Thursday, July 26, 2007

A writer's legacy

Occasionally people ask me how I got to write for a living. Sheer luck (or divine providence if you don't believe in luck). Sometimes I'm asked how a person could become a writer. I always say 'read books'. Ask a writer what they're currently reading and you'll usually get a list as long as their arm (and only because you can't really carry a pile of books longer than your arm). And it's fairly obvious that people who don't read won't know what works and what doesn't.

My dream is to write more of what I want to write for a living. But I recognise I am lucky in getting to do something like what I want to do. Still we all daydream, don't we.

Thinking about other writers I admire, one of them is George Orwell. A mark of a writer's achievement is the impression you make on the language - in other words your legacy. Orwell managed that with one book: 1984.

I read 1984 when I was about 15 and it remains one of the most affecting books I've ever read. And when you think about the linguistic legacy of the book, you can see how I'm not alone in that. The very title is frequently used to describe a sinister governmental state of affairs: "It's like something out of 1984". The term 'Orwellian' is used exclusively for a dystopic view of the future, or a pessimism about society, based on 1984 (and possibly Animal Farm, to be fair), but not for any of his other stuff.

And of course, Big Brother. Inescapable at the moment in terms of TV, but also in terms of CCTV. There are 20 million CCTV cameras in the world and 4 million of them are in Britain. That's one camera for every 14 people. 20% of the world's CCTV footage is of me and my fellow Brits going around our daily business. (And worryingly, the Big Brother who watches us doesn't stop people blowing themselves up on the underground or ramraiding airports. No wonder the conspiracy theorists conclude the government is in on it.)

At least one other TV show takes it's name from 1984: Room 101. It takes a certain kind of genius to take the fabled torture room where you are made to face your worst fears and turn it into light televisual entertainment. But I think Orwell would have enjoyed the irony. And it was quite a decent show, even if the first presenter was replaced with no explanations. (It's just like something out of 1984.)

And try and read a quality newspaper (or even the Daily Mail) for a week without running across the phrases 'thought police' or 'doublethink' (the art of holding two contradictory viewpoints at the same time).

So the big question is, did naming these concepts so many years ago mean they couldn't insidiously develop. What George Orwell gave the world was epithets to describe the erosion of civil liberties and government duplicity. When his labels are applied to circumstances, it reveals them for what they are. Is his legacy really the freedom to name and shame tyranny?

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