Paul Anderson, review of various collections of work by George Orwell, Tribune, 7 September 2001

The publication in 1998 of a complete hardback edition of George Orwell’s Collected Works – all the novels, published journalism and surviving broadcast scripts, letters and notes, edited by Peter Davison – was universally heralded as one of the greatest triumphs of serious publishing in living memory, as indeed it was. It was extraordinarily comprehensive in its scope, and the editing was meticulous, erudite and informative.

There was just one problem: the price. At £850 for the boxed set of 20 volumes, it was beyond the budget of most public libraries, let alone the average reader. To make matters worse, it was at first impossible to buy individually the 10 volumes in the Collected Works covering Orwell’s journalism and letters. These contained the most exciting material put together by Davison – the scores of articles and letters excluded by Orwell’s widow Sonia (mostly because she disliked their Left-wing politics) from the selection of his journalism and letters she edited with Ian Angus in the 1960s.

Although Secker and Warburg eventually set about releasing the Davison journalism and letters volumes individually in hardback, they were still £40 or upwards a throw. It was only last autumn that they began to appear in paperback. And it’s only this week that the paperbacking has reached very best of them – three volumes covering the period 1943-46 that include a large proportion of Orwell’s most accomplished journalism, much of it in the pages of Tribune.

Orwell became literary editor of this paper in late 1943 after a two-year stint at the BBC, where he wrote news summaries and highbrow radio magazine programmes for transmission to India and the Far East. (The surviving transcripts and BBC-related letters are collected in three volumes by Davison, paperbacked this spring; the most interesting of this material was publshed in the 1980s in two volumes edited by W J West.) Whereas Orwell’s freedom to express his own opinion had been severely constrained at the BBC – by the nature of the work rather more than by the censor – at Tribune Aneurin Bevan, then doubling as unofficial leader of the opposition and editor, allowed him to do whatever he liked.

Orwell, an irregular contributor to the paper since 1940 when it belatedly split with the Communist Party over the Hitler-Stalin pact, seized his opportunity with relish. In the 15 months he was on the Tribune staff he wrote an almost unbelieveable amount: Animal Farm, a string of incisive reviews and essays (some but not all for Tribune) and 59 installments of a column for Tribune, “As I Please”, that has deservedly become a model of how to do radical periodical journalism. Orwell continued to knock it out – rather less regularly – until 1947, though he left Tribune in 1945 to join the Observer as a foreign correspondent.

The three volumes from the Collected Works that are published in paperback this week cover Orwell’s time as a Tribune staffer, his Observer assignment and a spell of freelancing while working on 1984. Among the more familiar essays here are such classics as “Politics and the English Language”, “The Prevention of Literature” and “The Decline of the English Murder” – but the greatest pleasure for me was being able to read 67 out of the total of 80 “As I Please” columns in chronological order and unexpurgated. The range of Orwell’s subject matter and the vigour of his argument is simply breathtaking: more than 50 years after they were written, they still jump off the page.

The best of Orwell’s journalism and letters coming out in the paperback edition of the Collected Works has not been the only good Orwell publishing news of this summer. Penguin has now completed the paperbacking of all the fiction from the Davison edition. And for those who baulk at paying even £20 for each volume of the journalism and letters or don’t want to go the whole hog on ephemera, Penguin has issued four themed volumes edited by Davison at £7.99 apiece, each one including one of Orwell’s full-length books and a selection of his other writings on its topic as well as an introduction by a well-known current author.

Of the four, the best is Orwell and Spain, which combines Homage to Catalonia with an acerbic introduction by Christopher Hitchens and a well chosen mix of letters, documents and articles on the Spanish civil war, the effect of which is to reinforce Orwell’s indictment of the Soviet betrayal of the revolution and sabotage of the Republican cause. Almost as good is Orwell and Politics, which contains Animal Farm, many of Orwell’s key political essays and an introduction by Timothy Garton Ash, though as a whole it is less focused – hardly surprising considering that Orwell wrote about every imaginable aspect of politics. (The book also includes an incomplete version of Orwell’s infamous list of communist sympathisers in Britain, which various people have suggested shows him to be the worst kind of political grass. In fact, as Davison makes clear, Orwell kept the list for his own journalistic purposes and used it as the basis for another list, much shorter and yet to be released by the Public Records Office, advising a Foreign Office propaganda unit of whom it should not employ as propagandists. That hardly counts as a major misdemeanour. Indeed, in the circumstances of the time – the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin and seemed set on war with the west – it was a wholly honourable thing to do.)

The problem of focus is even more noticable in Orwell’s England (centred on The Road to Wigan Pier, with an introduction by Ben Pimlott) and Orwell and the Dispossesed (with Down and Out in Paris and London at its core and an introduction by Peter Clarke), not least because it is just about impossible to separate Orwell’s thoughts about nation from those about class. But this really is a small criticism: there are extraordinary riches here, with welcome surprises even for readers well versed in Orwell.

Orwell was posthumously traduced as a right-wing cold warrior both by the pro-communist left and by the anti-communist right. With all that is now in paperback, no one now has the excuse not to recognise him for what he was: the greatest and most continuingly relevant British Left writer and thinker of the 20th century.

  • The paperback volumes of George Orwell’s Collected Works published this week by Secker and Warburg at £20 each are I Have Tried to Tell the Truth 1943-44, I Belong to the Left 1945 and Smothered Under Journalism 1946. Orwell and Spain, Orwell and Politics, Orwell’s England and Orwell and the Dispossesed are published by Penguin at £7.99 each. All these books are edited by Peter Davison.
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