Sunday, 29 October 2006

Gordon Bowker, Observer

Leaving the BBC to join the left-wing Tribune as literary editor in 1943 was a turning point for George Orwell. At the BBC, he was employed as Eric Blair; at Tribune as the pseudonymous Orwell. In his famous “As I Please” column, his subjects ranged from the Warsaw uprising and doodlebugs to Basic English and the solar topi, allowing readers to tap into a brilliant if occasionally rambling mind. These and other essays, now collected together by Paul Anderson, show how from 1943 he was accumulating the ideas that underlie Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Here, he floats the ideas of mutually hostile power blocs permanently at war, the rewriting of history and the impossibility of private life under totalitarianism, significant ingredients of his terrifying last novel. Anderson's informative introduction includes a long digression into the left-wing politics of the period, which some may find heavy going but which supplies the wider context. The footnotes constitute a veritable Who Was Who of British politics and literature in the first half of the last century. Who was Barbara Castle's husband and who her lover? Who were Vernon Bartlett, the Duchess of Atholl, Leonard Merrick? Answers sit conveniently at the foot of the page.

These essays show Orwell switching easily from the sublime to the ridiculous – from anti-Semitism to what makes beer go flat. Not only was he engrossed in the political and social issues of his day (the execution of war criminals, postwar juvenile delinquency), but he could indulge his fascination with popular culture (women's magazines, American horror comics). It's clear that he considered judging high and low culture equally rendered aesthetic language meaningless.

His column also reveals his passions (nature, literature, politics, good food, 'good bad books' and English customs) and pet hates (snobbery, racial prejudice and the degradation of language). On the language question, he advocates simplification of expression and the coining of fresh metaphors. One of his most memorable coinages is 'cold war', first used in the Manchester Evening News in 1943, a fact still undiscovered by Anderson or the OED.

In an age when 'opinion pieces' crowd our daily papers, it is timely to have this anthology of work by one of the masters of the genre whose declared ambition was to turn political writing into an art. But he also excelled at the close-focused essay, writing stylishly about Woolworth's roses, the common toad, washing up – small matters that could set his pen racing. This collection contains some amusing ironies. In March 1944, just 18 months before Animal Farm made him rich, and five years before Nineteen Eighty-Four made him even richer, he wrote that only trivial books make big money.

However, the book also torpedoes several myths – that he was anti-Semitic (not by 1943 he wasn't), that he rarely referred to Hitler and the Nazis (though his many references here go unmentioned in the index) and that he was sadistic (he opposed taking revenge on the Germans and loathed the execution of Nazis and their collaborators). This is an excellent book to steam through or dip into as the inclination takes one.

Friday, 27 October 2006

Martin Rowson, Tribune

As an utterly unworthy subsequent tenant (albeit on a time-share basis) of George Orwell's old Tribune column “As I Please”, I read his second lead for March 3 1944 with some interest. It's typical of the tone of most of his articles, now gathered together for the first time in Orwell in Tribune: wide-ranging, often conversational, frequently not directly political and always rather strangely playful.

On this occasion, he notes with pleasure the reappearance of the Cornhill Magazine after a four-year absence, presumably as a consequence of the Second World War, and uses this as a starting point to make the following observation:
There are some interesting notes by the editor on the earlier history of the Cornhill.

One fact that these bring out is the size and wealth of the Victorian reading public, and the vast sums earned by literary men in those days.... It paid Trollope £2,000 for a serial – he had demanded £3,000 – and commissioned another from George Eliot at £10,000.

Except for the tiny few that manage to crash into the film world, these sums would be quite unthinkable nowadays.... A novel nowadays is considered to have done very well if it brings its author £500 – a sum a lawyer can earn in a single day.
I noticed this particular entry because earlier, in his masterful and highly informative introduction, Paul Anderson had written that Orwell was hired as literary editor by Tribune (then only seven years old, now pushing 70) on an annual income of £500.

Even factoring in inflation, this is still infinitely more than I get paid to write the same column. This is literally true, as I get nothing. Nor, I suspect, even when he was Tribune's editor, has Anderson made a significant wedge from this magazine, the sole reward for his labours often being nothing more than the floods of outraged letters his own occasional columns incite. (Anderson's privations get worse – all the royalties from this book are going to Tribune.)

Now you might just think I'm moaning here – you might think the same about Orwell – but several things are worth remembering. First, this collection is remarkable, not because it contains any of Orwell's greater or more famous essays, but because, 60 years on, his articles are still wonderfully readable.

Even when Orwell is using the column to settle one of his many scores with some foe now otherwise totally forgotten, Anderson's thorough footnotes will tell you all you need to know to appreciate Orwell's invective.

There are few duller things in life than anthologies of most columnists' stale old columns, and I can only think of three other professional journalists – James Cameron, Myles na Gopaleen and Hunter S. Thompson – whose old copy manages, like Orwell's, to achieve the apotheosis from hackery into literature.

The next thing you need to remember is that Tribune has always been a financial basket case. Again, Anderson's introduction guides the reader through Tribune's early years, as an organ for Sir Stafford Cripps, a front for the Communist Party in its popular front phase, then under the nominal editorship of Aneurin Bevan. All the time – and ever since – the paper tiptoed and teetered on the very brink of bankruptcy.

Perversely, that apparent weakness is Tribune's greatest strength, because it means that no one has ever written a word for Tribune that they didn't want to write, because it's not for the money.

This point is gloriously proven in this collection. Orwell writes about anything and everything that comes into his head. If you think of him merely as a sickly “prophet” of gloomy dystopia, or a savage satirist, or a chronicler of human misery and degradation, then his “As I Please” pieces are a marvellous correction.

As I've said, they're surprisingly playful, but also bitchy, sarcastic, wise, appalled, venomous and often very funny, whether he's writing about the rudeness of GIs or shopkeepers, or the apparently infinite possible definitions of the word "fascist" as used across the political spectrum, as he ranges from the ugliness of contemporary politicians to notes on curing hangovers in dogs, from how much he spends, comparatively, on books and tobacco to “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”.

The final thing, which you don't really need reminding of, is that Orwell is one of Tribune's three patron saints, along with Nye Bevan and Michael Foot (who years ago pulled off the predictable trick of achieving pre-mortem secular canonisation). As far as I'm aware, his stapler has now been auctioned off to raise funds for Tribune more times than there are claimed to be pieces of the True Cross.

This is as it should be, for while his association with Tribune has certainly enhanced this magazine, it, in its turn, enhanced Orwell by giving him space to write about just what he pleased. Buy this book for all the right reasons – it helps Tribune and it's a good read. Meanwhile, it must be said that Paul Anderson deserves at least beatification for collecting this trove together.

Sean French, Independent

George Orwell's schoolfriend, Cyril Connolly, wrote that the duty of a writer was to produce a masterpiece. He famously identified one of the main obstacles as "the pram in the hall". TS Eliot said the worst job for a creative writer was journalism, especially literary journalism. At the end of the 1930s, Orwell had been planning a masterpiece, an "epic saga" to be called "The Quick and the Dead".

He was prevented from writing it by almost every imaginable obstacle. Above all, there was the war, with its upheavals and privations, though he only played a marginal military role as Sergeant Blair of the Home Guard. He was married to Eileen and duly acquired the pram in the hall, in the form of their adopted son, Richard. He was already suffering from the disabling respiratory illness that would kill him, while continuing to smoke a heroic quantity of cigarettes. At the same time he was producing an awesome quantity of journalism, but he defied Eliot's injunction by writing Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four: not just masterpieces but cultural icons, on a level with Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver's Travels.

And the journalism was great as well. This revelatory collection shows how the different sides of Orwell's imagination interacted. Shortly after Orwell finished Animal Farm, he accepted the job as literary editor and columnist on the left-wing weekly, Tribune. His first “As I Please” column appeared on 3 December 1943. He continued until February 1945, when he took an eight-month break, during which he visited the continent as a reporter for the Observer (he met Hemingway in Paris).

Orwell enthusiasts will already have read much of this book in other collections. The fascination here is reading Orwell as a working journalist on a single paper. He attended editorial conferences with Nye Bevan (someone should write a play about the encounter), commissioned reviews and made a doomed attempt to publish short stories by organising a competition.

But above all, there were these columns. From week to week, he wrote on anything that came into his head: the unpopularity of American soldiers in Britain, the absurdity of bomb shelters, the ugliness of the photographs in the New Year honours list. He attacks anti-Semitism and trouser turn-ups, English railways and the BBC Brains Trust. He asks readers to identify quotations. He laments the replacement of railings in London squares.

Week by week, column by column, his inspirations take shape. He develops the ideas about euphemistic, pretentious and hackneyed prose that would result in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language" (in Cyril Connolly's Horizon, not Tribune). His swipes against propaganda, the manipulation of crowds, the squalor of wartime and postwar London life, the absurdities of bureaucracy and the growth of the Great Powers formed the raw material of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

For a writer so apparently personal, it is noteworthy what isn't there. He is fascinated by the minutiae of literary history, but there is no mention of movies, theatre or classical music. And a reading of the book alongside one of the biographies shows how selectively he draws on his life. In one of his most famous columns, he mounts a semi-defence of the German flying bombs, admitting that his first reaction when he heard the droning was to hope it fell on someone else. But he doesn't mention that just a few days earlier one such bomb had destroyed his own home (almost taking with it the unique typescript of Animal Farm).

During his 1945 break, the war ended and two important things happened in his life. After being turned down by various publishers (including TS Eliot), Animal Farm was published and achieved instant success. And his wife, Eileen, suddenly died. When Orwell began writing for Tribune again, something had been released. The columns had been good enough before. But now, one after another, come "Books v Cigarettes", "Decline of the English Murder", "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad", "A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray", "Confessions of a Book Reviewer". These are some of the greatest essays in the English language, and they seem all the more startling when succeeded by a mundane moan about the postwar shortage of clocks.

On 4 April 1947, Orwell wrote about the possibility of growing tobacco in England (the problem was not the sun, he said implausibly, but "some deficiency in the soil") and signed off for good. Three years later he was dead, aged 46. For a number of years, I also wrote a column impudently titled "“As I Please”" (for the New Statesman). Reading this book made me feel once more that I was, in the words of Wayne, not worthy.

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Robert McCrum,

Now that the book blog has arrived, it's time to take a longer view. Whom, for instance, might we call upon as contributors, from the English canon?

Not Shakespeare (too busy), not Milton (too grand), probably not Pope (too classical). But Daniel Defoe was a great journalist as well as a pioneering novelist - and he'd be blogging for certain. Dr Johnson, I think, would not, though he'd be a natural (he'd want to get paid for it).

After that, it gets easier: Coleridge (yes), (Keats, no) Dickens (yes), Austen (no - couldn't cope with the technology), Thackeray (yes), Trollope (yes - once he'd done his fiction for the day). In fact almost any Victorian you care to think of - they would all have been enthusiastic bloggers.

Thinking of the last century, there's one name who jumps out as the supreme blogger before his time. George Orwell's 'As I Please' column in the Tribune (1943-45) is a bravura display of casual essay writing on anything from the common toad to why beer goes flat to good bad novels to Soviet Russian foreign policy. He did this column every fortnight (when he wasn't writing Animal Farm) and it has recently been collected in a single volume (Politico's, edited by Paul Anderson). The book is a joy to dip into - and a good reminder that though the form of what we write can change, the essence remains the same.

Sunday, 22 October 2006

Dermot Bolger, Sunday Business Post (Ireland)

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.