Friday, 3 November 2006

Kate McLoughlin, Times Literary Supplement

This volume of George Orwell's writings for Tribune marks the seventieth anniversary of the left-wing weekly. Orwell left the BBC (describing it as "halfway between a girls' school and a lunatic asylum") in 1943, becoming Tribune's literary editor and beginning his “As I Please” column that would run until 1947. In an introduction that renders the nuances of political rivalries on the Left positively pellucid, Paul Anderson, himself an erstwhile Tribune editor, explains that Stafford Cripps launched the paper in 1937 to support his popular front campaign: by Orwell's time, the nominal editorship had passed to Aneurin Bevan.

Tribune editors and readers often disagreed with Orwell (letters attacked him both for being too lowbrow and too highbrow, obsessed with politics and indifferent to them), but Orwell, who knew already that a society which permitted differences of opinion was the only kind worth living in, found this only civilized. Assembling pieces spread across six-volumes of Peter Davison's Complete Works. Anderson's compilation usefully picks out (and edits superbly) a particular thread in Orwell's huge output. Unlike his broadcast commentaries to India, “As I Please” was not concerned with day-to-day events but with broader political thinking: half-inside, half-outside the whale. Warning against the political control of discourse, blanket praise for the Soviet Union and anti-German hysteria, Orwell worked out in plain language the great themes of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. If he abandoned his early hopes that the war would effect a socialist revolution, he never doubted that people would act properly if they only understood.

Orwell's biographer, Bernard Crick, counted 232 topics in the eighty “As I Please”s. Typically combining subjects such as historiography and turned-up trouser-ends. the columns have a quirky, commonplace-book feel. Their author comes across as temperate, meticulous, preachy, humorous, occasionally (as when considering the use of "infer" for "imply") splenetic: a decent. Dickens-reading, trivia-appreciating, hobby-horse-riding, very English old buffer. When he wrote the last of them, Orwell was forty-four.

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