Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from Orwell.

In the first of three blogs, I’ll be turning to literature to find out how we can build a better world with words during these testing times. First up is George Orwell, who wrote that moments of extreme crisis create ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to reboot social values.

In Socialism and the English Genius, George Orwell suggests that England is comprised of two nations: the rich and the poor. He argues that inequality in England ‘is grosser than in any European country’ and that our class-ridden country is ‘a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly’. Only during ‘moments of supreme crisis’, when ‘emotional unity’ is required, can these two halves of Britain unite.

For Orwell, this moment of change came during World War II as people surrendered ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’ for the common good. The war also exposed the folly of private capitalism in that ‘land, factories, mines and transport owned privately and operated solely for profit – does not work’ in such conditions. This, he argued, was because during war capitalism ‘has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it’.

Orwell was a classic socialist in the mould of Aneurin Bevan and therefore identified a basic problem with the economic system: How could someone earning £100,000 a year ever find any commonality or empathy with someone earning £1 a week. He saw peacetime as a once in a lifetime opportunity to readdress this balance. A recent ONS Wealth and Assets survey found that the top 10% of earners finished 2018 with 45% of national wealth, while the poorest 10th held just 2%. Orwell would be horrified. Peacetime has intensified the problem.

We are now being presented with another moment of ‘supreme crisis’ as coronavirus brings life as we know it to a grinding halt. Replacing war with coronavirus, Orwell could have wrote:

‘Coronavirus is the greatest of all agents of change. It speeds up all processes, wipes out minor distinctions, brings realities to the surface. Above all, coronavirus brings it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual. It is only because they are aware of this that men will die on the field of battle.’

The main agent of change brought about by coronavirus is complete lockdown. We’ve had no choice but to give up ‘leisure, comfort, economic liberty, and social prestige’. This enforced solitude is our moment of ‘emotional unity’ and an opportunity to reboot society as we find alternative ways of living now that the pub is closed, and there’s no sport or theatre to distract us. Orwell proposed a 6 point plan for his socialist vision. Here’s mine for a post-Covid future.

Health not profit: Scientists at MIT have developed a ventilator that costs roughly $500 to build. The current cost to a hospital is about $30,000. Imagine how much money hospitals could save and reinvest elsewhere if we adopted an ‘open source’ approach to medicine and health. The NHS, along with other public services, has been stripped to the bone. Now we are reminded of its value.

Universal Basic Income: This would reinforce the idea that all members of society are valued and equal. This is in stark contrast to the stress and anger created by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme, whereby many people, mainly the poorest, simply don’t qualify. We are either in this together or we’re not.

The right to life. Article 3 in the Declaration of Human Rights should be the abiding principle on which we measure success, not GDP. To live we need breathable air. Air pollution has been linked to Covid-19 death rates and some scientists have suggested the Coronavirus lockdown may save more lives by preventing pollution than by preventing infection. Whether dropping the price of public transport, investing in electric cars and making them affordable, or introducing a points scheme for flying, we want to breathe clean air now that we have experienced it for the first time.

Overthrow the idiocracy. In Ancient Athens an ‘idiot’ was a private person, someone who had no interest in society. Pericles was particularly scathing of idiots, writing, ‘We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.’ Self isolation has stopped us being private people. We’ve got to know our neighbours. We’ve learned to talk to strangers. We look out for each other – or at least on our street we do. Let’s not forget this.

Work is a four letter word. Evidence suggests that a four day working week can increase productivity while allowing more time to be spent with family or on personal hobbies. A good example of this use of free time is how many of us have been learning to bake, now that there’s no bread left in the supermarkets. Similarly, working from home is possible. Sat in the garden typing is more productive and better for your mental health than working in an open plan office with headphones on to muffle out the noise.

Ethical capitalism. Capitalism is a value system. It informs how we treat each other. It communicates who we are as people. Clearly it is not working. There needs to be some form of reinvestment to create the commonality Orwell discussed. A good starting point would be ensuring any industry or company that pays certain staff astronomical figures (sport stars, actors, bankers) should ensure that anybody else employed in that industry – from cleaners to car park attendants – are paid a living wage.

Forget taking back control of our borders, we need to do something more radical: We need to take back control of our lives. Moments of ‘emotional unity’ enable this to happen. It is only in dire circumstances that people pull together – although it might not feel like this when you go food shopping.

Everything we have been told is impossible has become possible: homeless people have been housed, a Tory government is implementing a loose form of socialism, and the air is breathable now that aircraft sit twiddling their thumbs at Gatwick. A brave new world awaits us. Fight for it. We might not get this chance again.

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website on Monday 13 April 2020.

The Central Library Wishlist





Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature and the City Council are forming an innovative partnership to ensure the construction of the new Central Library has the potential to raise literacy levels, position the library as a focal point of the community, and build upon Nottingham’s rich literary history. These are issues very close to my heart. When I created Dawn of the Unread, a literary graphic novel exploring Nottingham’s literary history, it was very much a love letter to libraries and the potential of books to transform lives. Therefore, I was ridiculously excited to join in a consultation event hosted by Sandy Mahal and Nigel Hawkings at NTU. Here’s my top 5 wish list…








You and Mee (or Mee time or Mee, Myself and I or You get mee, etc)

Arthur Mee (21 July 1875 – 27 May 1943) is best known as the author of the Children’s Encyclopædia and The Children’s Newspaper, the first newspaper published for children. Born in Stapleford, he earned money as a teenager reading the reports of Parliament to a local blind man. All of which makes him perfect to be featured in some capacity at the library. In terms of literacy, teenagers could be encouraged to produce their own newspaper (digital or physical) to build on his legacy, possibly to be overseen by the Young Ambassadors. Or he could simply be recognised within the library in the children’s reading area ‘You and Mee’ as a means of cementing Nottingham’s rich history of encouraging young people to read.

The Human Library

The Human Library® is a brilliant concept whereby readers loan out humans and have conversations they would not normally have access to. The organisation was created in 2000 to create dialogue around difficult subjects. A variation on this (or partnership) could see skill-sharing sessions to help improve literacy levels. For example, specialists could lend their skills (I’m James and I specialise in producing digital heritage projects, loan me for 30 minutes for support on your ideas) or library users could request specialist ‘books’ (people) which could be sourced. Imagine young people actively seeking information on knife crime, difficulties at home and how to deal with them, help with homework, finding friends. The potential is massive. Given this organisation exists they would need to be consulted and partnered with.

Digital screens/Tik Tok

I recently visited Krakow, a fellow UNESCO City of Literature, and in one museum was a 360 degree screen telling the history of the city. A similar screen at the library could have multiple purposes in commissioning new work (which could address particular themes) as an information space, or to project new creative work self-generated by locals. One medium which would work well here is Tik Tok which is basically a 15 second platform that acts as a stage and positions the audience as performer. Content is quick and easy to create on your phone, feeds off of meme culture, and enables creative expression that is relevant to younger people. There is potential to curate ‘best of’ sessions, again possibly run by the Young Ambassadors. A good starting point for ideas would be Nick Robertson, the BBC’s social media content producer who was discovered making snapchat videos about his life working in Starbucks. The fact that all people above 30 will probably hate this medium is the exact reason it should be embraced.

Library App

Now is the time to bring the library card into the 21st century with an app that enables users to visualise their reading history. Whether we like it or not apps provide simple ways of monitoring and motivating behaviour. A FitBit tells you how far you’ve walked, Netflix algorithms tell you what to watch next, etc. A library app could perform similar functions and act as a digital guide. I’ve been teaching a module at an international college for 10 years where I get students to design a mobile app. Overwhelmingly 85% of them come up with an app that shows them how to do things… There is also opportunities or partnerships here with Vue cinema in the neighbouring Broadmarsh Centre. When you get out your first six books, you get a free cinema ticket…

Confessional booth

I’ve used booths before in various projects such as the East Midlands Heritage Awards and they always work because people love talking one to one. A digital booth in the library would allow readers to share their favourite books or characters. These could be projected onto digital screens, linked to an app, or simply viewed in the booth. This idea builds on the readers recommendations you see in places like Waterstones. But more importantly it shows young people that their opinions and ideas are valued. It is one of numerous ways to build an inclusive community.

James is currently working on Whatever People Say I Am, a graphic novel serial challenging stereotypes, and D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage, a memory theatre exploring Lawrence through artefacts.

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website on 9 March 2020. You can subscribe to their newsletter here.