Monday, May 24, 2010

Smelly Little Orthodoxies - Peter Hitchens on winning the Orwell Award for Journalism

Hitchens reflects on winning the George Orwell Award for Journalism:

"In the meantime, I'd like to indulge myself and post a few mildly controversial thoughts on the Orwell Prize for Journalism, which I am proud to say I won last week. This was the one prize I had always wanted, as someone who has steeped himself in Orwell since the age of 15 and regards him as the pattern of honest writing. Because Orwell was of the Left (though a very troubled and troublesome member of that movement) he is regarded by many on the modern left as their perpetual property. I disagree. I think Orwell belongs to the truth, not to the left. And I think the judges recognised this crucial fact when they chose to quote from Orwell's essay on Charles Dickens in their citation (this was the moment when I, having pretty much assumed that it would be awarded to someone else, began to hope that I might win after all).

By the way, I really do have to thank the judges, Peter Kellner and Roger Graef, for their magnanimity in giving me the award when they must have known that so many of their friends would strongly disapprove. I can hear the aggrieved cries of ‘How could you give it to him?’, which they will now have to endure. By showing that magnanimity, they showed that they - and the Prize in general - understand the spirit of Orwell better than do many of those who resent my getting it.

Orwell wrote of Dickens as ‘a man who is always fighting against something but who fights in the open and is not frightened...a man who is generously angry...a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’

No, it's not that I presume to compare myself with Dickens (though I would cite 'Great Expectations', 'David Copperfield' and 'A Tale of Two Cities' as among the greatest books ever written). But I do think it's the case that - if you do your job properly - you will be loathed by the smelly little orthodoxies of your own age.

My thanks to those who sent kind wishes on my winning it. My thanks also to those who didn't. One of the delights of winning this award, for which I have entered unsuccessfully several times, is that quite a lot of the right, or left sort of people will be annoyed that I have got it. I even like to think that Orwell himself might have enjoyed the sharp intake of breath among London's left-wing mediocracy when they were reminded last Wednesday night that I was on the short-list. (They behaved impeccably when the actual award was announced, I should add). He might also have enjoyed the tiny, tiny mention of my name in the Guardian's report on the award, which dwelt mainly on the Blog Prize given to the pseudonymous social worker 'Winston Smith'.

Soon afterwards there was the comment by Roy Greenslade on his blog: ‘I would guess that some, more than some, leftish-inclined journalists were a little put out by Peter Hitchens having been awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism. The iconoclastic Mail on Sunday columnist picked up the award for his foreign reporting. Evidently, a friend warned Hitchens afterwards to be careful because people would now think he was respectable. “Never”, he replied, “they'll hate me even more for this.” ’

The reported conversation did take place exactly as described, by the way, and I stand by it.

And I will always treasure another Guardian blog comment by legal expert Afua Hirsch, the closest anyone has come to saying openly that they disagree with the judges. Under the headline ‘Some wins more surprising than others’, Ms Hirsch wrote: ‘This year's Orwell prize steered close, as ever, to the most current political issues of the moment. Despite having nominated an array of journalists feted for their coverage of issues including protest rights or social breakdown, the award for journalism went to the Mail on Sunday's Peter Hitchens. The audience – comprised of liberal, political writers and bloggers – struggled to express an informed view on that choice of award because so few of them read the Mail on Sunday.’

And no doubt they're all proud of that, that so few of them read the MoS. And yet I read 'The Guardian' and 'The Observer' and I would be ashamed to be a member of my trade and admit that I didn't.

I think that 'despite' and the tortured grammar that follows it, speak volumes. Oddly enough, I do write about protest rights (on this blog particularly but elsewhere too, see the posting 'It's not debatable') and incessantly about social breakdown, but not perhaps in a way that Ms Hirsch would want me to.

What is it that I like about Orwell? Above all it is the good, clear English and the desire to be truthful even at some cost. Orwell ran into a great deal of trouble with the left (especially over 'Homage to Catalonia') because he refused to be an orthodox servant of his own cause. He once wrote (in a preface to 'Animal Farm' which was then itself not published):

‘Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban... At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question... Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals ... If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

The paradox in this is that 'Animal Farm' itself was very nearly not published, not least thanks to the disgraceful behaviour of T.S.Eliot, a man who really should have known better.

I have explained (well, to some people, anyway) how this orthodoxy works in some ways in an earlier posting on bias in the publishing industry. But I know that Orwell never had a column in a national Sunday newspaper. So again, I am not in any way claiming a martyr's crown here, merely pointing out that I meet hostility and obstruction where a more orthodox writer would not. It is also the case that, in these times, conservative newspapers and magazines are more likely to foster and project unorthodox voices than are the journals of the left, which are bland and smug, while imagining themselves to be exciting and radical.

It's pointless to speculate on what Orwell would have made of the post Cold War world, of the 1960s cultural revolution, or of the controversies of today. We cannot know, and nobody should claim him as their own. But I have absolutely no doubt that, had he lived, he would have continued to annoy people by telling truths they did not wish to hear. There's a quotation I can't properly remember in which he said that a genuinely controversial opinion would always be a dangerous thing, because it would arouse serious fury (any Orwellians out there who can identify this? It was much better put).

And I wouldn't dare claim that I am somehow the inheritor of his mantle. That would be absurd. The point is, the Guardian isn't the inheritor of his mantle either.

But I do think that his extraordinary attempt to combine fierce patriotism with radical politics, in 'The Lion and the Unicorn' is in many ways as upsetting to the radical orthodoxy, who are never patriotic, as is his hostility to Stalinist totalitarianism (which they all excoriate now it's safe to do so, but would have apologised for when it was still powerful and fashionable, as they prove with their attitude towards Cuba).

I would also point to a strong cultural conservatism and dislike for crass modernity in much of his writings, especially in my favourite among his light novels, 'Coming up for Air'. And I always like to tease his modern partisans by pointing out that he specified in his Will that he should be buried (as I hope to be) according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England as set out in the 1662 Prayer Book, about the most uncompromising, raw, earthy and traditional religious service anywhere in any language. He'd also expressed a wish, granted thanks to his friend David Astor, to be laid in an English country churchyard.

And last Saturday evening, partly because there were no trains between Didcot and Oxford, I took the opportunity to bicycle through Sutton Courtenay, the rather lovely village where he is buried, and to pay my respects at his properly modest grave, six feet of English earth (no metres for him), under a Yew tree, near the Thames."

No comments: