The Instant Expert: George Orwell

The life and times of the English author and journalist George Orwell.

THE BASICS Eric Arthur Blair - who adopted the pen name George Orwell in 1933, calling it "a good, round English name" - wrote fiction, essays, polemic journalism, literary criticism and poetry. He was an ardent proponent of democratic socialism and a fierce opponent of totalitarianism. He is especially well-known for the satirical novella Animal Farm (1945) and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

THE MAN AND THE WRITER Like all good writers, Orwell wrote about what he knew. His experiences as a police officer in colonial Burma, a volunteer on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, a tramp in and around London, a chronicler of hard life in industrial northern England and a dishwasher in Paris shaped his beliefs and made him a champion of the common man. His "uncompromising intellectual honesty made him appear almost inhuman at times", said Arthur Koestler.

RED ALERT A tidy 122 pages in paperback and some 44,000 words, Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (the subtitle was subsequently dropped) brought Orwell his first worldwide success. A thinly veiled allegorical diatribe against Josef Stalin and his corrupt Soviet Communist leadership, it ranks high in the western canon.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING A classic of social science fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four chronicles life under the thumb of the ruling party in a state that manipulates and controls the individual. The propaganda is so pervasive and powerful that the protagonist, Winston Smith, reconverts after rebelling and happily awaits his execution. He realises that "he had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother".

NO LAZYBONES HE The prolific Orwell wrote six novels, two book-length investigations of poverty in Britain and one of the first retrospectives on the Spanish Civil War. His output included hundreds of essays, book reviews and editorials. The Complete Works of George Orwell, a two-decade labour of love by the editor and scholar Peter Davison, runs to 20 volumes.

A QUIRKY FACT Aldous Huxley - who later wrote his own novel of dehumanised humanity and oppressive government, Brave New World (1932) - briefly tutored the young Blair in French when he was a student at Eton.

ANOTHER QUIRKY FACT TS Eliot, then a director at the publisher Faber & Faber, rejected Animal Farm as "unconvincing". He also turned down A Scullion's Diary, which Orwell rewrote as Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), a work beloved by every kitchen scut who ever had to peel a mountain of potatoes or clean a lorry load of squid for the minimum wage.

AND SO GOODBYE Orwell's health was often compromised. He took a sniper's bullet to the throat in the Spanish War in 1937. He had bouts of dengue fever and bronchitis. He suffered from chronic tuberculosis yet remained a heavy smoker. He died of a burst lung artery on January 21, 1950.

THE LEGACY Several terms Orwell coined in Nineteen Eighty-Four have entered the lexicon of political repression, among them "newspeak", "doublethink", "thought police", "Big Brother" and "prolefeed". And "Orwellian" itself refers to behaviour or an authoritarian state that relies on propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth and manipulation of the past to maintain control of the populace.

THE DISSENTING OPINION A few critics decry what they characterise as the near-canonisation of Orwell as a standard-bearer of the Left. The British philosopher Christopher Norris, for one, sniffed that Orwell's "homespun empiricist outlook - his assumption that the truth was just there to be told in a straightforward common-sense way - now seems not merely naive but culpably self-deluding".

Lessons from a master of good writing:

George Orwell emphasised honest and clear language and said that vague writing could be used as a powerful tool of political manipulation.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four he described how the state controlled thought by controlling language, making certain ideas literally unthinkable.

He cited Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Flaubert, Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence and especially Jack London and Somerset Maugham as his literary role models.

In Politics and the English Language (1946), he provides these six rules for good writing:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long wordwhere a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Avoid foreign phrases, scientific terms, or jargon words if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.