My first proper encounter with Orwell came at the age of twelve. An imaginative teacher set my class a challenging essay – “Compare the visions of the future set out by Orwell and Huxley in 1984 and Brave New World”. I think I preferred the Huxley because it was a more light-hearted and less grueling read than Orwell. But forty years on, it is “1984” that now strikes me as the real work of genius – a defining text about the nature of politics and its connection to language, truth and love.
Orwell was reacting to the politics of the 1930s and 1940s. But the issues that he writes about in 1984 are still utterly relevant to the modern world. The charismatic leader – the “Big Brother” figure – is making a comeback in international politics. The relationship between political language, truth and power remain central issues in Russia, China and, sadly, even in the US – with the emergence of Donald Trump. Insisting that there is such a thing as truth is crucial in a political world, in which everything is liable to be challenged and relativized. Orwell’s concerns about 24-hour-monitoring – “Big Brother is watching you” – now seem even more urgent and prescient , in the age of the internet.
Orwell is a bit like Shakespeare in that many of his phrases have become so familiar that they have entered the language. I have to remind myself that I first encountered phrases like “Room 101”, “Big Brother is watching you”, “doublethink” and “some animals are more equal than others” in Orwell’s work.
Gideon Rachman is the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times. He won the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2016