The Orwell Prize winner 2020 goes to…
I finished the last hour of Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal this morning as I ran on the western fringes of the Howgills. I was coming off Arant Haw and down towards Seat Knott. It is not very summery at the moment. The baking hot drought days, mid-lockdown, of April and May, are receding in the memory.
It was barely 12°C and I managed with a cotton T-shirt and shorts but there was no lingering. I had to, incongruously, wear a pair of gloves with the scanty running kit, an affectation usually reserved for Premier League footballers, but an essential one as my stiffening blood vessels aren’t letting warmth get to my extremities in quite the way they did. There was a stiff breeze, unusually more easterly, maybe with a hint of south, compared with the usual prevailing westerlies. It’s curious how the wind, something that we wouldn’t normally pay much mind, becomes so startingly evident when out running. The easterly push meant, despite my efforts to lift the pace, that I was engaged in something of a struggle to get up the hills. The playful breezes at house level are rather more persistent higher up and I had to lean in, work hard. I was glad to reach the summit at 606m and turn my back to the wind.
The other problem with the wind is that I can, when it really starts roaring, have difficulties hearing the audiobook but I was still picking it up just fine today. The Windrush Betrayal hasn’t been an easy listen because it is so emotive. It is enraging. A horror story of institutional racism, the hostile environment of May, Cameron and Rudd. The stories of lives devastated had me in tears. I often wonder if some politicians’ cheeks are touched with any blush of shame. I doubt it. Not because I regard them as unfeeling monsters but because it is just not within human nature to admit to mistakes. More likely, they rationalise it, build the fortifications around their own personal story. Gentleman touches on this as she interviews Rudd and she recounts how May expressed personal sorrow, clumsily as ever, but never apologised for the hostile environment policy. That remained inviolate, reasonable; it was simply the unfortunate collateral damage she regretted. (Though, again, Gentleman points out this only came when it became clear public opinion was firmly with the Windrush generation.)
Amelia Gentleman narrates it well and the story includes moments of personal reflection too, where she had doubts and anxieties. These were welcome, there are times when the forced objectivity of journalists feels, well, forced. They tell of injustices through gritted teeth, not wanting to let their emotions intrude. The Orwell Prize rather exemplifies the need for political journalism to have a viewpoint, to have a stance, though it is perfectly possible to over-egg this. Going to far is, perhaps, one of the reasons I found Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women, a much harder listen. Her understandable frustration and anger at the demonstrable injustice and bias manages, just at points, to lessen the raw power of the data bias. (In fact, I still have a couple of hours left on that book to finish as I had, unusually, given up on it.)
As I was running down, I thought how disappointed I would be if Gentleman’s book doesn’t win the Orwell Prize. A little unfair as I have yet to read any of the other five on the list beyond Gentleman and Perez. I thought, if they can best these two then they really will be worth the effort. My timing is impeccable, as it turns out, as it spurred me to check the site and the Prize was being announced today. Not long to wait to find out. As it happens Amelia Gentleman didn’t win — it has gone to Kate Clanchy for Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. An unanimous decision according to Stephanie Flanders. I have it on my Kindle and plan to start immediately.