Nikita Lalwani on judging The Orwell Prize

First published in The Guardian on 20th April 2013

In ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), George Orwell asserts, with his own particularly convincing form of vigour that the debasement of language is often closely linked to debasement of ideology – bad political writing, he argues, is not just lazy – it is often bad because it is covering up bad actions. ‘Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.’

Reading the essay as part of the judging process for the prize this year, I was struck by just how current it feels – the examples he gives carry a lurid resonance, the relevance feels urgent, as does the call for truth:

‘Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air…: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck… this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.’

The books that make up the Orwell prize shortlist this year tackle all of these subjects, and more, with the kind of clarity and individuating detail that leads to the very opposite kind of experience as a reader. Instead of ‘cloudy vagueness’ we are seeing a fierce, unrelenting torchlight being shone into the dark spaces and interstices of human experience. Motivation is examined under a microscope and questioned, established historical and contemporary narratives are turned over and rewritten with meticulous research. Families animate with the specificity of love, injury and desire. Part of me does believe that Orwell would find these books, in their combined quest for truth, as inspiring as I did, along with the other judges – Baroness Joan Bakewell and Arifa Akbar, deputy literary editor of the Independent. It’s a formidable list

In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra writes with wonderful passion and elegance, asking us to reconsider British Imperialism through the stories of three influential thinkers in Egypt, China and India. Their ideas ignited large numbers of the colonised world with the belief that they could overturn their oppressors- a legacy that he argues can be traced through to current day movements like the Arab Spring. Raja Shehadeh takes us through the symbolism and volatile contradictions of life in Palestine with his own distinctly moving poetic in Occupation Diaries. Leaving Alexandria, Richard Holloway’s ‘memoir of faith and doubt,’ details the universal desire to find meaning in life through the penetrating and honest tunnel of the author’s life – carrying us through his struggles with the church and sexuality into a wider discourse about ethics. Carmen Bugan makes us feel the vulnerability and insight of childhood with her gripping tale of life under Ceaucescu’s regime, Burying the Typewriter. Likewise, Clive Stafford Smith’s astonishing account of his battle against the death penalty, Injustice, is told with the control and force of a thriller. Marie Colvin’s collection of writings over the last 25 years, On the Frontline, is an extremely consuming read, with succinct, thought-provoking portrayals of leaders and communities encountered during her time as a war correspondent. And the horror of military malpractice and torture is revealed with painstaking commitment and atmospheric prose in A Very British Killing – The Death of Baha Mousa.

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will be receiving copies of all the short listed titles, as decided by the administrators of the prize, this year. If, as Orwell argued, language matters as much as action, and has the power to contaminate or distil our decisions, then this batch of material for the three party leaders is a very valuable package, should they invest the time to read it.