04 September 2007

Big Brother was watching Orwell

The release of new papers to the National Archives usually fills a few column inches in the “quality” press and the reports can be make quite interesting reading (they will of course ignore the more mundane in favour of the sensational or unusual). Yesterday papers relating to police surveillances from the 1920 to the 1960s were released to the archives.


Of greatest interest, perhaps, will be the files relating to George Orwell. His file starts in January 1929, when he offered to work as Paris correspondent of the communist newspaper the Workers' Life (the forerunner of the Daily Worker and the Morning Star). During the 30s it notes that he helped out at a left wing bookshop, Booklovers' Corner in Hampstead, where he was a friend of the owner, Francis Westrope. According to a report "[He] and Blair are on friendly terms and the latter is known to spend a good deal of time at the shop. He has on occasion conducted the business. Westrope is known to hold socialist views and considers himself an 'intellectual'."


The file contains a cutting from the Manchester Guardian in September 1938, noting that Orwell had signed the Joint Peace Manifesto alongside the Peace Pledge Union, the Quakers and the Labour party. Two years earlier, the chief constable of Wigan had requested information about the writer, who had been seen addressing Communist party meetings in the town.


The police never found enough on Orwell to prevent him obtaining a passport or being accredited as a war correspondent for the Observer. A record in the file, dated 1942, describes him as someone who "has been a bit of an anarchist in his day and in touch with extremist elements". It adds that he had "undoubtedly strong left wing views, but he is a long way from orthodox Communism


On the other hand one Sergeant Ewing of Special Branch who monitored Orwell's attempt to recruit Indians to work for the BBC's India service in January 1942, noted: "This man has advanced communist views ... He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours." However, a Home Office official named W Ogilvie responded a few days later: “...I gathered that the good sergeant was rather at a loss as to how he could describe this rather individual line, hence the expression ... This fits in with the picture we have of Blair@Orwell [sic]. It is evident from his recent writings ... that he does not hold with the Communist party, nor they with him." The authorities finally decided Orwell was not a communist from his answers to a questionnaire posed to leading leftwing figures and published in Left magazine, including the question: "Should Socialists support the British war effort?" to which he answered, "yes".


One file contains interviews over years with a Russian defector, Leon Helfland, who had been a KGB officer and assassin, and charge d'affaires in the Soviet embassy in Rome for seven years until he fled to the US in 1940. Helfland told an astonished British consular official named WH Gallienne over lunch in New York in 1941 that the Soviets, Italians and Germans had read every telegram and document from the British embassy in Rome from 1933: "Mr H said they often marvelled at our laxity." Helfland never named the spy involved, but it is known to have been the Italian valet of the British ambassador, Sir Eric Drummond, who refused to believe that his servant could have betrayed Britain.

8 comments:

Roland Dodds said...

Orwell remains one of the greatest and most important thinkers of our time. While I can see how aspects of his thinking and writing lead some to believe he was a communist, he was at the end of the day, a patron of liberty. Someone who stood up to tyranny regardless of the forms it took.

jams o donnell said...

He certainly was an important thinker. It was a tragedy he died relatively young.

jams o donnell said...

He certainly was an important thinker. It was a tragedy he died relatively young.

Roger B. said...

"He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours."

I didn't realise that Special Branch employed fashion police!

Pisces Iscariot said...

Orwell remains one of the greatest and most important thinkers of our time
There are many greater and more important tinkers, but Orwell has certainly turned out to be on of the most influential considering the widespread use of Newspeak in contempory politics.
The concepts of 1984 are now well intrenched in the western psyche.

jams o donnell said...

Well Roger Bohemian would ahve been dangerous at the time what with it being under german control!


His novels were all very good but for me his reportage was his finest work. Homage to Catalonia, Down and out and the Road to Wigan Pier were his masterpieces.

JRD168 said...

Can I put in mention for his many essays as well, particulalry those reflecting the use and misuse of the English Language

jams o donnell said...

Of course JRD. I'm sure he would have had kittens at my mangling of our mother tongue!