Far Beyond Mere Hackery: Orwell’s Journalism

Richard Lance Keeble, Chair of the Orwell Society and Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln, reviews Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writings by George Orwell (compiled by Peter Davison, published by Harvill Secker, £25)

Orwell, the journalist, has always been an inspiration to me – a model of a committed, radical, intelligent, witty, wonderfully imaginative writer who deployed the tools of journalism for their best purpose: as a crucial, morally urgent intervention in politics.

Paul Foot, the Socialist Worker/Trotskyite journalist, called him the greatest journalist of the
20th century. Timothy Garton Ash in his ‘Introduction’ to Orwell and Politics (of 2001) describes Orwell as the most influential political writer of the twentieth century.

Indeed, the very word ‘Orwellian’ is everywhere – used as a pejorative adjective to evoke totalitarian terror, the falsification of history by state-organised lying, the use of euphemistic language to camouflage morally outrageous ideas and actions. Occasionally, ‘Orwellian’ is used as a complimentary adjective to mean something like ‘displaying outspoken intellectual honesty, like Orwell’.

Orwell had the journalistic ability to encapsulate important events and phenomena in short, snappy phrases. He was the first person to use the phrase ‘Cold War’. Other phrases and words he invented which have slipped effortlessly into everyday English include ‘Big Brother’, ‘newspeak’, ‘doublethink’, even ‘Room 101’ (the title of a TV programme of dubious quality): all from his famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (of 1949).

He was also the master of the aphorism. For instance, there’s ‘We all want to be good – but not too good and not all of the time’, ‘During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act’, ‘Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper’, ‘Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defence against a homicidal maniac’. All these aphorisms combine some of the best elements of journalism: conciseness, originality and a sense of moral and political urgency.

Orwell’s sunny, positive character shines, in particular, through many of the eighty ‘As I Please’ columns he wrote between 1943 and 1947 for the leftist journal, Tribune. The quality of the writing – the range of subject matter – the displays of intelligence, vast reading and wit are all simply dazzling. In these columns Orwell appears to be a man at the peak of his powers, playing with the genre, switching subject matter and tone effortlessly; one moment he is deconstructing the front page of a morning newspaper, the next he is constructing a mini-play about a family determined to drink their tea in the face of a V-bomb attack, recounting a racist conversation overheard in a Scottish hotel, campaigning for communal washing up service or admitting a mistake over the authorship of a poem. Humour is always around the corner. For instance, on 7 January 1944, he writes:

Looking through the photographs in the New Years Honours List I am struck (as usual) by the quite exceptional ugliness and vulgarity of the faces displayed there. It seems to be almost the rule that the kind of person who earns the right to call himself Lord Percy de Falcontowers should look at best like an overfed publican and at worst a tax-collector with a duodenal ulcer.

Orwell was, in effect, through his contributions to Tribune defining a new kind of radical politics. It involved reducing the power of the press barons, facing up to racial intolerance, defending civil liberties. Yet it also incorporated an awareness of the power of language and propaganda, a celebration of the joys of nature and an acknowledgement of the cultural power of both Christianity and Marxism. Above all, in the face of the vast political, cultural, economic factors driving history, it recognised the extraordinary richness of the individual experience – summed up in his idiosyncratic columns. Moreover, in his political and cultural essays Orwell is said to have done nothing less than invent the discipline of cultural studies as he examined such everyday artefacts as boys’ weekly magazines and the seaside postcards of Donald McGill in their broader political, economic and cultural contexts.

Another impressive aspect of Orwell’s journalism is the close relationship he developed quite instinctively with his readers. In his ‘As I Please’ columns Orwell can be seen, in many ways, as a proto-blogger, responding to letters sent to him directly or addressed to Tribune, inviting letters, asking readers to answer queries or point him towards a book, pamphlet or quotation he is looking for, running a competition for a short story or giving them a quirky brain teaser to answer.

Moreover, Orwell’s commitment to the alternative media has always inspired me. Realising that the mainstream newspapers were basically propaganda for their wealthy proprietors, Orwell’s main objective after his experiences in the Spanish civil war was to speak for and to socialists. It was thus his deliberate choice to concentrate his journalism on small-scale, left-wing publications in both Britain and the United States – New English Weekly, Fortnightly Review, New Leader, Left Forum, Left News, Progressive, Politics and Letters and Gangrel. Some of these survived for a couple of editions and then died.

The publication of a bulky, 485-page, new collection of Orwell’s journalism, edited by Peter Davison, is clearly a cause for celebration. It includes more than 100 items: book, film and theatre reviews, BBC broadcasts, extracts from both his ‘As I Please’ columns and the ‘London Letters’ he contributed to the American leftist journal, Partisan Review; literary essays, letters – as well as poems. Stressing his journalistic achievement, Professor Davison comments astutely in his ‘Introduction’: ‘Although Orwell continued to the end of his days to strive for success as a novelist, three of his nine “books” are the product of his journalism in a form in which he excelled: documentary reportage – Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia.’

So much of journalism is ephemeral and quickly forgotten. As Professor Davison points out, the mark of Orwell’s genius is that so much of his journalism is still relevant – whether he is discussing ‘Anti-Semitism’ (p. 261), ‘Skin Colour and Living Standards’ (p. 250) and ‘The Colour Bar’ (p. 289) or ‘Scottish Nationalism’ (p. 411) and ‘Polish Immigration’ (p. 380). Professor Davison adds:

And some of his journalism has a timeless quality. ‘Woolworth’s Roses’ (p. 257) roused the ire of some readers of Tribune because it was deemed a piece of ‘bourgeois nostalgia’ … but as Orwell correctly responded: ‘One of the outstanding characteristics of the working class of this country is their love of flowers.’

The collection also serves to highlight Orwell’s invention of a form of broadcast literary magazine which attracted leading poets, intellectuals and critics – such as T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster and Ritchie Calder – and the ‘spoken poetry magazine’ complete with spoken editorial by Orwell (p. 172-173). Another of his inventions is shown in his hilarious ‘Imaginary Interview with Jonathan Swift’ (p. 192). In one section Orwell asks Swift: ‘Tell me candidly, do we stink as we used to?’ To which Swift comments: ‘Certainly the smells are different. There was a new one I remarked as I came through the streets – (sniffs) – Orwell responds: ‘It’s called petrol. But don’t you feel that the mass of the people are more intelligent than they were, or at least better educated? How about the newspapers and the radio? Surely they have opened people’s minds a little? There are very few people in England now who can’t read, for instance.’ ‘That is why they are so easily deceived,’ replies Swift.

As each year passes the Orwell industry expands a little and there are growing dangers of overlaps and repetitions. For instance, all of Orwell’s journalism at Tribune (including all the ‘As I Please’ writings) has already been brought together in a volume (Politico’s, 2006) edited by Paul Anderson who provides a wonderfully insightful ‘Introduction’. Moreover, the greatness of the columns lies in the way they usually incorporate a range of topics, styles and tones. His column of 28 January 1944 is typical in that it binds together four very different topics drawn imaginatively from four contrasting sources: a news item, a letter from a reader, a barmaid’s comment and a book he had just reviewed for the Manchester Evening News. By using just extracts from the columns (as in this collection) that richness, journalistic inventiveness and originality goes missing.

This selection also uses just two of the 18 despatches Orwell sent to the Observer, being edited by his friend David Astor, and its sister paper, the Manchester Evening News, while reporting from the continent on the final days of the Second World War. Admittedly, all of Orwell’s Observer writings between 1942 and 1948 have been brought together in a volume (London: Atlantic Books, 2003). Yet for any serious analysis of Orwell’s journalism more examples were needed. After all, it is extremely interesting to compare the vitality, outspokenness, wit and narrative inventiveness of Orwell’s reportage from the 1936-1937 Spanish civil war in Homage to Catalonia with his less assured (though equally fascinating) frontline reporting in 1945.

Orwell tended to look down on his journalism as ‘mere pamphleteering’ and a ‘lesser’ form of literature. He had a horror of hack reporting, despised the ‘dreary sub-world of the freelance journalist’ and maintained a constant attack on journalists as professionals. Typically, in Homage to Catalonia, he even joked on meeting a suspected, fat Russian agent in the Hotel Continental in Barcelona after the fighting ended there on 6 May 1937 that ‘it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies – unless one counts journalists’.

Yet in his essay ‘Why I Write’ (of 1946) Orwell said he wanted ‘to make political writing into an art’. This volume proves conclusively that Orwell succeeded in achieving just that. As Prof. Davison comments (echoing the words of Rushbrook Williams, head of department at the BBC), Orwell’s journalism far transcended hackery – being the work of ‘a mind and a spirit of real and distinguished worth’.

Members can buy Seeing Things As They Are by George Orwell (RRP £25.00) for the special price of £20.00 including free UK + N Ireland P&P. To order please call 01206 255 800 and quote Ref: “ORWELL”


One thought on “Far Beyond Mere Hackery: Orwell’s Journalism

  1. Thanks Richard for this clear and interesting review.

    I have just been prompted by it to order my copy using the offer Peter Davison has arranged. It is as simple as ringing the number provided above, which enables you to speak to a real person without pressing a load of extra buttons on your ‘phone!

    I would encourage anyone who is interested in arguably Orwell’s greatest contribution, i.e. his journalism to take advantage of this offer.


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