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Sunday, June 7, 2009

The genius of George Orwell

by Jeremy Paxman

Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Jeremy Paxman pays tribute to one of England's greatest writers.

If you want to learn how to write non-fiction, Orwell is your man. He may be known worldwide for his last two novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But, for me, his best work is his essays.

Who would have imagined that sixteen hundred words in praise of the Common Toad, knocked out to fill a newspaper column in April 1946, would be worth reprinting sixty years later? But here it is, with many of the characteristic Orwell delights, the unglamorous subject matter, the unnoticed detail (''a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature'') the baleful glare, the profound belief in humanity. Because what the piece is really about, of course, is not the toad itself, but the thrill of that most promising time of year, the spring, even as seen from Orwell's dingy Islington flat.

When he produced articles like this, hair-shirted fellow socialists got cross. Why wasn't he spending his time promoting discontent, denouncing the establishment, glorifying the machine-driven future? It is a mark of his greatness that Orwell didn't care. They – whoever they might be – cannot stop you enjoying spring. The essay ends: "The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it."

It all reads so effortlessly. And yet it cannot have been produced without toil. He tells us in Why I Write that he found writing a book ''a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness" and even the shorter pieces, knocked out for magazines or newspapers, must often have been a chore. There is the research, for one thing. His generous, insightful analysis of Charles Dickens shows not merely a close familiarity with 13 of his novels, but also with those of Trollope, Thackeray and a host of long-forgotten writers, too. For his caustic piece on Boys' Weeklies he evidently immersed himself in mountains of the things.

The result is a piece so deft and witty that it has you laughing out loud. Here, for example, is his list of the national characteristics of the foreigners who make occasional appearances in this bizarre genre:

Frenchman: Excitable. Wears beard, gesticulates wildly.

Spaniard, Mexican, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.

Arab, Afghan, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.

Chinese: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail.

Italian: Excitable. Grinds barrel-organ or carries stiletto.

Swede, Dane, etc.: Kind-hearted, stupid.

Negro: Comic, very faithful.

How one longs for him to have lived long enough to be let loose on the lads' mags culture of the early twenty-first century.................Read more