Friday, 22 September 2006


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 September 2006

No British writer of the past 100 years has a greater reputation as a journalist than George Orwell. His three great books of reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia — although not perhaps as ubiquitous as his two best known novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four — are the only examples of British journalism from the 1930s now in print in popular editions. Every other journalist I meet, from foreign correspondents to sub-editors, says that Orwell was a major inspiration.

Yet Orwell’s journalism, or at rather his everyday journalism, is not as widely read as it deserves to be. Unless you have worked your way through the final ten volumes of Peter Davison’s magisterial 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, published in the late 1990s, you are unlikely to have taken in more than a tiny sample of the journalistic writing Orwell did in the last 20 years of his life.

Everything is in Davison, of course, but it is spread through more than 5,000 pages, interspersed with letters and fascinating ephemera. There was a generous selection of Orwell’s journalism published in four volumes in the 1960s as Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow Sonia, but Sonia kept out a lot because it was too political for her tastes. In the 1980s, the New Statesman produced a slim pamphlet of Orwell’s contributions to its pages and the writer W. J. West edited two volumes of Orwell’s broadcast scripts for the BBC in 1941-43. And a couple of years ago came a collection of his reviews and reportage in the Observer.

Until this week, however, there was a glaring gap. The routine journalism on which Orwell’s reputation is primarily based is not his work for the BBC or the Observer, let alone his half-dozen reviews for the New Statesman, whose editor, Kingsley Martin, he hated. Rather it is his columns for Tribune, 80 of which appeared under the rubric “As I Please” between 1943 and 1947. And now, thanks to Politico’s Publishing, they are all available in a single volume, Orwell in Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings, with a foreword by Michael Foot and an introduction by me.

I first realised they would make a fantastic book 20 years ago, when I started working as Tribune’s reviews editor. I was already a big Orwell fan — one of the main reasons I went for the job was that Orwell did it from 1943 to 1945 — and my office at the paper contained the bound volumes of back issues. I spent hours poring over the yellowing pages, admiring Orwell’s direct demotic writing style and his extraordinary range of subject matter.

But simply to transcribe all the columns would have taken money Tribune didn’t have or time I didn’t have, and I never got further than dreaming. Ten years ago, after the New Statesman sacked me, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands and even got a proposal together — but then another job turned up. It was only last year I decided to try to get a publisher. Chris McLaughlin, the Tribune editor, mentioned the project to Politico’s, and all of a sudden I had a contract and a deadline.

I underestimated how much time the book would take even with accurate optical character recognition software: I spent the heatwave in July proofreading rather than sitting by a pool. But now it’s out, all the effort feels worth it.

Despite the diversity of their subject matter, Orwell’s Tribune columns form a single coherent body of work. In the words of the critic D. J. Taylor in his recent Orwell biography: “One of the most engaging features of the column, read sequentially, is the sense of dialogue, points taken up, conceded or refuted, continuity rather than a trail of pronouncements which the reader could take or leave as he or she chose.”

The columns are also still remarkably relevant. If there is a single theme that runs all the way through them, it is that the left needs a more nuanced conception of politics. And this emphasis on the things the left habitually ignored — books, sport, popular racism, the sensationalism of the popular press, the slipperiness of political language, religious intolerance — rather than the programmatic core of 1940s democratic socialism or the week-by-week flow of events, makes Orwell’s Tribune columns more accessible than anything written by his contemporaries.

I’m also hoping that the book will make a bit of cash for Tribune. The paper holds copyright on the Orwell it published but has never made a penny from it, giving away permissions to republish whenever asked. Now, with a bit of luck, it should at long last benefit materially from its greatest contribution to the world of letters.

Orwell in
Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings, compiled and introduced by Paul Anderson with a foreword by Michael Foot, is published by Politico’s at £19.99. You can buy it here.

Friday, 1 September 2006

Richard Keeble, Free Press, September-October 2006

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.