Reading through all the tributes to Christopher Hitchens, who died last week, I reckon that more well-wishers must have visited him during his last days at the Houston cancer centre than were in the GPO on that fateful Easter morning in 1916.
Certainly all his admirers and acquaintances wanted to get in on the act at news of his passing, no one more extravagantly than Christopher Buckley in this week's New Yorker, who not only mourned the loss of his "beloved" friend but deemed him "the greatest essayist" in the English language.
High praise indeed for a journalist whose chief talent often seemed to lie in courting controversy and schmoozing with a literary and media elite that hung on his every word. Yes, he wrote with admirably no-nonsense courage about the cancer that killed him and, yes, he was an alert and often provocative writer, but to mention him in the same breath as George Orwell (as some acolytes have done) is just plain silly.
Orwell had a moral seriousness, a depth of insight and a sympathetic range way beyond the know-all certainties and bullish hectorings to which Hitchens too frequently resorted. And if Orwell had been alive in the last two decades, his innate decency wouldn't have allowed him either to denounce Bill Clinton (or, indeed, Mother Teresa) so contemptuously or to back the Bush administration's war-mongering so fervently.
Indeed, the death of Hitchens has sent me back to Orwell's essays -- not that I need any encouragement to do so. In fact, if I were to recommend one book for your post-Christmas pleasure, it would be the 1,400-page Everyman edition of the essays edited by John Carey.
Here, in one beautifully produced volume, and costing a mere €25, is every journalistic piece Orwell ever wrote. For the power of its observations and the clarity of its prose, I think it one of the great and essential books of the past century.