Electronic Telegraph, 27 June 1998
When Prof Peter Davison finished editing the first nine volumes of his Complete Works of George Orwell he turned over the final page proofs to the publisher and waited for some encouraging response. Many months went by without a word from the venerable firm of Secker & Warburg; and then one day his presence was suddenly demanded at the publisher's Soho office. Where were the proofs, the indignant editors asked.
Davison's insistence that he had returned them long ago was greeted with considerable scepticism, but a search of the building was launched and the proofs were finally located in the office of the editor who had initially received them. They were covered in coffee and wine stains, and bore a number of scribbled notes concerning the editor's skiing holiday. Apparently, nobody had ever bothered to read the pages.
This was only one of many misadventures suffered by Davison during his 17 years of labour on a project vast enough to justify the efforts of a whole team of scholars. Now 71, and semi-retired from an academic career that has included long and distinguished service at the universities of Warwick and Kent, the professor has completed his great endeavour with the help of only his wife, Sheila, and the scholar Ian Angus (whose four-volume edition of Orwell's essays, journalism and letters appeared in 1968).
Despite meagre financial support and erratic guidance from a publishing house that has changed ownership eight times since he began, Davison has produced a monumental 20-volume work which brings together all the important writings of the century's most influential British author. It is the edition which Orwell's admirers have been eagerly looking forward to for many years.
In America such an enormous undertaking would be likely to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funding. The US National Endowment for the Humanities has given well over a million dollars to an academic group preparing a comprehensive edition of Mark Twain's work. But Davison has had to get by on a few thousand pounds advanced to him from his British and American publishers. Unfortunately, the American firm chose to abandon the project several years ago.
At one stage in his dealings with Secker & Warburg, after ownership had shifted from a transport firm to a company that made condoms, and then to a group calling itself Octopus, some early volumes of Davison's edition were printed in the North and bound for sale as separate titles; but - to the professor's horror - the books turned up with scores of typographical errors, even though the proofs had been read and corrected. Consequently, the whole set had to be pulped.
Davison asked for an explanation and was not pleased with the various answers offered him. He recalls, "The first I found sadly hilarious: the radars of ships passing on the Tyne had interfered with the computer setting. My father was a master mariner who died in 1933, when I was six, as a result of exposure at sea and on the Tyne. I knew that there were few ships on the Tyne by the late Eighties."
A second reason seemed equally implausible. "There was then an attempt to blame it on taxi signals. But in reality it seems the corrected computer records had been lost and uncorrected ones substituted. Hence the errors."
By the 1990s, the project seemed in danger of being scrapped. The publisher's interest in it had waned and the production costs had mounted. Finally, a young executive at Secker named Max Eilenberg came to the rescue and agreed to push the edition ahead. Everything was on course for publication in 1997, but then Davison's long and arduous struggle caught up with him. Looking pale and weak, he was rushed to hospital, where doctors performed a multiple heart bypass. The professor emerged from the operation in a delicate but much-improved state and promptly returned to his editorial tasks, pausing only to note the irony that his operation "cost considerably more than the total sum received for editing the 20 volumes".
In 1997 Secker was bought by Random House and another delay became necessary. Fortunately, the new management did not take long to understand the value of the project and decided to publish the 20 volumes in July 1998. All the same, Davison could not help having doubts about the future and, during his revising of the final set of proofs, was mildly amused to see his new publisher's name misspelt as "Ransom House".
The job is now finished and the result is a definitive edition of Orwell that will serve many generations of readers to come. Random House - which is now owned by a German firm - is to be congratulated for publishing a work that does great honour to a true British genius. But one can only marvel at the devoted service which one British scholar has given to that genius. His is a real labour of love in a selfish age dominated by the greed and corruption that Orwell so eloquently warned against. And the edition itself is a national treasure which somehow survived the burdens of indifference and neglect.
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