It’s #orwellday today. The first ever. Thanks to my good friend Katriona Lewis at the Orwell Prize, I received these four splendid editions of George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, published recently by Penguin. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the essay. It’s certainly the single most useful piece of writing I’ve ever read. It offers general advice on good writing, laying down helpful rules, and then explains, with some choice metaphors, why good writing leads to more responsible politics (and bad writing to some very dangerous thinking). Four copies in my possession, if you would like one, please leave a good reason why and one is heading your way.
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In 1946, George Orwell was commissioned by the British Council to write about British cooking. His defence of our national cuisine has been much celebrated (here is his advice about how to make a perfect cup of tea but his recipes are largely unknown. Here’s his recipe for Christmas pudding. You can read the full text over at the Orwell Prize.
1 lb each of currants, sultanas & raisins
2 ounces sweet almonds
1 ounces bitter almonds
4 ounces mixed peel
½ lb brown sugar
½ lb flour
¼ lb breadcrumbs
½ teaspoonful salt
½ teaspoonful grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoonful powdered cinnamon
6 ounces suet
The rind and juice of 1 lemon
A little milk
1/8 of a pint of brandy, or a little beer
Method. Wash the fruit. Chop the suet, shred and chop the peel, stone and chop the raisins, blanch and chop the almonds. Prepare the breadcrumbs. Sift the spices and salt into the flour. Mix all the dry ingredients into a basin. Heat the eggs, mix them with the lemon juice and the other liquids. Add to the dry ingredients and stir well. If the mixture is too stiff, add a little more milk. Allow the mixture to stand for a few hours in a covered basin. Then mix well again and place in well-greased basins of about 8 inches diameter. Cover with rounds of greased paper. Then tie the tops of the basins over the floured cloths if the puddings are to be boiled, or with thick greased paper if they are to be steamed. Boil or steam for 5 or 6 hours. On the day when the pudding is to be eaten, re-heat it by steaming it for 3 hours. When serving, pour a large spoonful of warm brandy over it and set fire to it.
In Britain it is unusual to mix into each pudding one or two small coins, tiny china dolls or silver charms which are supposed to bring luck.
He wrote for the Spring 1944 Partisan Review:
The function of the King in promoting stability and acting as a sort of keystone in a non-democratic society is, of course, obvious. But he also has, or can have, the function of acting as an escape-valve for dangerous emotions. A French journalist said to me once that the monarchy was one of the things that have saved Britain from Fascism. What he meant was that modern people can’t, apparently, get along without drums, flags and loyalty parades, and that it is better that they should tie their leader-worship onto some figure who has no real power. In a dictatorship the power and the glory belong to the same person. In England the real power belongs to unprepossessing men in bowler hats: the creature who rides in a gilded coach behind soldiers in steel breast-plates is really a waxwork. It is at any rate possible that while this division of function exists a Hitler or a Stalin cannot come to power. On the whole the European countries which have most successfully avoided Fascism have been constitutional monarchies. The conditions seemingly are that the Royal Family shall be long-established and taken for granted, shall understand its own position and shall not produce strong characters with political ambitions. These have been fulfilled in Britain, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, but not in, say, Spain or Rumania. If you point these facts out to the average left-winger he gets very angry, but only because he has not examined the nature of his own feelings towards Stalin. I do not defend the institution of monarchy in an absolute sense, but I think that in an age like our own it may have an inoculating effect, and certainly it does far less harm than the existence of our so-called aristocracy. I have often advocated that a Labour government, i.e. one that meant business, would abolish titles while retaining the Royal Family”.
The Orwell Prize for political writing announced its longlist for the 2011 prize in London last night. Of particular interest to me was the category for political blogging. I haven’t had time to digest all the blogs just yet but the most obvious thing to note how many entries from big, traditional media organisations, like the Telegraph and the BBC, now occupy the list. The longlist includes Politics Live from Andrew Sparrow of the Guardian; Fact Check from Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News (both excellent); Paul Mason’s Idle Scrawl (which has been longlisted before); Daniel Hannan of the Torygraph and Laurie Penny of the New Statesmen. That is nearly a quarter of the final 22.
Now all these blogs are far better than my efforts, lazy and half-baked as they usually are, but should they be there at all?. The Orwell Prize was established to award the writers that came closest to Orwell’s ability to “transform political writing into art”. So, for example, Andrew Sparrow’s daily missive’s are necessary reading, and helping to evolve a new form of journalism indeed, but such blogs are the polaroids of political writing, rather than the more detailed portraiture that I’ve always assumed the prize was their to promote. Paul Mason, bless him, admits as much today when he writes “good luck to all the real bloggers who don’t have a mainstream media pension, salary and self-censorship training to fall back on.” He’s right.
Luckily, the self-censored media don’t dominate the list and there’s a wealth of intelligent, independent blogging to pick over and help promote plurality in the public-blog-o-sphere. Anton Vowel’s Enemies of Reason writes about the media, mostly newspapers, picking on their inherent contradictions and biases and deploying some heavy sarcasm to great effect. Osama Diab’s The Chronikler seems pretty good, inherently strong on how it links technological issues to the upheavals in Arab world. While Prisoner Ben is an interesting addition because it’s the only blog being written (via the postal service) from inside a British prison. It’s got it’s fascination, although he lacks the eloquence of Peter Wayne.
Is anyone on the list raising political writing to an artform? I’m not sure, but I haven’t read everyone on the list. Even if not, who am I to complain as my idle thoughts wouldn’t even make the very longlist. It’s still a useful list and a meaningful prize, but political blogging is not yet the art form Orwell would have had in mind.
Thanks to my good friend Phil Simms for sending me this cutting of one of George Orwell’s (real name Eric Blair) first ever pieces of published writing. The Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard (now simply the Henley Standard was the first paper Blair ever wrote for.
This poem, a fascinating snippet of jingoism, was written when he was 11. I think he described himself as a “Tory anarchist” in those days.
Incidentally, this is new to me, The BBC’s Orwell Archive, full of memos and other ephemera from his time as a war time broadcaster. No audio though, none remains.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four may or may not be the most important novel of the 20th, as claimed on the front page of the Times earlier this week, although it is a very important one. The novel celebrates the 60th anniversary of its first publication on June 08. Naturally all the papers have been full of it. Here’s a rundown of the best bits:
The Torygraph offers a handy A-Z of Orwell, which includes the delightful vignette about the Queen Mother sending a Royal Messenger to Secker & Warburg to buy a copy of Animal Farm. They’d sold out. So off he goes in his bowler hat to the Freedom Bookshop, the anarchist bookshop in Whitechapel.
Over at the New Statesman, which once spiked Orwell’s eyewitness account of the Spanish Civil War, Keith Gesson praises Orwell’s “eternal vigilance”, while DJ Taylor claims that his novels of the 1930s were even more frightening.
Robert Harris in the Times offers this more general piece which suggests, erroneously in my opinion, that 1984 would have lost some of its “unassailable posthumous integrity” if Orwell hadn’t have suffered an early death. Really?
The LA Times takes the tourist route: you too can go on a Orwell holiday.
While I might go and see Orwell: A Celebration at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall.
Glad to see that the Orwell Prize for political writing has been extended to included blogging. Heard Jean Seaton on the Today Programme this morning saying that if Orwell were alive today, he would have been a blogger. She added: “He was always absolutely avid about whatever was the contemporary form of media.”
“He would have been interested in the democratic possibilities of it – anyone can do it as long as they’ve got access to a machine,” said DJ Taylor, Orwell’s biographer. “[But], the misuses to which blogging has been put … would have appalled him. There would, in all probability, have been an essay on Blogging and the English Language.”
A question: Have the writings of George Orwell become more or less prescient in the 57 years since his death?
An answer (though not the one you might want): The magazine of the Columbia Journalism Review has published a special edition devoted to the role of George Orwell in 2008. It includes an essay by David Rieff (the nonfiction author and son of Susan Sontag) who argues that Orwell is essentially a writer of his time. Moreover, he should be treated as such and not “as a guide”.
Here’s a paragraph from his conclusion: ” “Orwell died fifty-seven years ago, when the Cold War was in its infancy, the European colonial empires still existed, the global predominance of the United States was not clear (to Orwell at least), globalization and the information economy did not exist, the mass migration of the people of the Global South to the rich world had not yet begun, feminism had not yet transformed the family, and neither the Internet nor the biological revolution had taken place. To claim that one can deduce from what Orwell said and what one believes he stood for in his own time what he would have thought of the early twenty-first century is either a vulgar quest for an authority to ratify one’s own views, a fantasy about the transferability of the past to the present, or both.”
I disagree. While Orwell was an writer of his time, he was also much more. I think his work has grown in presence since his death. For example, his most famous work, 1984, is clearly a satire about the year it was written: 1948. But it is also a warning.
What was he warning against? The Cold War; routine surveillance (as the image, above, taken in La Placa George Orwell in Barcelona aptly demonstrates); continual war; perhaps even Osama bin Laden (in the figure of Emmanuel Goldstein). He seems as relevant now as he was then. If not more so.
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