Observing Orwell

Big brother was watching


While Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five plundered British secrets for the Soviet Union during the 1930s and '40s, the Special Branch—Britain's version of the U.S. National Security Agency—kept its eyes on a different target: the democratic socialist writer Eric Blair, known to the police by his nom de plume "Mr. George Orewell [sic]."

Three years before the publication of his anti-communist classic Animal Farm, a Special Branch sergeant fingered Orwell for holding "advanced Communist views," noting that the author suspiciously "dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours." Orwell's brand of anti-totalitarianism baffled investigators, with one officer "rather at a loss as to how [one] could describe this rather individual line."

According to his biographer Gordon Bowker, friends saw Orwell's obsession with a "big brother" state as a "paranoid" obsession. With the release of his intelligence files by Britain's National Archive, the writer's paranoia seems like prescience. While it is doubtful that officials from the Catholic Church were keeping tabs on him in the 1930s, as he repeatedly maintained, Orwell was tailed, both by Soviet agents during the Spanish Civil War and by British security services until his death in 1950.