From August 1941 until November 1943, George Orwell served as the producer and writer of a radio talk show beamed by the BBC out to India. Physically unfit for army duty, he considered the job to be his way of “doing his bit” in the war against Hitler. The image of Orwell as a chief of propaganda is ironic—and was ironic to Orwell himself He stood the job as long as he could, but eventually resigned, taking up instead a much more congenial position as literary editor for the independent left-wing magazine Tribune. For some 40 years, the work Orwell did at the BBC was lost in the disreputably haphazard BBC archives (priceless voice-recordings of Orwell at work were also destroyed by the BBC bureaucracy during the 1950’s, as part of an economy measure). But last year William West, an amateur Orwellian, accomplished what no professional Orwell scholar has been able to do; rediscover the BBC scripts. Much of it had been filed, for some reason, under the name of one of the Indian ladies responsible for reading over the air some of the scripts Orwell wrote.

West has now published in America the first batch of the recovered material under the pretentious title The Lost Writings. But Orwell had explicitly discounted the value of much of what he wrote at the BBC, and frankly, this first selection (consisting of radio-essays on general political and literary topics) is disappointing. Some of the new material is simplistic (not false) propaganda aimed at the Indian audience. Worse, West has chosen to include many of the memos Orwell wrote in the course of the tedious and complex business of setting up topics for broadcast, and the fixing of the various physical arrangements necessary for the broadcasts themselves. It is disconcerting to learn that Orwell the bureaucrat reads like any other bureaucrat. There are, of course, some small jewels in all this dross: a fine essay on Bernard Shaw, an imaginary 1942 interview between Orwell and his literary hero Jonathan Swift (in which Orwell, latterly famous for his alleged pessimism, distinguishes himself from the Dean on the basis of optimism). Yet it is the dross which, unfortunately, predominates in this volume. Perhaps the promised second volume (a collection of commentaries on the events of the war, which Orwell wrote for weekly broadcasts to India) will have more material of substance.

Actually, by far the most interesting part of The Lost Writings is not written by Orwell but by West. In a long and scholarly introduction. West argues that despite the standard view, Orwell made good use of his time at the BBC: these were not “lost years.” Orwell learned to turn out written work at a very fast clip (which helps account for the marked increase in his literary production after 1943); and preparing for the literary broadcasts gave him time to read (or read again) many of the classics of English writing. I do not think there can be much doubt that the Orwell who emerged from the BBC was a much more self-confident person than the man who went to work there two and a half years before—perhaps not least because he had (for the first time since the 1920’s) held a steady and demanding job for a long period, and had done well at it.

But West also argues that Orwell’s experience within the BBC bureaucracy forms the model and sets the tone for the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Other critics—looking for a way to discuss Orwell’s greatest work without mentioning the Soviet Union—have pushed this hypothesis much farther than West does. Here the informed reader is compelled to dissent. There can be no doubt now, thanks to West’s researches, that certain aspects of Nineteen Eighty-Four turn out to be inside jokes. The sinister Ministry of Truth where Winston Smith works—that vast, pyramidical building—is clearly modeled on the wartime headquarters building of the Ministry of Information (and hence of the BBC): namely, the Senate Building of the University of London! The telegraphic address of this building was, during the war, MINI- FORM (Ministry of Information)—a chilling parallel to Winston Smith’s MINITRUE. The Minister of Information during Orwell’s time at the BBC was Mr. Brendan Bracken, and MOI internal memos consistently refer to this man as “B.B.”—precisely as the internal memos at Winston Smith’s MINITRUE refer to Big Brother. And there was even a major fad at the BBC for C.K. Ogden’s simplified language called “Basic English” (Orwell himself commissioned a radio-essay on it); the relationship here to Orwell’s notorious “Newspeak” is obvious.

It is good to know these inside jokes. But West pushes the parallel between Oceania and the BBC too far. A case in point is West’s suggestion that Oceania’s all-pervasive system of telescreen supervision has its origins in Orwell’s fears that microphones might be left on in BBC studios, so that private conversations were accidentally overheard. This is patently ridiculous: there is not the slightest evidence that Orwell ever worried about microphones at the BBC being accidentally left on; the parallel does not work because Orwell’s telescreens are both intentional and all-pervasive (unlike accidentally active microphones at the BBC); and the obvious source for the pervasive telescreens of Nineteen Eighty-Four is Orwell’s knowledge of the pervasiveness of secret police systems in certain countries, a problem which we know worried him very deeply.

Towards the end of his introductory essay. West himself seems to realize that the context and the meaning of Nineteen Eighty-Four are larger and more complicated than Orwell’s relationship to his experiences at the BBC and that the inside jokes about the BBC may actually form only one of the more shallow layers of that multilayered work. For in relation to the larger issues which Britain and the rest of the world outside the BBC faced in the 1940’s, West does see Nineteen Eighty-Four for what it certainly is—a bitter assault, by a man of the left, on left-wing totalitarianism and antihumanism.

There is more to come from William West on Orwell, both as editor of the new Orwell material and as a literary and political commentator on Orwell himself Orwell’s lost writings are a disappointment so far—they will be of limited interest even to Orwell scholars—but West’s introduction, at least, is worth the read. We await the publications of his other rediscovered Orwell material with anticipation.


[Orwell: The Lost Writings; Edited by W.J. West (New York: Arbor House) $20.00]