Photograph of George Orwell
A wry smile - but not an insincere one. George Orwell. Photo ©

Wikimedia Commons, adapted from the original.

February 2019

A discovery in the British Council’s archives throws new light on its relationship with Orwell.

‘The Long Professional Habit of Insincere Smiling’

The pen is mightier than the sword. Writing remains a vital way of transmitting ideas, and as such a key pillar of mutual global understanding. Through writing we learn about other people, other times, other cultures – and find our shared underlying humanity.  Literature is a particular strength for the UK, and a key part of what makes us culturally attractive.  From Shakespeare to J K Rowling, great British writers have captured the hearts and minds of millions around the world.  Indeed, when asked about what made the UK attractive to them, 21% of young people polled by the British Council answered ‘literature’ – more than television or sport.

The British Council has employed several prominent writers, including Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was sacked by the great historian Steven Runciman – then the Council’s Country Director, Greece - for his eccentric lifestyle

The Council itself has a rich literary history. George Orwell once wrote of literature that ‘the effort is too much to make if one has already squandered one's energies on semi-creative work such as teaching, broadcasting or composing propaganda for bodies such as the British Council.’ But this was as unfair in Orwell’s day as it has been since. As well as its role in supporting English literature around the world, the British Council has employed several prominent writers, including Lawrence Durrell (now familiar to a wider audience as the character of the eldest son in ITV’s recent hit series, ‘The Durrells’), John Fowles, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was sacked from the British Council’s Greece office by the great historian Steven Runciman – then the Council’s Country Director, Greece - for his eccentric lifestyle.  

The Council has also featured itself in many great works – from the Third Man screenplay by Graham Green (himself once offered a Council job), to Olivia Manning’s ‘Fortunes of War’ trilogies, to books by Aldous Huxley, John le Carré, and Anthony Burgess.  Hopefully Burgess’s description of his British Council character as having wrinkles from ‘the long professional habit of insincere smiling’ no longer rings true.  

‘One or two minor criticisms’

As for Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm was himself not above writing for the British Council himself. Indeed, it has emerged that he may have had another reason to be irritated with the organisation, which perhaps explains his quote about ‘squandering energies’. It was the British Council that commissioned his famous essay ‘In Defence of English Cooking’ in 1946, as part of its efforts to present British culture overseas. Yet the Council then refused to publish it.  

It seems that the organisation in those days was somewhat po-faced and risk-averse, and was anxious to avoid producing an essay about food (even one which mentions the disastrous effects of wartime rationing) in the aftermath of the hungry winter of 1945. A shorter version of the essay was later published in the Evening Standard.  

The editor’s notes acknowledge the ‘excellent’ essay, but ‘with one or two minor criticisms’ – one of which seems to be that Orwell’s recipe for orange marmalade contains ‘too much sugar and water’

A rather mortified rejection letter from the British Council Publications Department and the editor’s notes acknowledge the ‘excellent’ essay, but ‘with one or two minor criticisms’ – one of which seems to be that Orwell’s recipe for orange marmalade contains ‘too much sugar and water’.  

Over 70 years later, the British Council is delighted to make amends for its slight on perhaps the UK’s greatest political writer of the Twentieth Century, by re-producing the original essay in full - along with unfortunate the rejection letter.  Here, with kind permission from the Orwell Foundation, is Orwell’s original British Cookery’ 

Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor, with thanks to the British Council archivist, Stephen Witkowski, to the Orwell Foundation, and to the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell.

See also