The Orwell Prize, given annually to the best in British political writing, has this year awarded its prize for books to novelist James Meek, for his non-fictional examination of the privatisation of UK public services, Private Island. The book is a collection of essays largely drawn from the pages of the London Review of Books, to which Meek is a contributing editor. Though Meek has previously worked as a journalist, and remained on staff at The Guardian until 2005 having been the newspaper’s Moscow bureau chief throughout the 1990s, he is best known as a novelist, finding his widest success with the Booker-longlisted The People’s Act of Love that same year.
Gillian Slovo, one of three judges of the book prize, said of Meek’s work: ‘As a jury we applied the ‘Orwell test’ – making political writing into an art – and decided that this is what James Meek has done. He has not written a polemic or an ideological tract, but a careful and elegant exploration of what exactly privatisation has produced in our country. Political writing in Orwell’s tradition, and a prize by which to recognise it, has never been more needed.’
Meek himself, accepting the award, said: ‘The thing about George Orwell was that he traversed the wings – the left wing and the right wing. It was an excruciating journey, written in cold smoke and cordite across the bloodiest chapters of the 2oth century […] The great thing about this prize, and the wonderful writers on the shortlist, is that they made me think that what we are, or what we should aspire to be, is not the bird with the big heavy right wing or the bird with the big heavy left wing, but the bird with a really sharp beak.’
Prizes were also awarded for Journalism and Exposing Britain’s Social Evils, respectively to The Guardian’s Middle East reporter Martin Chulov for his work on Islamic State, and to the BBC’s Alison Holt for her work on Panorama investigating abuse in elderly care homes.