Retrospectively, all that people remember are the novels, but one of the more troublesome aspects of a novelist’s life is the sheer hassle of physically earning enough money to buy yourself time to write.
Unless huge financial success comes along, a novelist has to duck and dive between journalistic or other projects to create that space.
You might think that when he was about to complete a novel that would become as world famous as Animal Farm, George Orwell might have felt comfortable enough to devote himself full time to fiction, but the reality was different.
Although Animal Farm was finished in March 1944, the manuscript was rejected by successive British publishers who felt that a thinly veiled attack on Stalin was politically inappropriate at a time when Churchill and Stalin presented a united front in appearing to stride together towards victory. Orwell had to wait until two days after the war against Japan ended before the book finally appeared.
For much of the intervening period he supported himself as the slightly erratic literary editor of the left-wing weekly Tribune. However, it was not the annual salary of £500 that drew him to Tribune in 1943, because in taking the job he was leaving a far better paid post as a BBC talks producer.
Orwell felt that his time in the BBC was wasted and this was a chance to work for a leftwing publication with political views broadly in line with his own. He was given a level of editorial freedom denied him in the BBC, would have more free time to finish Animal Farm and would write a weekly column entitled “As I Please”, which would be an informed, if idiosyncratic, forum for Orwell’s myriad interests and observations.
A poet once complained to Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon: ‘‘You accepted my poem, but never published it.” ‘‘That’s correct,” Connolly countered, ‘‘your poem was good enough to accept, it just wasn’t good enough to publish.”
As literary editor of Tribune, Orwell took a similar tack. With memories of how difficult it was to survive as a freelance writer, his chaotic desk was crammed with submissions that he hadn’t the heart to return, despite the fact they were not good enough to publish.
He tried to revive the English short story form, but struggled in the face of ghastly submissions. Despite a psychical inability to answer letters, he did manage to create a stable of reviewers such as Arthur Koestler, Stevie Smith, Alex Comfort and Stephen Spender.
However, his time at Tribune (which was interrupted by a spell as a war correspondent, then continued until he was too ill to work) is noted primarily for his opinion pieces. These already exist in print, scattered among the mammoth 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davidson, but Paul Anderson brings them together for the first time here.
Written quickly to a deadline, they make for fascinating and lively reading. At one level they were meant to provide some light relief to the polemic and analysis in the rest of the magazine, and therefore range from a humorous comparison between his own expenditure on tobacco and books to a piece about spring entitled “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”.
”The Sporting Spirit” examines the ill-feeling stirred during a supposedly morale boosting visit to England by the Dynamo Moscow football team, which insisted on regarding their match against Arsenal as a full international by proxy; 1945 being perhaps the last time Arsenal lined up with a team of 11 Englishmen. The columns remain highly political at heart, especially in warning against the unthinking consensus among many left-wing writers that Stalin could do no wrong.
Orwell had already suffered for his criticism of the Soviet regime, with Victor Gollancz rejecting, sight unseen, Homage to Catalonia, and the New Statesman spiking his accounts of the Spanish civil war.
It was possibly the New Statesman he had in mind when writing in his column in 1944 (when much of the British left unquestioningly accepted Soviet propaganda about the Warsaw uprising): ‘‘A message to left-wing journalists and intellectuals generally . . . dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to normal decency. Once a whore always a whore.”
In 1944, that was brave, unpopular writing by a genuine socialist unafraid to think for himself.
This book is littered with examples of how to write superb original pieces on the run, as it vividly captures the intellectual landscape of Britain in the years between 1943 and 1947. To misquote Pound, his journalism is news that stays news.