Orwell’s Faded Lion: The Moral Atmosphere of Britain 1945-2015
by Anthony James
(Imprint Academic, £14.95)
IF GEORGE ORWELL could return to review his two seminal essays The Lion and the Unicorn (1941) and The English People (1946), he would be justifiably satisfied with some of his predictions for the future such as the post-war creation of what became the welfare state.
But he would surely be bewildered by the state of the nation 70 years on. In his overview and analysis of that period, Anthony James models his approach and style on Orwell. And, while he doesn’t chance his arm at forecasting the future as much or as confidently as his inspiration, he captures something of the polemical style and the characteristic savaging of his targets.
“In Britain since 1979,” he notes, “the political leaders who have administered the system … have acted with a brutality and cheerful lack of moral restraint that is breathtaking.” James demolishes the monarchy, for which Orwell had a soft spot, with the same stylistic scalpel: “The concept underlying monarchy is infantile and infantilising,” while “the media-driven obsession with the Royal Family [is] quite as pernicious as soap operas and endless gossip about film stars, models and footballers.”
Modern cultural history also receives the full blast of his venom. He lines up novelists like a one-man firing squad. While Graham Greene and, surprisingly, Anthony Powell are allowed some grudging significance, poor John Braine’s 1957 bestseller Room at the Top is “a crass piece of trash” and its hero Joe Lampton is “the invention of a fundamentally stupid and vulgar mind.”
While this assertive invective might please the reader in agreement with James’s Marxist slant, others who could learn much from this book might cavil at a note of proselytising — as some do at Orwell’s smug self-satisfaction. In fairness James, although praising Orwell’s work as “incisive and perceptive,” never treats working people with the latter’s sentimental patronising tone or those he termed the “intelligentsia” with contempt.
Unlike in his later dystopian 1984, Orwell’s key essays were circumspectly optimistic. But James recognises that “Britain’s future is inseparable from the state of the world which has given very little cause for optimism since September 11 2001.”