How many newspaper columnists will be worth disinterring in 60 years’ time? How many will have anything of contemporary relevance to say? How many will even throw light on the way we live in 2006?
In 1943 George Orwell told Tribune readers not to use insulting nicknames for people of different races. “The word ‘native’ is flung about all over the place. ‘Negro’ is habitually printed with a small n, a thing most Negroes resent. One’s information about these matters needs to be kept up to date. I have recently been going through the proofs of a reprinted book of mine, cutting out the word ‘Chinaman’ wherever it appears and substituting ‘Chinese’. Even ‘Mohamedan’ is now beginning to be resented; one should say ‘Muslim’ … After all, we ourselves do not actually like being called ‘Limeys’.” The next time some complacent oaf guffaws about being “politically incorrect”, show him the passage.
The best writers know the value of small details. A tailor hailed the easing of wartime rationing restrictions which allowed trousers with turnups once again as “the return of the freedoms we are fighting for”. If this was the freedom we were fighting for, wrote Orwell, he would be inclined to support the axis powers. Turnups collected dust, and their only benefit was the discovery of the odd forgotten sixpence inside them.
Tribune may be the only publication to have outlived by several decades the purpose for which it was founded. It was started in January 1937 to support Stafford Cripps’s Unity Campaign for a united front between Labour, the communists and the Labour left. The Unity Campaign imploded two months later, but Tribune still appears every week. It has found different causes to front, from the Bevanites during and after the second world war to the Bennites in the 1980s.
The year Tribune began, Orwell was in Spain, fighting alongside the POUM (the non-communists on the left) and discovering that a united front on the left was a hideous fraud. The POUM were relentlessly hunted down by the communists, who called them “Trotskyist fascists”.
He started writing occasionally for Tribune in 1940. In late 1943, Tribune, after four editors, two radical changes of editorial direction and three life-threatening financial crises, began to publish his weekly column called “As I Please”. This book is a collection of all the columns he produced between 1943 and 1947, when he stopped writing it, partly to finish his last book, 1984, and partly because of the tuberculosis which was to kill him in 1950. It comes with a lucid and thoughtful account of Tribune and Orwell by former Tribune editor Paul Anderson.
It displays some of Orwell’s obsessions. His anti-communism, which gained him no friends on the left in 1943, is uncompromising, and no reader of this book could be surprised at the revelation that he supplied British Intelligence with a list of those he suspected of being undercover communists.
But it shows Orwell to have been the best sort of newspaper columnist. He writes clearly and simply on subjects on which he had something new and interesting to say, rather than just pumping out a line with self-righteous gusto, which is the curse of our less discursive age. He plays fair. If he attacks someone, he attacks what they actually said, and quotes it, rather than using the privilege of a columnist to distort their view, a courtesy which many of today’s columnists have forgotten. There is nothing easier than to ascribe a foolish view to your opponent, and then show it to be foolish.