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.

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