All posts by francescaalves

New catalogue: Archive of David Astor

The catalogue of newspaper editor and philanthropist David Astor is now complete and available online via Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts.

In the middle of July I took a trip to the village of Sutton Courtenay –it was a sunny day, lockdown and there was not much else I could think of doing. Besides, I’d been meaning to visit for a while. I’d heard that George Orwell was buried in the churchyard there. How Orwell came to be buried in Sutton Courtenay is quite a well-known story –  Orwell wanted to be buried in the nearest Church of England cemetery to where he died, but finding there were none in central London with any space, his family appealed to his friends for help, and David Astor, who lived in Sutton Courtenay stepped up. And as it happens, Astor is now buried just behind his friend.

The graves of George Orwell and David Astor at All Saints’ Church, Sutton Courtenay

Orwell was one of many writers who, though not strictly journalists, were recruited by Astor to write for The Observer, but as you can see their friendship extended beyond the literary. When Orwell was suffering from a bout of tuberculosis and was recommended clean air by doctors, Astor arranged for him to stay on the island of Jura, a place where the Astor family had large estates and where David Astor had spent many childhood holidays. It was while staying on Jura that Orwell wrote 1984.

George Orwell is certainly not the only big name to crop up in the David Astor archive – going through his correspondents is almost like reading Who’s Who, including, of course a large amount of correspondence with his mother Nancy Astor, the first woman to take a seat in Parliament. There is, however, a definite lean towards Astor’s philanthropic interests. Members of the anti-apartheid movement feature heavily, especially the noted campaigner Michael Scott, and of course Nelson Mandela.

It’s not just the famous in this archive though, but also the infamous. Astor’s great interest in prison reform led him to become, along with Lord Longford, one of the most high profile campaigners for the release of “Moors murderer” Myra Hindley. Though the campaign to get her parole – or at least an end date for her sentence – was ultimately unsuccessful, Astor and Hindley corresponded regularly up until Astor’s death in 2001. He clearly found her letters indicative of her reformed character. Whether others will – well, they’ll have to read them to judge them.

New catalogue: Archive of Michael Sayers

The catalogue of Irish-American writer Michael Sayers is now complete and available online via Bodleian Archives & Manuscripts.

Chances are, Michael Sayers is a name you aren’t familiar with, and a brief glance at the catalogue might suggest that he is interesting because of the people he knew rather than in his own right. After all, being a correspondent of the likes of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and a former flatmate of Rayner Heppenstall and George Orwell is a pretty good claim to fame, right?

Early in his career, Sayers aspired to poetry and writing for theatre, but perhaps more interesting that his purely literary output was his work in journalism. Having arrived in New York in 1936 to work for renowned theatre designer Norman Bel Geddes, Sayers soon found himself writing articles for various left wing magazines, including Friday, PM and the anti-fascist newsletter The Hour. While he was working for The Hour, Sayers met journalist and the newsletter’s founder Albert E. Kahn. Kahn’s aim was to use The Hour as a vehicle for investigative journalism to counteract the pro-Nazi propaganda of organisations such as the German-American Bund and to expose acts of espionage and sabotage. He certainly found plenty of it – Kahn and Sayers collaborated on three books, two of which – Sabotage! The Secret War Against America (1942) and The Plot Against The Peace (1945) – dealt solely on the Nazi threat to the United States. Their third book, The Great Conspiracy: The Secret War Against Soviet Russia (1946) was an international best seller, though with its acceptance of the reasons behind the Moscow Purge trials probably put this book on the wrong side of history.

Books by Michael Sayers and Albert E. Kahn, from MS. 12451/83 and MS. 12451/84

Did everything end happily for Sayers and Kahn? Well… Not entirely. It probably comes as no surprise that both Sayers and Kahn had Communist sympathies, and their journalistic works brought them to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Both were blacklisted. Sayers left America and came back to Europe, living first in Britain, then France. Like many other blacklisted writers he was invited to write scripts for Sapphire Films, working on episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood under then name Michael Connor. Kahn and Sayers never worked together again. Judging by some of the correspondence in MS. 12451/7, it appears they had a disagreement over royalties, which seems like a suitably writer-y way to end a collaboration.