Seeing Things As They Are: Selected Journalism and Other Writing of George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, book review

Davison gives us new insight into the man who shaped journalism

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The Independent Culture

In his essay "Why I Write", George Orwell claimed to have known from early childhood that he was destined to become a writer. However, he didn't get started seriously until he was 25.

Then, after five years as a policeman in Burma, he went to Paris intending to write "enormous naturalistic novels" full of purple passages and fine sounding words, but, failing that, took up journalism, a craft on which he was to make a lasting impact.

His first articles, written in Paris for French Left-wing journals, were on topics which would recur throughout his writing life – imperialism, tramps, censorship and popular culture. Back in England, he contributed reviews and occasional poems to magazines that paid little or nothing. Although he went on to publish novels, it was Down and Out in Paris and London, his first work as "George Orwell", which brought him some recognition as a gifted reporter. He had become a journalist by default.

In this weighty selection of articles and extracts, Orwell's posthumous editor, Peter Davison, gives us a feast of his shorter writings, showing how from such hesitant beginnings he evolved into the writer of enduring importance we know, committed to decency, equality and political honesty, who could nevertheless wax lyrical over the first signs of spring or an imaginary English pub.

From the mid-1930s he committed himself to writing primarily in support of democratic socialism, his chief vehicle being the "windowpane" prose he advocated, stripped of all embellishment, which became his hallmark. But, despite this self-imposed limitation, he managed to produce memorably stylish journalism and radio broadcasts, such as the pieces included here – on Swift, Eliot, Henry Miller, P G Wodehouse, socialism and literature, the popular press, the Spanish Civil War, liberated Paris, and lively extracts from his "As I Please" column in Tribune, on subjects ranging from the London blitz to the Woolworth's rose planted in his cottage garden.

This selection includes just two new items – a piece which Orwell cut from the final text of Nineteen Eighty-Four and an assessment of his journalism by reviewer Daniel George in 1940. What is as saddening as his early death from TB, is his never having benefited from the huge earnings brought in eventually by Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, nor the universal recognition those landmark novels brought him.