Second War-time Diary

14 March 1942 – 15 November 1942

On 18 August 1941 Orwell was appointed a Talks Assistant in the Overseas Service of the BBC at a salary of £640 a year – perhaps about £22,000 at today’s values. He attended an induction course of two 5 ½-day weeks, held at Bedford College, University of London in Regent’s Park. The course was called, sardonically, by the poet and scholar, William Empson, ‘the Liar’s School’. In fact, the schedule of talks and classes (which has survived) suggested a sensible, if basic, introduction to broadcasting given the short time available. (See CW, XIII, pp.3-21 and 82-92.) Orwell then joined the Eastern Overseas Service and worked broadcasting to India, Malaya and Indonesia until 24 November 1943 when he became the Literary Editor of Tribune. Orwell first worked at 55 Portland Place, the source of his ‘Room 101’. This was a committee room where Orwell suffered meetings of the Eastern Services Committee. Although in Nineteen Eighty-Four Room 101 is a place of physical torture, it should be borne in mind that O’Brien describes Room 101 as varying from individual to individual: ‘It may be burial alive, or death by drowning, or by impalement, or by fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal’. For Orwell it was the deadly boredom of meetings; for Winston Smith it was rats – and rats, of course had caused Orwell problems at various times, notably in the Spanish front line. Early in June 1942, the department moved to 200 Oxford Street. The late Eric Robertson, who worked there and knew Orwell, told me that it was familiarly known as not 200 but ZOO – and that, he thought, had a link with Animal Farm. Orwell produced and wrote an enormous number of programmes. For example, he wrote 104 or 105 newsletters in English and 115 or 116 for translation in vernacular languages. Fifty scripts of broadcasts made to India have survived. Orwell’s idea of propaganda was very much slanted in the direction of literature and culture. One important series was ‘Let’s Act it Out’ in which its participants learnt techniques which they introduced into travelling drama productions on their return to India. He also initiated what would now be called ‘Open University’ courses in literature, science and psychology. For these he was able to recruit outstanding writers and scholars, such as T.S. Eliot, Herbert Read, E.M. Forster, Joseph Needham, and C.D. Darlington. Orwell, in a typical self-denigrating tone, described his time at the BBC as ‘two wasted years’. Certainly the broadcasts were heard by few people but that was not because of the quality of what he produced, and was no reflection on his laudable intentions, but because there were few radios, poor reception, many time shifts, and a multitude of languages. A full record of Orwell at the BBC will be found in the Complete Works, volumes XIII, XIV, and XV.

For much of the time covered by these diary entries, Orwell was also a very active member of the Home Guard. He was a sergeant in command of a section, one of whom was his publisher, Fredric Warburg (who served as a second lieutenant at Passchendaele). He still found time to write articles, notably his ‘London Letter’ for the American journal, Partisan Review.

This Diary exists in two versions: manuscript (without heading) and type-written by Orwell headed ‘WAR DIARY (continued)’. The manuscript has words and passages omitted from the typescript (which notes where cuts have been made). Orwell probably intended the shorter typed version to be published jointly with Inez Holden’s diary (see Notes to First War-time Diary) but the diary was not published in Orwell’s lifetime. Here, passages appearing only in manuscript are printed in italics with square brackets; they follow the typed version. Only a few significant verbal differences between typed and handwritten versions are footnoted. Full details are recorded in Complete Works.

Peter Davison, from George Orwell: Diaries (Penguin in paperback, Harvill Secker in hardback)

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