Gary Day

January 31, 2003

George Orwell's favourite adjective was "decent" and he applied it to everyone who ate meat, drank and didn't wear sandals or pistachio-coloured shirts. All the rest were "cranks". Well, no one's perfect. We don't hear either of these words much today and their demise is a reminder of how language is always on the move. If that's the case, why commemorate writers such as Orwell, whose centenary it is, when their words no longer apply? Imagine what would happen if students took Polonius'

advice to Laertes about the iniquities of borrowing money; they wouldn't go to university and then where would we be? And what could be more out-of-date than that aphorism with which the old boy wound up his oration, "to thine own self be true"? That certainly won't bring you any benefits, unlike a loyalty card - that at least gives you points every time you shop.

Flexibility not fidelity is the watchword of today's market economy. Which makes Margaret Hodge's dismissal of "Mickey-Mouse" degrees all the more bizarre. I thought the government's aim was to encourage vocational degrees such as leisure and tourism? Either I'm confused (as always) or Margaret needs a crash course in metaphorical thinking. Hum, perhaps literature does have a use. Orwell observed that Mickey Mouse represented "the little man against the big man". Disney's most famous rodent may now be shorthand for dumbing down, but he was originally part of a tradition that stretched from Jack the giant killer to Charlie Chaplin. Orwell's alertness to the significance of apparent trivia makes him a precursor of cultural studies. Before the great war, Boys'

Weeklies projected a cosy, comfortable England where "the King (was) on his throne and the pound was worth a pound", but those who came after were characterised by "bully-worship and the cult of violence". The hero, like the modern murderer, was no longer a fundamentally decent sort.

Orwell also prepared the ground for our contemporary interest in "Englishness". Previously noted for their melancholy, Orwell said the chief characteristics of the English were "artistic insensibility, gentleness, respect for legality, suspicion of foreigners, sentimentality about animals, and exaggerated class distinctions". Of course, not all these qualities apply today. Proposals to abolish trial by jury and the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act are a peculiar way of respecting the principle of legality, and could anyone call Millwall fans "gentle"? But other forms of Englishness continue to thrive: anti-intellectualism, for instance, is the driving force behind government educational policy. The Institute for Learning and Teaching has produced a list of skills that students ought to have at the end of their degrees.

Thinking is not one of them. Executing, however, is. It appears under the heading verbs described by "psychomotor" skills. Make of that what you will.

Orwell would not have been surprised by such developments. In The Prevention of Literature , he identified "monopoly and bureaucracy" as a threat to intellectual liberty that he defined as "the freedom to report what one has seen, heard and felt". A similar danger has arisen in the academy, where the culture of the template limits the spirit of free inquiry and reflects universities' growing dependence on the market. Orwell took a gloomy view of the survival of literature, whose great gift was that it kept you "human" in a world of bombs and propaganda. It was decent, if you like. The writer should always strive for "emotional sincerity", not easy in an age that demanded he or she sign up to one orthodoxy or another.

And then there were the other things conspiring against the artist: economic imperatives, public opinion and the growing appeal of film and television. The individual voice dwindled to a whisper in the swelling chorus of conformity.

Not that Orwell was going to let this happen without a fight. We are talking about a man who was wounded in the Spanish civil war, after all.

Although the writer was powerless against many things, he or she could at least invigorate language by using concrete words instead of abstract ones and, most important, rid it of those flyblown metaphors such as, oh I don't know, "Mickey-Mouse degrees". Orwell's complaint against the English of his day, "phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse", has lost none of its force. The more we use government-speak, the more we allow it to do our thinking for us. It may seem a small matter compared with last week's white paper, but what are universities for if not to get people thinking? And that's why we should remember the author of 1984 , a man who knew the value of language. Why else would he have changed his name from Blair to Orwell? It was the decent thing to do.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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