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Fools Rush In…

Dione Venables has complied an anthology of George Orwell’s poetry, titled George Orwell: The Complete Poetry, published this month.

Here, she writes exclusively for The Orwell Prize about Orwell’s poetry and why she engaged in the project.

Fools Rush In…

Dione Venables

Having read Keep The Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, and so enjoyed the way he created a poem gradually, as the story developed, I began to look for other poems that he had written.  Of course the first ones were those that he wrote to my cousin Jacintha Buddicom when they were young and learning about the need to control their feelings.

For many years I waited for one of the academics to gather together all of  Orwell’s poetry, examples of which I would come across now and then within his essays and novels – but it simply never happened, although writer, biographer D.J.Taylor penned an excellent essay on the subject of ‘Orwell and Poetry’ in 2009.  In 2014, with that singular essay still in my mind, I decided to wait no longer but to do the searching myself, and what a search it turned out to be. To be honest, I do not know whether all the poems have been located, but because the clock is ticking for me, by January 2015 it was clear that I had combed enough through the twenty volumes of Peter Davison’s superlative George Orwell: The Complete Works.  I went from reference to page; from page to reference for days and weeks until I was getting rather good at finding my way through these beautifully compiled and edited volumes.  I even learned much about layout and indexing from them when I was deciding how to present the forty two poems which was the total harvest of my labours.

Poems are not like normal text.  They are created out of emotion of one kind or another and this was an area of Orwell’s psyche that had not been seriously explored in depth.   It made me aware that I should introduce each one, explaining Orwell’s reason for writing when I could, and generally giving an account of his health, progress as a writer and translating the slang that was very much part of the first half of the 20th century.  It seemed to me that, without such an introduction, students or readers from other countries would simply not understand what was behind what he was trying to say, and this is the way each poem is presented; in a framework of sympathetic comment, so that when the poem is less than brilliant (and there are several that are below standard!) the reader will at least be ready for anything!  It sounds rather a strange arrangement – but it seems to work.

It has to be understood that George Orwell’s poetry was not written to be compared with his political writing or his essays and novels; he wrote because he felt passionately about something at that particular moment. Sometimes the result was beautiful, mournful, hilarious – and sometimes anger or defeat bled the inspiration out of him and left the reader disappointed.   I’ll show you what I mean.

Awake! oh you  young men of England,

For if, when your Country’s in need

You do not enlist by the thousand

You truly are cowards indeed.

Written by the eleven-year-old Eric Blair at the start of the First World War. Here is the energy and excitement of a child’s romantic view of warfare, pitched into reality by the early death in battle of a cousin. Potential talent here – but nothing extra-special.  By the time he had matured, shaped by disappointment, lack of money, and the beginning of poor health he had begun to look around him and see things.

Sometimes in the middle autumn days,

The windless days when the swallows have flown,

And the sere elms brood in the mist,

Each tree a being, wrapt, alone,

That sharp and deductive curiosity of his gradually needed another direction for the great flow of his creative mind, and soon the pain of living in his world needed ‘letting’.  Bitterness had nowhere to go but through grey and fruitless verse, and his poetry did much to allow him full expression as his health deteriorated.

I feel, and with a sharper pang,

My mortal sickness; how I give

My heart to weak and stifled ghosts,

And with the living cannot live.

Eric Blair had become George Orwell by the time his mood lifted when he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy in 1936.  His verse became more joyful again for a spell and, writing with more success, he was able to express the new well-being in both heart and body.

A happy vicar I might have been

Two hundred years ago,

To preach upon eternal doom

And watch my walnuts grow.

But then he became involved in the Spanish Civil War, was wounded in the throat and the pleasant, cultured baritone voice took on an unattractive squeak. The experience never left him, all the same and his poem ‘The Italian Soldier Shook My Hand’ seems to be the one that most academics remember and approve.

But the thing I saw in your face

No power can dis-inherit:

No bomb that ever burst

Shatters the crystal spirit.

The Blitz, with Eileen beside him, brought forth both his humour and his regret and he was able, when it was all over and he could think back, to remember it with sadness tinged with amusement.

Not the pursuit of knowledge,

Only the chances of war,

Led me to study the music

Of the male and the female snore.

Then Life turned another corner, his treasured son Richard came to them, and Eileen died only months later.  The light went dim again and never really recovered. Orwell was, by this time, making an impact on the world of political thought, his essays were read and respected and his health was fading as he put his mind to his last two books; both of which established his name firmly in the hearts of both the literary world and the casual reader.  The poetry seemed to fade away and only the verses in Animal Farm were left, and a sad little obituary written for an imaginary old countryman, in the last days of his life.

With the little book here in my hand at last, I wonder whether it could have been presented in any other way. You’ll have to be the judge of that.

©Dione Venables. October 2015

The Orwell Prize 2015 Shortlists announced


6 Books, journalists, and pieces of social reporting announced for the Orwell Prize Shortlist


  • Three first-time writers on Book Prize shortlist: Louisa Lim on China, Rana Dasgupta on Delhi, and Dan Davies’ book on Jimmy Savile In Plain Sight
  • Journalism Prize shortlist features reporting and comment on a range of issues, from Peter Ross on Scottish independence to Kim Sengupta on Gaza and Ukraine
  • Housing crisis, care of older people, and gambling all feature on multi-format shortlist for innovative new Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils (sponsored by Joseph Rowntree Foundation)

The shortlists for the Orwell Prize 2015, Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing, were announced at a debate on ‘Unreported Britain’, held at the University of Westminster between Stephen Armstrong and Martin Moore. The Unreported Britain series, commissioned by the Orwell Prize and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has attracted national attention since its initial publication in the Guardian in March and April.

The judges for the 2015 Book Prize are Claire Armitstead, Gillian Slovo, and Tony Wright. The judges for the 2015 Journalism Prize are Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Stewart Purvis, and Caroline Thomson. The judges for the 2015 Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils, which has been sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, are Anushka Asthana, Richard Sambrook, Nicholas Timmins, and Julia Unwin. The three £3000 prizes will be announced at a ceremony on Thursday the 21st of May 2015.

The director of the Orwell Prize, Professor Jean Seaton, said: “Orwell was never parochial. His work spans international events and the national condition, and that range is represented in the shortlist. The books place Britain’s circumstances alongside those of India and China. The entries shortlisted for the journalism prize, which range from risk-taking foreign reporting to subtle analyses of our contemporary national issues, are all following in Orwell’s footsteps.

Our new social reporting prize allows us to consider the new media that Orwell surely would have been using. As a snapshot of our condition, you need to read it all. The judges who select the shortlists always find judging refreshing; it alerts them and us to how much good work is being done.”


Book Prize shortlist:

Rana Dasgupta, CAPITAL: THE ERUPTION OF DELHI (Canongate)


Nick Davies, HACK ATTACK (Chatto & Windus)

David Kynaston, MODERNITY BRITAIN (Bloomsbury)

Louisa Lim, THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF AMNESIA (Oxford University Press)



Journalism Prize shortlist:

Rosie Blau, The Economist

Martin Chulov, The Guardian

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi,, Lacuna, New Statesman

Mary Riddell, The Daily Telegraph

Peter Ross, Scotland on Sunday

Kim Sengupta, The Independent


Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils shortlist:

George Arbuthnott, Slaves in peril on the sea

Aditya Chakrabortty and Guardian team, London’s housing crisis

Alison Holt, Care of the elderly and vulnerable

Nick Mathiason, A great British housing crisis

Randeep Ramesh, Casino-style gambling

Mark Townsend, Serco: A hunt for the truth inside Yarl’s Wood





Notes to editors:

1.     The Orwell Prize is Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing. Every year, prizes are awarded to the book and journalism entry which comes closest to George Orwell’s ambition ‘to make political writing into an art’. Each Prize is worth £3000.

2.     The Prize was founded by the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick in its present form in 1993, awarding its first prizes in 1994. The Prize is sponsored and supported by the Media Standards Trust, Political Quarterly, AM Heath, and Richard Blair. The Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils is sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

3.     For further information, please visit our website, or contact Alex Bartram at or 0207 848 7930.

Unreported Britain series

Follow the link below for the first article in the Unreported Britain series.

The rise of DIY dentistry: Britons doing their own fillings to avoid NHS bill

Today marks the launch of the Unreported Britain series. The Orwell Prize, set up in Orwell’s name to focus attention on good writing about political issues – together with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) – are delivering the Unreported Britain Project as one part of the work of the new JRF-sponsored Prize “The Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils”.

Unreported Britain was written by Stephen Armstrong, the author of The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited, with additional reporting by Maruxa Ruiz del Arbol.

The Guardian’s page for the Unreported Britain series can be found by following this link.

Background to the Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils and the Unreported Britain series

The Prize will find the new journalism that uses all of the media to tell important stories. It will focus on the journalism that is letting the public use and explore data about need for themselves: giving people access to the tools and evidence to make up their own minds. The Unreported Britain project is intended to launch the debate – about what we don’t know and why we don’t know it. But also to reflect back to communities how they see themselves.

In 1936 George Orwell got on a train to Wigan. He wanted to find out what the economic depression was doing to people. Wigan, understandably perhaps, has never quite forgiven him for the way in which he put them on them map.  But if his work helped  mobilise a sense of shared responsibility for making living conditions better, it also energised the local communities he encountered. Before he set out on his journey Orwell wrote nearly a 900 letters, pestering local authorities for mortality figures, bothering employers for wage statistics, ransacking the health services (before the national health) for patterns of illness, demanding the price of sugar and what it cost to heat a house. He was finding the stories that were un-reported. Although The Road to Wigan Pier is brilliantly written – it stands on evidence.

That – however – was then. What are the new contours of want in 21st Century Britain? How do we know about them? As local media collapse communities do not even see their own particular stories reflected back to them – let alone brought to bear on policy makers in the distant metropolitan hub of Westminster. If we suffer from a democratic deficit, then that is shaped by a reporting deficit.

People are all too aware of the dangers of being stereotyped. They imagine new solutions to their predicament. The project also explores the separate problem – why we have not heard these stories. The new contour of want has a new kind of invisibility.

Richard Horton: A Thousand Flowers

Richard Horton, one of the judges for the Orwell Prize for Blogs 2010 and winner of the Blog Prize 2009 as ‘Jack Night’, looks at the blogging year.

For me, the read is over. The short list for the Blog Prize is done at last. As we sat around the inevitable kitchen table, folding laptops and squaring papers, I was asked what I thought stood out in the entries as a whole. In no particular order, these are my thoughts on a good year for political blogging.

In my acceptance speech last year I described political blogs as short levers. Well from the volume of entries there are now a lot more of us and our levers are getting longer. When the likes of Guido and Iain Dale speak, there is an audience waiting to listen. Bloggers are standing for Parliament. Bloggers have raised the money to free a prisoner. Bloggers have gleefully and very publicly shredded every major party advertising campaign. It seems that bloggers have opinions that matter outside of the hall of mirrors.

Another emerging theme is that the left leaning side of the blogosphere has begun to catch up. In 2009, the right seemed to have organically grown good stuff. Last year whilst LabourList and Liberal Conspiracy were on my browser favourites list, I did not go there expecting a rattling good read. A lot of it felt self conscious, too on message, forced, whipped into line. Perhaps that is the burden of being on the weakly governing side of the argument, dissent feels disloyal. This year however in both the long list and short list there are voices from the left that can entertain whilst they inform and importantly it is not all “my party right or wrong” any more. Should we have a change of government I will be watching to see how far the tables turn and whether the blogosphere’s anti-politicians turn their guns on the new team, carry on kicking the losers whilst they are down or both.

Lastly, although none of them made it to the long list, there were a good number of very local blogs dealing with very local politics. This has got to be a good thing because for every troll with a blog, there is a local crusader with a real issue or a local politician making a genuine attempt to open the curtains of local democracy. Political blogging doesn’t have to be about the big national stuff to matter; in fact some of this very focussed writing is exactly the stuff that you can scratch a window with.