Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

In 1998, Secker & Warburg (part of Random House) published Peter Davison's superb 20-volume edition of the complete works of George Orwell. At long last, the writing of the most globally influential British author of the mid-20th century could be consulted in a comprehensive form. The edition, a masterpiece of editing, cast endless new light on Orwell's art and life. But it never quite claimed the final word. In the years since, Davison (now 80) has collected enough material to fill a supplementary volume with freshly discovered articles and letters. So did Random House, awash with loot from The Da Vinci Code, rush to complete this landmark literary project?

Quite the contrary. Secker turned it down. "Unfortunately the cost was too great for them," writes Davison. The editor, "in despair" at this rebuff, was steered towards Andreas Campomar of the independent Timewell Press. Thanks to him, we now have the treasure-trove of unburied documents in The Lost Orwell (Timewell, £18.99).

So what does Random House choose to throw its ample cash at now? Well, it has just acquired, for a reported £350,000, a book by Chantelle, the previously unknown winner of Celebrity Big Brother. The editor at Random's Century imprint gushed that "Chantelle's crowning as the nation's sweetheart is the stuff of fairy tales". Here, readers may want to deliver their own Orwellian riposte, which might possibly draw on the useful concept of "prolefeed" from Nineteen Eighty-Four ("the rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses").

Every "oldthinker" who refuses to worship Z-list pseudo-celebs will find plenty to intrigue and inspire in Davison's discoveries. There's Orwell's first despatch from liberated Paris: he notices, typically, that Nazi occupation had cleansed the city of Arabs, "who used to do most of the navvy work". Davison has also unearthed an obituary of H G Wells: "very few writers have ever had less literary vanity". Except the obituarist, perhaps.

Best of all, several batches of correspondence illuminate the writer's mind and heart. Friendly exchanges - in Orwell's very expressive French - with the translator of Down and Out in Paris and London show him eager to build a European reputation, and to explain the slang that the original had replaced with dashes: "If you were in England, you would probably get six months in prison for having printed the word 'fucking'."

A sparkling cache of letters from Orwell's first wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy to a close friend underline her wit and warmth, and reveal more about her affair with the adventurer Georges Kopp - Orwell's commander during the Spanish Civil War. Davison also clears up many of the lazy misconceptions that arose from Orwell's list of crypto-Communists, sent to the Information Research Department in 1949. At the same time, the gravely ill anti-Stalinist was corresponding with a Spanish comrade. Jordi Arquer addresses Orwell as one old Trot to another, "in fraternal and socialist comradeship". Orwell promptly gives £10 to help jailed Republicans in Spain (say £300-400 now). Garbled reports of the so-called "blacklist" allowed muddled pundits to castigate Orwell as a proto-McCarthyite. Yet the Arquer letters depict a man happy to the end to be identified with the European non-Stalinist left.

Without Timewell Press, we would never have had the chance to add this and a score of other crucial pieces to the complex jigsaw of Orwell's life and thought. It, and Peter Davison, deserve applause and gratitude. As for Random House, it would, apparently, rather spend a fortune on the victor of Big Brother than a relative pittance on the creator of Big Brother. Chantelle's memoir, by the way, will be entitled Living the Dream. The sort of dream that takes place in Room 101?