17 August 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s classic ‘fairy tale’ about animals in revolt and allegory of the Russian dictatorship, Animal Farm. Orwell – real name Eric Arthur Blair – wrote the book in 1943/44 at his small cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire. His friend and fellow author, Jack Common, ran the village shop in nearby Datchworth.
Common was born in Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1903. He moved to London in 1925 and later worked at The Adelphi magazine, where he met Orwell in the mid-1930s.The pair struck up an uneasy friendship – Common was North East working-class, whilst Orwell, was (in his own words) “lower-upper-middle class” and Eton-educated. Despite their differences, the two remained friends until Orwell’s death in 1950. Orwell became Common’s literary mentor, regarding Common’s collection of essays, The Freedom of the Streets (1938), as:
‘the authentic voice of the ordinary working man, the man who might infuse a new decency into the control of affairs if only he could get there . . .’
Jack Common died in 1968, and his papers were deposited at the University Library in 1974. They comprise photographs, diaries, notebooks, manuscript, and letters.
This 1962 letter (shown below) to Common (COM 3/3/38), from London bookseller Anthony Rota, is about the purchase of a selection of Orwell’s letters. Rota, obviously looking for insights into Orwell’s writing, isn’t impressed with some of the content:
‘Like you, I find Orwell’s absorption in the minutiae of chicken-rearing well worth reading about but, in terms of hard cash, it does not mean as much as any comment he makes on how and why he wrote his books.’
Rota offers Common a poultry £75 for the letters.
But perhaps the letter should maybe not be dismissed so lightly. Orwell – a keen angler and gardener – strove for self-sufficiency and reared his own livestock in his Wallington garden. His chickens and goats are the animals that provided inspiration for characters in Animal Farm.
Common replied, expressing his disappointment at the offer. Rota’s response of 8th August 1962 (COM 3/3/39) presses home his disinterest in Orwell’s Good Life interests:
‘From our point of view the trouble is that he writes too much about chickens and not enough about his work.’
The two eventually agree on £85 for the letter.