Was Orwell guilty of bias?

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It is perhaps too easy to assume that a writer such as George Orwell, if not actually saintly, was very well-balanced and even-minded, but the truth of the matter is that he was equally given to bias in his thinking and consequent written output as any other comparably well-educated person would be. I have just taken the opportunity to read his  The Road to Wigan Pier; I actually quote from it in Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles (note 16 to chapter 6; page 150), coming to it by a circuitous route, but I have neglected reading it in toto until now. Initially, it was the desire to read such a well-known book that impelled me, and I already had a general sense of what it embodied, but as I read, I realised that there was a significant relevance to my aforementioned biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon, because Orwell’s book was written in 1936, when he spent some time in the north west of England, experiencing life with ‘working class’ people (a term that seems strangely outmoded today, even though class distinctions are not yet entirely absent) especially miners.

Notwithstanding Wilfred Risdon’s experience as a miner, albeit in the south west of England, and then south Wales, and some fifteen years or thereabout previously, I was interested for two reasons: would Orwell mention the presence of Mosley’s party, the British Union of Fascists (BUF), in the ongoing debate about unemployment, and working people’s lives in general; and, would he acknowledge, in any terms, Wilfred Risdon’s work in Manchester only a year earlier, when he had a staff of 20 under him, and the BUF had driven “an energetic campaign in Lancashire to enlist cotton workers for Fascism …” and “opened about a score of propaganda centres in the cotton towns which, under Risdon’s direction, enrolled new members by the thousand and were so successful as seriously to worry the Labour Party.” (The Fascists in Britain, Colin Cross, Barrie & Rockliff, 1961; an online version can be accessed at https://www.questia.com/library/79757/the-fascists-in-britain) Were miners so different from cotton workers, and did their lives never overlap?

Orwell’s book is in two clearly separate parts; the first details his travels and observations; the second is his polemic against the iniquities of contemporary life, particularly for working people, and how he considered that, notwithstanding his belief that only Socialism offered any hope of achieving any sort of equity, it was socialists themselves who were, in the main, hindering efforts to achieve this equity (he is also somewhat scathing of what he deems Utopian ideas): I was nearing the end of the book without seeing a specific reference to British Fascism, and beginning to wonder if he was going to ignore it completely. However, on page 197 (of 215 in the edition I read) it appears:

When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of Mosley and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be much more than a joke to the majority of English people; though even Mosley will bear watching, for experience shows (vide the careers of Hitler, Napoleon III) that to a political climber it is sometimes an advantage not to be taken too seriously at the beginning of his career. But what I am thinking of at this moment is the Fascist attitude of mind, which beyond any doubt is gaining ground among people who ought to know better. Fascism as it appears in the intellectual is a sort of mirror-image — not actually of Socialism but of a plausible travesty of Socialism. It boils down to a determination to do the opposite of whatever the mythical Socialist does.

Although there is plenty in Orwell’s book that could be quoted & analysed, the paragraph above seems to be the crux of his attitude to what was going on all around him, especially ‘on the other side of the fence’, so to speak. Is there any need to denigrate Mosley’s followers as “pimpled”? However much distaste he might have had for what Mosley was doing (and it is questionable whether Orwell had taken the trouble to ascertain the totality of what Mosley was trying to do), justifiably, of course, with respect to the racism that Mosley condoned, this ad hominem denigration, albeit mild, was unworthy. He considers that English (note: not British) Fascism has not yet arrived, and yet Mosley’s party (one of several initially, but his very quickly became dominant) had been in existence for three and a half years when Orwell started writing his book: enough time to make a very significant impact, like it or not, on British politics.

The character assessment of Mosley is not entirely undeserved, but it surely should be a given that any personality strong enough to create & lead a new political movement, whichever side of the notional political divide he or she might be, is always going to display character traits that are ripe for lampooning? Towards the end of the paragraph he becomes somewhat wooly, as well as potentially arrogant: surely, “the Fascist attitude of mind” was already demonstrably well-established, and who were the “people who ought to know better”? It would have been helpful here, instead of inviting speculation (unless he means “the intellectual”: a sweeping generalisation), Orwell could have been specific. The final sentence does have the ring of truth about it, and I regret to have to say that this still appears to be the situation today: ever more so in our tawdry, polarised political arenas.

I have set out my views on Wilfred Risdon’s politics in his biography, so I see no need to reiterate them here in detail; but aside from his belief in Nationalism and the concomitant necessity for the State to be all-powerful, albeit (in his view) benign if all the members of the body corporate worked positively toward the same beneficent end; and aside from his distaste for Jews and their modus vivendi, as much a product of the times in which he lived as of his somewhat non-conformist Christian upbringing; he was a lifelong socialist & trade unionist, and his primary concern, which in a man of higher social status than he might be considered patrician, was his fellow man, in the generic sense, and especially all who struggled against the yoke of restricting social conditions, and consequently, he was prepared to put his trust in Mosley, for all his faults, to create the more egalitarian society he saw as being possible.

Orwell’s final thoughts return to the evident dichotomy, containing both the ever-present hobby-horse of class, and, notwithstanding another example of his own potential nationalism, another grudging admission that Fascism in Britain was a force to be reckoned with:

Yet I believe that there is some hope that when Socialism is a living issue, a thing that large numbers of Englishmen genuinely care about, the class-difficulty may solve itself more rapidly than now seems thinkable. In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of Fascism, with cultured policemen instead of Nazi gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika. But if we do get it there will be a struggle, conceivably a physical one, for our plutocracy will not sit quiet under a genuinely revolutionary government. And when the widely separate classes who, necessarily, would form any real Socialist party have fought side by side, they may feel differently about each other.

I have a feeling (and I apologise for not reading Homage to Catalonia to support this assertion) that Orwell might have had a different viewpoint on the last sentence of the above quote (most likely, decidedly negative) when he returned from Spain in a couple of years’ time: he had practical experience of the difficulty, and almost inevitable conflict, resulting when “the widely separate classes” come together in socialism and its extreme relative: communism. He could not know what lay in store for British Fascism with the coming of war, notwithstanding that it ran out of steam through a combination of circumstances. It is interesting to speculate whether Len Deighton used Orwell’s verbal image of the “cultured policemen” in his concept of a defeated Britain in his novel SS-GB; nevertheless, Wilfred Risdon saw, only three years after Orwell’s book was written, that Mosley’s chances of achieving the power by political means to effect the social change that Wilfred saw as essential were minimal, so he moved into an area of activism that was equally important to him: animal welfare.

Featured image credit: Sascha Ehrentraut.

 

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So: wherefore Wilfred Books?

Wilfred Risdon at his office desk in 1937
Wilfred Risdon at his office desk in 1937

That is a very fair question; as always, I try to avoid lazy generalisations, but I think it must be a racing certainty (not said from personal betting experience, I hasten to add!) that at least a few of those people who ever come across the name of my publishing company must wonder on the origin of the name; so, dear reader (especially those aforementioned few): I will enlighten you.

Perhaps simply because of the uncommon nature of my family name (and without indulging in unnecessary self-analysis, although I knew it was a subject that had also intrigued my father), I became interested in family history about twenty-five years ago (note to self: it’s just a number) and, to cut the proverbial long story mercifully short: in the course of my research, and thanks to a dear, previously unknown, but now sadly departed relative in Weston super Mare, I was made aware of his uncle, although by that time he was, sadly, deceased.

Wilfred Risdon, as seen in the photograph above, was my grandfather Charles Henry’s youngest brother, born in 1896; hence, my grand uncle (no: not great uncle!). Len, his nephew, had known Wilfred (sometimes ‘Bill’, but NEVER Wilf!) quite well, and he was able to give a reasonably good synopsis of his life and career, the most ‘interesting’ (interpret that how you will, especially in view of forthcoming revelations) aspect of which was his involvement with a figure in twentieth century politics who has, subsequently, acquired almost the reputation of a pantomime villain (boo, hiss: oh yes he did!): Sir Oswald Mosley.

I was far enough removed from Mosley’s time of influence (again: debatable, I know) in politics, even though I had been aware of his death and a certain amount of the backstory, to be sufficiently intrigued by the little I knew to find out more. Luckily for me, even though he was undoubtedly not a ‘household name’ (a sobriquet that seems to have fallen out of use: nowadays, we all seem to be either ‘celebs’ or ‘plebs’), there was plenty of reference material to be found on Wilfred, and I was very lucky, from an expedient point of view, to make contact with people who had either known him personally (not enough though, unfortunately), or worked with him, or been very close to his legacy of work.

In his defence (not that I consider that he needs one, as the book details), parliamentary politics was not Wilfred’s only sphere of influence: he was also a fervent anti-vivisectionist, and I think it is fair to say that I have come to support his sentiments in this area since encountering him, albeit at some remove. When Wilfred broke with Mosley just before the start of world war two (which didn’t prevent him being interned without charge or trial under the notorious Defence Regulation 18B[1A] in May 1940), he started working for a London anti-vivisection organisation and, such was his professionalism and efficiency, by the end of 1956 he had engineered the amalgamation of the small organisation into the larger, but again London-based National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), and he took over as Secretary at the beginning of 1957; he held that position until his death in 1967; ironically, by then, the organisation had moved into the heart of the medical establishment, which ‘relied’ on animal testing: Harley Street. The NAVS, now known as Animal Defenders International (ADI) has morphed into a global NGO.

Although I combined the research on Wilfred with more general research, over a period of a few years, it became obvious that his was a story worth telling; the crucial decision I had to make was how to go about it. Initially, I prevaricated because, although I knew that a biography was by far the best vehicle, I doubted my ability to complete the task satisfactorily and, in all honesty, I was more than a little bit daunted by the immensity of the task. Thankfully, a few very decent people persuaded me to do it, and all credit to them. Overall, including the writing of the book, which took about two years, I spent twelve years preparing it: an awful lot of research was required if I was going to do the job properly, which was the only result I could have countenanced.

I ended up with a book of 700 pages, including 7 appendices, a bibliography and index (the latter being essential, in my view); you might think, with some justification it has to be said, that that is a very long book for such an arguably insignificant figure in twentieth century affairs, but my view is: you don’t have to read everything if you don’t want to, but you can’t read what isn’t there, and you can always come back later to material you ignored initially. Also, I would have felt that I had given the buyer a poor deal if I had skimped purely for the sake of getting the book finished too quickly, simply for the sake of ‘getting it to market’.

In a way, although the writing of the book had been something of a grind, I proceeded methodically and regularly, which I actually quite enjoy, as did I the writing aspect, as I always have; it was actually the easy part, because it was something over which I had complete control; whereas, the publishing part was an unknown quantity — an unknown country, as it were. I had no stomach (or confidence, come to that) for the orthodox, conventional publishing process: find an agent and/or editor, with ensuing criticism and recommendations for revision (looking at it the worst possible way, of course); then either with their help or alone, find a publisher, if that was even going to be a practicable possibility. No, I thought: I’ll go it alone!

Would I do it again, knowing what I know now? Yes: of course. Would I use the services of a small publisher like I have set out to be, if such had been available to me at the time? Absolutely! I certainly don’t regret the time I have spent learning about the publishing process, but it is also very possibly true that I could have used that time, confident that I was leaving the publication of my magnum opus in the hands of someone who knew what he was doing, to develop other projects which might have brought me similar satisfaction, intrinsically, leaving aside the matter of the filthy lucre.

That being the case, I therefore invite any aspirant, or even demoralised existing authors (demoralised on account of receiving too many knock-backs) to consider letting me help them with the benefit of my experience, especially if the book they want to publish is not considered by the mainstream to be sufficiently ‘saleable’ (an entirely personal and also possibly judgmental assessment, based on the fickle fluctuations of ‘the market’); perhaps because the subject matter is potentially controversial, which is not unusual if politics is involved! I am prepared to look at potential publications at any stage of completion, so if you have a project that you would like me to have a look at, please go to my Wilfred Books publishing website, and look at the ‘About’ page, which has a link to a New Author Information page, and from there you can go to a questionnaire into which you can enter enough information to give me an idea of what sort of project you have in mind. The link is:

http://www.wilfredbooks.co.uk/about.html

I hope the foregoing has been of some interest, and potentially of use as well, so, with that, I thank you for reading this, and I hope to meet you as a new author soon!