With the future of the left-wing weekly hanging in the balance, there could be no more timely reminder of its importance to British culture than the reissue of Orwell in Tribune, a collection of George Orwell’s essays edited by Paul Anderson.
Orwell joined Tribune in 1943 and spent 13 months as literary editor and the next three-and-a-half years as a columnist and reviewer. Although he is best known for his novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, his journalism was just as influential.
It was during this time he pioneered the As I Please column, a forerunner of the modern-day opinion piece which has come to loom so large in the press.
He took on whatever idea popped into his head and allowed the reader to tap into a brilliant stream of conciousness. His subjects ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous — from the Warsaw uprising and doodlebugs, to making a cup of tea and the pleasure he got from sixpenny Woolworth’s rose bushes outside his Hertfordshire cottage (this elicited a letter from a woman socialist, denouncing roses as “bourgeois”, which gave him another pretext to mock socialists).
“Good prose is like a windowpane” was his personal mantra. In other words it should be clear, lucid and enlightening, and make the reader feel as if they have seen something. He wrote about the social issues of the day (anti-Semitism, the execution of war criminals, postwar juvenile delinquency), as well as popular culture (women’s magazines, seaside postcards, American comics). For him there was no distinction between high and low culture.
Most newspaper columns have a short shelf life but Orwell’s have endured for 70 years. They are at once passionate polemics and vivid social history. Reading them today gives you a flavour of what life was like during and immediately after the war.
They are also autobiographical. They reveal his passions (nature, literature, politics, good food, “good bad books” and English customs) and pet hates (snobbery, racial prejudice and the degradation of language). He advocated the simplification of expression and the coining of fresh metaphors.
The As I Please column was revived in Tribune under the inspired editorship of Mark Seddon and its modern-day authors have included Joan Smith and Mark Rowson. However, nobody could match Orwell for his authority, sharpness and freshness.
George Orwell turned political writing into an art form. Only trivial books make big money, he once observed.
His trivial columns didn’t make him big money. They did more than that. They made literary history.