Published "The Orwell Tapes" based on the CBC Radio program of the same name. Includes details from over 70 interviews completed in 1983 with people who had known George Orwell, one of the most significant writers of the 20th century.

Wadhams moved to Canada in 1975. He retired from CBC in 2016 and lives in Victoria.

The Orwell Tapes (Locarno Press $18.50):
Article by Beverly Cramp

George Orwell's 1984-or Nineteen Eighty-Four (original title)-rocketed to the top of the Amazon bestseller list in the U.S. last year immediately after Republican spin doctor Kellyanne Conway was asked on Meet the Press to explain why President Trump's beleaguered press secretary, Sean Spicer, deliberately lied by saying Trump had attracted the "largest audience ever to witness an inauguration."; The White House press secretary, explained Ms. Conway, "gave alternative facts.";

Now a B.C. book, The Orwell Tapes (Locarno Press $18.50), affords fascinating glimpses into the character of the 20th century's most prophetic novelist, George Orwell, the man who predicted such dangerous nonsense.
Stephen Wadhams' The Orwell Tapes is a collection of memories from those who crossed paths with the complex character who first described Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Newspeak and doublethink.

In 1983, CBC's Stephen Wadhams rented a car and drove for 5,000 kilometres in England, Scotland and Spain to interview 70 people who had known George Orwell from his birth in 1903 to his death in 1950.
The highlight was visiting the drafty room on the Scottish island of Jura where Orwell had written his classic work, 1984, while in failing health.
"This was where I felt sure I'd come as close to Orwell as it was possible to be,"; recalls Wadhams, now retired in Victoria.

"I wanted to hear his clacking typewriter, smell his cigarette smoke which must have wafted all through the house. And above all, I wanted to be a fly on the wall observing him writing and re-writing his masterpiece.";
Wadhams' 50 hours of interviews gathered in 1983 resulted in two CBC Radio documentaries, George Orwell, A Radio Biography (1984) and The Orwell Tapes (2016).

These, in turn, have generated the first release from a new B.C. imprint that is spearheaded by Scott Steedman, a respected editor, and Dimiter Savoff, who, as publisher of Simply Read Books, has garnered a controversial reputation for his treatment of authors.

No mention is made of the fact that The Orwell Tapes is actually a reprint of Remembering Orwell (Penguin, 1984), conceived and compiled by Stephen Wadhams, and published 34 years before.

Wadhams' new edition of Remembering Orwell contains the original introduction by Orwell's friend, George Woodcock, the Vancouver anarchist who wrote an award-winning Orwell study, The Crystal Spirit (Little Brown, 1966) and Orwell's Message: 1984 and the Present (Harbour, 1984). There is also an updated preface by Wadhams and a new foreword by scholar Peter Davison.

First there was newspeak, now there's fake news. Big Brother has morphed into social media as data mining companies like Cambridge Analytica and Palantir Technologies brag about the thousands of data points they have on every adult in the United States.

Such previously unimaginable concepts were first brought to the world's attention seventy years ago in the last book George Orwell wrote, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg, 1949). In Nineteen Eighty-Four, protagonist Winston Smith lives amid omnipresent government propaganda and surveillance in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain), part of perpetually war-mongering Oceania. Torturers try to make him believe two and two does not equal four.

"Orwell knew very well where the manipulation of truth and the malignant distortion of language can lead,"; writes Stephen Wadhams, gatherer of The Orwell Tapes. "He'd seen it for himself in the Spanish Civil War and even done it himself as a BBC producer in wartime London, matching German propaganda with lies of his own, discovering the seductive power of being freed from normal constraints of truth telling.";

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, had said "The secret of propaganda is repetition,"; and Hitler, in his 1925 book, Mein Kampf, had already identified the propaganda technique of the Big Lie-a lie so extreme that no one would believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.";

It was George Orwell who revealed to a global audience how easy it is to manipulate people, how fragile our individuality can be, and how complete control of media and other technology can give rise to totalitarianism.
Now Stephen Wadhams' interviews for The Orwell Tapes provide a unique prism for understanding the 20th century's most prophetic voice of caution.
Eric Arthur Blair (pen name George Orwell) was born in 1903 in Motihari, then part of Bengal, but now called Bihar, which is part of India. At the time, opium was legal and a big money-producer for the British Empire. Orwell's father, Richard Blair, was an opium agent in the Indian Civil Service. Orwell's mother was the much-younger Ida Blair, the half-French daughter of a tea merchant from Burma.

With parents from the lower rungs of the British Raj elite, Orwell joked he was, "born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle class.";
Eric Blair's family and a rigidly conformist society conspired to shape him in a particular way.

"His parents certainly wanted him to conform,"; writes Wadhams. "They made considerable financial sacrifices to send him to 'good' schools where he would meet the right people. But from the beginning he appears to have tried to break out of the mould. The consensus among his childhood friends and schoolmates is that the young Eric Blair was always strangely on the outside, observing but rarely joining in-and then usually to challenge and find fault. The picture given is that of an abrasive, free-thinking individual, but intelligent fault-finding is a far cry from open revolt; the young Blair was not a radical.";

That may explain why Orwell would study hard to eventually finish his education at Eton, one of the top boarding schools in Britain, and upon graduation spend five years in the colonial police force in Burma. It was expected of him. But the five years he spent in Burma deeply changed the young man.

"The inequities and oppression he saw there had a lasting effect on him,"; says Wadhams. "In his writing he describes these years as traumatic. The 'dirty end of Empire' left him with an 'enormous weight of guilt,' which he felt he could expunge only by understanding and identifying with the oppressed classes of his own country.";

Even though Orwell took up the underclasses as his adult cause, he retained many of the very English ways that he learned at British boarding schools.
On holidays back at home, Orwell developed a lifelong love of the English countryside and fishing, rather conservative passions one doesn't associate with a radical thinker. He also became attracted to Jacintha Buddicom, a girl two years' older than him.

Buddicom revealed that books were a common denominator between the two and that Blair dreamed of being a famous writer.

"I was never without a book in my hand and nor was he,"; Buddicom said. "He was always going to write, and he was always going to be a Famous Writer.
"That was his trademark, Eric the Famous Writer.";

Buddicom inspired the young Orwell to write a poem about her independent spirit. By then, he had already published a poem in a local newspaper at the age of 11, a patriotic ditty called "Awake! Young Men of England.";
From 1917-1922, Orwell was a King's Scholar at Eton. A fellow Etonion recalls that Eric Blair loved arguing: "Endless arguments about all sorts of things, in which he was one of the great leaders. He was one of those boys who thought for himself, and at an age when a good many schoolboys haven't graduated out of thinking the way they'd been taught to think.";
Upon graduation from Eton, Blair chose not to continue onto Oxford or Cambridge. He hadn't studied hard enough to win another scholarship and his parents couldn't afford to send him. In those days, the usual career path was chosen based on who your father knew. In Blair's case, it was the Indian Civil Service in Burma. And that was how Blair came to leave England for a job with the Burmese Police in 1922.

After Orwell's first trip back home to England in 1927, he chose not to return to Burma, telling his family that he wanted to be a writer instead.

Stephen Wadhams interviewed one of the residents of Southwold, the seaside town where Orwell's parents eventually retired: "He had socialist ideas I suppose, hadn't he? And Mr. Blair Senior wouldn't really agree with that. Also, I think there was a bit of a row when he gave up his job. I mean, young men didn't give up jobs in those days. They did what their fathers wanted them to, more or less.";

The local tailor agreed that Orwell was unusual, saying "He was looked upon here as a little bit eccentric,"; later adding that Orwell's father was a snob, an old autocrat who would walk straight past him with no gesture of recognition. "Avril [Orwell's younger sister] was a bit the same. It was a bit of an honour to be served cakes by her! They'd all got a bit of that. I didn't notice it with Eric so much, though.";

Wadhams contends it was Orwell's hatred of injustice that led him to write about poverty. "And with a straightforward and powerful subject came his equally straightforward and powerful writing style,"; writes Wadhams. So, it was that Orwell started "tramping"; in East London in the autumn of 1927 followed by a similar stint in Paris the following spring. These experiences led to his first professional article being published in Le Monde in 1928 and eventually his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, in 1933.

It wasn't until the book-of-the-month Club in the United States selected Orwell's Animal Farm in 1946, with an initial printing of half a million copies, that Orwell had any financial security. This masterpiece of satire had been refused by fourteen publishers.

"... although it was the USSR that people had in mind,"; said his fellow writer and friend Malcom Muggeridge, "at the same time I think that George was really making a case against every form of authoritarian government, and it just happened that the model available at that time was the USSR.
"What obsessed George in writing Animal Farm was that human beings were going to lose their taste for freedom. And I think that was a just fear. This is what he dreaded.";

Although Orwell was now financially free to devote his time to writing, he was also a very sick man, "From the moment Orwell began writing Nineteen Eighty-Four in the summer of 1946,"; writes Wadhams, "he knew there was a danger that the ill health that had shadowed him all his life might prevent him from committing to paper the ideas he had been formulating for several years.";

Orwell spent time living in a stone farmhouse that summer in the northern part of Jura, an under-populated island in the Inner Hebrides on the Scottish west coast. The beauty Jura held for Orwell was in stark contrast to the dark, pessimistic and ugly world of Nineteen Eighty-Four's main character, Winston Smith.

"There in his stuffy upstairs bedroom, with his hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his lips, he worked on the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four, looking up occasionally to watch the ocean waves crashing on the shore a few yards away,"; writes Wadhams.

To take a break, Orwell "would go downstairs and perhaps take his young son Richard lobster fishing or, if he felt strong enough, walk over the moorland to visit his nearest neighbours, a mile and a half away,"; writes Wadhams. "A fisherman on Jura described him as 'a true communist-by which I mean a true communalist.' In an old-fashioned setting of independent-minded but interdependent farmers and fishermen, Orwell wrote of a world in which the old and sturdy values he cherished had given way to cold, modern tyranny.";

Orwell's working title for the book was "The Last Man in Europe."; Wadhams believes Orwell saw himself as "a solitary man fighting against the powerful forces of an advancing machine society, a mass society that would drain from the individual the taste for freedom.";

Orwell was driven to warn the English, and the wider Western world, of what he claimed in a letter as, "perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism."; Orwell added that he believed, "totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences.";

When Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four, he found himself having to explain what he meant. "The book was, to his dismay,"; writes Wadhams, "instantly adopted by the right wing in the United States, to be used as ammunition against the Soviet Union and as anti-socialist propaganda generally. But Orwell was against totalitarianism of the left or the right. For him, Big Brother might be in the Pentagon or the Kremlin, thought control remained thought control whether the technique was torture or the television set, and during the Cold War his fears about the degradation and distortion of language would be borne out on both sides of the Iron Curtain, whether the subject was the 'pacification' of Vietnam villages or the 'liquidation' of Soviet dissidents.";

In 1948, when Orwell finished the second draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four and sent it to his publisher on December 4, he was seriously ill. The next month he moved to a sanitorium in southern England. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on June 8, 1949 and in July was the American Book of the Month Club selection.

Orwell moved to his final "home,"; the University College Hospital in London on September 3. The next month, he convinced Sonia Brownell, an editorial assistant for Horizon, a London-based literary magazine, to marry him. Author Stephen Spender, a longtime friend of Orwell's believes Brownell married the dying man for good reasons although it was to affect her for the rest of her life.

"I think [Orwell] was very much in love with Sonia and had been for some time. She was fond of him, and she was in a position to make him happy. She also knew that he was going to die. Therefore it seemed a rational proposition. But decisions arrived at on that sort of rational basis never turn out how you think they will, and when he died Sonia felt intensely unhappy. She blamed herself and thought she had done the wrong thing, and so took over the cause of George Orwell for the rest of her life, and she never really recovered from this.

"You see, I think Sonia always wanted to have a genius in her life. She had a romantic conception of genius. Orwell, to some extent, fitted her idea of the solitary genius who needed backing. She was always in search of her genius.";
Orwell died in the evening of January 21, 1950, alone in his hospital room. Five days later he was buried in the churchyard of All Saints, Sutton Courtenay-a wish that Orwell had requested in his will. A funeral service was held despite Orwell being a lapsed Anglican.

Orwell had specifically requested a wild rose be left untended on his grave. Among those interviewed by Wadhams was the Reverend Gordon Dunstan who had led the burial service. "His grave here has just an old English rose on it,"; Dunstan tells Wadhams, "which he asked for. He asked in fact that it might be left untrimmed, untended, but you know how roses grow, and they become straggly and a nuisance."; So, the English rose was trimmed and Orwell's last request was not granted.
He did get the epitaph he wanted.
Here lies Eric Arthur Blair,
born June 25th, 1903,
died January 21st, 1950.


A 5,000-word version of this review is accessible via our affiliate, The Ormsby Review. Also, for an alternate summary of the contents of The Orwell Tapes, visit the OrwellSocietyBlog

Beverly Cramp is associate editor of BC BookWorld.


The Orwell Tapes (Locarno 2017) $18.50 978-0-99599-461-4