Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Sebastian Shakespeare, Evening Standard

With the future of the left-wing weekly hanging in the balance, there could be no more timely reminder of its importance to British culture than the reissue of Orwell in Tribune, a collection of George Orwell's essays edited by Paul Anderson.

Orwell joined Tribune in 1943 and spent 13 months as literary editor and the next three-and-a-half years as a columnist and reviewer. Although he is best known for his novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, his journalism was just as influential.

It was during this time he pioneered the As I Please column, a forerunner of the modern-day opinion piece which has come to loom so large in the press.

He took on whatever idea popped into his head and allowed the reader to tap into a brilliant stream of conciousness. His subjects ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous — from the Warsaw uprising and doodlebugs, to making a cup of tea and the pleasure he got from sixpenny Woolworth's rose bushes outside his Hertfordshire cottage (this elicited a letter from a woman socialist, denouncing roses as “bourgeois”, which gave him another pretext to mock socialists).

“Good prose is like a windowpane” was his personal mantra. In other words it should be clear, lucid and enlightening, and make the reader feel as if they have seen something. He wrote about the social issues of the day (anti-Semitism, the execution of war criminals, postwar juvenile delinquency), as well as popular culture (women's magazines, seaside postcards, American comics). For him there was no distinction between high and low culture.

Most newspaper columns have a short shelf life but Orwell's have endured for 70 years. They are at once passionate polemics and vivid social history. Reading them today gives you a flavour of what life was like during and immediately after the war.

They are also autobiographical. They reveal his passions (nature, literature, politics, good food, “good bad books” and English customs) and pet hates (snobbery, racial prejudice and the degradation of language). He advocated the simplification of expression and the coining of fresh metaphors.

The As I Please column was revived in Tribune under the inspired editorship of Mark Seddon and its modern-day authors have included Joan Smith and Mark Rowson. However, nobody could match Orwell for his authority, sharpness and freshness.

George Orwell turned political writing into an art form. Only trivial books make big money, he once observed.

His trivial columns didn't make him big money. They did more than that. They made literary history.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Tom Widger, Sunday Tribune (Dublin)

The questioning mind in me has always loved Orwell. The Orwell who just about escaped death from the Soviet NKVD at the close of the Spanish Civil War, the Orwell of Wigan Pier, the creator of the Thought Police, the pigs in Animal Farm. The Orwell who scoffed at tidied-up language, such as "friendly fire". The book to hand is a collection of essays that came out in left-wing literary weeklies. Orwell usually had three or four deadlines a week to meet, including the "As I Please" column, and despite the years of publication – the mid 1940s – they are as fresh as though they were written last week. That said, of course, the themes – the class war, the structure of society – are still topical, and always will be.

Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski, Independent on Sunday

In 1943, weary of his wartime work for the BBC, where he had little time for his own writing and had become impatient with the level of censorship imposed by the Ministry of Information, George Orwell accepted a job as literary editor of the leftwing weekly, Tribune. Broadly speaking, he sympathised with the paper's politics and, given an exceptional degree of editorial freedom, he spent the next 13 months in the job and then the following three-and-a-half years as a columnist and reviewer, writing pretty much what he wanted.

In wartime, his column "As I Please" offered forthright and often contrary opinion, and his 1946 comments on the way justice was being dealt to war criminals, their hangings sometimes gruesomely inefficient spectacles, could easily be set against recent attempts to dispense justice in Iraq: "If people are being taught to gloat not only over death but over a peculiarly horrible form of torture, it marks another turn on the downward spiral that we have been following ever since 1933."

During peacetime his columns continued to pick away at what passed for civilised behaviour. What was the point of overeating at Christmas? "A deliberately austere Christmas would be an absurdity." Were the kinds of comics becoming popular in the USA a good thing? "A correspondent has sent me a copy of one of the disgusting American 'comics' which I referred to a few weeks ago... Certainly I would keep these out of children's hands if possible. But I would not be in favour of prohibiting their actual sale."

Never a censor, always a man who cared profoundly about the ways in which freedom could be limited and how society suffered as a result, Orwell would have been a great man to have around over the past 10 years.