Orwell & Empire

Orwell & Empire

By Douglas Kerr

Oxford University Press – £25.00

His political ideas were fairly unformed; it would be more accurate to speak of his political emotions.


On the whole the literary history of the ‘thirties seems to justify the opinion that a writer does well to keep out of politics.’ Politics, meanwhile, will not keep out of literature. The novel, in particular, was the canary in the political coal-mine, because it could only breath in an atmosphere of freedom of thought. In the age of totalitarian dictatorships which seemed to be coming, ‘literature, in the form in which we know it, must suffer at least a temporary death.’


Rumour has it that the despicable Boris Johnson has a desire to return to journalism.

If such be the case (and I, for one, sincerely hope not), he’d be well advised to heed the following: ‘’Orwell was becoming a professional writer, and no doubt he was on the look-out for good copy. But more importantly, he was trying to unlearn superiority, and to see things from the underside’’ (‘Class’).

Where class per se, along with recurrent, prime-time ignorance, has always been Britain’s quintessential downfall (one need look no further than the country’s current, pending disaster), this book – perhaps by default – sets the record straight.

There again, Eric Blair, otherwise known as George Orwell, has always set the record straight. In fact, he is renowned for having done so; while in the ultimate big scheme of things, Orwell & Empire is no exception.

By focusing on the writer’s work that derives directly from Orwell’s Burmese years – which include such narratives as ‘A Hanging’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ it has to be said that nigh every avenue amid this book’s 167 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index) culminates with an exploration unto humanistic honesty and fair-play. Former British traits some might say, which the current Prime Minster knows absolutely nothing about. And Orwell (perhaps inadvertently) everything about: ‘’But when Orwell returns home from Barcelona, he finds a country outside narrative, living its immemorial ways, perilously unaware of what is going on in the world, ‘sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England. It would take a war to wake her up.’

Indeed it would. Indeed it did.

Frank, to the point and written from a stand-point of exceedingly well researched knowledge, Douglas Kerr has herein written a fine contribution to be placed alongside the ever increasing pantheon of Orwellian induced literature. As Kerr unconditionally states: ‘’This book puts the powerful oriental dimension in George Orwell’s work in the foreground. I am aware of the negative connotations of the word ‘oriental’ for most modern readers, its association with mastery, selection, and prejudice. But my aim is to show how Orwell struggled all his life, and not with complete success, to exorcise the Orientalism […] which came with his Anglo-Indian patrimony.’’

Upon reaching the end of this book, said ‘patrimony’ appears to be the least of Orwell’s protracted trajectory.

David Marx

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