As I Please

in Tribune

31 January 1947

George Orwell

ONE’S 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 1939–42 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. ‘He’s solid.’

I don’t 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? I’ve 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.

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