George Orwell’s schoolfriend, Cyril Connolly, wrote that the duty of a writer was to produce a masterpiece. He famously identified one of the main obstacles as “the pram in the hall”. TS Eliot said the worst job for a creative writer was journalism, especially literary journalism. At the end of the 1930s, Orwell had been planning a masterpiece, an “epic saga” to be called “The Quick and the Dead”.
He was prevented from writing it by almost every imaginable obstacle. Above all, there was the war, with its upheavals and privations, though he only played a marginal military role as Sergeant Blair of the Home Guard. He was married to Eileen and duly acquired the pram in the hall, in the form of their adopted son, Richard. He was already suffering from the disabling respiratory illness that would kill him, while continuing to smoke a heroic quantity of cigarettes. At the same time he was producing an awesome quantity of journalism, but he defied Eliot’s injunction by writing Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four: not just masterpieces but cultural icons, on a level with Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels.
And the journalism was great as well. This revelatory collection shows how the different sides of Orwell’s imagination interacted. Shortly after Orwell finished Animal Farm, he accepted the job as literary editor and columnist on the left-wing weekly, Tribune. His first “As I Please” column appeared on 3 December 1943. He continued until February 1945, when he took an eight-month break, during which he visited the continent as a reporter for the Observer (he met Hemingway in Paris).
Orwell enthusiasts will already have read much of this book in other collections. The fascination here is reading Orwell as a working journalist on a single paper. He attended editorial conferences with Nye Bevan (someone should write a play about the encounter), commissioned reviews and made a doomed attempt to publish short stories by organising a competition.
But above all, there were these columns. From week to week, he wrote on anything that came into his head: the unpopularity of American soldiers in Britain, the absurdity of bomb shelters, the ugliness of the photographs in the New Year honours list. He attacks anti-Semitism and trouser turn-ups, English railways and the BBC Brains Trust. He asks readers to identify quotations. He laments the replacement of railings in London squares.
Week by week, column by column, his inspirations take shape. He develops the ideas about euphemistic, pretentious and hackneyed prose that would result in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language” (in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, not Tribune). His swipes against propaganda, the manipulation of crowds, the squalor of wartime and postwar London life, the absurdities of bureaucracy and the growth of the Great Powers formed the raw material of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
For a writer so apparently personal, it is noteworthy what isn’t there. He is fascinated by the minutiae of literary history, but there is no mention of movies, theatre or classical music. And a reading of the book alongside one of the biographies shows how selectively he draws on his life. In one of his most famous columns, he mounts a semi-defence of the German flying bombs, admitting that his first reaction when he heard the droning was to hope it fell on someone else. But he doesn’t mention that just a few days earlier one such bomb had destroyed his own home (almost taking with it the unique typescript of Animal Farm).
During his 1945 break, the war ended and two important things happened in his life. After being turned down by various publishers (including TS Eliot), Animal Farm was published and achieved instant success. And his wife, Eileen, suddenly died. When Orwell began writing for Tribune again, something had been released. The columns had been good enough before. But now, one after another, come “Books v Cigarettes”, “Decline of the English Murder”, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray”, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”. These are some of the greatest essays in the English language, and they seem all the more startling when succeeded by a mundane moan about the postwar shortage of clocks.
On 4 April 1947, Orwell wrote about the possibility of growing tobacco in England (the problem was not the sun, he said implausibly, but “some deficiency in the soil”) and signed off for good. Three years later he was dead, aged 46. For a number of years, I also wrote a column impudently titled ““As I Please”” (for the New Statesman). Reading this book made me feel once more that I was, in the words of Wayne, not worthy.