Gordon Bowker, Observer

Leaving the BBC to join the left-wing Tribune as literary editor in 1943 was a turning point for George Orwell. At the BBC, he was employed as Eric Blair; at Tribune as the pseudonymous Orwell. In his famous “As I Please” column, his subjects ranged from the Warsaw uprising and doodlebugs to Basic English and the solar topi, allowing readers to tap into a brilliant if occasionally rambling mind. These and other essays, now collected together by Paul Anderson, show how from 1943 he was accumulating the ideas that underlie Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Here, he floats the ideas of mutually hostile power blocs permanently at war, the rewriting of history and the impossibility of private life under totalitarianism, significant ingredients of his terrifying last novel. Anderson’s informative introduction includes a long digression into the left-wing politics of the period, which some may find heavy going but which supplies the wider context. The footnotes constitute a veritable Who Was Who of British politics and literature in the first half of the last century. Who was Barbara Castle’s husband and who her lover? Who were Vernon Bartlett, the Duchess of Atholl, Leonard Merrick? Answers sit conveniently at the foot of the page.

These essays show Orwell switching easily from the sublime to the ridiculous – from anti-Semitism to what makes beer go flat. Not only was he engrossed in the political and social issues of his day (the execution of war criminals, postwar juvenile delinquency), but he could indulge his fascination with popular culture (women’s magazines, American horror comics). It’s clear that he considered judging high and low culture equally rendered aesthetic language meaningless.

His column also reveals his passions (nature, literature, politics, good food, ‘good bad books’ and English customs) and pet hates (snobbery, racial prejudice and the degradation of language). On the language question, he advocates simplification of expression and the coining of fresh metaphors. One of his most memorable coinages is ‘cold war’, first used in the Manchester Evening News in 1943, a fact still undiscovered by Anderson or the OED.

In an age when ‘opinion pieces’ crowd our daily papers, it is timely to have this anthology of work by one of the masters of the genre whose declared ambition was to turn political writing into an art. But he also excelled at the close-focused essay, writing stylishly about Woolworth’s roses, the common toad, washing up – small matters that could set his pen racing. This collection contains some amusing ironies. In March 1944, just 18 months before Animal Farm made him rich, and five years before Nineteen Eighty-Four made him even richer, he wrote that only trivial books make big money.

However, the book also torpedoes several myths – that he was anti-Semitic (not by 1943 he wasn’t), that he rarely referred to Hitler and the Nazis (though his many references here go unmentioned in the index) and that he was sadistic (he opposed taking revenge on the Germans and loathed the execution of Nazis and their collaborators). This is an excellent book to steam through or dip into as the inclination takes one.

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