Sunday, 14 September 2008

Tom Templeton, Observer

George Orwell's war-time Tribune columns, published together for the first time here, provide a window on the grimy world of the Blitz. By the time the war started, Orwell had lived a bit: he'd already joined the Burma police, gone down and out in Paris and London and fought for a Marxist militia in the Spanish civil war. He'd settled into his easy, demotic writing style, and had the confidence of having predicted the war against fascism.
Between 1943 and 1947, the years these columns span, he wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and his journalism exhibits all the disdain for humbug, and the clarity and independence of thought that shine through his novels.

Many of his observations are as relevant today as they were in the forties: the snobbishness of advertising; the prevalence of faux-scientific superstition ("That a swan can break your leg with a blow of its wing"); the lame jokes in Punch ("Jokes that are funny usually contain that un-English thing, an idea"); and that perennial of the political commentator, the "quite fantastic ugliness" of most politicians.

In a famous piece on the dreariness of book reviewing he observes, "everyone in this world has someone else whom he can look down on ... the book reviewer is better off than the film critic." That might have changed, but with the benefit of 60 years of hindsight, Orwell's fabled prophetic powers seem in good nick. Worried that no objective account of the second world war will ever exist, he anticipates - in a feat of deduction based on the creation of the atomic bomb - the prospect of a couple of superpowers "in a permanent state of cold war", and calls for a European Union to spare Britain from having to choose between them.

Orwell can be profoundly moving too. On the subject of utopias he concludes that the real objective of socialism is not happiness but brotherhood: "Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles ... not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another."

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