Archive for the ‘Orwell prize’ tag
How do you explain presence? It’s not something you can really rationalise. Suggest a scientific explanation and you find yourself muttering about the release of pheromones or the ‘smell’ of confidence.
Whatever it is, you know it when someone has it. And Raja Shehadeh has it. This is despite being a slight man – he can’t be more than 5’4 and he hasn’t an ounce of spare flesh on him. Nor does he have a powerful voice, quite the opposite. He speaks sparely, calmly, without inflammatory verbs or adjectives – much like his writing. Indeed this is how he tells the story of his 6 walks around the West Bank. 6 walks made over three decades that chart how the place where he lives has been concreted over, literally and metaphorically. Yet though he is small and understated, you can’t help but be aware when he’s in the room.
Shehadeh last night won the Orwell Prize for political writing for his book ‘Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape’ (the Media Standards Trust runs the Prize in partnership with the Orwell Trust and Political Quarterly). A book that received astonishingly little attention when it was published last autumn, despite (or because of) being one of the few attempts to discuss the politics of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank without resorting to wild exaggeration or screaming (Shehadeh and his wife Penny flew over from Ramallah specially to accept the award).
The prize for journalism went to the Independent’s Johann Hari. A “young whippersnapper” journalist (in Clive James’ words) who, Hari told us, still gets asked for I.D. at the off license. Hari won for five articles he wrote last year including one about a cruise he took with American neo-cons and another about France’s secret war in the Central African Republic.
If you haven’t read these then do. ‘Ship of Fools’ is funny and scary in equal measure. ‘France’s Secret War’ is just scary. Hari goes to the middle of Africa, to a brutal, blood soaked country where the French still pursue a far from ethical foreign policy:
‘This is a forgotten corner of a forgotten country. Birao lies and dies in the far north-east of the Central African Republic (CAR). CAR itself has a population of just 3.8 million, spread across a territory bigger than Britain’s, landlocked at the exact geographical heart of Africa. It is the least-reported country on earth. Even the fact that 212,000 people have been driven out of their homes in this war doesn’t register on the global radar. In Birao, I realise I am too close to the immediate horror to find the deeper explanations for this war. I only begin to uncover the origins of this story when I stumble across a very rare find in the CAR – an old man.’
Clive James, given a lifetime achievement award for writing and broadcasting, spoke so easily and fluently you could’ve sworn you’d just tuned into Radio 4. He has such a beguiling wit and humour that he can prod life into even the most humdrum political issues. Oh, and he knows a surprising amount about George Orwell too (which you can see from this interview he did with us before the prize).
You can hear Clive James’ Point of View programmes (or read the scripts) at the Orwell Prize website, where you can also find quite a fun Orwell essay about how to make a cup of tea.
Since thumping the next election into the nether regions of 2010, Gordon Brown has yet to outline new New Labour’s big ‘vision’. Is it there struggling to get out, or has the well of new Left ideas dried up?
We’ve organised a debate, in association with Reuters, to find out.
“Has the Left stopped thinking” will be held at Reuters next Wednesday (26th) from 6/6.30-8pm (see www.theorwellprize.co.uk).
Denis MacShane MP, Will Hutton (Work Foundation, The Observer), Matthew Parris (The Times), Peter Hitchens (The Mail on Sunday) and Jean Seaton (Westminster University) will argue it out, chaired by Sean Maguire (Editor, Political & General News, Reuters).
Following the debate Jean Seaton, the chair of the Orwell Prize, will announce this year’s shortlists – for the author and for the journalist who have most successfully achieved Orwell’s aim of making political writing into an art.
There is limited seating but if you’d like to come you’re welcome to email me at email@example.com and, if there are any places left, I’ll put your name down.
There’s something quite mesmeric about staring at a table full of the best contemporary political writing. Does it represent a snapshot of society’s angst or just the personal bugbears of the writers? Do the books help explain, and maybe even answer, some of our current concerns or just add to their complexity? And are there any clear themes or glaring omissions?
This is how I felt last week as I gazed at the submissions to this year’s Orwell Prize (full list here). 181 books entered – a record, more than the Samuel Johnson prize, more even than the Man Booker. Each one considered by publishers and editors to be the best in contemporary writing about political issues. Combined with the 54 journalism entries it makes quite a list (statement of interest – the Media Standards Trust is now an official partner of the Orwell Prize).
So what do the books tell us? (I’ll deal with the journalism in a separate post).
What’s immediately apparent is that identity is by far the most prominent theme. ‘Who cares about Britishness?’ asks the title of Vron Ware’s book entry – well, clearly both writers and publishers do. Julian Baggini goes in search of what it means to be English by living in the most average place in England (worked out using postcode data on income, education and ethnicity) in ‘Welcome to Everytown’. Arthur Aughey takes a step back and reflects on ‘The Politics of Englishness’. Mike Parker travels slightly further west and tries to work out why the English are so rude about the Welsh (in ‘Neighbours from Hell’). And in Scotland, Brian Monteith does his best to assess how Scotland can become self-sufficient (‘Paying the Piper’).
But tensions surrounding identity are by no means limited to the Nations. Many writers reflect on the compatability – or incompatibility – of Britishness and Islam. Philip Lewis does his best to support the compatibility argument by dispelling some of the cruder stereotypes of what it means to be ‘Young, British and Muslim’. Tariq Modood defends ‘Multiculturalism’ against a rising tide of discontent and Philippe Legrain argues that Britain needs ‘Immigrants’.
But a number of other books voice growing misgivings about multiculturalism and worry about the effects of too much tolerance. Andrew Anthony perhaps best represents this strain of thought in ‘The Fall-out’. Anthony experienced something of an epiphany after 9/11 that led him to slough off the easy-going liberalism of his youth in favour of a harder, less forgiving conservatism.
Nick Cohen extends Anthony’s liberal crisis to the whole political left in Britain. Arguing in ‘What’s Left?’ that Labour supporters seem to have reached a bizarre consensus with religious fundamentalists, leading to an excessive – and damaging – tolerance of Islamic extremism. An argument underscored by Ed Husain’s graphic description of his own alienation from mainstream British culture and embrace of radical Islam, in ‘The Islamist’. Anun Kundnani believes these conservative views increasingly characterise contemporary British society and represent ‘The End of Tolerance’ as we have known it for the past few decades.
Eschewing soul-searching and inter-party squabbling other writers have looked outside the UK to understand the roots of religious extremism. Zahid Hussein traces militant Islam to ‘Frontline Pakistan’, Zaki Chehab goes ‘Inside Hamas’, while John Phillips and Martin Evans show how violence and dispossession can alienate a people (in Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed). Frank Furedi focuses instead on our reaction to extremism and terrorism in ‘Invitation to Terror’, as does Bob Brecher, from a very different perspective, in ‘Torture and the Ticking Bomb’.
From explaining present extremism to explaining that of the past. A remarkable number of good books have been published in the last year about Ireland. From Roy Foster’s compelling assessment of Ireland’s political and economic transformation between 1970 and 2000 (‘Luck and the Irish’), to Paul Bew’s history of Irish Nationalism from the 1790s to the end of the twentieth century (‘Ireland: the Politics of Enmity’) and on to Malachi O’Doherty’s account of ‘The Telling Year: Belfast 1972′ and Richard English on ‘Irish Freedom’.
What’s not there?
Women. It is strange and unfortunate that so few of the books submitted have been written by women. Just over one in ten. Whether this is indicative of women’s rejection of politics today – or at least the way in which politics is conducted – is unclear, but we’re the poorer for it.
China: in the year China hosts the Olympics, takes over as America’s banker, and hugely extends its influence in Africa it seems astonishing that there is only one book, ‘China Road’ by Bob Gifford, about the country (given publishing lead times, perhaps the crop of China books will come this year and next).
The environment / global warming: outside Mark Lynas’ ‘Six Degrees’, there is virtually nothing on the environment – neither about the science of climate change (like Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘Field Notes from a Catastrophe’ in 2006) or its political implicaions. All we have, rather disturbingly, is a raft of dystopian novels.
Heading off shortly to help launch the Orwell Prize 2008.
As of this evening the Media Standards Trust is partnering with the Orwell Trust and Political Quarterly to run the Orwell Prize for political writing and journalism.
It’s an honour to be associated both with such a prestigious prize and, via the prize, to the memory of Orwell himself. We’ve been beavering away getting a website ready (it hasn’t had one to date) at www.theorwellprize.co.uk, which will go live at 7pm tonight.
To mark the opening of this year’s prize we’ve also helped organise a panel debate on ‘Orwell, ID Cards, the Citizen and the State’ – with David Goodhart (editor, Prospect), Jenni Russell (Guardian), Heather Brooke (author, ‘Right to Know’) and Nick Cohen (Observer), chaired by Jean Seaton (University of Westminster).
What would Orwell have made of ID cards? Are his warnings about Big Brother still relevant in our contemporary information society? What would a modern day George Orwell write about?
The event is at the Frontline Club from 7-9pm. If you’d like to come along you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.