political writer. 

[00:10:44] From early in the 1920s it was clear that fascism was on the rise in Europe, with Mussolini‘s takeover of power in Italy, and the rise of Nazism in Germany. 

[00:10:56] For young, idealistic people like Orwell, there was a clear choice between fascism and communism. 

[00:11:03] For those who described themselves as in the political centre or on the liberal side, communism was the only viable way of opposing fascism. 

[00:11:15] The Spanish Civil War, which broke out in 1936, became like an international crusade for left-leaning writers and thinkers of the time. 

[00:11:26] Orwell, like his fellow writer, the American Ernest Hemingway, headed south to join the anti-Franco forces, the Republicans, in their fight against Franco‘s fascists. 

[00:11:38] It was not just his experience fighting at the front and being wounded with a bullet through his neck that influenced him so greatly, but it was perhaps above all his experience seeing the in-fighting that occurred in Barcelona that affected his subsequent world view. 

[00:11:56] What he witnessed was a bitter and bloody fight on the streets of Barcelona between the group that he was part of, which had been formed out of Spanish working-class people and was known as the Militia, and the Soviet-backed communists; they were backed by the Communist USSR and were acting on Moscow‘s orders to destroy any other leftist groups - and certainly not campaign for democracy.

[00:12:22] Orwell, together with his recently married wife Eileen, therefore had to flee Spain, they had to run away from Spain, because his life was under threat from people he thought were on the same side, the Communists. 

[00:12:37] He wrote later that since his experience in the Spanish Civil War, everything he had written afterwards had been “against totalitarianism”. 

[00:12:47] It is in this traumatic experience that the seeds of his most famous and influential books lie.

[00:12:55] Animal Farm, a brilliant fable or parable, was written in 1944 when the Western Allies, notably the USA and Britain, were in an unlikely alliance with the USSR against the Nazis; it was therefore vital not to offend the USSR’s brutal leader, Joseph Stalin. 

[00:13:18] Orwell dramatised the rise of totalitarianism in the Russian state through the brilliant device of showing animals taking over power from humans on a farm. 

[00:13:30] Most significantly, the pigs abandon their early idealism and ideas of equality; they re-shape the truth of their political movement and eliminate their opponents in order to keep absolute power to themselves.

[00:13:45] You might remember the quote from Animal Farm where the pigs declare that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

[00:13:55] Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the delicacy and importance of the political situation, Orwell had difficulty getting his book published. 

[00:14:05] It was, after all, telling an uncomfortable truth about the USSR, just at a time when that uncomfortable truth was inconvenient to Britain. 

[00:14:15] When Animal Farm was finally published in 1945, the Cold War [as the struggle between the West and the USSR came to be known] was becoming a reality. 

[00:14:26] The book, a clear critique of Soviet totalitarianism, quickly became a bestseller, and it has remained as relevant now as it was 76 years ago.

[00:14:38] Further personal tragedy struck Orwell at this stage in his life when, shortly after he and his wife Eileen had adopted a baby son, Eileen died. 

[00:14:49] His natural instinct always was to go to the heart of things - to go where world events were being shaped. 

[00:14:56] It was this reporter‘s instinct which had taken him to Spain in 1936 and also, against all of the advice, to live in central London when the Blitz – or German bombing – was at its height. 

[00:15:10] Now, in 1945 he went to witness the events unfolding as the Nazi regime fell, and he saw the awful destruction and misery of a ruined Germany.

[00:15:22] The final phase in his life had Scotland as its backdrop

[00:15:28] Orwell had developed tuberculosis – or T.B. as it was then known – and it was starting to reach a life-threatening stage. 

[00:15:37] He knew he was dying but he had a book inside him that he knew he had to write before he died. 

[00:15:45] Therefore in 1947 he moved to a desolate, barely inhabited island off the West coast of Scotland called Jura, which he had bought with the money he had made from Animal Farm. 

[00:15:59] There, with a housekeeper and his little son, Richard, he set out to write his most famous book, 1984. 

[00:16:07] Much of it was written from his bed as he was incapacitated by his illness, as he was unable to move, given how much he was suffering. 

[00:16:17] 1984 is an incredibly powerful book as it is, but when you realise that there was this man lying in bed, knowing he was dying and needing to get this final book written, it takes on an entirely new type of meaning.

[00:16:34] How can one possibly sum up the impact of this powerful work of literature? 

[00:16:40] Well, some facts are a helpful start. 

[00:16:43] 1984 is one of the highest selling political fiction books of all time.

[00:16:49] Its popularity was strong from the start after its publication in 1949; after all, it provided a timely warning about what was evident in the world then. 

[00:17:01] The USSR‘s ruthless occupation of Eastern Europe was under way and nuclear armaments had added an additional, apocalyptic element to the possibility of another war.

[00:17:13] Fast forward to the last 20 years or so, as complacency about the strength of Western-style style democracy has been shaken by the rise of populism and autocratic regimes, 1984‘s relevance to our own times has become yet more clear. 

[00:17:31] There have been dramatic spikes, sharp increases, in sales of the book after troubling world events, such as the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 and the Wikileaks scandal in 2013. 

[00:17:47] Most recently the Trump presidency, with its deliberate spread of misinformation and the attack on mainstream media as “fake news” has led many new readers to 1984, and for it to be continued to be quoted as a point of reference.

[00:18:05] You may well remember the controversy on the day after President Trump‘s inauguration in January 2017; when his advisor, Kellyane Conway, used the expression “alternative facts”. 

[00:18:18] In January of 2021 the storming of the Washington Capitol building caused another increase, pushing the novel once again to the top of the Amazon bestseller list.

[00:18:31] I mentioned earlier that 1984 has also been used by the opponents of free speech, by exactly the kind of people that Orwell was criticising in 1984. 

[00:18:43] Firstly, during the American 2016 presidential campaign there was a meme, an image shared around the Internet, with the words “The People Will Believe What the Media Tells Them They Believe”, and these were attributed to George Orwell.

[00:18:59] This meme was shared tens of thousands of times, and seen by tens if not hundreds of millions of people, who shared it to express the idea that the mainstream media is out to trick the people.

[00:19:14] But George Orwell never said or wrote this. 

[00:19:18] The entire thing was created by a Russian troll farm – i.e. an organisation designed to send out misinformation on social media.

[00:19:27] There is something frighteningly Orwellian about such cynical misinformation and nasty use of his name. 

[00:19:35] As Timothy Snyder, the Professor of History at Yale University wrote: “To understand Putin, read Orwell.“

[00:19:43] My second example is less sophisticated perhaps, but shows how 1984 is used by almost anyone, including people who may well have never read the book, to try to put forward their point. 

[00:19:56] Shortly after Trump was banned from the social media platform, Twitter, in January of 2021, his son, Donald Trump Junior tweeted: “We are living in Orwell‘s 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America…”

[00:20:13] Now, this is not a comment on whether it was right or wrong to remove Trump from social media networks, but rather a comment on the fact that Donald Junior is complaining about the fact that his father doesn’t have a way to spread alternative facts, and likening the modern world to the one in Orwell’s cult novel.

[00:20:33] I think that you will have now understood the ability that Orwell still has to reach into the minds of the powerful and the influential

[00:20:42] He is a common reference point and has become one of the most fruitful sources of powerful, easily understood metaphors or images for the worst tendencies of the modern world. 

[00:20:55] “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you,” is one of his final thoughts.

[00:21:00] But there are also plenty of other reasons for reading his work. 

[00:21:04] Mainly, he is just a fantastic writer, and a master of the English language.

[00:21:09] There is an entire episode on this, episode 38, to be precise, where you can learn about his 5 Rules for Effective Writing, so I’d advise you to listen to that one for a detailed explanation on Orwell’s thoughts about how to write. 

[00:21:23] Let's start with a couple of examples. 

[00:21:23] The most important point for me is about how one should always use simple language, when possible.

[00:21:33] Orwell says “Political language…..is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” 

[00:21:46] He hated seeing people use overly complicated language as a way of twisting a message, and was always a great supporter of simple, clear, simple words.

[00:21:58] I’m always reminded of Orwell whenever I see terrible videos on social media, on Instagram and things, of English teachers saying things like “Don’t say go up, say elevate”, or "don't say people, say inhabitants". 

[00:22:14] It’s just complete rubbish, if you follow this sort of advice you’ll end up talking like a robotic dictionary, and Orwell would be turning in his grave if he could see it. 

[00:22:26] So, don’t do it.

[00:22:28] Finally, I’ll leave you with three curiosities about the great man, three weird facts.

[00:22:35] Firstly, as you may know, George Orwell wasn’t his real name. He was born with the name Eric Blair. 

[00:22:43] George Orwell was his pen name

[00:22:46] He took inspiration from the name of the king for the first name and from the name of a local river for his second.

[00:22:53] Secondly, the script of Animal Farm was very nearly lost when Orwell‘s house was destroyed by a German bomb. 

[00:23:02] The anxious author had to dig in the rubble, to dig through the fallen bricks, in order to retrieve it.

[00:23:10] And finally, as Orwell approached death with tuberculosis he asked three different young women to marry him, wanting companionship and saying that they had an excellent chance of shortly becoming rich widows on the proceeds of his highly successful books. 

[00:23:28] The third one, Sonia Bronwell, accepted him. 

[00:23:32] He is said to have worn a lilac-coloured smoking jacket as he lay in the bed where he would die three months later.

[00:23:39] Orwell was a man of huge talent, and who knows what he might have given us had he lived a longer life.

[00:23:47] His writing is timeless, it is as appropriate now as it was in 1948, and I’m sure that people will still be talking about Orwell in hundreds of years time.

[00:23:58] Like any great writer, the themes that Orwell chooses are universal. 

[00:24:04] We learn through universal human truths, through ideas and subjects that every single person can relate to.

[00:24:11] Joy, food, love, desire, humour, language, and of course, animals. 

[00:24:18] I’ll just leave you with one of my favourite thought-provoking quotes from Nineteen Eighty Four, which comes from the evil character, Big Brother.

[00:24:28] And that’s “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

[00:24:38] OK then, that is it for today's episode on George Orwell, or should I say, Eric Blair.

[00:24:45] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and that the next time someone says that a situation is Orwellian or makes a reference to Animal Farm, well, you’ll know a little bit more about the man behind it all.

[00:24:59] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:03] For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:25:12] And as a final reminder for those of you that aren’t yet members, if you enjoyed this episode, and you are wondering where to get all of our bonus episodes, plus the transcripts, subtitles, and key vocabulary, then the place to go to for that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:25:29] I am on a mission to make Leonardo English the most interesting way of improving your English, and I would love for you to join me, and curious minds from more than 50 different countries, on that journey.

[00:25:41] The place you can go to for all of that is leonardoenglish.com.

[00:25:46] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:25:51] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.