As I Pleased
Tribune, 31 January 1947
relations with a newspaper or a magazine are more variable and intermittent than they can
be with a human being. From time to time a human being may dye his hair or become
converted to Roman Catholicism, but he cannot change himself fundamentally, whereas a
periodical will go through a whole series of different existences under the same name. Tribune
in its short life has been two distinct papers, if not three, and my own contacts with it
have varied sharply, starting off, if I remember rightly, with a rap on the knuckles.
I did not learn of the existence of Tribune till some time
in 1939. It had started early in 1937, but of the thirty months that intervened before the
outbreak of war I spent five in hospital and thirteen abroad. What first drew my attention
to it, I believe, was a none too friendly review of a novel of mine. During the period
193942 I produced three or four books and reprints, and I think it is true that I
never had what is called a good review in Tribune until after I became
a member of the staff. (The two events were unconnected, needless to say.) Somewhat later,
in the cold winter of 1939, I started writing for Tribune, though at first,
curiously enough, without seeing it regularly or getting a clear idea of what kind of
paper it was.
Raymond Postgate, who was then editor, had asked me to do the
novel reviews from time to time. I was not paid (until recently it was unusual for
contributors to left-wing papers to be paid), and I only saw the paper on the somewhat
rare occasions when I went up to London and visited Postgate in a bare and dusty office
near London Wall. Tribune (until a good deal later everyone called it
the Tribune) was at that time in difficulties. It was still a
threepenny paper aimed primarily at the industrial workers and following more or less the
Popular Front line which had been associated with the Left Book Club and the Socialist
League. With the outbreak of war its circulation had taken a severe knock, because the Communists and
near-Communists who had been among its warmest supporters now refused to help in
distributing it. Some of them went on writing for it, however, and the futile controversy
between supporters and opposers of the war continued to rumble in
its columns while the German armies gathered for the spring offensives.
Early in 1940 there was a large meeting in a public hall, the
purpose of which was to discuss both the future of Tribune and the policy of the
left wing of the Labour Party.
As is usual on such occasions nothing very definite was said, and what I chiefly remember
is a political tip which I received from an inside source. The Norway campaign was ending
in disaster, and I had walked to the hall past gloomy posters. Two M.P.s whom I will not
name, had just arrived from the House.
What chance is there, I asked them, of this
business getting rid of Chamberlain?
Not a hope, they both said. Hes
I dont remember dates, but I think it can only have been a
week or two before Chamberlain was out of the Premiership.
After that Tribune passed out of my consciousness for
nearly two years. I was very busy trying to earn a living and write a book amid the bombs
and the general disorganization, and any spare time I had was taken up by the Home Guard,
which was still an amateur force and demanded an immense amount of work from its members.
When I became aware of Tribune again I was working in the Eastern Service of the
B.B.C. It was now an almost completely different paper. It had a different make-up, cost
sixpence, was orientated chiefly towards foreign policy, and was rapidly acquiring a new
public which mostly belonged, I should say, to the out-at-elbow middle class. Its prestige
among the B.B.C. personnel was very striking. In the libraries where commentators went to
prime themselves it was one of the most sought-after periodicals, not only because it was
largely written by people who knew something at first hand about Europe, but because it
was then the only paper of any standing which criticized the Government. Perhaps
criticized is an over-mild word. Sir Stafford Cripps had gone into the
Government, and the fiery personality of Aneurin Bevan gave the paper
its tone. On one occasion there were some surprisingly violent attacks on Churchill by someone who
called himself Thomas Rainsboro. This was obviously a pseudonym, and I spent a whole
afternoon trying to determine the authorship by stylistic evidence, as the literary
critics employed by the Gestapo
were said to do with anonymous pamphlets. Finally I decided that Thomas
Rainsboro was a certain W. A day or two later I met Victor Gollancz, who
said to me. Do you know who wrote those Thomas Rainsboro articles in Tribune?
Ive just heard. It was W. This made me feel very acute, but a day
or two later I heard that we were both wrong.
During this period I occasionally wrote articles for Tribune,
but only at long intervals, because I had little time or energy. However, towards the end
of 1943 I decided to give up my job in the B.B.C., and I was asked to take over the
literary editorship of Tribune, in place of John Atkins, who was expecting call-up.
I went on being literary editor, as well as writing the As I Please column,
until the beginning of 1945. It was interesting, but it is not a period that I look back
on with pride. The fact is that I am no good at editing. I hate planning ahead, and I have
a psychical or even physical inability to answer letters. My most essential memory of that
time is of pulling out a drawer here and a drawer there, finding it in each case to be
stuffed with letters and manuscripts which ought to have been dealt with weeks earlier,
and hurriedly shutting it up again. Also, I have a fatal tendency to accept manuscripts
which I know very well are too bad to be printed. It is questionable whether anyone who
has had long experience as a free-lance journalist ought to become an editor. It is too
like taking a convict out of his cell and making him governor of the prison. Still, it was
all experience, as they say, and I have friendly memories of my cramped little
office looking out on a backyard, and the three of us who shared it huddling in the corner
as the doodlebugs came zooming over, and the peaceful click-click of the typewriters
starting up again as soon as the bomb had crashed.
Early in 1945 I went to Paris as correspondent for the Observer.
In Paris Tribune had a prestige which was somewhat astonishing and which dated from
before the liberation. It was impossible to buy it, and the ten copies which the British
Embassy received weekly did not, I believe, get outside the walls of the building. Yet all
the French journalists I met seemed to have heard of it and to know that it was the one
paper in England which had neither supported the Government uncritically, nor opposed the
war, nor swallowed the Russian myth. At that time there was I should like to be
sure that it still exists a weekly paper named Libertés, which was roughly
speaking the opposite number of Tribune and which during the occupation had been
clandestinely produced on the same machines as printed the Pariser Zeitung.
Libertés, which was opposed to the Gaullists on one side
and the Communists on the other, had almost no money and was distributed by groups of
volunteers on bicycles. On some weeks it was mangled out of recognition by the censorship;
often nothing would be left of an article except some such title as The Truth About
Indo-China and a completely blank column beneath it. A day or two after I reached
Paris I was taken to a semi-public meeting of the supporters of Libertés, and was
amazed to find that about half of them knew all about me and about Tribune. A large
working man in black corduroy breeches came up to me, exclaimed Ah, vous êtes
Georges Orrvell! and crushed the bones of my hand almost to pulp. He had heard
of me because Libertés made a practice of translating extracts from Tribune.
I believe one of the editors used to go to the British Embassy every week and demand to
see a copy. It seemed to me somehow touching that one could have acquired, without knowing
it, a public among people like this: whereas among the huge tribe of American journalists
at the Hotel Seribe, with their glittering uniforms and their stupendous salaries, I never
encountered one who had heard of Tribune.
For six months during the summer of 1946 I gave up being a writer
in Tribune and became merely a reader, and no doubt from time to time I shall do
the same again; but I hope that my association with it may long continue, and I hope that
in 1957 I shall be writing another annivesary article. I do not even hope that by that
time Tribune will have slaughtered all its rivals. It takes all sorts to make a
world, and if one could work these things out one might discover that even the
serves a useful purpose. Nor is Tribune itself perfect, as I should
know, having seen it from the inside. But I do think that it is the only existing weekly
paper that makes a genuine effort to be both progressive and humane that is, to
combine a radical Socialist
policy with a respect for freedom of speech and a civilized attitude towards literature
and the arts: and I think that its relative popularity, and even its survival in its
present form for five years or more, is a hopeful symptom.