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.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit