The other George Orwell

A stylish new series from Penguin further obscures the early novels

This lunchtime in Cheapside’s Daunt Books I watched an assistant stock the shelves with new editions of George Orwell’s best-known books. The most striking was David Pearson’s daring Nineteen Eighty-Four: adapted from the Penguin Classics series he successfully riffed upon for his Great Ideas, Great Loves, Popular Classics and Pocket Penguins.

The design makes a statement: both title and author have been censored. The status of Nineteen Eighty-Four is disproportionately skewed when placed beside the hobbitry of J R R Tolkein; but just as every child in Britain is at some point faced with the prospect of making tracks to Middle Earth, so they are, perhaps more crucially, ushered by their guardians into Room 101.

The new series also includes Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia and Politics and the English Language. The reissues are officially released on 21 January, the day Orwell died. This date has been chosen by Penguin, the Orwell Estate and Orwell Prize to celebrate the prolific author’s life and work in perpetuity. You can view the range in full on the Creative Review website.

While the canon atrophies, spare a thought for the following three novels – snubbed by critics over the years, their pages browning in some abject corner of an Oxfam Bookshop near you.

The Clergyman’s Daughter (1935): Orwell’s most experimental novel, it includes a chapter in which the eponymous daughter, Dorothy Hare, spends time living rough in Trafalgar Square, written under the influence of the Circe (“Nighttown”) chapter of Ulysses. Follows Dorothy from her father’s country rectory to hop picking and homelessness after she suffers from amnesia and wakes up on the Old Kent Road. Contains some of Orwell’s most revealing thoughts about belief and the individual.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936): When he reviewed the book for the NS in 1936, Cyril Connolly called the book a “harrowing and stark account of poverty,” written “in clear and violent language, at times making the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair with the drill whirring”. He summed it up as follows: “The hero works for two pounds a week in a bookshop. He has a girl whom he is too poor to marry, and is writing a poem on which he is too poor really to concentrate. It is winter. The book is the recital of his misfortunes interrupted by tirades against money and spiritual evil it causes.”

Coming Up for Air (1939): Written in Morocco while Orwell coalesced following his return from the Spanish Civil War, the novel is narrated in the first-person by George Bowling, who revisits his childhood home only to find the country of his youth has been “paved over” and his erstwhile aspirations smothered by quotidian responsibilities. Bowling is, as Orwell himself put it in his essay about Miller's Tropic of Cancer, “inside the whale”, too busy with himself to resist the oncoming war, about to rip through the country, concrete and not.

Beginning on 21 January, the New Statesman website will run pieces from the archive by and about Orwell, including a piece the magazine’s editors famously refused to run.

The new Nineteen Eighty-Four. Photo: Creative Review.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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