Saturday, 30 December 2006

Francis Beckett, Guardian

How many newspaper columnists will be worth disinterring in 60 years' time? How many will have anything of contemporary relevance to say? How many will even throw light on the way we live in 2006?

In 1943 George Orwell told Tribune readers not to use insulting nicknames for people of different races. "The word 'native' is flung about all over the place. 'Negro' is habitually printed with a small n, a thing most Negroes resent. One's information about these matters needs to be kept up to date. I have recently been going through the proofs of a reprinted book of mine, cutting out the word 'Chinaman' wherever it appears and substituting 'Chinese'. Even 'Mohamedan' is now beginning to be resented; one should say 'Muslim' ... After all, we ourselves do not actually like being called 'Limeys'." The next time some complacent oaf guffaws about being "politically incorrect", show him the passage.

The best writers know the value of small details. A tailor hailed the easing of wartime rationing restrictions which allowed trousers with turnups once again as "the return of the freedoms we are fighting for". If this was the freedom we were fighting for, wrote Orwell, he would be inclined to support the axis powers. Turnups collected dust, and their only benefit was the discovery of the odd forgotten sixpence inside them.

Tribune may be the only publication to have outlived by several decades the purpose for which it was founded. It was started in January 1937 to support Stafford Cripps's Unity Campaign for a united front between Labour, the communists and the Labour left. The Unity Campaign imploded two months later, but Tribune still appears every week. It has found different causes to front, from the Bevanites during and after the second world war to the Bennites in the 1980s.

The year Tribune began, Orwell was in Spain, fighting alongside the POUM (the non-communists on the left) and discovering that a united front on the left was a hideous fraud. The POUM were relentlessly hunted down by the communists, who called them "Trotskyist fascists".

He started writing occasionally for Tribune in 1940. In late 1943, Tribune, after four editors, two radical changes of editorial direction and three life-threatening financial crises, began to publish his weekly column called "As I Please". This book is a collection of all the columns he produced between 1943 and 1947, when he stopped writing it, partly to finish his last book, 1984, and partly because of the tuberculosis which was to kill him in 1950. It comes with a lucid and thoughtful account of Tribune and Orwell by former Tribune editor Paul Anderson.

It displays some of Orwell's obsessions. His anti-communism, which gained him no friends on the left in 1943, is uncompromising, and no reader of this book could be surprised at the revelation that he supplied British Intelligence with a list of those he suspected of being undercover communists.

But it shows Orwell to have been the best sort of newspaper columnist. He writes clearly and simply on subjects on which he had something new and interesting to say, rather than just pumping out a line with self-righteous gusto, which is the curse of our less discursive age. He plays fair. If he attacks someone, he attacks what they actually said, and quotes it, rather than using the privilege of a columnist to distort their view, a courtesy which many of today's columnists have forgotten. There is nothing easier than to ascribe a foolish view to your opponent, and then show it to be foolish.

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

D. J. Taylor, Independent on Sunday

Books of the year feature

The year’s work in Orwell studies produced two terrific books: Peter Davison’s The Lost Orwell (Timewell Press), which brings together all the material discovered since his monumental 20-volume George Orwell: The Complete Works (1998), and Orwell in Tribune (Politico’s), edited by the magazine’s former editor Paul Anderson. My favourite homegrown novel was Will Self’s The Book of Dave (Viking), a London dystopia whose roots curl all the way back to Richard Jeffferies.

Sunday, 10 December 2006

D. J. Taylor, Sunday Times

Fifty years ago, the use of the word hack to describe anyone who made a living as a journalist was practically actionable: Winston Churchill's son Randolph once took damages from a Sunday newspaper on exactly these grounds. But some of the greatest writers in the English language have been harassed penny-a-liners, goaded to the desk by the rap of a creditor's boots on the cheerless stair. Thackeray was a hack. Evelyn Waugh was a hack. Dickens began his career as a parliamentary reporter.

Orwell, of course, was the hack to end all hacks. Except at the very end of his life, when he decamped to the island of Jura to work on Nineteen Eighty-Four, scarcely a week of his adult life went by without three or four deadlines and a working routine smothered under books.

The wonder of the pieces collected in Orwell in Tribune (Politico's £19.99), his mid-1940s contributions to the left-wing literary weekly, is the conditions in which they written: composed straight onto the typewriter, in most cases, to the accompaniment of buzz-bombs and falling masonry. Like Thackeray. Orwell used journalism to rehearse ideas that would later underpin his fiction. Several of the essays and “As I Please” columns included here have a direct bearing on Nineteen Eighty-Four: reflections on artificial languages and realpolitik euphemisms such as "friendly fire", in which can be glimpsed the origins of Newspeak, or "In Front of Your Nose", written in 1946 but clearly foreshadowing the concept of Doublethink. Neatly edited by Paul Anderson, and good on the contemporary left-wing background, this deserves to sit on the same shelf as Peter Davison's monumental George Orwell: The Complete Works.

If not quite in the Orwell category of neurotic freelancers, Graham Greene ran him pretty close: a biographer once calculated that in the 1930s he reviewed more than 1,000 books, an average of two a week and a feat of drudgery well-nigh unparalleled in British letters. Naturally, much of Articles of Faith (Signal £12.99), lan Thomson's collection of Greene's work for the Catholic weekly The Tablet, is aimed at the religious market: Greene's doubts, Greene's views on Pope John Paul II, Greene wondering whether the Roman Curia doesn't remind him of the Politburo and so on. Its incidental effect, though, is to remind you what a brilliant critic of fiction Greene was, capable of using the most mundane novel to pronounce some general truth about how-books get written.

With WF Deedes, the hackery was an end in itself: the books came later, so late, in fact, that the former Daily Telegraph editor's hard-cover debut had to wait until his 84th year. Words and Deedes (Macmillan £25) — a terrible title, but never mind — goes back three quarters of a century to its author's installation as cub reporter on the famously right-wing Morning Post. As for the contents, readers of his autobiography Dear Bill, or the account of his war-corresponding days in Abyssinia with Evelyn Waugh. may note a slight air of repetition. Deedes does tend to return, like some ancient homing pigeon, to such topics as the abdication of Edward VIII, the Tory leadership stitch-up of 1963 and his admiration for the people of Tyneside. On the other hand, his trademark shrewdness is always bracing.

David Remnick (who edits The New Yorker) would, you fancy, take a Churchillian line on being called a hack. As his pieces in Reporting (Picador £ 18.99) show, he specialises in something that British magazines rarely have the space, budget or inclination to print — the long, sedulous and immensely well-researched profile, in which the reader sometimes feels that a bit too much time has been spent in the subject's company and that there are advantages in the impressionist snapshot.

Al Gore, Don DeLillo, Solzhenitsyn, Lennox Lewis (the sports pieces are especially good) come and go, the touch always unobtrusive, the cumulative effect unexpectedly pointed. Having read the account of Gore in action could see exactly why so many Americans opted for George WBush. As for the climate in which this quartet of exemplars operates, the wider point remains: some of the finest things in literature have been written against time, with the baby yelling in the next room, the gas bill staring up from the study desk, and the printer's boy — or his modem electronic equivalent — kicking his heels in the hall.

Friday, 1 December 2006

Duncan Hamilton, Yorkshire Post

The wheels of the George Orwell industry never stop turning. It is like witnessing a kind of literary perpetual motion. Whether it is another critical assessment, a new biography or just a stray newspaper article – usually a guess at what Orwell's view of this or that would have been – there's always something being published about him.

There's an obvious danger of over-stocking the market and creating Orwell fatigue. But Paul Anderson's Orwell in Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings 1943-47, is indisputably the most important and valuable addition to the Orwellian library since DJ Taylor's exemplary life of the author came out three years ago. Buy, beg or borrow it. Whatever you do, read it now. It is the essential Orwell, and his good sense and wisdom glitters on every page.

The book gathers together all the pieces Orwell wrote for Tribune, which were previously scattered through Ian Angus's four-volumes of the writer's essays, journalism and letters and the last 11 of Peter Davison's meticulous and indispensable 20-volume Complete Works.
Published as a whole, and in sequence, you can see what Anthony Burgess meant when he wrote of him: "Everything Orwell said had such a stamp of honest sincerity..."

As Anderson also points out in his introduction, the collection shows off "one of the greatest practitioners ... of the craft of turning out 800-2,000 words a week".

He was Tribune's William Hazlitt, and Orwell in Tribune does much more than re-affirm that fact as well as his genius – hardly necessary, after all – and his eclectic, capacious mind.
It demonstrates Orwell's virtuousness; how strongly he cared for, and about, the things which motivated him, his deep passion for the English language and England.

A newspaper column usually has the longevity of fish on the slab; it rots quickly. Orwell's columns have survived more than 60 years because of his immense readability and the relevance of his arguments.

The strength of his unadorned, stripped down prose makes the writing appear effortless. The subject matter, although naturally of his time, contains themes that overlap into our own. This healthy combination makes it seem as if the presses have just rolled on his thoughts and the ink hasn't quite dried.

The apt title of Orwell's weekly column was “As I Please”. He was able to pass judgment on whatever took his fancy politically, socially or culturally. "It is difficult to think of anyone before or since who could write about so many different things," observes Anderson. Among the subjects Orwell tackled were Hitler and the war ("I note the surprise with which many people seem to discover that war is not crime"), fascism, the birthrate, correspondence courses, juries, the atomic bomb, science, religion, rationing, housing and – in one of the best essays he ever wrote – Books v cigarettes ("It is difficult to establish any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them.")

Orwell does get misty-eyed about England. But his ideas and convictions aren't misty. Each is firmly expressed and definite. On Russia, he writes: "The avoidance of reality is much the same everywhere, and has much the same consequences. The Russian people were taught for years that they were better off than everybody else..."

On the BBC, he says: "What most people appear to demand is simply a better version of the programmes they are getting already. They want better music, funnier jokes, more intelligent discussions, more truthful news." And on propaganda, he is unequivocal: "The whole argument that one mustn't speak plainly because it 'plays into the hands of' this or that sinister influence is dishonest... "

A kind heart made him a lousy literary editor insofar as he found it impossible to turn down articles, however bad. When his successor opened his desk, he found it jammed with heaps of unpublishable material. Having experienced rejection on so many occasions himself, Orwell didn't want to inflict it on anyone else. He went as far as paying for copy that he knew was unusable. But the philanthropic gene in Orwell is yet another reason to like him.

He was an intensely hard-working man. The cover photograph of the book – taken in 1945 in Orwell's Canonbury Square flat – reveals a long, gaunt and grey face, which is slightly bowed over his typewriter. You can see how much writing and the pursuit of truth drained out of him over many wearing years. About this time, he complained of being "smothered in journalism". He pressed on regardless of worsening ill health not just to pay the bills (Animal Farm did that for him) but because he thought it crucial to be heard. Well, George, we're still