Book review: Eric is Awake, by Dom Shaw

If Orwell were alive today, what would he say?

Rosemary Bechler
22 September 2014

Eric is Awake, Dom Shaw, Anonymous Press, 2013, ISBN: 0992611512

This is that rare twenty-first century phenomenon, a novel for heroes. Indeed the author, Dom Shaw, is unfashionably clear about the heroic, even intrepid credentials required for entering through the gates of Eric is Awake. He pretends to be writing about George Orwell’s reputation, but actually, this might well be how he assesses his own readers’ qualifications for relating to his hero:

“No one seemed to care very much… What was he in the end? He resembled someone whose name everyone knew but no one read. Some of the broadsheet columnist’s jokes were completely missed as the majority of their readership had the key phrases memorized—‘Big Brother, 1984, some animals are more equal than others’—but little else. They were limited to these few cultural clichés because they had never read a complete Orwell novel.”

Muddled? So you should be, for the premise of this ingenious novel, dedicated to a grandfather “who believed in always standing up for the working man”, is that when the writer, journalist and polemicist known to his readers as George Orwell dies shortly after midnight on January 21, 1950, his expiring breath somehow revivifies a homeless man with a high forehead and a thin moustache who is dying of hypothermia in an alley beside an Islington pub on the snowy winter night of January 21, 20--. Hence, some time in the future, Eric is Awake - in a north London still identifiable as such, and yet several scientific inventions ahead of our current state in 2014.

It is an ingenious plot in many ways, beginning with the ample excuse it provides for Dr. Who-type forays into past, present and future, encapsulated in a short quotation in the book’s Prologue from another author who is clearly a favourite, Seneca, on ‘the Shortness of Life’:

“Life is divided into three periods – that which has been, that which is, that which will be. Of these the present time is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.”

The awakened Eric of course has to set about understanding his reincarnation in 20---, a puzzled yet increasingly determined quest which is recorded in his Fever Diary. We necessarily read this in double time, getting the two-way joke when his mystified homeless companion, Pedro, suddenly finds his miraculously recovered old friend introducing himself to him as Eric, in Catalan: “ I din’t know you speak Catalan, Lewis. You OK?”

Of course at this early stage in proceedings, we are not going to miss much if we are unaware of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, scene of his life-changing experience of the Spanish civil war, any more than we will find ourselves excluded from our appreciation of the austerity-driven recipes for the homeless that appear almost half way through the novel, if we haven’t heard of the article replete with recipes Orwell was commissioned to write by the British Council on ‘British Cookery’ in 1946 (which it was decided not to publish given the constraints of post-war rationing). Such gems as Earth-Baked Toad in the Hole Catalunya and Bedsit Soup Recipe appear appended to the ‘As I see it’ column on the Hackney and Haringey Advertiser (Orwell’s famous column in Tribune was called ‘As I please’), which is given to the man who insists that he is the reincarnated George Orwell simply because people ‘rather like the idea, you know, that he’s still alive somewhere, watching us all’. As a reader, I found myself appreciating the joke, but also adapting rather too easily to this vision of a future in 20 -- when we will all have to be more interested in how to live well out of rubbish bins. After all, this is not too far removed from the recipes to help impoverished students survive their bedsits to be found in many an austerity-era colour supplement nowadays.

We don’t mind the sense of being nudged towards these Orwellian references or indeed of having maybe missed them, because we are offered a generous sense of detail in the plausible reconstructions of his recollected past, from Orwell meeting Hemingway in 1945 Paris, not meeting Capra, hearing about his wife Eileen’s death in Cologne, or retreating paranoically to Jura, and because the clues these sequences give us as we pursue our hero through a range of mutually illuminating discourses, not just his Fever Diaries, or his gazette columns, but the Preliminary Assessment reports on ‘Patient E.583’ from University College Hospital which monitor his recovery, the intelligence reports from Merrett O’Brien, the creepy man at Border & Control, or the clues that our heroine, Emily, and Pedro hang onto as they try to make sense of the man in their midst. These feel for the most part as if they are about something rather more important than a kind of literary pub quiz.

And I suppose this ‘more important’ thing, that Eric might well have regretted not being able to do in his first incarnation, and something, not to give too much away, that he still wants to do at the end of ‘Eric is awake’ - is that he could come back and tell us what kind of man can really be a hero for our times.

Because the whole novel is rather like a reverse fictional version of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, that well known book of criticism which traces the way that the Romantic poets desperately pursue originality to get away from their literary mentors and sources of inspiration. Here instead it is quite clear that the author only really trusts one man, Eric Blair, the man who became George Orwell, to read post-modernity in a manly and acceptable way, and that, as a result the only thing for the author to do is to bring him back to life in a near future which is close enough to be recognisable, because we really do want to know, in short, what the man who was a self-acclaimed democratic socialist and is also a hero for our times, would say.

As you’d expect, it is complicated: being a hero in the world of this novel is by no means a guarantee of success. Dom Shaw’s Eric Blair is an endearing mixture of how one might imagine George Orwell in the flesh combined with Don Quixote, with Pedro as his twenty-first century Sancho Panza, and a John Buchan hero. His relationship with women is pretty disastrous, but also very well written. It isn’t often that we are treated to male vulnerability to women and the unromantic loneliness of a lifetime’s pursuit of a companion and a sexual partner. This is all the more impressive since for the most part, our hero as you would expect, is the morally authoritative commentator, who has all the wholeness of someone with access to ‘the truth’ – not when it comes to women. Yes, one can’t help feeling that it isn’t his fault that like Sherlock Holmes there isn’t really much more for a hero on his own to do than to take down the villain with him as he goes. Nor his fault if the resulting sense of incompleteness leads to further calls for his literary reincarnation.

But in this reincarnation, one ingenious aspect is greatly to his advantage, and that is the intriguing way we are invited to consider what Orwell might have made of Britain in a future state. 20--- turns out not only to be much more corpulent than the era of his ‘rationed contemporaries’, but much more entertained, as he reports to the Hackney and Haringey Advertiser, since the state depends on video games, soap operas, Staycation domes, legalised high grade opiates and alcohol to ‘distract the population from engaging with the world in any meaningful manner’.  The most important theme here, as you might expect from Dom Shaw’s substantial contribution to openDemocracy, is the encounter between his Don Quixote and the fully-fledged surveillance state. It begins with a rather good joke about how any future national database might cope with someone who really was, as he insisted, the long-since expired George Orwell, but gradually takes on an altogether darker hue.

Perhaps the greatest act of courage on the part of both the author and his hero is the speech that constitutes the climax of this tale. This is when both have a go at what the latter would say if he was given the chance to address a kind of Occupy movement that has become huge over time, and that now has ‘three and three quarter million people, standing before telescreens and in parks and squares strained to hear the odd man with the archaic clothing and curious inflection.” We have been well prepared for this eagerly awaited moment by Blair’s latest ‘As I see it' column devoted to the ‘growing crisis’ in the ‘Data Wars’ with its front line outside Warwick Castle. On one side is a population, ‘attempting to take back their privacy and their liberty and this, of course is not acceptable to a Government that has spent many years slowly encroaching upon both.’ On the other is ‘the Police’ empowered by a Terrorist Act that allows them to arrest you ‘in the United Kingdom and Europe if a police officer thinks you look like a terrorist’ and a state that despite considerable expenditure, ‘has not been able to repair the damage to their credibility in the face of the systematic leaking of the true casualty figures, operational errors and abuses committed in China, Iran and Afghanistan.’

Our hero urges those attending the next great gathering on May 1, International Workers’ Day, to await the outcome of the ‘very potent message’ the Hoodies have sent to the Government, “There will be speeches of course, I am scheduled to make one myself, but let there be no more direct action for now.” So, come the big day, when, “his head appeared on all the telescreens across the city’ and  “… a rumble of cheering rose and seemed to shake all the pigeons from their roosts…” What will our hero say that could possibly rise to the moment?

It is no accident that this was when I was won over, and convinced by the author’s loyalties, because of course, George Orwell is remembered, loved and yearned for, above all, for his impeccable prose, strong and bold, and his heroic unflinching gaze. And here it is:

“The British people, in all their bloody-minded, cantankerous, class-ridden fury have spoken at last and they must listen, if only for now. This Government is the last link in a chain of administration that has finally rolled over everything that gave the state meaning and power. They have, blindly and irrevocably removed their own legitimacy. The gap between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots has so widened that those who are supposed to represent us have fatally increased the number of the disenfranchised. This has been their downfall…    

"… if your children kill each other on the streets because they have no aspirations worth speaking of, if the authorities no longer police with consent, but suppress and collate your every movement and communication, if you cannot vote against any of these things because no party represents your desire, well then, why are we here? Why in the name of all that we fought for in the last war and beyond, are we here?”

Better far, these two or three pages, than any last night of the Proms. And I think I might go away and read another of those Orwell novels now…


You can purchase the book here. You can see Dom Shaw's articles for openDemocracy here.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData