by Peter Davison
The Observer, 28 June 1998
What does it take to get The Observer's favourite ever columnist published? Twenty volumes, 17 years, seven publishers, six heart bypasses, four hundredweight of pages. And one editor plus his wife and a mate ...
It has been 17 years since I started work on editing The Complete Works of George Orwell, the 20 volumes of which are published next week. What started out as a 'simple check' on how accurate were the nine Orwell books that Martin Secker & Warburg then had in print became an undertaking which, as one American writer recently pointed out, had it been performed in the States, would have attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars and a vast team of academics. In England we do things differently, especially as universities are now financed. There has been no grand team of academics, only me, and the Orwell scholar Ian Angus, and my wife. The only finance has been drawn from my modest advance royalties.
The story of how the books have finally come into being, a story of delays and confusion, of takeovers and downsizing, says much about how academic and publishing life is conducted these days in Britain. It is also, though, partly the story of a new technology. Fifty years ago, I worked for a small printer in Cricklewood, who, among other jobs, was charged with setting electoral registers for two constituencies. What now happens on a three-and-a-half inch floppy disk then occurred in a large composing room where the floor was littered with tied-up metal representing page after page of electoral registers. Every time a register was revised, out would come this gargantuan pile of lead for amendment. There were disadvantages to this, of course it might be tripped over, for a start but it did not take on a life of its own as computer setting seems able to do. No old-style compositor, for example, would produce a title page which read, in large type, 'Nineteen 48pt Eighty-Four'. Nor were large batches of lead type, sufficient to set a book, easily mislaid. Twice over the years the electronic media for Orwell's existing nine books completely disappeared . . . I was prepared for none of this, though, when on 8 September 1981, Tom Rosenthal, then publisher of Secker & Warburg, commissioned me to produce the corrected editions of Orwell's nine books. It all seemed very straightforward: I was to produce one volume a month for a fee of pounds 100 each. If all were delivered by July 1982, I should receive a bonus of pounds 100.
In order to prepare the texts, I travelled up to London at my own expense one day a week in term time from the University of Kent at Canterbury, where I was then a professor. I collated more than 50 editions of the nine books and a few manuscripts at the Orwell Archive at University College, the British Library and the London Library, word by word, comma by comma. Julia Gollancz, daughter of Orwell's first publisher, Victor Gollancz, kindly went through the Gollancz archives with me. There was a special thrill in finding and touching pages of text that Orwell had typed. In the typescript of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, we discovered passages that had been censored and then forgotten for nearly 50 years. Originally, for example, Orwell had used real advertising slogans in the book that, in 1936, it had been deemed too risky to print. Orwell was required to substitute new, spurious slogans that would take the same space to avoid re-paragraphing. (Unlike the computer, lead type is inflexible.) Thus the genuine 'New Hope for the Ruptured' was changed to 'The Truth about Bad Legs'. It was a pleasure to restore the originals.
I finished the job on time and claimed my pounds 100 bonus. Rosenthal intended to produce a de luxe edition of the nine volumes to celebrate 1984. (Someone pointed out that a de luxe edition of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier sounded incongruous, and 'de luxe' fell out of the plans). Still, delivery in mid 1982 gave the publishers two whole years to produce the nine corrected books.
That summer the Conservative Government launched its attack on universities, demanding that staff be reduced and departments closed. Those of us over 55 at Kent were asked by the Vice Chancellor to volunteer to leave to save the university money. I agreed to leave if I could find work to supplement what would be a rather small pension because I had been an academic for only 20 years. In January 1983, therefore, I started work as secretary to the Trustees of Albany, a historic building in Piccadilly. I imagined I should be able to devote myself to writing and editing. Proof copies of the edited books were very slow in arriving, however. When they did appear they were read and returned within the specified time. But by mid 1983 there were no signs of revises and by July 1984, when the edition should have been in the bookshops, there was no sign of any activity in Poland Street, where Secker were then located. Tom Rosenthal told me there would be blood on the walls if the publisher had not produced the nine volumes by the autumn. They didn't appear and there was no blood visible on the walls. Tom left Secker for Andre Deutsch.
There were compensations, however: in the course of working on the volumes, I had negotiated to bring over the original typescript of Nineteen Eighty-Four from the States it proved conclusively that the title was originally to be Nineteen Eighty. As the time for the completion of the book dragged on owing to Orwell's rapidly declining health, the date was advanced. Thus, the famous opening originally began, 'April 4th, 1980. I am opening this diary because ' but Orwell crossed out 1980 and wrote over it '1982'; later he overwrote '4' on to the '2'.
On 9 December 1985, three-and-a-half years after the copy had been submitted for the nine books, and although I had kept my part of the bargain, I was hauled into Secker's offices and asked why I had not delivered the proofs. I responded crossly that I had returned the proofs and provided evidence to that effect. A search of the Poland Street office finally revealed said proofs under a stack of books, many bearing coffee and wine stains (neither mine) and a pencilled schedule for a skiing holiday (ditto) written on a galley. The proofs had never been returned to the printer for correction. That was then done and, on 4 April 1986, the first batch of three volumes appeared to celebrations at the Groucho Club. Alas, it was soon obvious that they were riddled with printing errors. The printers maintained that the radars of ships passing on the Tyne, near their works, had affected their computers. I pointed out that my father was a master mariner sailing out of the Tyne. He died in 1933, when I was six, as a result of tuberculosis developed in the appalling conditions when tied up there month after month during the slump. I knew there were even fewer ships passing along the Tyne in the Eighties. The printers then blamed the radios of passing taxis. The three volumes were pulped and my wife and I went through the laborious task of proof-reading the nine volumes once more. (It is worth noting that, in Orwell's lifetime, Gollancz got out his books in two to three months.) When it was realised how many errors there were in the nine books before I had corrected the texts, and realising how much more Orwell material had become available, Secker then asked me to prepare a complete edition of all Orwell's writings. With some trepidation, but encouraged by Ian Angus's offer of assistance, I agreed to undertake this task. By November 1985, I had completed 4,183 pages of typescript. Secker, however, subject to successive takeovers (they have been sold seven times during the preparation of this edition), then abandoned the project. It was left abandoned for two years, but in 1986, the American publisher Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, decided to take it over and activities were transferred to New York. Late in 1989, Harcourt, Brace also abandoned the edition but in January 1990 they changed their corporate mind and started again. They pulled out for a second time in April 1992, but by August had had another rethink. I completed editing the text for volumes 10 to 20 on 11 November 1992. It ran to almost 8,000 pages of typescript excluding extensive preliminaries and the many indexes. In December 1993, however, Harcourt, Brace finally abandoned the edition. By then 3,188 pages of text had been set and proof-read.
For a couple of years I had been suffering chest and stomach pains and, seemingly, as they used to say in the nineteenth century, 'going into a decline'. My wife was certain I was spending too many hours crouched over my desk. I went through the usual gamut of tests for cancer, and stomach and heart problems but nothing positive showed up except angina. Things came to a head at the end of 1995, after a stressful year at De Montfort University (where I was acting head of the Department of English stress, I hasten to add, not caused by my colleagues but as a result of the awful Research Assessment Exercise and Higher Education Funding Council inspection. Over the 'Orwell years', I have written eight further books academics, these days, have to be 'in print'). A series of ECGs and echocardiograms revealed nothing, and it was decided to perform an angiogram. The cardiologist at Swindon came to see me a few hours later and said he had arranged for me to be seen by a surgeon at Southampton the following morning, a Saturday, because I was seriously ill. One of my sons drove me down and the surgeon, having told my wife and me I'd less than a year to live as I was hopes of seeing the Orwell completed looked distinctly dim arranged for me to come in on Monday, and the following day performed a sextuple heart bypass.
In the meantime, the Orwell edition had returned home. Max Eilenberg, then Secker's publisher, took energetic steps to have all that had been set and the rights to publish transferred to England. The material set in New York started to arrive on 21 February 1995. All the New York settings had to be rerun and everything again proof-read. Countless errors were introduced because of the different way the computers here recognised the US signals. Still, by 12 February 1997 all the text had been set and proof-read at least six times, the preliminaries were completed and I started indexing. Publication was set for 11 August 1997. But fate struck another blow. Secker were again sold; Max Eilenberg and others sadly had to leave, and everything was to be transferred to Random House. I was bitterly disappointed. I felt, in any case, I was living on borrowed time.
Alas, too, the journey from Michelin House, where Secker had been based, to Random House, where it was now to be, proved too much for all the materials set, photographs, disks, etc. Most of that summer was spent in discovering what was where. (I recently worked out that, over the years, I had accumulated about eight hundredweight of copy and proofs.) As a result, publication was put off until 2 July this year. Marvell's 'Time's winged chariot hurrying near' became a recurring thought. If the edition came out, I knew I would be almost 72, and after so many delays how could one be sure that there would be no more? Then, early in the spring of 1998, Secker, as part of Random House, were bought out again, this time by the German firm of Bertelsmann. In fact, publication has not been held up, but such news is not good for the blood pressure.
I can't help but feel that Orwell would have had some wry pleasure from this story. Over the years he has seemed to live with us and we with him. His face looks down on me with a quizzical smile as I write, pictured with his favourite goat, Muriel, immortalised in Animal Farm. I like to think that a little of his wry response to life and even the tiniest touch of his integrity, has rubbed off on to me. He is far more richly comic than many people realise, delighting in subtle in-jokes. What, for example, really was Room 101 before it was immortalised as a place of terror in Nineteen Eighty -Four? It was no less than the committee room where the BBC's Eastern Service Meetings were held and which Orwell doubtless found incredibly boring. Far more than any author I have worked on, he has seemed alive, still, as a person as well as a being a great writer.
In the final volumes, there are hidden disappointments. In so long-drawn-out an enterprise, the strain on the memory is immense, however many notes and indexes one prepares en route. How does one recall just where, in thousands of pages of typescript, a particular person or reference occurred? The Cumulative Index has some 30,000 entries, but that was, and has to be, the last thing to be completed. Each break in production, especially one of a couple of years, made remembering that much more difficult.
There was, too, the constant worry that new material would come in: at once welcome but also a kind of threat. A quotation from a single late arrival, item 355A, was one such instance. Jennie Lee, who married Aneurin Bevan in 1934 and later was appointed first Minister for the Arts, wrote to a Miss Margaret Goalby in 1950: 'In the first year of the Spanish Civil War I was sitting with friends in a hotel in Barcelona when a tall thin man with a ravished complexion came over to the table. He asked me if I was Jennie Lee, and if so, could I tell him where to join up . . . I was suspicious and asked what credentials he had brought from England. Apparently he had none. He had seen no one, simply paid his own way out. He won me over by pointing to the boots over his shoulder. He knew he could not get boots big enough for he was over six feet. This was George Orwell and his boots arriving to fight in Spain.' Obviously this had to go in (who could resist 'This was George Orwell and his boots arriving to fight in Spain'?), but I regret now that my memory failed me and I did not pick up that I already had a Margaret Goalby in volume 20.
When I was young I enjoyed long-distance running. The marathon was not then a popular activity so it was either the mile, the three-miles, the cross-country and that environmentally unfriendly delight, the paper-chase. Just after the war I was involved in a three-mile inter-service race in Singapore. I had been on watch most of the night; the Army and the RAF had flown in special teams; the Navy could only raise three men, of which I was one; and there were several local teams. I came an exhausted ninth, beaten by the eight Army and RAF athletes. An enthusiastic RAF officer, with traditional Battle of Britain moustache, dashed across and warmly (and very kindly) congratulated me. 'Wonderful to carry on when your team was disqualified after half a mile! Wonderful! Congratulations, old boy!' The 'old boy' had, of course, no idea his team had been disqualified because the two others had failed to complete the course. Editing the Orwell has sometimes felt like running just such a race, but happily this team of three has managed to stay the course. Just!
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