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101 reasons to read George Orwell

Updated: Jan 1

Reading the collected essays, journalism and essays of George Orwell, I’m struck not only by his beautifully clear, precise writing – eighty years later it’s as if he’s talking directly to me – but by the way he was able to report on a world which to the middle classes was as unknowable as life in the Sahara. His reports from Lancashire and Yorkshire for “The road to Wigan Pier” are some of the best reportage I’ve ever read; almost dispassionate, honest, true.

How many journalists today would be up to the task? Quite a few, I reckon (the late Marie Colvin amongst them) – the problem is not so much with journalists, as with editors, and the growing financial constraints on the profession.

This week The Times ran a major spread on Prince Harry just because he seemed almost human when he encountered Usain Bolt, and then they dressed up two of their reporters as characters from “Mad Men” for reasons that totally escape me. This is utterly dreadful, witless stuff – see also anything ever written by Mr Giles Coren.

Apparently there is no voice recording of Orwell, for all his years working at the Beeb. Yet who needs his recorded voice when his voice is still fresh? After an altercation at a meeting hosted by Mosley’s Blackshirts, Orwell wrote to The Times and Guardian about the violence meted out to demonstrators (or rather, miners who had the affront to ask the Fascists questions).

In his diary for 20th March 1936 he wrote:

“I see the Manchester Guardian has not printed my letter re Mosley and I suppose they never will. I hardly expected The Times to print it, but I think the M.G. might, considering their reputation”.

If such a distinguished writer as George Orwell couldn’t even get a LETTER in the papers then, what hope for us mere hacks now? Maybe it’s always been tough: maybe there’s just too much tension between reporting on capitalism’s effects and needing to sell papers and perpetuate that same system?

Orwell’s writings on class at this time are also intriguing, particularly the way he noticed that union men (almost always men) who rise through the ranks become gentrified and leave their roots behind; and the middle classes have a romantic vision of the honest, toiling, abstaining  working man - Orwell seems to have loathed teetotallers.

The more I read Orwell the more I love him. I love the honesty of his criticism of Henry Miller’s “Black Spring” (a book I also loved) – in a letter to Miller. Then a page or so after yet another brilliant incisive review he’s telling Jack Common how to get to his place in the country from Royston.

As well as being brave and honest he was also very funny. In a letter to novelist Anthony Powell (8 June 1936) he wrote:

“It is so rare nowadays to find anyone hitting back at the Scotch cult. I am glad to see you make a point of calling them ‘Scotchmen’, not ‘Scotsmen’ as they like to be called. I find this a good easy way of annoying them.”

Finally on Orwell, last night I was half-watching TV and kept returning to my book. Then I realised I was watching Room 101...

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