Andrew Bradford

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Is "the Truth" a broken concept?

Posted on February 15, 2017 at 5:55 AM Comments comments (3)

In March 1942 George Orwell wrote in his diary: " All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth". In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries declared "post-truth" to be the word of the year. Here are some examples of Post-truth:


• Obama founded ISIS

• George Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks


I wonder what Orwell would have had to say about this subject?


Since Donald Trump's election as President of the United States, sales of Orwell's "1984" have rocketed to the top of the best seller list in the United States. 1984 gave birth to a number of memes that have entered our consciousness, including of course "Big Brother", "Room 101" as well as "doublethink" - where a person can accept two contradicting beliefs as both being correct. The phrase "Orwellian" is used to describe an idea or action that is destructive to a free and open society.


Much of Orwell's writing is concerned with distortions of the truth that were made for political reasons. In his own lifetime he witnessed Stalin's Russia, where political opponents were put on trial, and at those trials the victims falsely confessed to heinous crimes, usually as a result of torture, or in response to threats of actions against loved ones.


Also in the USSR, the famine of 1932–33 affected the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, leading to millions of deaths in those areas and severe food shortage throughout the USSR. While this was going on, official soviet sources denied that the famine was taking place, so any discourse on this issue was classified as criminal "anti-Soviet propaganda". The results of the 1937 census were kept secret as they revealed the demographic losses attributable to the Great Famine. Official statistics showed continually improving crop yields. Both of these events were parodied by Orwell in "Animal Farm".


A few years after Orwell's death, exactly the same events were replayed almost identically in China, during the "Great Leap Forward" famine of the 1950s, where it is believed that as many as thirty million people starved to death, and Mao's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, where millions of people were persecuted in the violent struggles that ensued across the country, suffering a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment, and seizure of property.


What seems to be the most worrying difference between our time and Orwell's time, is that the offences against the truth that Orwell satirised were committed by totalitarian states which could not remotely be considered democracies; while today's offences are being committed by individuals and political parties who claim to be democrats, in societies with a long history of democracy.


A few weeks ago, Donald Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, accused the media of underestimating the size of the crowds for President Trump's inaugural ceremony. Spicer claimed that the ceremony had drawn the "largest audience to ever to witness an inauguration, period – both in person and around the globe." But as many sources immediately pointed out, that claim was false. Spicer then falsely accused the press of altering images of the event to minimize the size of the crowds. He said floor coverings over the grass were to blame for a visual effect that made the audience look smaller, and stated they had never been used before; however, they had been used in 2013 for the inauguration of Barack Obama. Spicer took no questions after his statement. Later, he defended his previous statements by saying "sometimes we can disagree with the facts". He was then defended by Kellyanne Conway, another Trump mouthpiece, who told NBC's Chuck Todd that Trump's inauguration crowd numbers could not be proved nor quantified and that the press secretary was simply giving "alternative facts". Todd responded by saying "Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods."


Kellyanne Conway went on to invent a series of so called facts so egregious and so dishonest that the USSR and Chairman Mao would have been proud of her. In a television news interview where she was attempting to justify President Trump's immigration ban, she referenced an event allegedly perpetrated by Iraqi terrorists which she termed the "Bowling Green massacre". She described it as an attack carried out within the United States by terrorists who had been admitted as refugees. These are the words Conway said:


"I bet, there was very little coverage—I bet it's brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized—and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. I mean, most people don't know that because it didn't get covered."


The reason that it didn't get any press coverage was, of course, it never happened. Just like the huge increases on food production during the famines of Stalin and Chairman Mao never happened. This is pure fiction dressed up as history.


Is it happening in our country? To some extent. My own view is that the EU referendum campaign included lots of alternative facts, mostly but far from exclusively on the "out" side and most notably the claims that 1): sixty million Turks would become eligible to come to the UK, and 2): £350 million would be able to be invested in the National Health Service each week.


If claims like this are not challenged, our democracy is in danger. There is nothing unique about our society that means that totalitarianism cannot succeed. Challenge false claims when we hear or see them. Remember, as Orwell said, " All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth".

 

From Wallington to Willingdon

Posted on January 12, 2017 at 8:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Most of the scenes in George Orwell's Animal Farm take place in the Big Barn of Manor Farm, Willingdon. Orwell never states in which county Animal Farm is set, but it is almost certain that Wilingdon is based on the tiny Hertfordshire village of Wallington, near Baldock, where Orwell lived on and off from 1936 to 1944.


Small villages and towns such as Haworth and Hawkshead are today almost entirely defined by their connections with the Brontes and Beatrix Potter, but Wallington wears its literary associations lightly. I discovered Wallington by accident, while walking the Icknield Way footpath from Baldock to Royston. The national trail skirts the village, but Orwell's House is only a few hundred yards off of the trail. There is no souvenir shop, no cafe, no pub and no National Trust sign.


The house where Orwell moved to in April 1936 was known as the Stores, and had been the village store until the owner went bankrupt in the 1920s. It was a very basic dwelling, this is how Miss Esther Brooks, one of its later occupants, describes it:


"The medieval Lords of the Manor built their barns in composite units of eleven feet since that was the space needed for a yoke of oxen. They built the cottages to match....They were constructed of lath and plaster on a timber frame with thatched roofs. The materials were local beechwood, chalk and wheat straw."


By the time that Orwell lived there, the thatch had rotted, and a corrugated iron roof had been erected over the thatch. Miss Brooks continues:


"Each cottage has two room up and two rooms down, with a lean-to at the west end. This cottage was special in that while the downstairs rooms were the usual height of six foot three inches (the same height as Orwell) the upper rooms rose to that height before sloping to a very pitched roof. Downstairs, the floor is now sixteen inches below ground level. Two steps rise to the sill. The height of the door was three foot nine inches....A ladder gave access to the upper storey, smoke curled up through a hole in the roof. Hams hung from hooks embedded in the centre beams. Water was fetched from the Church Well."


As well as no water, the house had no electricity or gas, Calor gas cylinders provided fuel for cooking and heating, and The Road to Wigan Pier was written under a the light of a Tilley lamp. Orwell re-opened the shop. He sold a few groceries and sweets as well as eggs laid by the hens that Orwell kept, together with goats, on a piece of rough ground that he rented opposite the cottage. At the time Orwell was a struggling writer and the reason that he moved into the cottage was that it was cheap - the weekly rent was only seven shillings and six pence - and he made about thirty shillings a week from the shop. He had to invest in a bacon slicer, and his letters to his friend Jack Common show that he took the role of shopkeeper quite seriously.


Or at least one member of the family did, because he was too busy - writing The Road to Wigan Pier during 1936, fighting as a volunteer in Spain from December 1936 to July 1937 and in a sanatorium being treated for tuberculosis for six months during 1938. So the shopkeeper was probably Orwell's wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy, an Oxford psychology graduate whom he had met at a party in Hampstead the previous year and whom he married at Wallington Parish Church in June 1936. A villager recalled:


"The occasion was very simple. Eileen and he walked down the road from the cottage together. George vaulted over the churchyard wall so as to be standing inside the gate to pick up Eileen and carry her to the church door; having plainly got his folklore muddled."

After the wedding there was a lunch at The Plough, which was next door to the cottage. Eileen later recalled Orwell's mother's advice to her daughter-in-law on that day:


"Mrs Blair shook her head & said that I'd be a brave girl if I knew what I was in for, & Avril the sister said I obviously didn't know what I was in for or I shouldn't be there."


Both the Orwells chain smoked. Imagine the atmosphere in that cottage. Rotting thatch, Calor gas, paraffin lamps and hand-rolled shag tobacco. This very basic environment must have contributed to Orwell's TB which would kill him at the age of forty-six, at the height of his literary powers. Eileen would die even younger, in March 1945 when she was only thirty nine. Her death certificate reads "Cardiac failure whilst under anaesthetic of ether and chloroform skilfully and properly administered for operation for removal of uterus." In June 1944 she and Orwell had adopted a three-week-old boy they named Richard Horatio. After Orwell's death in 1950 Richard was brought up by Orwell's sister.


But did Wallington actually become Willingdon? There is a competing claim from the village of Willingdon in East Sussex, but there's no evidence from the Orwell archives that he'd ever been there or even heard of it. Wallington is a much more likely explanation. The biggest farm in Wallington is Manor Farm, and one of Manor Farm's most historic buildings is a medieval barn called the Great Barn. Every time that Orwell went to the village well to fetch water he would have passed the great barn, and he almost certainly used that building on that farm as the setting for the big barn at Manor Farm in Animal Farm. The Plough at Wallington has become the Red Lion at Willingdon, which is where Farmer Jones got so drunk one night that he forgot to shut the pop-holes on the barn. The rest of the story is Orwell's. Willingdon East Sussex does actually have a Red Lion though, and the pub's owners are careful to make the Orwell connection on their website.


There are no pubs left in Wallington, though and you can't go in to the barn as its privately owned, as is Orwell's much modernised house. You can't but a coffee or a beer in the village, let alone of Orwell's own books or the many biographies of the man. In St Mary's Church you can leave £2.50 in the honesty box for a facsimile of his marriage certificate, as well as a few local history booklets describing his life there. There are no longer any people alive who remember him. As long ago as 1975 a local historian asked elderly locals of they remembered George Orwell and none could. However one old timer remembered Eric Blair (Orwell's real name) who kept the shop and had a dim recollection that the shopkeeper might have written a book.


 The commemorative plaque on Orwell's House



The Great Barn at Manor Farm