The Wretched Little Place in Devonshire
September 2016. On the second day of the new autumn term, a sixth former sets out from home. His bike is later found padlocked to a fence behind a church, his uniform stuffed into a binbag lying nearby. His letter to his parents arrives next day telling them where the bike is and promising not to be away for ‘longer than a year’. From his Kindle it is apparent that he has just read Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.
Orwell is the story the Guardian runs with. The Daily Mail prefers to see behind this disappearing act the influence of The Bourne Identity. It is all over the local and national media, but disappear he successfully does, leaving behind his bank card and phone and everything else which might be used to track him. In an age of hyper-connectivity this is perhaps a form of rebellion we can expect more of.
Two months later the boy, apparently on his way home, having lived as a vagrant in several cities, is spotted by a fellow-traveller on a train leaving Exeter. The police are there to escort him home from the next station-stop, Honiton.
When your imagination is captured by some news item and you can’t quite say why, there is rarely much you can do except wait. Most often the mystery remains unsolved. A year or more had passed before, following up something quite unrelated, I realised why I’d felt such a tug from this story.
The best way I can put it is like this.
Horatio Morpurgo helped to campaign for the establishment of a Marine Protected Area in Lyme Bay. He has written widely about the sea-bed’s recovery there since 2008. His latest book, The Paradoxal Compass, places the West Country’s relationship with the sea, and with science, in a longer historical context.
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For the 70th anniversary of Orwell’s death, join Horatio Morpurgo and Julio Etchart, author of Imagining Orwell in Three Continents, for a Zoom online event and book launch on Thursday 12th of November 2020 from 7-8.30 pm GMT.
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