Orwell’s Ghosts


Recently I was asked to write a piece for Island that connects freedom of speech issues between George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the likes of George Christensen and Cory Bernardi and their blatherings about the Safe Schools Coalition. This is something of a rehearsal for that piece, which will probably be longer and hopefully published later in the year.

Orwell finished writing Animal Farm in early 1944, with World War Two still about fifteen months away from its European conclusion. In my opinion it is the finest thing he published, certainly the best of his fiction; it achieves that magic quality that should arguably govern all good fiction, that of simple complexity. He had difficulty getting it published; his contracted publisher at the time, Victor Gollancz, turned it down, as did TS Eliot at Faber. Finally Secker & Warburg came to the party in August 1945, after Victory in Europe (and at about the time when the War was also coming to an end in the Pacific). The main reason for Orwell’s difficulty in finding a publisher was the book’s depiction of Soviet leaders as pigs; after the Yalta Conference, Stalin worked with the West to defeat Germany and it wasn’t considered cricket to then step on his toes by publishing something he would almost certainly regard as offensive. (When it was finally published it was banned in Russia for forty years.)

It is the use of language as a tool for oppression in the novel that interests me here. Squealer is its agent of propaganda–a pig who is very persuasive and has the job of selling leader Napoleon’s ideas to the rest of the animals, who for the most part lack sufficient education to really know what’s going on. There are several excellent examples in this but the famous one is the replacement of the original Seven Commandments of Animalism at the end of the book with one final absurd statement: ‘All Animals are Equal, But Some are More Equal Than Others.’ In an afterword included with a recent reprinting, Orwell states that if liberty has any meaning at all, it is in the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Which is a noble sentiment and one with which I tend to concur. It makes a discussion of free speech difficult, however, and in our current age of terrorism (and recent attempts to change the Racial Discrimination Act) the issue is as complex and compelling as ever.

One of my favourite hobbies is getting blocked from Facebook pages. Facebook is clearly a very open church (pun intended), until you start telling people what they don’t want to hear. My most recent victory came in a visit I paid to the Facebook page of a group called Family Voice Australia, which is described as “a Christian voice for family, faith and freedom”. (Not, apparently, freedom of speech–of course.) Not surprisingly this page is used to take regular aim at issues like marriage equality and the Safe Schools Coalition–things, in other words, that are contrary to narrow white middle-class fundamentalist notions of family.

I was blocked by them after I commented on a story they posted in which Queensland LNP MHR George Christensen attacked the Safe Schools Coalition using parliamentary privilege, as he has done several times. What caught my particular attention was his use of the word ‘grooming’ to describe how the Safe Schools program (intended to provide support in schools for students who may be LBGTI) could be seen as regarding students the way a paedophile regards potential victims. A truly moronic, uninformed, appalling thing to say. My comment in response asked them to consider how much ‘grooming’ had taken place in the Catholic and Anglican churches over the last few decades, and then to find a dictionary and look up ‘hypocrisy’. I took a screen-shot, knowing the comments wouldn’t remain for long–and they didn’t. Less than a couple of hours.

I was further amused a few weeks later when Senator Cory Bernardi derided a group of protesters who, angry with his opposition to Safe Schools, stormed into his Adelaide office and trashed it. Lefty totalitarians, he called them, a ridiculous phrase both historically ignorant and semantically contradictory. (In that, to very briefly explain, totalitarian regimes have always emerged from the Far Right.)

The agenda of our current Coalition Government’s conservative rump is clearly ideological; they are clearly offend by anything which deviates from clearly defined parameters of ‘normal’. Invoking religion to support such ideals is nothing new but the level of bigotry and ignorance demonstrated by fundamentalist groups such as Family Voice Australia should be alarming–indeed, for breathtaking hypocrisy if nothing else.

However, and here’s the difficult bit: they should be welcome to their views. Orwell’s definition of liberty allows them to be welcome. At the same time, his definition allows me (and anyone else of a similar mindset) to remind people how ugly and ill-informed those views are, and how detrimental the likes of Bernardi and Family Voice are to many of the core values of faith–compassion, inclusion, unconditional love.

Orwell had a somewhat contradictory attitude to religion; he was mostly agnostic, yet believed that we should behave like God’s children. He insisted in his will on burial in a church graveyard (which he was, after extended and delicate negotiations). I don’t know what he would make of our conservative politicians or their fundamentalist cheer squads.

I like to think, however, that he would have been reluctant to join them for a game of cards.




Jura Days



I know, I know. A very long between drinks on the Frog, yet again. Sorry.

I think one of my earlier posts was about writing a play and the transition to writing for theatre from writing fiction. Since then I’ve finished a reasonably polished draft of my next novel The Sand (not quite there yet but a good way along the road!) and the play I wrote last year, I Am A Lake, goes into rehearsal in the next few months  for a season in Queenstown, Launceston and possibly a statewide tour.

And last week, I started writing another play. Curse my theatre muse, I noted on Facebook. But I know better than to argue with it!

The chap at the typewriter in the image above is George Orwell. In the last few years of his life, crippled by grief at the sudden death of his wife after they had just adopted a son, he vanished to a cottage called Barnhill on the Isle of Jura, one of the Inner Hebrides off the wet coast of Scotland. While he was there, he went for walks, played with his son, nearly drowned in the infamous Corryveckan whirlpool, smoked a lot and wrote 1984, the novel that would cement his phenomenal literary reputation (for which Animal Farm had laid the foundations when it was finally published in 1945). This period of his life is the subject of my new play.


Barnhill, on the Isle of Jura, where 1984 was written.

One thing fascinates me, and one thing terrifies me. I am fascinated by the fact that this has to be a play. It has not come to me in any other form–it could work as a novel and one day I may have a crack at that. But something about it screams theatre. On the face of it, a play about the writing of a novel might seem strange, but of course the play is not about the novel, although references to it (and some of his other works) will no doubt feature. The play is about a man, coming to the end of his life prematurely owing to a TB diagnosis, struggling with the demands of finishing a novel (and the constant demands his growing fame placed on him) while coping with the death of his wife and trying to be present as a father. Just today, I was reminded of Boxer, the enormous draught horse who is a tower of strength in Animal Farm, whose maxim is ‘I Will Work Harder’ and does so until the day he collapses, completely spent, and is sold to the knackers for a crate of whisky by those bastard Pigs. Boxer worked himself to death; arguably, Orwell did something similar in order to get 1984 finished. He died about six months after it was published so was able to see the success he’d created…but only just.

What terrifies me is the notion that I could have the audacity to place words in the mouth of this man. Clearly there are some responsibilities to be met when dealing with historical figures–one has to remain ‘true’ to them, whatever that means. Perhaps I’m kidding myself–I’ll get into it and realise I’m wasting my time, it’s not working, I couldn’t possibly bring to Orwell to life in any meaningful way. But I won’t die wondering.


So I’ll keep the words moving for now, finding arcs and shapes and tensions and playing with them. I’m not sure when exactly I became a playwright–but I’m not complaining.

Thanks for reading.