In a previous post I drew on a much-quoted passage from George Orwell – the miscellaneous catalogue of what he thought were ‘characteristic fragments of the English scene’ which included that line about ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings’. It wouldn’t be quite so well known, perhaps, if John Major hadn’t used it in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 1993, changing ‘biking’ to ‘cycling’, presumably to make sure we didn’t confuse these old maids with Hell’s Angels.
And then last night I started reading Stuart Maconie’s Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England (2009). I’m not sure why. I guess books about Englishness are my version of car crash TV. There is something compellingly baffling about the way journalists, travel writers and cultural critics talk about Englishness as if it were a remotely meaningful concept. You won’t find its equivalent anywhere else. The French obsessing over francaisitude or an Italian crisis of italianità? Even the Scots only talk about Scottishness in order to disown it. In fact if there is one thing that the English do have in common, it is an uncontrollable urge to talk about Englishness, something they never define, just illustrate with lists which they trade with each other like marbles or cigarette cards.
Anyway, Maconie writes just two pages before he cites Orwell. And then he makes the following remark:
Orwell actually had his maids ‘hiking’, which sounds oddly transatlantic; Major’s misquotation is the one that has passed into legend.
This rather took me aback. Had I got it wrong? I surely wasn’t the only one. I hunted out my copy of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume II: ‘My Country Right or Left’ (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968). There on page 57 it was unmistakable: ‘biking.’ It is the only edition I had and the library was shut so I couldn’t check further. But what is Maconie’s authority for ‘hiking’?
Comparative web searching produces surprising results. On Google, ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion’ yielded 1,120 hits, while ‘old maids hiking to Holy Communion’ gave 258. Google Books scored 122 and 3 respectively. ‘Biking’ was a clear winner, but why so many for ‘hiking’?
It would seem that the culprit is an electronic version of the essay, available online from K1 Internet Publishing based in Vienna. Like many electronic books – especially unauthorized ones – it does not specify the source document. Even in the single paragraph in which this line appears I spotted at least three more variations from the Secker and Warburg edition. Is this a case of careless editing by the team that digitized it? Or is it – unlikely as it may appear – an ur-text that deserves wider recognition? Somehow, I don’t see the – notoriously litigious – Orwell estate giving out prizes any time soon.