BBC Radio 4, 18-23 February 2013
I caught David Jackson Young's Book of the Week series, read
by Clive Merrison, just after having read Richard Seymour's Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (Verso,
2012). Orwell was one of Hitchens' favourite authors; anyone found criticizing the great socialist's work left themselves
open to a volley of verbal attacks from Hitchens on account of having "misunderstood" Orwell. However Seymour argues
convincingly that Orwell appealed to Hitchens not so much because of his politics, but because Orwell offered a vision of
an England that no longer existed; one where traditions mattered, and where people learned to live with one another in relative
calm. While there were obvious social and political inequalities, Orwell looked back to that world as a place very different
from what he perceived as a bleak future - especially in futuristic works such as Nineteen Eighty-Four.
On the other hand Orwell's nostalgia also laid him open to charges of old fogeyism;
a refusal to engage with the future and a retreat into the past instead. Seymour believes that it was this strand that
united Hitchens with Orwell in spite of their political beliefs.
Listening to Merrison's reading of a series of Orwell's pieces drawn from a variety
of publications, I could not help but feel that for all his clarity of vision, Orwell was a real fogey - someone voicing his
dislike of institutions and the people working for them in the strongest terms, without offering any real solutions.
The prose was entertaining enough - Orwell certainly knew how to keep readers interested in his work - but left me feeling
dissatisfied. So Orwell did not like the BBC, but what could he offer as an alternative?
Nonetheless I thought Merrison did an admirable job of reading the texts. He
has an easily recognizable radio voice - years of playing Sherlock Holmes endeared him to listeners of all generations - but
nonetheless he knows how to use it to maximum verbal effect.