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Prophecy or satire?

15 February 2013

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"WE WORK or Want"; "Don't Take the Squanderbug Shopping With You" - these slogans, and many like them, filled the public-information propaganda during the Second World War. To the modern ear, the copy sounds quaint, but among those few who still remember them, they are a source of rich nostalgia.

But to George Orwell - by 1945 a jaded socialist intellectual - these were the slogans of an emergent Big Brother. "War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Slavery" were his dark caricatures. For - as Archive on 4: The Road to Nineteen Eighty-Four (Radio 4, Saturday) suggested - Orwell's last novel was not a prophecy, despite what we were all taught at school: it was a state-of-the-nation satire.

Orwell had seen it all already, the presenter, David Aaronovitch, argued, in this dense analysis. The "road to" Nineteen Eighty-Four began in Spain, when Orwell observed the authoritarianism of the Fascists and the Communists. He encountered the strategic volte-face of institutions such as the BBC in the changing attitudes to Stalin during the war; and he understood how the nuclear threat concentrated power in the hands of a political and military élite.

Along the road, Orwell found support and stimulation in the work of Arthur Koestler, whose book Darkness at Noon described Soviet show-trials in which the innocent admitted to anything and everything; and James Burnham, whose book The Managerial Revolution predicted the rise of bureaucratic superstates.

Orwell was a socialist libertarian, most at home somewhere away from the government's heavy hand. There was not so much difference, Aaronovitch suggested provocatively, between Orwell and the Tea Party movement in the United States.

Scratch the surface of many a writer, and you find a propagandist scribbler. Political polemic has been read into a number of works by Handel, whose favourite librettist, Charles Jennens, was a Non-Juror: he refused to swear an oath of loyalty to what he regarded as the usurpatory Hanoverians. Thus, in Belshazzar, for instance, we are intended to read behind the story the wishful thinking of a Stuart who longs for the return of his friends.

The Early Music Show (Radio 3, Saturday) spent a hugely enjoyable hour at the Handel House Museum, viewing an exhibition that focused on Jennens. It is not unfair to say that Handel gives more to Jennens than vice versa: Handel's music transforms the librettist's stilted poetry into something sublime. But Jennens's contribution to Handel's creations is not to be sniffed at. It was Jennens who persuaded Handel to include the chorus "Their sound is gone out" into their greatest collaboration, Messiah.

"And without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness." Thus Jennens introduces the libretto to Messiah - although religious controversy was a normal part of cultural discourse at the time. Jennens would have had it otherwise; but, as we were reminded at the end of the programme, the oratorio that followed has counted for more than any number of pamphlets and sermons.

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