Sunday, March 30, 2008
I Shot George Orwell
Not entirely true, but it was the headline that loomed out of the Ripperian fog of my mind in a Bloomsbury student hostel sometime in September 1985.
It was fast followed, in true Hammer style, by an orchestral blare of "Noooo!" as I realized I'd let a journalistic career-kickstart walk off the National Express at Digbeth without leaving his name.
Then I fell asleep, and thought little of it for years. The next day I flew to the Soviet Union for a year of language debasement, alcohol riffs, cramped sexual encounters and hair loss.
It all started in Llangollen, where I boarded the London bus with high hopes, thermal underwear and an encouraging lecture from my Uncle Dai on KGB honey traps. I sat next to a flat-capped gent who might have been a Robert-Maxwell-O-Gram in earlier days. We got talking, and it turned out he was a Czech wartime emigré who'd spent the last few decades as a manager for Lucas, the headlamp people.
I turned the conversation as quickly as I could from car components to interwar Czechoslovakia, and took a step into a world I was only to enter in earnest the following day - the realm of full-on Communist nuttery.
Our man - for the sake of simplicity let's call him Jiří - was a leftwing Socialist in the early 1930s. He'd had his first brush with international intrigue when smuggling party literature into Austria, which was then run by a midget fascist yokel called Engelbert Dollfuss. The police caught Jiří in Vienna, held him overnight, and deported him to Czechoslovakia the following morning.
They carried out the deportation by making him walk all the way back to Bratislava, a petty gesture that marked down the Dolfuss regime as lacking the brio necessary to qualify as truly fascist. I like to think this was one of the reasons why Mussolini let Hitler take Austria in 1938 - dearth of la bella figura.
When his call-up papers came through Jiří decided that munching those Czech cheese pasties in an Olomouc barracks while waiting for Adolf to call didn't sit well with his reputation for woeful foreign adventures. So he swapped national service for three years of fighting Franco in Spain.
By now Jiří's jaded collectivist palate was demanding the gamier flavours of Stalinism, and he spurned the dowdy International Brigades for the thrills and glamour of the Soviet goon squad in Barcelona.
“Our main target was Trotskyites.”
I shared his contempt for trustafarians in keffiyehs, but suggested that Francoists, Falangists, Carlists, fifth-columnists, Fifth Monarchy Men and other rotters were surely a higher priority.
“Not for us, boy. POUM were collaborating with Franco, and had misled large part of Catalan proletariat.”
The POUM used the Catalan language, George Orwell was proud to be in their rambunctious ranks, and I seemed to remember that Anaïs Nin was their leader. This tipped my minority, literary, romantic heart lazily in their favour when compared with rat-faced Russians in dead men’s suits.
(I also liked the Durrutti Column because they defended Madrid and didn't brag about it. If I’d run a Spanish anarchist outfit I’d have called it the Bugatti Brigade and just waited for the petrolheads to sue. And I'd have been a Basque, too.)
Anyway, Jiří set me right on all this objectively-bourgeois flummery that passed for my historical knowledge.
“Listen, they were bunch of nun-loving Nazi poufs. They had to go, and we were the blokes to get them gone.”
There followed accounts of beret-wearing intellectuals and baffled dockworkers being blatted by the J Man and his greasy mates in a variety of primitive and protracted ways, often involving masonry tools.
This brought him to a startling account of a shift that went wrong at the coalface of revolutionary violence.
“So we spent whole day waiting in lobby of hotel where some English Trot was staying. He never turn up. Wife tip him off about us before we could tip him off balcony.”
“Er, any idea what he was called?”
“No. Writer or something. Frondeur!”
"Was his name Blair, Eric Blair?”
“Could be, sounds familiar. Wrecker!”
I gave Jiří an O-level synopsis of Homage to Catalonia, recalling mention of Mrs Blair's flight from a hotel. He acknowledged that it could have been him and his team of charmers.
"If you’d known who he was, would you have killed him?"
“Of course. He was fifth-columnist, Trotsky-Maxtonite traitor to worker class. My boys would have tattooed hammer and sickle on his head with bullets. We had many. Soviet economy strong,” he confirmed.
How different world literature would have been if Jiří and The Mausers had fulfilled their Five-Bullet Plan that day. No Animal Farm or 1984. We'd have had to make do with Charlotte's Web and the unfilmable Brave New World.
Jiří got out to Britain via France in 1940 to serve in the Free Czech Forces with distinction. He remained true to Uncle Joe throughout, as further Tales of Violence and Hypocrisy attested, but the dialectic urged him to stay in cosy Britain in 1948 rather than return to Soviet-run Czechoslovakia.
He proceeded to build Socialism in One Company, and probably helped apply Plekhanov's dictum "The worse, the better" to British Leyland in the 1970s.
He left the coach at Birmingham full of envy at my imminent submersion in Soviet life. I wish I'd taken his phone number, as his story deserved a better telling than I've managed here.
Still, spotting a chance and letting it go is what life is all about. Just like Jiří and Mr Orwell.