The Orwell Prize was the brainchild of the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick, Orwell’s first biographer, who used the hardback royalties of his George Orwell: A Life (1980) to set up a fund designed to encourage the work of young writers and, later, to underwrite a series of lectures in Orwell’s memory. In the early 1990s, with financial support from Political Quarterly, Crick established the Prize in its current format: annual awards for books and journalism intended to ‘encourage writing in good English…of a kind aimed at or accessible to the reading public, not to specialised or academic audiences.’
From modest beginnings the Prize has, in the two decades of its existence, grown into one of the most prestigious in the Anglophone world, respected both for its independence from the institutions whose achievements it rewards and its ability to respond to changes in the media landscape whose work it reflects. The Council of the Orwell Prize, the registered charity which now oversees its operations, is currently responsible for the award of the two original prizes, an Orwell Youth Prize, established in 2014, the Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils (sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), a comprehensive website, two annual lectures and a variety of events at schools, conferences and literary festivals.
Bernard Crick and George Orwell: A Life
The history of the Orwell Prizes, and the many activities associated with them, goes back as least as far as the late 1960s. It was then that the question of whether there should be an authorised life of Orwell – by now nearly 20 years dead – and, if so, who might be commissioned to produce it, became a matter of absorbing interest to his widow, Sonia. Orwell had requested in his will that no biography should be written. This proscription had been loyally enforced, with what sometimes amounted to deviousness. In the late 1950s, for example, Sonia announced that she had appointed Orwell’s old friend Malcolm Muggeridge to undertake the work. But this was a smokescreen designed to conceal the fact that neither sponsor nor biographer wanted the book to be written: thereafter the project quietly lapsed. A decade later, on the other hand, several wedges had been driven under the door of outright prohibition. The most substantial was Peter Stansky and William Stansky’s unauthorised but impeccably researched The Unknown Orwell, which appeared in 1972. Worse, Stansky and Abrahams threatened a second volume. Deciding to choose her own candidate, and impressed by a piece about Orwell that he had contributed to Miriam Gross’s compilation The World of George Orwell (1971), Sonia settled on Bernard Crick.
At this point in a long and combative career, Crick (1929-2008), author of the best-selling In Defence of Politics (1962), was Professor of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck College, University of London. On signing a contract with Orwell’s publishers, Secker & Warburg, in 1974 for what would eventually become George Orwell: A Life, Crick decided to grant the English hardback rights to Birkbeck and, with their aid, establish a fund that, as he put it at the time, would ‘help projects by young writers who would have interested Orwell himself had he lived.’ According to Crick’s associate Audrey Coppard, who worked closely with him during this period – the two were joint editors of Orwell Remembered (1984) – he was inspired to take this step by the memory of Orwell’s own determination to help up-and-coming writers, and in particular a vision of Orwell sitting at his desk at the left-wing weekly magazine Tribune, for which he worked as literary editor between 1943-5 and wrote the celebrated ‘As I Please’ column, with a drawer full of IOUs received from impoverished members of the paper’s freelance reviewing staff.
George Orwell: A Life – a trail-blazing work, which all subsequent biographers have taken as their starting point – was published in the autumn of 1980. Shortly before this time Crick and Sonia, who had enjoyed long and convivial lunches in the early stages of the project, had fallen out. Sonia went to her death, shortly before the book’s publication, believing – on no grounds whatever – that she had betrayed her husband’s memory. Meanwhile, Crick’s scheme for a series of awards to encourage up-and-coming talent received a boost when David Astor, Orwell’s editor at the Observer and the facilitator of his long stay on the Inner Hebridean island of Jura in the late 1940s, agreed to match whatever funding Crick himself could raise. Further subventions came from Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair, whose involvement continues to this day, friends and admirers – these included the journalist Lord Ardwick (John Bevan), the philosopher Sir Alfred (A.J.) Ayer, the historian Sir Steven Runciman and the writer Julian Symons – and the three newspapers with which he was most closely associated, the Manchester Evening News, Tribune and the Observer.
The Prize Takes Shape
By mid-1982 Crick was hard at work approaching potential trustees. This process was not without its drawbacks, largely owing to the difficulty of establishing the values that Orwell might be supposed to represent and the kind of writers he might have wanted to encourage. ‘Bernard Crick wrote to me saying that he was donating the English rights of his Orwell biography to establish a fund for young writers, to which more would be added by contributors’ the novelist Anthony Powell wrote in his diary in May of that year. ‘The trustees of fund would be Crick himself, Barbara Hardy, Eric Hobsbawm, Karl Miller, Julian Symons, Arnold Wesker. He asked if I would allow my name to be used.’ Powell, a deep-dyed Conservative (and also one of Orwell’s closest friends) had his doubts, not only over the political stance of certain of the trustees (‘I am not at all confident that George Orwell would have approved of the antics of Hobsbawm or Wesker’) but as to who might be line for the money. Symons, petitioned for advice, replied that ‘undoubtedly the Orwell Prize would be given to just the sort of crackpot anarchist with whom poor old George would have got himself associated when alive – so there was no point whatever in worrying.’ Although ‘wholly agreeing’ with this analysis, Powell declined to become involved.
In fact, the problems Crick and his allies experienced were seldom attributable to the crackpot anarchists of Powell’s demonising. They were more to do with the age-old trouble experienced by arts world funding bodies in obtaining a quantifiable return on their investments. Submissions were considered and grants duly made, but as Crick delicately put it ‘projects were hard to evaluate and too many did not appear to result in discernible writing.’ Within three years, consequently, the funds were diverted to the endowment of annual memorial lectures at Birkbeck College and the University of Sheffield, where Crick had served as Professor of Political Theory and Political Institutions between 1965 and 1971. Although the Sheffield lectures were discontinued in the mid-2000s, their London equivalent continues, under the auspices of University College. But this change of tack was also problematic. Although both Crick and Richard Blair were generous in topping up the fund, the original capital began to diminish. Happily, Crick – never short of bright ideas – had a new scheme in mind.
This evolved out of his long association with Political Quarterly [PQ], whose joint editor he had been between 1966 and 1980 and for whom he later worked as literary editor. Backed by the magazine’s resources, he announced, in 1993, the foundation of an annual Orwell Prize. The stated aim was ‘to encourage writing in good English – while giving equal value to style and content, politics or public policy, whether political, economic, social or cultural – of a kind aimed at or accessible to the reading public, not to specialist or academic audiences.’ PQ continues to support the prize, offering not only a welcome source of subsidy but a sounding board for ideas and schemes for wider political and social engagement. The original plan had been for a single prize of £1,000, but the judges were unconvinced. Ultimately, it proved impossible to create what the dramatist Alan Plater, one of two trustees on the judging panel, called ‘a level playing field for Manchester United versus Glamorgan.’ The solution, Plater went on, was ‘to separate the categories of books and journalism and split the prize down the middle.’ With this modus operandi in place, the inaugural books prize was awarded to Anatol Lieven’s The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the Path to Independence, and the journalism prize to Neil Ascherson for his work on the Independent on Sunday.
For the next ten years and more the prize was Crick’s private fiefdom. It was he – effectively – who appointed the judges, and he who chaired their deliberations, he who replenished the pool of trustees, he who maintained the fruitful and enduring relationship with PQ, he who secured additional sources of sponsorship and he, with maximum effectiveness, who arranged the annual awards ceremony. The 2003 event, some of which was captured on film by the South Bank Show, gives a good idea of what Orwell Prize evenings were like at this time: small-scale, attended by and audience largely made up of Orwell’s surviving friends and relatives and a cognoscenti of journalists, with Crick – Sir Bernard Crick, as he now was, after his 2002 knighthood for work on the Government’s citizenship programme – standing vigilantly by, orchestrating the proceedings and not scrupling to interfere if he suspected that anything was amiss.
All this had, by the early 2000s, given the Prize an enviable reputation – a standing in the world of literary prizes and benefactions marked by the arrival of Reuters as a sponsor in 2004 – and it was clear that even greater opportunities awaited. But for the Prize to expand it needed more personnel, a greater degree of administrative expertise and a great deal more money. Crick, too, had reached his mid-70s and, though outwardly as vigorous as ever, knew that a time would come when he had to step aside. In the event he was succeeded as Chair of the Orwell Trust by another of Orwell’s biographers, D.J. Taylor, shortly before his death in 2008.
The post-Crick Years
One essential step had already been taken. Crick had retired as chair of the Prize judges in 2006. In the following year Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster, became Director of the Prize – a role that was thereafter separated from the judging process and had the effect of detaching the administration of the awards from the people distributing them. Seaton ascribed this appointment to her long-standing support for the prize on the PQ board and also to her recently being widowed – ‘They all thought I needed to be busy.’ This move coincided with the arrival of several new trustees – these included the writers Blake Morrison, Marina Warner and Andrew O’Hagan – and a clutch of high-profile lecturers, among them the novelist Hilary Mantel who, shortly after winning the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall (2009), addressed a capacity crowd on the subject of ‘Thomas Cromwell’s Radical England.’ An even more significant step came in seven-year partnership, with the Media Standards Trust (MST). The MST, which had been thinking of establishing its own journalism prize, was persuaded to join its lot with Orwell.
MST’s involvement, under the auspices of its founding Director, Martin Moore, transformed the prize. Not only did it offer a home, an office and, in the shape of Gavin Freeguard, a highly efficient administrator, but, while remaining detached from the decision-making process, it galvanised and professionalised the way in which it worked. As Seaton put it: ‘When I took over there were two judges and they made their way through the submitted entries in both the books and journalism categories over lunch at the Savile. Now we have three judges assigned to each prize and a whole variety of mechanisms and protocols designed to ensure that they meet more often and both preserve and extend the integrity of the judging process. With success naturally comes greater public scrutiny, but we try very hard to get a variety of political opinions and a variety of tastes represented. There are no proscriptions and prizes are quite as likely to be won by conservatives as by card-carrying radicals of the kind of whom Orwell might have been thought to approve.’
All this worked its effect. The profile of the prize increased year on year, necessitating a steady upgrade in the size of the venues where the awards ceremony could be held and what Seaton calls its ‘transformation from prize to project.’ Meanwhile, a series of initiatives was in in hand to support this front-of-house activity. Thus the launch of the 2008 prize coincided with the unveiling of a website aimed at giving Orwell Studies an online presence. A growing collection of works by or about Orwell and featuring the contributions of well-known Orwell scholars was supplemented, in the summer of 2008, by the ‘Orwell diaries blog’ which featured Orwell’s domestic and political journals from the period 1938-1942, each entry uploaded 70 years to the day since they were written. The site was nominated for a Webby Award in 2009 and attracted international media interest. There was already a tradition of launch and shortlist debates on matters of current interest, but under Seaton the Prize began to supply speakers and topics to literary festivals, notably the annual festivals at Edinburgh, Buxton and Oxford – where the number of Orwell-themed events rose to as many as a dozen. One highlight of Oxford 2009 was an interview with Richard Blair in which, for the first time, Orwell’s adopted son discussed his memories of Orwell and his early years on Jura. A dedicated ‘Orwell Festival’ was held in London in 2009.
The degree of administrative expertise demanded by this almost annual expansion in the activities associated with the prize, together with the growing number of sponsors, brought another organisational re-think, and in 2009 the Trust was subsumed into a larger body, known as the Council of the Orwell Prize, initially under the chairmanship of Sir David Bell. As well as enhancing the prestige of the existing prizes, the Council was determined both to adapt its awards to reflect the changing nature of the twenty-first century media and to bring Orwell and his writings to a new generation of readers. To this end, 2009 brought the establishment of a Special Prize for Blogs, awarded in that year to the pseudonymous police blogger ‘Jack Night’, later unmasked as Richard Horton following a celebrated High Court Case, ‘The Author of a Blog versus Times Newspapers.’ Popular amongst the blogging community, and in its inaugural year at least, highly controversial, the Blog Prize foundered only on the substantial amounts of judging time – and legal advice – demanded by some of the entries, and was shelved after its second year.
Increasingly, the prize began to take on an international dimension. In 2011, for example, the Council decided to sponsor an annual lecture at the Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai, where speakers have included the Egyptian writer Nawal el-Sadaawi and the BBC’s Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen. Two years later, and almost eight decades after the first publication of Burmese Days (1934), a delegation went to Burma to take part in the Irrawaddy Literary Festival. Here the Director of the Prize, Jean Seaton, spoke on Orwell’s relationship with Burma and former winner Timothy Garton Ash delivered an Orwell Lecture. A further highlight was the distribution of hundreds of copies of Orwell’s books – titles included Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – which had previously been banned in the country. These were purchased by way of a ‘Book for Burma’ campaign administered by the Prize and with generous support from Penguin Books, Orwell’s long-term paperback publisher.
Domestically, the Prize has continued to expand its scope. Work in schools had begun as early as 2009, with an event at Norwich School featuring the historian David Kynaston. In 2013 a much more expansive project found the journalist Stephen Armstrong, author of The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited administering a series of writing workshops for young people in a Wigan community centre. This, too, offered a springboard for something yet more ambitious – the establishment, in 2014, of an Orwell Youth Prize, designed to encourage literary and political engagement among the young. In 2015-16, as well as awarding writing prizes in two separate age categories, the scheme administered 23 workshops in schools around the country and hosted a ‘Celebration Day’ in which all entrants can attend seminars and take the opportunity to look round an Oxford college. Feedback has been immensely positive, both from students and school staff: there are already plans to run major ‘hub’ workshops in Sheffield and Cambridge and a longer-term aim of working with university outreach departments. Among other highlights, the 2015 Celebration Day, held at Pembroke College, featured two of the Youth Prize’s patrons, Alan Johnson MP and Richard Blair in conversation with Jean Seaton. According to Vidya Ramesh, one of the winners in the upper age-group, ‘Entering the Orwell Youth Prize, receiving helpful feedback from the judges, and of course the Celebration Day itself, has given me the confidence to seriously pursue writing as a possible career.’
The Orwell Prize today
The Prize continues to re-position itself to meet the administrative and intellectual challenges of the twenty-first century. In 2014, for example, and with the generous sponsorship of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, it established a new category – The Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils – designed to reward innovative reporting on social issues in the UK. Shortly after this, the Prize achieved a long-held aim of becoming an independently registered charity (number 116153) governed by a board of trustees. Meanwhile, the range of associated events continues to offer space to stimulating and forward-looking ideas, while remaining true to Orwell’s dictum that uncomfortable positions should be given a place. Launch debates, for example, have taken in immigration, no-platforming in universities and the Goddard Enquiry into child sexual abuse. Recent Orwell Lecturers include Professor Tariq Ramadan and he former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams of Oystermouth. The current chair is Ken Macdonald QC, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and the board continues to bring together a wide range of scholarly and professional expertise in with the aim of both preserving Orwell’s legacy and extending its reach to the readers, writers and activists of the future.