Orwell and the Left Book Club: Horrabin's Atlas of Current Affairs

George Orwell relied on the work of cartographer James Frank Horrabin (1884 -1962) at several points in his career, while Winifrid Horrabin (1887-1971), Frank’s wife, was one of Orwell’s colleagues at Tribune.

An Atlas of Current Affairs, was a work updated and published in new editions throughout the 1930s. It was an optional title for Left Book Club members in December 1936.

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Horrabin was one of the experts who broadcast for Orwell during his two years as a BBC producer on the Eastern Service, lecturing on geography and economics. He already had experience. Not only was Horrabin a well-rehearsed public speaker, but he had written other works – again repeatedly reprinted – as text books for socialist educational and self-educational bodies, starting in the late 1920s and continuing for the next two decades.

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In 1944, Orwell commented on the controversies provoked by another of Horrabin’s books, his Atlas of War Geography, which had been published as a Penguin Special. Horrabin had drawn attention to the borders imposed by the Treaties which ended the First World War, which were made regardless of their economic consequences. Austria, for example, was left with no railways running between its main cities, as the railways had been built in the days of the Hapsburg Empire whose lines of communication had looked to far greater and more distant needs.

In his ‘As I Please’ article Orwell went on to say “There is also a tendency to make yourself look bigger than you are, which is possible without actual forgery since every projection of the earth as a flat surface distorts some part or other” (“As I Please”, 11th February 1944), without mentioning the Mercator Projection responsible. He had probably learned this, or had it re-inforced from his discussions with Horrabin. Horrabin himself went onto illustrate the risks implicit in Mercator in his 1945 pamphlet for the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, especially in this double-spread illustration:

horrabin-thinking-geographically-0809Horrabin made a later connection with Orwell, though many years after the death of both men, when W J West or his designer used Horrabin’s maps, with their distinctive thick lines and cross-hatching, to illustrate Orwell: The War Commentaries, Orwell’s re-discovered analyses of current affairs broadcast on many of BBC’s foreign language stations during the darkest days of the struggle against fascism.

L.J.Hurst

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