In his slim monograph ‘Why I write’, English novelist, essayist and journalist George Orwell wrote that his ambition was to make “political writing into an art” (which he certainly did). Unsurprisingly, this is also the credo of the Orwell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious award for political writing. The Prize was established in its present form by the late Sir Bernard Crick in 1994, ‘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’.
Jean Seaton with AT Williams, winner of the 2013 Orwell Prize. Orwell Prize/Sam Park
Earlier this week, on May 15, in London, the 2013 Orwell Prize for books was awarded to AT Williams, for his “incendiary, eloquent and angry book” A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa. Williams is professor of law at the University of Warwick and the director of the Centre for Human Rights in Practice. Journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed while covering the seige of Homs in Syria in February 2012, was honoured with a posthumous special award for On the Front Line.
Williams won the £3,000 book award ahead of Colvin, Carmen Bugan (Burying the Typewriter), Richard Holloway (Leaving Alexandria), Pankaj Mishra (From the Ruins of Empire), Raja Shehadeh (Occupation Diaries) and Clive Stafford Smith’s Injustice.
Williams’ book, “written in the spirit of Orwell’s journalism”, is based on the killing of Baha Mousa, a hotel receptionist, by the British forces inside an army base in Basra (Iraq) in 2003. It examines the institutional brutality, the bureaucratic apathy, the flawed military police inquiry and the farcical court martial that followed the murder.
Speaking to HT at the awards ceremony, which was held at Church House situated in the heart of Westminster, the author said that he was “shocked and angry” when he first saw the post-mortem report and photographs of Mousa and at the way the case was handled by the authorities despite damning evidence. Writing Mousa’s story, Williams added, was the only way to come to terms with his anger and disgust. “...I could understand how troops might lose control in a battle zone. But these injuries were inflicted on a civilian in the heart of a British military base... How could that have happened?” Williams wrote in a sharp piece in The Guardian earlier this month.
“That anger continues even today because nothing has been resolved. Nobody has been prosecuted, nobody has taken responsibility,” he told the audience at Church House in a moving and eloquent acceptance speech. The jury explained that they chose Williams’ book because it manages, with a clear-eyed determination, to “unpick the lies from the truths of this case”. And yet, for all its forensic details, it grips the reader “emotionally, and has as keen a sense of storytelling as a horror story or courtroom drama”.
Speaking to HT on Orwell and his relevance in today’s world, the director of the Prize Jean Seaton, who is also the BBC’s official historian, said: “Orwell stands for integrity, truthfulness above self; he stands for a kind of contrariness, of not following the herd”. Those qualities, few would disagree, are truly in deficit in today’s world.
Philip Bounds, author of Orwell and Marxism: The Political and Cultural Thinking of George Orwell (IB Tauris, 2009) said there is a tendency for people everywhere to believe that their own side monopolises virtue and that the rights of other people are unimportant or even pernicious. “The great virtue of an Orwellian capacity for political self-criticism is that it keeps authoritarian tendencies in check and, therefore, strengthens the democratic project.”
Orwell was born in India in 1903 but was brought back to England before he reached his first birthday. His early experience of India had very little influence on him. Yet, Orwell, who had witnessed the horrific nature of imperialist British rule in Burma, where he served as a policeman, did have another India connection. “In 1941, Orwell began producing for the BBC a set of programmes on Indian literature and literary movements. He gave Indian writers and their thoughts a voice, a pan-Indian platform and purchase across the world,” says Seaton.