I’ve spent my life encountering Orwell, or maybe I mean Orwells, because the more I’ve read and thought about him, the stranger and more complicated he becomes.
When I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, Orwell someone you read the way you read The Hobbit and Treasure Island and Jane Eyre and Lord of the Flies. I read Animal Farm when I was very young and I think I read it as if it was a children’s story, but a children’s story with violence and betrayal and an unhappy ending. ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’ I wasn’t sure what it meant; but what a way to end a story!
And then: ‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ What a way to begin a story! I was a bit older by then and it was probably useful to discover that socialism was more complicated than I had thought. But if you could argue with communism, you could also argue with Orwell as well. Was there something troubling about the glee with which Julia’s sexuality was presented? I started to think so.
Now, many years later, it’s as a reporter that Orwell means most to me. In my journalism I’ve tried not just to write about the forgotten and overlooked, but to go out and be with them where they live. For anyone who believes that to write a story you need the smell of it, the feel of it, the sound of it, Orwell was there before anyone else, putting himself on the line, in Burma, Spain, in Paris kitchens, in the north of England, in doss houses. We try to do our best, but Orwell got there first.
Nicci Gerrard is an author and journalist. She writes psychological thrillers with Sean French as Nicci French. She won the Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils in 2016