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Plinth George

By September a statue of George Orwell will grace the BBC. The West End Extra talks to its instigator’s widow, Baroness Janet Whitaker

02 February, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

Martin Jennings’ maquette of the statue of George Orwell

GEORGE Orwell is alive and well and back at the BBC – decades after having resigned acrimoniously in 1943 after two wartime years as a talks producer making propaganda broadcasts to India, where in fact he was born in 1903.

At least he will be there in September when, at last, the only statue erected to him is finally to be unveiled. It’s an overdue homage to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four launched by the late Ben Whitaker, Hampstead’s first Labour MP, for whom Orwell was a schoolboy hero. Confirmation of the September date for the unveiling of sculptor Martin Jennings’ life-size bronze has come from Whitaker’s widow, Labour life peer Baroness Janet Whitaker.

Soon the gaunt 6ft 4in figure will lurk outside the BBC’s main new headquarters in Portland Place, cigarette appropriately in hand since he was said to smoke 100 a day. And it will be there to be admired for generations to come thanks to the memorial trust set up by Ben Whitaker.

Inscribed on the wall alongside it will be Orwell’s provocative declaration: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Orwell’s resurrection comes at an iconic moment with the election of Donald Trump as US president, whose use of the phrases “alternative facts” and “fake news” has recalled Orwell’s own “newspeak” and “doublethink” in his warning of a totalitarian future for the world.

Ben Whitaker

The Trump ascendancy has indeed resulted in soaring current sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1949 and published just months before Orwell’s death in University College Hospital, St Pancras, in January 1950.

It is now the most poplar-selling book on Amazon in America and currently is in sixth place in the world, Orwell’s dystopian drama having been translated over the years into 65 languages. Although it wasn’t a death-bed wish, Baroness Whitaker is aware that her husband’s unexpected death in June, 2014, meant that she had to ensure the success of the Orwell statue project.

“Orwell was Ben’s schoolboy hero, perhaps because he was very pleased to find a congenial spirit who had been to his own school and was a rebel against some of the conventional values,” she told me.

“But he also admired Orwell’s clear and direct prose style. When he was struggling with the then BBC director-general Mark Thompson, about the siting of the sculpture, one of his supporters inside the BBC cheered him up by saying that Orwell deserved a statue for the clarity of his prose style alone.

“And today, among many other completely relevant and up to date concerns, Orwell’s anxiety about what the powerful state could become is very telling in the context of manipulation of elections, post-factual propaganda in the Brexit campaign and the sorry history of rendition.”

It was Ben Whitaker who launched the campaign for the memorial plaque to Orwell outside Booklover’s Corner, the shop at the bottom of Pond Street, Hampstead, where he wrote Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Other plaques for peripatetic Orwell – real name Eric Blair – exist in South Hill Park, Hampstead, and Lawford Road, Kentish Town, Mortimer Crescent, Kilburn, and at his final home in Canonbury Square, Islington.

Orwell biographer DJ Taylor in a Guardian piece last week alluded to the link between Trump and Big Brother, pointing out: “It’s useless to pretend that what’s happening isn’t sharply reminiscent of the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Pointing to its hero Winston Smith he says:“There he is sitting in his cubby-hole at the Ministry of Truth falsifying back-numbers of The Times in accordance with the latest revisionist diktats from on high, deals in ‘alternative facts’. Or rather with deliberate untruths that eventually become facts merely because the former versions of them are no longer around to disturb.”

He adds: “As for what Orwell might have thought of President Trump and his entourage, he would probably have drawn attention to the steady war of attrition fought by various political and corporate oligarchies over the past 50 years against the idea that it can be said that a particular event definitely happened, whether you approve of it or not.

“He might have pointed out, too, that these obfuscations are not merely a product of total war – who could really complain about the RAF rigging the numbers of Nazi planes brought down in the Battle of Britain? – but part and parcel of the way in which a certain kind of contemporary autocrat and reality-twister faces up to the world.

“Meanwhile, it is worth asking what the average person is supposed to do in a landscape where the leader of what used to be called the free world has such a wanton disregard for one of the principal tools of freedom. Big Brother, after all, brought a certain amount of guile to pretending what he said was true.”

So the battle for true truth, to coin a phrase, continues. As Orwell once said: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”


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