George Orwell's time as literary editor at Tribune from 1943-45 amounts to a special moment in the history of British journalism. The quality and quantity of the output by any standards are remarkable. Journalism is inherently ephemeral, bashed out at speed, quickly consumed and quickly forgotten. These pieces, in contrast, still sparkle and surprise with their invention, wit, vast range of subject matter and solid thinking.
Orwell took a substantial pay cut when he joined Tribune (by then the leading voice of the left wing of the Labour Party) after two rather glum years at the BBC. But he clearly revelled in the new-found freedoms – all the more so because Tribune was a journal with which he could totally identify. As Orwell later wrote: 'It is the only existing weekly paper that makes a genuine effort to be both progressive and humane – that is, to combine a radical Socialist policy with a respect for freedom of speech and a civilised attitude towards literature and the arts.'
In addition to running the literary pages and providing occasional essays (most famously 'Some thoughts on the common toad' of April 1946), Orwell contributed a weekly “As I Please” column and it was these which confirmed his reputation as a leading, controversial voice of the Left. According to biographer Jeffery Meyers: 'His column transformed a humble genre into significant literary works. He not only promoted Socialist ideas and put contemporary political events in historical perspective but also (gloomy as he was) cheered people up with entertaining subjects and – in an intimate tone of voice – combined public issues with personal feelings.'
Yet above all Orwell in his journalism was determined to build up the community of the Left: firstly through columns focusing on political, cultural, social or literary issues; and, secondly, and most imaginatively, through developing an extraordinarily close relationship with his readers. This relationship was crucial to the flowering of Orwell's journalistic imagination. While he realised mainstream journalism was basically propaganda for wealthy newspaper proprietors, at Tribune he was engaging in the crucial political debate with people who mattered to him. They were an authentic audience.
In the remarkably close relationship he instinctively developed with his readers, Orwell can, in many ways, be seen as a proto-blogger, responding to letters sent to him directly or sent to Tribune, inviting letters, asking readers to answer queries or to point him towards a book, pamphlet or quotation he's looking for, running a competition for a short story or giving them a quirky brain teaser to answer.
Paul Anderson's edited collection is a fitting celebration of Orwell's oeuvre at Tribune (his spell there only broken from February 1945 to November 1946 when he first served as war correspondent for David Astor's Observer and then worked on various other writing projects). In his substantial introduction, Anderson, a former editor of Tribune, provides a fascinating history of the journal, identifying, for instance, the tortuous path it followed after its launch by the Labour MPs Stafford Cripps and George Strauss in 1937. By the time Orwell joined, it was on its fourth editor and had gone through two radical changes in editorial direction and at least three life-threatening financial crises. But Aneurin Bevan proved an outstanding editor from 1941-1945 and gave Orwell all the support he needed.
Anderson's analysis of Orwell's political line at Tribune is extremely perceptive. He writes: 'The columns reverberate with reflections on the relationship between politics and literature and with observations of public opinion and political culture – the unreported rise of popular anti-Americanism, the impact of official pro-Russia propaganda, the effects of rationing and shortage, the influence of the flying bombs on morale, attitudes to the treatment of war criminals.'
In many ways, this text serves as a wonderful supplement to Peter Davison's seminal 20-volume collection of Orwell's writings. In his notes to the articles, Anderson provides many background details missed by Davison – for instance, embedded here are biographies of the personalities and histories of obscure left-wing journals of the period which historians will find invaluable.
Anderson underplays the controversies surrounding the links Orwell and a number of his colleagues may or may not have had with the intelligence services and the many affairs he is known to have had over this period which certainly depressed his wife Eileen enormously. The index is also far too flimsy to be of any use. But these are minor criticisms. This text is a marvel no Orwellian should miss.