Composite image of George Orwell side by side with a photograph of Ghandi

Douglas Kerr is a former Professor of English and Dean of the Arts Faculty at the University of Hong Kong, where he taught for more than thirty years. He is currently Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of many books, including Wilfred Owen’s Voices (Oxford UP) and Conan Doyle: Writing, Profession and Practice (Oxford UP), but is especially important as an Orwell scholar. His work on Orwell includes multiple essays in journals and edited volumes of essays, alongside George Orwell (Writers and their Works series), Eastern Figures: Orient and Empire in British Writing (Hong Kong UP), and, most recently, Orwell and Empire (Oxford UP).

In 1926, a young officer of the Indian Imperial Police in colonial Burma read ‘in the ill-printed pages of some Indian newspaper’ the opening chapters of Gandhi’s autobiography. ‘They made a good impression on me’, George Orwell recalled years later, ‘which Gandhi himself, at that time, did not.’ They were never to meet, but this was the beginning of the relationship between two men who became not only leading political thinkers and actors, but iconic national figures in the years that saw the beginning of the end of the British Empire around the world. In their beliefs and political aims, Gandhi and Orwell had a good deal in common. They were both born into different kinds of allegiance to Britain and what it stood for. Orwell belonged not only to the governing class, but specifically to the Anglo-Indian imperial service class. The young Gandhi was, by his own description, a most amenable colonial subject. But in the light of experience and of growing intellectual conviction, both men in due course became implacable enemies of the injustice of imperial rule, and worked to change the minds of those who sustained it. This campaign came to a climax with the end of British rule in India, which both lived to see. Both embraced a practical socialism, and worked in different ways to improve the conditions of the poor. So what was it that prevented Orwell from seeing in Gandhi a kind of ally, a comrade in arms, even a hero? Through his career, in which he wrote a good deal about Gandhi, he expresses suspicion, hostility, irritation, ‘a sort of aesthetic distaste,’ and at best a grudging respect for the older man. Why? Professor Kerr’s talk looked for answers to these questions.

This event was supported by the Centre for Modernist Cultures (CMC), in the School of English, Drama, and Creative Studies. CMC is a hub for world-leading research on literary and artistic modernism. Its members and invited speakers work at the forefront of the discipline, opening up modernist and early twentieth-century scholarship to innovative lines of inquiry and to new interdisciplinary and international contexts for the study of cultural modernity.