In the light of the popularity of our John Betjeman feature, I was thinking it’s time we ticked off another literary great. And who better than George Orwell?
In 1934, just after he had published Down And Out In Paris And London, and more than a decade before the worldwide success of 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell (or Eric Blair, as he was born) moved to Pond Street in Hampstead. The idea was to take a part time job in a bookshop, Booklovers’ Corner, in South End Green (now Le Pain Quotidien) whilst he pootled away on his next novel.
Orwell shared three rooms on the top floor at 50 Lawford Road with his friends, the writers Michael Sayers and Rayner Heppenstall. He slept at the back where they dined together, mostly on spaghetti*, at a large table. Heppenstall was despatched daily to the Duke Of Cambridge on the corner (now flats) to bring back a jug of beer (or three). It’s a pleasing scene, I think you’ll agree: the garret, the heated debate, the endless cigarette smoke (Orwell was something of an addict).
Downstairs lived a plumber and a tram driver with their respective wives, the latter couple apparently complaining of being kept awake at night by the water torture of Orwell’s typewriter. Meanwhile, Orwell was still making ends meet at the bookshop in South End Green: I wonder, did he stroll up Kentish Town Road and up Highgate then Mansfield, or cut through the slums of West Kentish? I reckon it would’ve been the latter.According to an obituary on Sayers, Orwell seemed an odd fish with ‘old-fashioned and low-brow’ literary tastes. While Sayers and Heppenstall preferred Yeats, Eliot and Pound, Orwell enjoyed Housman and Kipling (‘He used to rattle off Kipling like a barrel-organ,’ Sayers said, ‘but he did it with great feeling.’) And they were surprised by his passion for detective stories and boys’ comics, which he ‘discussed endlessly’.
Sayers enjoyed what he called a ‘very gentle, affectionate and almost “homo-erotic” relationship’ with Orwell, but Heppenstall, a more volatile and aggressive character, seemed to bring out Orwell’s bad side too. One night, returning drunk, he provoked Orwell (who had asked him to be quiet) into attacking him with a shooting-stick and throwing him out. Afterwards George told Sayers: ‘Rayner’s a fascist and an anti-Semite, and you would do well to avoid him in future.’
Friendship was restored, with the pair later even working together on BBC broadcasts, but after Orwell’s death, Heppenstall wrote an account of the incident called The Shooting-Stick.Orwell was working on Keep the Aspidistra Flying during his time in Lawford Road, and also trying unsuccessfully to write a serial for the News Chronicle. But alas, by October 1935 his flat-mates had moved out and he was having troubles trying to pay the rent on his own. He stayed put until the end of January 1936 when he stopped working at Booklovers’ Corner, and left London again. Why? To set out by foot to investigate social conditions in depressed northern England.
And Orwell’s local legacy? Other than the plaque – and the fact that Keep The Aspidistra Flying was published in 1936 – in 1984 there was a proposal that the street be renamed George Orwell Road. But it was unsuccessful, perhaps as the street had already endured one name change, from Bartholomew Road North, back in Victorian times.
But that made me think: why doesn’t Kentish Town commemorate Orwell more? Where’s the eponymous pub? The Orwell Dining Rooms? The – ahem – Animal Farm pop-up?
This article was updated on 30th August 2016