His chilling portrait of the Big Brother state in the novel 1984 is lauded as visionary.
But it seems George Orwell was under extensive surveillance himself years before he chronicled the fictional ordeal of Winston Smith at the hands of the Ministry of Truth.
Secret files released by the National Archive yesterday reveal that MI5 and Special Branch suspected the writer of harbouring ‘advanced communist views’ and kept him under close scrutiny.
Communist suspect: Orwell’s friends said they saw him at communist meetings
From the newspapers he read to his style of dress, few aspects of his life escape the microscope.
There is little recognition of the literary talents of the author, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair.
In a Special Branch report written by a Sergeant Ewing in 1941, eight years before the publication of 1984, he is dismissively described as having ‘written a few books under the name of Orwell’.
At this stage of his career, these would have included Down And Out In Paris And London, The Road To Wigan Pier and Homage To Catalonia, all now classics.
The report focuses on his time working at the BBC in London, producing news for India.
It says that, prior to joining the corporation, Orwell ‘eked a precarious living as a freelance journalist’.
“This man has advanced communist views, and several of his Indian friends say they have often seen him at communist meetings.
“He dresses in a bohemian fashion, both in his office and in his leisure hours.”
Even his first wife Eileen comes under suspicion, and was heavily vetted when she applied for a job at the Ministry of Food in 1942.
A Whitehall official telephoned Special Branch to seek clarification on Orwell’s political beliefs, and wrote of his findings in 1942.
“I spoke to Inspector Gill of Special Branch asking whether his sergeant could elaborate on the question of Blair’s ‘advanced communist views’,’ the civil servant reports.
Mr Gill explained that his sergeant thought Orwell was ‘an unorthodox communist’ holding many of their views but not subscribing fully to the party’s policy.
Orwell was also tracked in Wigan where he wrote The Road To Wigan Pier. A report by local police says: “It would appear from his mode of living that he is an author, or has some connection with literary work as he devotes most of his time in writing.
“He has collected an amount of local data, eg number of churches, public houses, population, etc, and is in receipt of an unusual amount of correspondence.
“He had also been asking about local mines and factories.”
– A nudist magazine provided diverting reading for British intelligence officers hunting wartime spies, the files reveal. Hans Larsen, a Nazi agent captured in Sweden, was suspected of sending messages to his spymasters by writing with a toothpick dipped in heated wax on the pages of The Naturist.
Agents were said to have made several enthusiastic attempts to find the messages on a copy of the magazine found in Larsen’s possession, but were unsuccessful.
They did discover, however, that Larsen sent messages in invisible ink in letters to his wife. If a letter included a secret communique he would spell out the date in full, such as 20th April 1945. If it did not he would abbreviate it to 20.4.45.