A Week in Books: An Orwellian prize

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The Independent Culture

If you're thinking what I'm thinking, you'll agree that any week in which the parties launch their manifestos marks a new nadir for English prose.

If you're thinking what I'm thinking, you'll agree that any week in which the parties launch their manifestos marks a new nadir for English prose. True, empty slogans, faulty premises, soggy clichés, puerile insults and evasive jargon no doubt flourished in the age of Gladstone and Disraeli. They simply sounded grander then. Yet the regular debauch of language that partners the approach to the polls never ceases to dismay. Most of the people who aspire to run the country can't even run a decent English sentence.

How appropriate, then, that the annual prize given in memory of George Orwell and his desire "to make political writing into an art" should be awarded this week. Victor in the books section, from a shortlist that offered Andrew Marr (My Trade), Tim Garton Ash (Free World) and Helena Kennedy (Just Law), was Michael Collins for his "biography of the white working class", The Likes of Us (Granta). This was an Orwellian choice, and a very topical one. Wigan Pier-style, Collins rubs the noses of lily-livered liberals in the gamy stew of warmth, solidarity, insularity and resentment he recalls from a poor South London childhood.

Since the "white working class" now figures as a lost tribe for left-leaning bourgeois Britain, the source of awe and fear alike, Collins's book may inform pre-poll debates. My contribution would be to say that it lets lovely rhetoric get in the way of understanding and falsely unifies a highly fragmented sector. No matter: if the Orwell Prize, above all, fails to provoke dissent, what is it for?

I do, however, know which book I'd like to win the prize next year. This work also deserves to have a profound effect on electoral discussions. It never will, because it tells hard and discomfiting truths that no major party wishes us to hear.

Dear Austen by Nina Bawden (Virago, £10) might look to the casual browser like just another semi-famous person's account of a terribly sad event and how she tried to overcome it. Now 80, the eminent novelist and children's author lost her husband (the retired BBC executive Austen Kark) in the Potters Bar rail crash of 10 May 2002. She suffered grave injuries herself, and spent many weeks in hospital.

Her book, couched in the form of a letter of love and explanation to the husband killed (along with six others ) by the derailment, pays a most touching tribute to him and to their life together. It does much more as well. As it recounts the hideous months of stonewalling, contempt and dissembling that followed the crash, Dear Austen builds into the most quietly damning indictment of unaccountable corporate power in many years.

All main parties worship the "Snakeheads", as Bawden calls the sleek buck-passers in PFI (public-finance initiative) companies whom she encounters in her long search for restitution. "Own up to a fault, apologise, and the share price goes down" is the attitude she has to fight: grasping, callous corporate Britain in a nutshell. Honour, and honesty, seem to mean nothing to the suits in charge. Bawden, who writes plainly but quite beautifully, never raises her voice as she spells out their shirking. She doesn't need to.

Jarvis, the ailing contractor chaired by Tory politician Steve Norris, last year admitted joint liability for Potters Bar. Yet no formal enquiry ever took place. Commercial power is sacrosanct in Britain, and utterly off the campaign agenda.

Bawden, who finds in the policewomen who befriended her healing proof of "the kindness of ordinary people", makes you want to howl with rage at our rulers' meek obeisance to profit. But if you're thinking what I'm thinking, then even the most reasonable criticism of corporate arrogance will now rule you out of the electoral mainstream. That surely makes Britain an Orwellian state in another, darker sense.

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