The Independent London Newspaper


Orwell’s son warns of threat to free speech as new plaque records correct dates of Nineteen Eighty-Four author’s time in Canonbury

Richard Blair with the plaque showing the correct dates

Richard Blair with the plaque showing the correct dates. Below: George Orwell with Richard in Canonbury Square

George Orwell with Richard in Canonbury Square

Published: 27 May, 2016

HIS father was a famous champion of free speech. But Richard Blair, the only child of author George Orwell, says some students today are in danger of being unprepared for the real world as they are “suppressing” freedom of speech.

­Referring to recent controversies surrounding “no platforming” – attempts to prevent supposedly controversial figures, including feminist academic Germaine Greer, speaking in universities – Mr Blair said banning people was counterproductive.

“Protest is cogent argument against something,” he told the Tribune. “If people are arguing about something you should argue back with an argument that is better than theirs. But also you can’t protest with half a brick in hand because that’s not going to get you anywhere. You just end up in jail.”

Mr Blair was at 27b Canonbury Court on Monday to unveil a new plaque marking the time he lived with his father there between 1944 and 1947.

The 72-year-old invoked his father’s phrase: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Some student unions argue that inviting certain speakers to their universities would threaten a “safe space” free from intimidation or judgement.

“Students need to be upset,” Mr Blair said. “Because if not they won’t be able to face up to the real world because it is a bastard place. If you do this all the way up till you graduate you are really not prepared.”

In Orwell’s best known novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he created a dystopian world where anyone saying or even thinking the wrong thing could be punished. He began writing the novel at 27b Canonbury Court and lived there when Animal Farm was published.

Orwell – whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair – kept the flat as his London base after he started to spend the summers on the Scottish Isle of Jura, where he moved to finish the book in 1947. He died three years later.

In that time Orwell’s wife Eileen died, leaving him a single father. He could often be seen wheeling his adopted son in a pram around Canonbury Square. He had moved there after being bombed out of Mortimer Crescent in South Hampstead.

Before unveiling the plaque, Mr Blair said: “It’s nearly 70 years since I was here. I have no idea if it has changed and I don’t remember a great deal about this place.

“I do remember sticking my finger into the cell-powered doorbell – it gave me a bit of a belt. And I recall my father was very keen on woodwork as he would make me little toys upstairs.”

Philip Walker, of the Canonbury Society, which organised the plaque unveiling with Islington Council, said: “I think George Orwell would have been impressed by the simple arrangements for this unveiling: no political interference or thought police.

“We in Canonbury are so grateful that he spent time among us here, enriching our heritage.”

The plaque replaces a previous one, which was worn and had incorrect dates of when Orwell lived in the area. 

Money to pay for the plaque was allocated by two former Islington councillors from their Local Initiative Fund money.


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