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Reviewed by:
  • Orwell's London
  • Richard J. Voorhees
John Thompson. Orwell's London. Photographs by Philippa Scoones. New York: Schocken, 1985. 120 pp. $14.95.

Orwell's London contains as many pages of photographs as it does of print, yet it is more than just another picture book, for the captions not only identify the subjects but also function as lengthy footnotes to the text. Some of them are taken from the works of Orwell, which Thompson knows closely. Among the areas, streets, and buildings in the illustrations are Limehouse, where Orwell first went "down and out" in London, and the dwelling of Mabel Fierz, who took the manuscript of Down and Out in Paris and London to a good agent when Orwell had abandoned all hope of publication. Photographs of churches figure more than one would expect, because Orwell was hardly reverent. Of St. Paul's Cathedral he wrote, "If you are ever . . . in a gloomy mood, go in and have a look at the statue of the first Protestant bishop of India, which will give you a good laugh."

There are shots of Orwell pushing his adopted son's pram; of his first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, happily holding aloft her small nephew; and of his second wife, the beautiful Sonia Brownell, sitting at her desk in the office of Horizon. There is also an amusing sketch of the Cafe Royal during World War Two, by Osbert Lancaster, in which the diners include Stephen Spender wearing his fireman's uniform and Cyril Connolly wearing a checked jacket and pimples.

As to the premise of the text, I cannot believe that Orwell was above all "a London writer." It might be nearer the truth to say that he was at heart a countryman, fond of planting trees, digging gardens, and keeping goats. Among the articles that exemplify his delight in nature is one about revisiting some Woolworth roses that he had planted eight years earlier. "The little white rose . . . had grown into a huge vigorous bush, the Albertine . . . was smothering half of the fence in a cloud of pink blossoms," and he thinks, "All this for sixpence!" All the same, Orwell not only spent most of his writing life in London but also set a number of his books there, and Thompson's well-written account traces Orwell's London tracks from the first boyhood visit to the last, sad stay in University College Hospital.

Much as Thompson admires Orwell, he does not draw him as the perfect literary man or the perfect human being. For example, Orwell was not a good editor. Unable to refuse a struggling young writer a guinea, he commissioned reviews for Tribune that turned out so badly that he could not publish them. By the time he left Tribune, there was a considerable stack of them in his desk. Though he was forever condemning violence, he was quite capable of it himself. Rayner Heppenstall declared that Orwell caned him vigorously for returning drunk and noisy in the middle of the night to the rooms that they shared briefly. A tram-driver and a plumber on the floor below comforted Heppenstall, and the tram-driver's wife pronounced judgment on Orwell, who had been making his own kind of racket for weeks: "We never did think much of that Mr. Blair. Keeps us awak till three or four in the morning, he sometimes does, with his typewriter." [End Page 319]



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