Peter Davison: English Academic Approached to Edit Orwell

Part Four (I): English Academic Approached to Edit Orwell

I was successively a Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, and then a lecturer and senior lecturer at Birmingham University. It was a time of much unrest in universities and Birmingham was no exception. One result was the setting up a body to examine the way the university operated and to make recommendations. This was chaired by the Liberal M.P., the late Jo Grimond, and I was elected to represent the ‘non-professors’. Whatever the value of the committee’s findings I felt I benefitted greatly from many late-night conversations with Grimond. Whilst at Birmingham I was also entrusted in 1966 with editing a journal, Alta, designed to bring the university’s work to a wider public. Despite much effort it never really took off and closed down after eleven issues. That notwithstanding, I did think it worthwhile binding my copies. As soon as it closed I was asked to edit The Library, the journal of the Bibliographical Society. That I did from 1971-1980. It was a demanding and unpaid task and it meant, I am afraid, that my wife and our children went very short of summer holidays because I spent so much of the summer ‘vacation’ preparing for the publications of the forthcoming year.

[University of Birmingham,

Arts Faculty building right of ‘Big Joe’, above largest white dome]

From Birmingham I went to St David’s University College (as it then was) at Lampeter as Professor of English and from Lampeter to the University of Kent at Canterbury as Professor of English and American Literature. When in 1982 the government of the day decided to cut back on Universities, those of us 55 and over at Kent were asked to consider early retirement. I was then becoming involved in editing Orwell’s work and applied for, and was appointed, as resident Secretary of Albany in Piccadilly. My pension from Kent and my Albany pay only came to about half what I had earned as a professor but despite that we thought the change worth making. I simultaneously taught bibliography to MA students at Oxford until the late Don McKenzie could be released from New Zealand. This is not the place for an account of our time at Albany but we stayed until 1992 and for a few years thereafter had the wonderful gift of a pied à terre in the top floor of the Mansion through the kindness of Damon de Laszlo. In return I acted as Secretary to the Economic Research Council from 1991 to 2005. I was able to make a number of contributions to the ERC journal, Britain & Overseas, a very different field of interest to those I was usually engaged in.

[Wikipedia photograph of Albany. Photographer: Ham]

On relinquishing the post of Secretary to Albany I was invited to take a professorship at De Montfort University and for a time acted as Head of Department. It was – for me at least – a very happy relationship though the strain of work affected my heart. I was fortunate to be examined by an outstanding cardiologist who passed me on to an equally outstanding surgeon. I was advised that unless something were done quickly I had but six to twelve months to live. As a result, three days later, on 13 December 1995, I had a very successful sextuple heart bypass operation. They are both included in my list of acknowledgements in Volume X of the Complete Works. Our room at Albany also made it practicable for me to continue as an Honorary Steward at Westminster Abbey (to which I had been appointed in 1986), until 1998. That was one of the most enjoyable ‘duties’ I have ever been engaged in. One very unexpected result was a gift of the Royal Maundy.

Perhaps to conclude this account, a brief summary of my involvement in preparing the edition of the works of George Orwell might be appropriate.

[Part Four (II) Follows]