Inspiring Older Readers
That George Orwell Look
When it came to his private life Eric Blair liked to keep himself to himself. It’s true that his writing alter-ego, George Orwell, had started to take over his identity by the time he died – at the tragically young age of 47 – but even then he battled to keep himself and his family out of the public eye. One of Orwell’s dying wishes was that there should be no authorised biography published – a request that his wife Sonia eventually capitulated on and, as a result, we now have an Orwell industry speculating on every last nuance of his life.
One of the more irritating dimensions of the hagiography that now surrounds his life and work is the ‘what would Orwell have made of that?’ speculation. If only Orwell were still alive he’d be spinning in his grave. However, all of the twaddle can’t hide the fact that as a writer, and as a sort of political and moral spectre, his influence on generations of readers has been profound and, I suspect, a good deal of the impact stems from the fact that he was an enigma and he didn’t grow old disgracefully in the way many other writers did. It’s still possible to see Orwell in the way George Woodcock’s biography paints him – as a ‘crystal spirit’.
I was one of those young men who fell under the Orwell spell at an early age (about 16) and I saturated myself in his writing and his world view so thoroughly that I have never escaped the gravitational pull of his writing and his persona. That includes the way Orwell looked. In keeping with his desire for a private life, there aren’t thousands of photographs of Orwell to be found and those that do exist have a sort of gratifying uniformity. Unlike other celebrity authors you won’t find pictures of him skiing, lounging around in or outside nightclubs, slouched over coffee in Paris cafes or sozzled and propping up a fashionable bar. All of Orwell’s photographs have a kind of wartime austerity to them that somehow fits perfectly with his writing style.
Orwell was a tall, lean and, by all accounts, a slightly ill-co-ordinated man. His face is long and, in later pictures at least, increasingly gaunt. A well- defined pencil moustache sits on his top lip tracing the length of his mouth and he has a shock of dark hair, abundant on top but with a severe short back and sides hair cut that was still the popular order at the barbers when I was a child in the late 1950s.
His spare frame is always dressed the same. Neat, semi-smart and utilitarian – what I’d call the 1930s European Communist look – with roomy well-worn trousers, a plain twill shirt buttoned at the neck with a plain tie, optionally a plain sweater and a tweedy, snug fitting but classically cut jacket. Indoors or outdoors it never seemed to vary. The look seems to say, I choose these carefully but I choose them so I don’t have to think about clothes. Then, of course there's the added touch of the hand-rolled cigarette clamped between his lips. Perfect.
The effect of the clothes and the ‘Orwell look’ on the reputation of the writer is, I think, profound. Here is a man who has no space in his thoughts for frippery, he knows who he is and that’s how he wants to be seen. His thinness and his often drawn countenance speak of the hardships of the past that he has endured and are a vision of those tribulations still to come for him.
The ‘look’ is an outward manifestation of the internal mind of the man. Contrast him with another writer he admired despite having a very different ideological world view – Evelyn Waugh. Waugh’s corpulent, jowled face and ruddy complexion, his dandified sense of fine clothing and the almost permanent look of superiority and entitlement speaks volumes about his writing and his politics.
I don’t suppose it will be long before someone writes a book about Orwell’s clothes – just about everything else has been done – and there is every chance that it’s already out there or there’s a pointless PhD student beetling away at a tedious thesis at this very moment. However, book or no book, academic study or no academic study I will remain convinced that the ‘Orwell look’ is a critical part of the author’s popularity and will always be so because he avoided the thing that is most likely to destroy any writers credibility – growing old.