Five Fascinating Facts about George Orwell
George Orwell’s short life was a busy one, so we’ve distilled his biography into five striking facts
1. George Orwell coined the phrase ‘Cold War’ – well, sort of. If we’re being wholly accurate, Orwell did and he didn’t. So who actually coined the term ‘cold war’? Orwell did have his party to play, but the issue is a little complex: Orwell is credited with being the first to use the phrase ‘cold war’ in English, in 1945, but historian Martin McCauley has actually traced the phrase back to some 600 years before Orwell. In his book Russia, America and the Cold War: 1949-1991 (2nd edn.), McCauley quotes the fourteenth-century Spanish writer Don Juan Manuel, who first used the term ‘cold war’ (in Spanish, naturally) when describing the conflict between Christianity and Islam: ‘War that is very fierce and very hot ends either with death or peace, whereas a cold war neither brings peace nor confers honour on those who wage it.’ Orwell, however, popularised the term in English, in an article of October 1945 titled ‘You and the Atomic Bomb’. Two years later, in a speech of April 1947, American presidential adviser Bernard Baruch applied the term directly to the state of perpetual near-conflict between the US and the USSR. Baruch said, ‘Let us not be deceived: we are today in the midst of a cold war.’ The phrase appeared in a book titled Cold War later that same year, and the phrase became embedded in the popular consciousness. Orwell played his small part in this, though this is often overlooked.
2. He helped to inspire the Wetherspoons chain of pubs. Orwell wrote a short essay in 1946 called ‘The Moon under Water’ in which he outlined his ideal pub; this served as a sort of literary blueprint for the Wetherspoons brand when the pub chain was founded half a century later. Such an ideal alehouse, called ‘The Moon under Water’, is known for its ‘atmosphere’ as much as the quality of its beer, and the barmaids know most of the customers by name. You can’t get a meal there, but there are plenty of bar snacks: liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels, and cheese. In terms of decor, the pub has ornamental mirrors behind the bar and a ‘stuffed bull’s-head over the mantelpiece’. Indeed, ‘everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century.’
3. Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) selected his pen name from a shortlist also including P. S. Burton, Kenneth Miles, and H. Lewis Allways. He settled on ‘George’, as a typically English name – St George, of course, but also the name of the king at the time, George V – and ‘Orwell’, after a river in the East Anglian county of Suffolk. It’s hard to imagine how things could have been otherwise: Christopher Hitchens might have written a book named Why Miles Matters, and we might have been referring to an infringement of our privacy as ‘Allwaysian’ or ‘Burtonian’ nightmare.
4. Orwell named Room 101 after a room in BBC Broadcasting House, where he had to sit through tedious meetings during WWII. Room 101, the room that contains one’s worst nightmares in Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (for Winston Smith, it’s rats) was a real room at the BBC, though without the rats, one presumes. (We’ve offered five facts about Nineteen Eighty-Four here.) Ironically, the BBC now broadcasts a comedy show named Room 101 in honour of Orwell – who was himself inspired by a room at the BBC…
5. Orwell considered his novel A Clergyman’s Daughter to be ‘tripe’ and wouldn’t allow it to be reprinted during his lifetime. ‘Modernist’ is not a word that is usually applied to Orwell’s writing, and his fiction seems a long way from a work like James Joyce’s Ulysses. But A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) contains such moments, and these sub-Joycean excesses were later disowned by Orwell. Fittingly, the title of Orwell’s novel may have been suggested to him by a line in Joyce’s novel.
Image: Picture of George Orwell which appears in an old acreditation for the BNUJ, 1933; Wikimedia Commons; public domain.