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Susan’s Bookshelves: Animal Farm by George Orwell

It’s like buses. You wait a long time and then two come along at once. I don’t remember ever seeing a dramatisation of Animal Farm and now I’ve seen two in a month courtesy of National Youth Theatre Rep Company and Spontaneous Productions. Well, I don’t really do politics in this blog but the parallels between our current situation and  Animal Farm are so glaringly obvious that I can see why theatre companies are homing in on it … cabinet ministers getting up close when the rest of us have to observe the two metre rule, allowing the ruling class to travel but not the plebs and all the rest of it.  Rarely has “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others” seemed truer or more sinister.

Anyway, having – as a reviewer – had to think a lot about Animal Farm lately I was drawn back to the book which was published in 1945. I don’t remember when I first read it – probably in my mid teens at my future husband’s recommendation. Mr E ( I first met him when I was 14) was very keen on Orwell. And, inevitably, I shared it with, and taught it to, many classes over the years because – witness where we are now – it’s an absolutely timeless a book about human nature. It hits you on the head on almost every page.

Orwell’s “fairy story” about a group of animals who rebel against, and evict, the farmer in order to manage the farm themselves was inspired by the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s emerging autocracy and the inclusion of Russia as an ally in World War Two. With clear sighted, cynical accuracy, Orwell saw those thirty years of history  as entirely cyclical.

The near-miracle of Animal Farm is its clarity. In the real world these are very complex issues. In just 118 pages Orwell entertainingly puts them within reach of any child who can read – although, of course, this is not in any sense a children’s book.

I also found myself marvelling (again) at his precise, succinct use of language. Sentences such as “At this moment there was a tremendous uproar.”, “The animals were thoroughly frightened.” and “Benjamin felt a nose nuzzling at his shoulder” are exquisite in their simplicity.  Semi-colons, subordinate clauses and other clutter are rare. Elsewhere Orwell condemned the gratuitous use of adjectives and long words where short ones will do and Animal Farm is a fine example of exactly what he meant. It should be used as a text book in creative writing classes and I hope it is.

If, like me, you haven’t read Animal Farm for a while go back to it – and prepare to gasp. Often.

Orwell died in 1950 aged only 47 with a whole string of fine books under his belt. I don’t suppose I’m the first person to wonder what he could have achieved if he’d lived to old age. Imagine Orwell in the 1960s and 70s ….

On Susan’s Bookshelves next week: A Horseman Riding By by RF Delderfield.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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