A brief history

1974-1993

When George Orwell began, only in the very last years of his life, to make money for the first time, he was generous to hard-up friends, to needy writers, poor poets and to small good causes of the old Left – a habit that his second wife and widow, the late Sonia Orwell, did not continue in quite the same way. Nonetheless, after his death, she said that she tore up between three and five thousand pounds worth of IOUs.

Sir Bernard Crick

Bernard Crick was approached by Sonia Orwell and publishers Secker & Warburg to write the authorised biography of George Orwell, and signed a contract to that effect, in 1974. The biography – rather less authorised by the time of its publication in 1980 – was critically acclaimed and seen as one of Crick’s great legacies, but so too was his decision upon signing the contract to make an irrevocable grant of the English volume hardback rights, in trust, to Birkbeck College. Bernard hoped that the money would ‘help projects by young writers who would have interested Orwell himself had he lived’.

In 1980, just before the book was published, David Astor – a great friend of Orwell’s, his editor at The Observer and the person who suggested Barnhill on Jura as a retreat – agreed to match Crick’s grant as a tribute. The first trustees of the George Orwell Memorial Trust (the Orwell Trust) were appointed, and additional funding came from Richard Blair (Orwell’s adopted son and still involved in the Prize today) and friends and admirers of Orwell, including the journalist Lord Ardwick (John Bevan), the philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer, historian (and Orwell’s fellow Etonian) Sir Steven Runciman, the writer Julian Symons, The Manchester Evening News, The Observer and Tribune.

The fund – with Arnold Wesker, Alan Plater, and Professors Barbara Hardy, Eric Hobsbawm and Karl Millar being among the early trustees – made grants to projects from young writers, but, according to Crick, ‘projects were hard to evaluate and too many did not appear to result in discernible writing’. As a result, in 1985 the fund was diverted to endowing an annual memorial lecture at Birkbeck College and the University of Sheffield, and making ‘small grants for departmental Orwell occasions’. Although the fund was added to – notably, in 1984, Crick and Blair added half-shares of interview and lecture fees – the lecture fund began eating into its capital. The Sheffield lecture and the departmental grants were discontinued in 2000; the Birkbeck lecture continues today.

1993-2007

In 1993, Bernard Crick – through his long association with the journal Political Quarterly, of which he was then literary editor – arranged funding from them to launch and administer an annual Orwell Prize, inviting entries of political books and journalism. The plan had been for a single prize (of £1000) to be awarded. But the judges – Bernard Crick for PQ and the Orwell Trust, Malcolm Dean for PQ and the late Alan Plater for the Orwell Trust – found this difficult.

Delivering the judges’ report, Plater said:

We began with a confession. The two of us who are also Orwell Trustees and therefore party to the stated rules of the prize found ourselves hoist by our own over-weaning ambition. As judges we were able to express clear preferences within the books and journalism categories, but found it totally impossible to create a league table embracing both disciplines. No fantasy league yet invented can offer a level playing field for Manchester United versus Glamorgan… Our judicial solution is to separate the categories of books and journalism and split the prize down the middle.

Anatol Lieven’s The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the Path to Independence (‘not, perhaps, what the PR kiddies would regard as a great selling title, but a remarkable account of the social, historical and political complexities of the Baltic states’) edged out Michael Ignatieff’s Blood Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism to take the first Book Prize (Ignatieff would win with Virtual War in 2001). The first Journalism Prize went to Neal Ascherson for his work in the Independent on Sunday (ahead of Fintan O’Toole for the Irish Times).

As a result of the Prize’s growing reputation, Reuters began sponsoring the Prize in 2004 – first, paying for the awards ceremony and then (as now) hosting the debate celebrating the shortlist announcement.

2007-present

Bernard Crick was chair of the judges until 2006. The Orwell Prize 2007 marked a transition, as Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster, took over as chair. D. J. Taylor succeeded Bernard as chair of the Orwell Trust in 2008.

Marking a PhD thesis, Jean Seaton came across Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust. The MST had been thinking of establishing a prize to reward quality journalism, but as a result of Jean and Martin meeting, became one of the major partners of the Orwell Prize instead. Political Quarterly and the MST employed an administrator, Gavin Freeguard, in time for the launch of the Orwell Prize 2008.

The launch coincided with the launch of the Prize’s first website, an expansion of the Prize’s programme of events, and a hasty renumbering of Prize years so the Prize awarded in April 2008 wouldn’t be the already out-of-date Orwell Prize 2007 (he who controls the website, controls the past). The Prize had run shortlist debates (and one or two literary festival events) before, but the tradition of launch and shortlist debates has become firmly established and the Prize has taken events (often multiple events) to the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, the Buxton Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh Book Fringe and a special ‘Orwell Festival’ in London in 2009.

Under Seaton, the role of the director of the Prize has become separate from that of a judge, and – to cope with the expanding number of entries and the Prize’s concern with the integrity of the judging process – the number of judges has increased. Longlists were officially announced from the 2008 Prize, to promote as much good political writing as possible. In 2009, a Special Prize for Blogs was awarded to pseudonymous police blogger ‘Jack Night’ – unmasked as Richard Horton following the landmark High Court case, The Author of a Blog vs Times Newspapers. The Blog Prize has been a fixture alongside the Book Prize and Journalism Prize ever since (Horton being one of the judges in 2010).

With the full support of Bill Hamilton, literary executor of the Orwell estate at A. M. Heath, and Richard Blair, the Orwell Prize has become the official home of George Orwell online. A growing collection of works by and about Orwell was supplemented in summer 2008 by the launch of the Orwell Diaries blog, which is ‘post-blogging’ Orwell’s domestic and political diaries from 1938-42, seventy years to the day after each entry was written. The site was nominated for a Webby Award in 2009 and sparked global media interest. The Prize has been indebted to the generosity of Orwell scholars (including D. J. Taylor and Gordon Bowker), the Finlay Publisher website run by Dione Venables, and especially to Peter Davison (and his wife, Sheila), editor of Orwell’s Complete Works and Orwell oracle. The Prize will be working with the UCL Orwell archive and others to expand the online Orwell collection.

The burgeoning activities of the Prize, and the growing number of partners, led to the formation of the Council of the Orwell Prize to govern the Prize and its future direction. Martin Moore and Albert Scardino (from the MST), Bill Hamilton and D. J. Taylor (from the Orwell Trust), Meg Russell and Tony Wright (from PQ), and Richard Blair came together under chair Sir David Bell for the first Council meeting in 2009.

As part of the Prize’s ambition to encourage political argument and enthuse the public about politics and political writing, we hope to take more events to more literary festivals (and elsewhere), and grow our online video archive of political debate. We also ran the first of (hopefully) many ‘writers in schools’ pilot projects in 2009, with David Kynaston and D. J. Taylor lecturing to an audience of sixth-formers from across Norwich at Norwich School.

This new emphasis on young people reflects not only Orwell’s generosity at the end of his life, but Sir Bernard Crick’s desire to help young writers. Bernard died in December 2008, but the Prize that he founded lives on.