Peter Davison: Early Life and Military Service

Part One: Early Life and Military Service

PD talks to JS[Professor Peter Davison talking to Jean Seaton]

When I was born Orwell was 23; when he died, I was that age. We never met but, curiously, in some minor aspects our lives shadowed each other. Thus, for the first Christmas of the 1939-45 War, I delivered notices to those infringing black-out regulations in Langham Court, off the Abbey Road (famous for its recording studios). Ironically most of the inhabitants were refugees. Orwell and Eileen would live there from 1941-42 and be briefly bombed out. (See John Thompson, Orwell’s London, pp. 51-2 and 60.) He, rather famously, even though educated at Eton, did not attend university. I also went straight into paid employment when I left school at the age of fifteen. I spent many cold nights on duty in the Home Guard though not as did Orwell training for street fighting but manning an anti-aircraft battery at Iver, near Slough. Coincidentally, the battery was numbered 101, a number made famous – or notorious – by Orwell. And the boarding house in which I grew up housed many German and Jewish refugees and also for a time Polish airmen who had escaped to England after the fall of their country and France. The house stood opposite the Synagogue where in 1943 Orwell attended an intercession service to mark the persecution of Polish Jews by the Nazis. In this there is an irony. Orwell notes in his essay, ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’, that although the service was a conscious effort (his italic) to behave decently towards Jews, the ‘subjective feelings’ of many of those attending must have been very different (CW, XVII, April 1945, p. 66). In fact, our house, directly opposite, was giving shelter to many Jewish refugees, the names of whom I still have in the house register. More poignantly, Orwell dreaded his son, Richard, contracting TB from contact with him even though he was desperate to see him as he lay in his hospital bed. My experience, and my younger brother’s, was not unlike Richard’s. We were not allowed to see our father for some eighteen months as he lay dying of TB. He had by him a cut-out photograph of the two of us, aged 5 and 3, pasted onto plywood. That has stood by my desk as I have edited Orwell’s work.

These most tenuous of links will suggest the remoteness of my connection with Orwell, although they have offered me the shadow of a personal relationship. And my links with the world of academe came only very late and, at first just as tenuously.

I left my school (which cared for 800 boys who had lost their fathers) in the summer of 1942 when I was 15. The war still raged and I was accustomed to hearing read out on Sunday evenings after the fashion of that dramatized in Robert Donat’s Goodbye Mr Chips, the names of boys – and a master – well known to me who had lost their lives. My housemaster, G.V. Carlin, went down when HMS Hood sank. Two head boys, both outstanding young men very greatly admired by we young ones, were killed, Thomas in the Western Desert and Good when the destroyer he served in was sunk in the North Sea. I had few illusions as to what the future might hold. By good luck rather than through diligence, I had matriculated and although I was offered the chance to stay on in the sixth form, after nine years of boarding I was anxious to put school behind me.

I was very fortunate to get a job in the cutting rooms of the Crown Film Unit at Pinewood Studios. It amuses me to hear of those studying media and film production at university today. My training lasted a whole week – a 5½-day week in those days. A slightly more experienced assistant cutter, John Reeve, taught me how to join and file film and how to use our fairly modest equipment. I was then handed over to the editor, Gordon Hales, working on a film recording a recruit’s experiences as he trained in Norther Ireland – Letter Home. Later I worked long hours on a film about the submarine service, Close Quarters. This was directed by Jack Lee whose brother, Laurie, lived close by where Orwell lingered in Cranham Sanatorium. In my last few weeks at Crown before joining the Royal Navy, I cut the Eighty Days, excerpts of which frequently surface on TV. This, with the help of carefully chosen library film, showed the attack on London and the south-east (especially Croydon) by the V-1s, the Flying or Buzz Bombs. Indeed, one of my Home Guard tasks was to spot for V-1s coming in our direction. I saw the V-1 that landed on the HMV studios at Hayes killing, I think, 49 people. I had joined the Home Guard (with John Reeve) and was trained to man a spigot mortar (see CW, XII, pp. 338-9). I doubt whether we would have had the courage to direct it at a German tank at close quarters but at least we did not do the damage that Orwell did when he accidentally loaded his mortar with a live instead of a demonstration shell.

When I was demobilised I returned to the Crown Film Unit, by then at Beaconsfield, but there was insufficient work for returning servicemen and I was fortunate to join the MGM cutting rooms at Boreham Wood as first assistant editor. I worked on two films there, the second featuring the very beautiful young star, Elizabeth Taylor, with whom I sat whilst she saw the previous day’s rushes. Unfortunately some six-hundred of us were made redundant and having just married I had to find employment in a different field of activity in order to pay the rent on our tiny flat. My wife saw an advertisement, ‘Editor Wanted, in the window of a printer in Cricklewood, NW London. I explained that editing magazines was quite different from editing film but nevertheless, in desperation, applied. Rather surprisingly I got the job – editing a magazine about railways, about which I knew nothing. Even more surprisingly the work went quite well and I thoroughly enjoyed it – except for the pay. It was then that my life changed in the direction that, in due course, led to editing Orwell (and, indeed, other authors).

[Part Two follows]