Viewed sub specie aeternitatis, the freelance literary life can sometimes look simply like a succession of odd jobs. And so, without wanting any sympathy for the torments wreaked upon my sensitive soul, I should straightaway confess that I have in my time scripted in-flight videos for Cathay Pacific Airways, written reports and accounts brochures for defence manufacturers, and interviewed Damon Albarn for the Mail on Sunday. Earlier this year, on the other hand, there arrived what in the context of book reviews, op-ed columns and demands for 800 words on ‘an incident you’ll never forget’ was a relatively unusual commission: an invite from messrs Penguin to compile an ‘annotated’ edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four for the student market.
Why ‘unusual’? Well, in normal circumstances critical treatments of this kind are dished out to books that are a century and a half old: buxom editions of Thackeray’s The Newcomes (1855), say, with a glossary on the meaning of obscure subcontinental expressions such as kitmutgars and cansomahs (both Urdu terms