We first met on 30 October 1969 when I bought The Road to Wigan Pier in Sussex University Bookshop. The light blue sticker on the inside verifies the date and place, and the back cover shows that I was willing to fork out 4s (or two days’ cigarettes) for the pleasure.
Was it worth it? Well although it appealed at the time, I have to say now that considering it was a 1960s Penguin the cover was pretty crap: bearded man in flat cap stares past pit head. The beard was totally wrong but every essay has a dying metaphor and here’s mine: you can’t judge a book by the cover. It’s in front of me now. Flocked and crumbly of course, but still seeing service at the front and indeed in hand to hand fighting with 23 undergraduates only yesterday.
Inside, there’s my usual teenage inanities. If he is talking about ‘civilization’; I write ‘Civilization’ in the margin. If he says it’s ‘hell’; I write ‘Hell’. ‘Can’t do without coal’ summarizes chapter two in a way that obviously didn’t stretch me at the time. Later on, there’s a nasty splutter of red exclamation marks at Orwell’s cosy picture of the working-class family resting by the fireside. No idea why. The fireside is one of my truest childhood memories.
The book helped me emotionally. Back home, the terraces were red raw with female labour and all the men in my family came home black. Brighton’s terraces, on the other hand, were pinky pink and creamy blue and I never figured out where anyone actually worked. Surrounded by such south coast degeneracy, I took heart from Orwell’s dark heroes driving forward “blackened to the eyes…throats full of coal dust”. Pale superior persons – including you and me and the editor of the TLS, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Comrade ‘X’ author of Marxism for Public Schoolboys (like him) – I loosely identified with higher education and all the company of Sussex Heaven.
Unlike a lot of great writers, you can learn from Orwell. I learned for instance that you could be subjective and objective at the same time, that you had to look for the tangible moment, that all sentences must be subjected to the severest literacy test, that there can be no criticism without moralism and all moralism is vulnerable. Eventually, I also had my first example of a man not really seeing women no matter how hard he looked. Best of all, he gave me the courage to speak as I find, even when he is the target.
Later on I bought the four volume Penguin collected essays dated, this time, ‘January 1973’. I remember reading them in bed with my girlfriend in wintry Leyton. Make of that what you will, but she and me are still together and George is still paying rent.
Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University and the author of the 2013 Biography George Orwell: English Rebel (OUP)