The wheels of the George Orwell industry never stop turning. It is like witnessing a kind of literary perpetual motion. Whether it is another critical assessment, a new biography or just a stray newspaper article – usually a guess at what Orwell’s view of this or that would have been – there’s always something being published about him.
There’s an obvious danger of over-stocking the market and creating Orwell fatigue. But Paul Anderson’s Orwell in Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings 1943-47, is indisputably the most important and valuable addition to the Orwellian library since DJ Taylor’s exemplary life of the author came out three years ago. Buy, beg or borrow it. Whatever you do, read it now. It is the essential Orwell, and his good sense and wisdom glitters on every page.
The book gathers together all the pieces Orwell wrote for Tribune, which were previously scattered through Ian Angus’s four-volumes of the writer’s essays, journalism and letters and the last 11 of Peter Davison’s meticulous and indispensable 20-volume Complete Works.
Published as a whole, and in sequence, you can see what Anthony Burgess meant when he wrote of him: “Everything Orwell said had such a stamp of honest sincerity…”
As Anderson also points out in his introduction, the collection shows off “one of the greatest practitioners … of the craft of turning out 800-2,000 words a week”.
He was Tribune‘s William Hazlitt, and Orwell in Tribune does much more than re-affirm that fact as well as his genius – hardly necessary, after all – and his eclectic, capacious mind.
It demonstrates Orwell’s virtuousness; how strongly he cared for, and about, the things which motivated him, his deep passion for the English language and England.
A newspaper column usually has the longevity of fish on the slab; it rots quickly. Orwell’s columns have survived more than 60 years because of his immense readability and the relevance of his arguments.
The strength of his unadorned, stripped down prose makes the writing appear effortless. The subject matter, although naturally of his time, contains themes that overlap into our own. This healthy combination makes it seem as if the presses have just rolled on his thoughts and the ink hasn’t quite dried.
The apt title of Orwell’s weekly column was “As I Please”. He was able to pass judgment on whatever took his fancy politically, socially or culturally. “It is difficult to think of anyone before or since who could write about so many different things,” observes Anderson. Among the subjects Orwell tackled were Hitler and the war (“I note the surprise with which many people seem to discover that war is not crime”), fascism, the birthrate, correspondence courses, juries, the atomic bomb, science, religion, rationing, housing and – in one of the best essays he ever wrote – Books v cigarettes (“It is difficult to establish any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them.”)
Orwell does get misty-eyed about England. But his ideas and convictions aren’t misty. Each is firmly expressed and definite. On Russia, he writes: “The avoidance of reality is much the same everywhere, and has much the same consequences. The Russian people were taught for years that they were better off than everybody else…”
On the BBC, he says: “What most people appear to demand is simply a better version of the programmes they are getting already. They want better music, funnier jokes, more intelligent discussions, more truthful news.” And on propaganda, he is unequivocal: “The whole argument that one mustn’t speak plainly because it ‘plays into the hands of’ this or that sinister influence is dishonest… ”
A kind heart made him a lousy literary editor insofar as he found it impossible to turn down articles, however bad. When his successor opened his desk, he found it jammed with heaps of unpublishable material. Having experienced rejection on so many occasions himself, Orwell didn’t want to inflict it on anyone else. He went as far as paying for copy that he knew was unusable. But the philanthropic gene in Orwell is yet another reason to like him.
He was an intensely hard-working man. The cover photograph of the book – taken in 1945 in Orwell’s Canonbury Square flat – reveals a long, gaunt and grey face, which is slightly bowed over his typewriter. You can see how much writing and the pursuit of truth drained out of him over many wearing years. About this time, he complained of being “smothered in journalism”. He pressed on regardless of worsening ill health not just to pay the bills (Animal Farm did that for him) but because he thought it crucial to be heard. Well, George, we’re still