Britons give scant attention to anniversary of Orwell

Thursday, June 26, 2003

LONDON -- The centenary of George Orwell's birth passed with little fanfare Wednesday, but the author of some of the most chilling vocabulary of the 20th century has become as much a part of Britain's culture as its closed-circuit cameras and favorite reality TV program.

A great many of the millions who tune in to Channel 4's "Big Brother" night after night -- watching ordinary people sleep, eat and argue -- probably have not read "Nineteen Eighty-Four," Orwell's 1949 vision of a totalitarian society where people are kept in line with the warning: "Big Brother is watching you."

CCTV scans shopping centers, parking lots, offices and street corners in Britain's cities and picturesque towns, an omnipresent security tool.

Orwellian, some would say.

"Nineteen Eighty-Four," published the year before Orwell died of tuberculosis in 1950, was a bitter look at a totalitarian state. In it, Orwell created a Ministry of Truth, the Thought Police and Newspeak -- including such lasting terms as "unperson," "thoughtcrime" and "doublethink" -- "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them."

His reputation was first won with the 1945 novel "Animal Farm."

George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, born June 25, 1903, in Bengal, India to an upper-middle-class British civil servant. He was educated at England's prestigious school Eton but did not go to university.

Orwell spent part of his youth working in Burma, the Southeast Asian country now known as Myanmar. This led to his 1934 autobiographical novel, "Burmese Days."

"The Road to Wigan Pier" in 1937, another of his best-known books, was a socialist treatise on life among unemployed miners in northern England.

Orwell hated authoritarianism. He fought with the Republicans against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. But he also fought in Barcelona against communists who were trying to suppress their political opponents in 1937.

Orwell, who had written the last pages of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in a house on the remote Scottish island of Jura, died at age 46 in a London hospital in January 1950.

Britain's broadsheet newspapers have marked the Orwell centenary over the past week or so with features about him and his work, and he was the subject of radio programming and a television docudrama.

The British Library, newly built to house the nation's vast book collection, created a small Orwell display that will remain on view until Aug. 10.

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