Animal Farm – George Orwell

October 18, 2016 at 16:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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animal-farmDo you suffer from insomnia? Well, if you do I may have the answer. It takes the form of a BBC radio programme called ‘In Our Time‘, in which exceptionally plummy-voiced academics discuss incomprehensible subjects in soporific tones.

It just takes a little of Melvyn Bragg’s introduction (‘and joining me to discuss the influence of thirteenth century epic poetry on the development of the Romance languages are, Edwin Higginbotham, Emeritus Professor of Nearly Everything at the University of Somewhere….) and I’m asleep. It’s one of my favourite programmes, and I assume all this erudition is somehow lodging itself into my somnambulistic brain.

A little while ago, I stayed awake long enough to pick up that the following week’s programme would be about George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This prompted me to read the original book, which I’m not sure I had ever actually read.

The story is, of course, very familiar. The animals of Manor Farm rise up against the brutal and incompetent farmer, and after chasing him away begin to manage the farm for themselves as a sort of co-operative utopia. In those first very heady months everything goes well, with all the animals working together to improve their conditions.

However, it soon starts to go sour, as the pigs (the intellectuals of the farm) start to take more and more for themselves as they exploit and terrorise their fellow animals until, in the famous last scene, the pigs and men in the farmhouse appear indistinguishable from each other, the pigs having turned into the very oppressors they sought to overthrow.

It is a searing commentary on the events of the Russian Revolution, and the eventual rise of Stalin, although written at a time when Britain was in the throes of the Second World War, with Russia as an ally. Because of this, here was significant pro-Russian sentiment in the UK at the time, and Orwell struggled to find a publisher. It was eventually published just after the war, at a time when the pro-Russia sentiment had evaporated and the horrors of the Stalinist regime were becoming more clear.

However, the historical overlay is not necessary to enjoy the book; although it’s a bleak read. It has a kind of relentless inevitability about it; from the moment the pigs first take the milk for their mash the spiral down towards the final outcome seems somehow fixed. It is of course a classic, and worth reading again if you haven’t read it for a while.

Having read it, I then looked forward to the programme to further sharpen my appreciation of the book. But alas, I was asleep within a few minutes of it starting…


Brave New World / 1984

July 12, 2014 at 20:42 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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1984 bravenewworldTwo iconic books written in the first half of the twentieth century, exploring dystopian visions of the future. They are often bracketed together. although the different historical context is interesting; Brave new World was written before the Second World War, at a time when matters of eugenics, conditioning and genetic improvement were of some general interest. Following the horror of Nazism, such ideas lost both their respectability and credibility, and published in 1949 1984 reflects a world much more concerned with the menace of totalitarianism and state-sponsored violence.

I have been meaning to read both of these books for some time, so when the opportunity of a long plane journey presented itself I downloaded them both to while away the hours on the flight. I say ‘quite some time’; I first became aware of 1984 in 1984, when I was about ten years old. At that time my schoolteacher was Mr Boyd, and one of the other children in the class came in with a poster they had drawn of our teacher with the caption ‘Big Boyd is Watching You’. We were all terribly impressed, although I have to say I didn’t really understand what it was all about. Clearly my classmates were more literary than me. Still, over thirty years on I can finally appreciate the joke…

A huge amount has been written about these books; they have been analysed and dissected endlessly. So rather than waffle on about the plots or the literary allusions, I’ll just focus on a couple of points that struck me.

The first was how readable they were, and how undated. This was a surprise; they are both essentially science fiction, and reading old science fiction is sometimes a horribly clunky affair where the author’s  technological naivety (by modern standards) gets in the way of the enjoyment. That was not the case for either of these books; the worlds depicted remain fantastical and wholly believable.

The second was the language. Both books are rich with invented language which is a delight to read and also adds a terrific amount of colour and verisimilitude. I could ramble on here about how this is kind of self-referential, as in 1984 especially the idea of controlling language to control thought is central to the book, but I’ll resist as I’m sure others have already done it better than I could.

Of the two, I think I enjoyed 1984 slightly more; mostly because I felt the end of Brave New World was a little weak. Aldous Huxley evidently agreed, as in his introduction (written some time after the book was first punished) he laments the ending and suggests at alternative. Actually I think this alternative would be even worse, and I think the much more bleak outlook in 1984 is stronger.

So the ultimate question is, of course, who was right? Are we heading for Huxley’s or Orwell’s dystopia? Check it out here, and if you get distracted by the (often NSFW) links on the right hand side, well, consider it game over…


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