Britain's own "Big Brother" eyed Orwell
AP | September 4, 2007
George Orwell's left-wing views and bohemian clothes led British police to label him a communist — but the MI5 spy agency stepped in to correct that view, the writer's newly released security file reveals.
The secret file that MI5 kept on the author from 1929 until his death in 1950 is being declassified Tuesday by the National Archives.
It reveals that in contrast to the fictional "Big Brother," the cruel and all-seeing secret police of Orwell's classic "1984," MI5 took a surprisingly benign view of the writer.
Orwell savaged the totalitarianism of Stalin's Russia in "Animal Farm" and "1984." But he was also a socialist who railed against inequality in earlier works such as "Down and Out in Paris and London" and "The Road to Wigan Pier."
The documents show Orwell — whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair — attracted the attention of police in 1936 for alleged "communist activities in Wigan." Then 33, he had gone to the mining town to research a book about working-class life in northern England.
MI5 had already been watching Orwell since 1929, when he was a struggling journalist in Paris, attempting to write for left-wing publications.
In 1942, Orwell drew police interest again while working for the Indian service of the British Broadcasting Corp. A report by a sergeant named Ewing of Special Branch, the British police intelligence wing, said Orwell had "advanced communist views, and several of his Indian friends say they have often seen him at communist meetings."
"He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours," police noted.
The file shows that MI5 took no action against Orwell over Ewing's report. In a note, an MI5 officer named W. Ogilvie reveals that he phoned Special Branch to ask why Ewing had described Orwell as having "advanced Communist views."
A police inspector replied that the sergeant felt Orwell was an "unorthodox communist."
"I gathered that the good Sergeant was rather at a loss as to how he could describe this rather individual line," Ogilvie wrote.
"It is evident from his recent writings ... that he does not hold with the Communist Party nor they with him," he added.
The Special Branch files on Orwell were released by the archives in 2005. MI5's response had been secret until now. It was declassified as part of a phased release of MI5 files under the Freedom of Information Act, which was passed in 2005.
Other documents in the file reveal MI5 did not consider Orwell a security risk. In 1943, it was asked whether Orwell should be accredited as a journalist with Allied armed forces headquarters. "The Security Service have records of this man, but raise no objection to his appointment," was the reply.
A year earlier MI5 had approved Orwell's wife Eileen as suitable for employment with the Ministry of Food.
Despite his lifelong socialist views, in 1949, a year before his death at 46, Orwell gave the government a list of people he thought were Stalinist sympathizers or "fellow travelers."
The declassified file includes photographs, Orwell's passport application and a 1936 Special Branch summary of his career, which began conventionally — education at the elite Eton College and service as a colonial police officer in Burma — before taking a radical turn.
Special Branch notes that he "eked out a precarious living" as a freelance journalist and moved to France to research "Down and Out in London and Paris."
The last entry in the file notes simply that "George Orwell ... died on the 21st January 1950."
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