Coming Up For Air revisited

Coming Up For Air, 2008-2009 theatre production image


Extract from a lecture given at the International Conference hosted at Lille University – “George Orwell, une conscience politique du XXe siècle” 19-20 March, 2010,

by Dominic Cavendish

Besides Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Coming Up For Air ranks as small fry in Orwell’s oeuvre. Yet it endures – is referenced, quoted, read. Maybe that’s because, aside from its own particular charms, its humour, and its descriptive power, it distils an Orwellian preoccupation with imprisonment and escape, his urge to examine human beings in the most straitened circumstances and consider their often thwarted urges for freedom.

Like the fish-filled pool into which George Bowling peers as a boy in rural Oxfordshire, maybe it has hidden depths.

Let’s begin near the end, with Orwell hurrying to complete Nineteen Eighty-Four in the face of worsening tuberculosis.  A writer living in a state of withdrawal from society, from England, on the Scottish island on Jura in 1947-48. He produces a novel that pushes the idea of human captivity to new, nightmarish limits.  Winston Smith is a minor official in a totalitarian slave-state where absolute conformity is the rule, submission to the will of the party – embodied by the totemic Big Brother – is expected in all things, and even thought of dissent is punishable by death – accompanied by torturous mental reprogramming:  ‘Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed – no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.’ 

Those few cubic centimetres can be gnawed away by the rats in Room 101, as Winston realises to his mounting, and decisively self-defeating terror. He becomes a sort of lab-rat himself when brought face-to-face with his caged nemesis; the grim experiment is controlled in such a way that he must give in, yielding up the last vestige of his autonomous humanity in a feral, animal reflex of self-preservation. “Do it to Julia!” shrieks Winston, betraying his one true love. And look at the way he is released by that action in the novel’s vertiginous prose: “He was falling backwards, into enormous depths, away from the rats. He was still strapped in the chair, but he had fallen through the floor, through the walls of the building, through the earth, through the oceans, through the atmosphere, into outer space, into the gulf between the stars.” He is giddy with escape. Yet, of course, it’s the final nail in the coffin for him. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, you don’t get away at the 11th hour.

Independently of the book’s narrative logic, it seems appropriate, inevitable even, that Orwell should have arrived at this dead-end destination.

When we survey the work, we see a pattern of individuals attempting to get away from forces that threaten to overwhelm them – and which, to a greater or lesser degree, finally do so. The word ‘escape’, and the desire for escape, crop up repeatedly. When we survey the life, it’s possible to see Eric Blair himself as something of an escape-artist – he adopted a pseudonym, altered his accent, trying to pass himself off as belonging to a lower social class, and embedded himself in a wide range of character-altering experiences. He was famously “down and out”, frequently off and about. He started life in India, grew up in Oxfordshire, spent formative years in Burma, slummed it in Paris, fought in Spain and ended up on that Hebridean island.

Yet he was no dilettante escapist. If he was restless, he was also driven. He avoided the traps of conformity but at the same time he rushed towards sticky situations. In his biography, Bernard Crick reminds us of Orwell’s untiring work ethic: “He could only see a holiday as a chance to begin a different kind of work.” Orwell’s “adventures”, if we are tempted to see his peripatetic course through life in that light, aren’t opportunities to cut loose, they are the means by which he reflects more intently on the subject at hand, and the subject at hand becomes more bound up with the idea of escape itself as he continues writing, or so I’d argue.

Before turning to Coming Up For Air, let me briefly trace that pattern through the preceding works of fiction.

In his debut novel Burmese Days (1934), the keynote is stasis. John Flory can’t stand his vaguely dissolute ex-pat life in Burma anymore but also can’t face the prospect of a return to England. His only hope rests in the visiting young English-woman Elizabeth Lackersteen, equally lacking in prospects, who soon compounds Flory’s sense of futility, her final rejection of him resulting in suicide. I leave it to others to trace the ways in which Orwell’s experience of working for the Indian Police in Burma fed into Burmese Days but that episode in his life is characterised, both Bernard Crick and DJ Taylor note, as a catalyst for personal and political revolt: ‘Five years as the servant of an oppressive system had left him with a ‘bad conscience’. As a result he felt he had to escape, not just from Imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man.” [Crick]

It’s worth noting how Orwell gravitates towards atmospheres of extreme constraint in the two key essays that his time in Burma subsequently gave rise to – A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant. In A Hanging (1931), the narrator describes in cool detail the inexorable process by which a Hindu prisoner is led out of his cage and walked across to the gallows to meet his end. In Shooting an Elephant (1936), the police-officer in Moulmein who narrates the story heads off in pursuit of an elephant that has escaped and comes face-to-face with his own powerlessness. Like his target he too is cornered: “Suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

That final equation can of course seem very pat, even implausible – it’s a bit like suggesting, as Shakespeare has Henry IV do, that no one has it tougher than the king, a line that sweeps a lot of the injustice of subjugation under the carpet. At the same time, though, we see Orwell dwelling on, and drawing creative sustenance from, a dichotomy between the natural world, in which elephants will roam wild when seized by an attack of “muste” – and the imperalist machine on the other side: a man-made system, which reduces its masters to the status of caged animals.

In A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), the unhappy heroine Dorothy drops out of society, suffering some form of psycho-sexual catalysm. She flees the thankless servitude of life with her rector father and the unwanted attentions of a middle-aged local and by degrees gets lowered into the gutter, brushing through several of the locales that Orwell himself visited during his journalistic forays among the dispossessed – Trafalgar Square at night, scuzzy London lodgings, the hop-fields of Kent: degrading situations, yet eye-opening ones too. When Dorothy is eventually “rescued”, and brought back into the suffocating fold of Knype Hill, Suffolk, her father asks her what possessed her: “What made you take it into your head to run away like that?” he said. “I told you, Father – I lost my memory.” “Hm,” said the Rector; and Dorothy saw that he did not believe her, never would believe her, and that on many and many a future occasion, when he was in a less agreeable mood than at present, that escapade would be brought up against her.” “Escapade” has the ring of a children’s story to it there – Dorothy’s short-lived liberation from her old world will be belittled and boxed away by the very language used to describe it – as a sort of reckless, foolhardy adventure.

Orwell disowned A Clergyman’s Daughter – not a “good bad novel”, just a bad novel, in his opinion. One reason why one might agree with him is that Dorothy’s journey has an underlying aimlessness about it. That might be quite true-to-life – indeed the most nakedly true-to-life chapter in the book, the Trafalgar Square episode, is aimless to a fault, intent on capturing every detail going. It’s one damned thing after another. Yes, Dorothy escapes – but she immediately lacks the wherewithal, financial and emotional, to escape TO somewhere in particular – a series of things happen to her, and then she’s back where she started. She is passive: “She merely saw, as an animal sees, without speculation and almost without consciousness… The confused din of voices, the hooting of horns and the scream of the trams grinding on their gritty rails – flowed through her head provoking purely physical responses. She had no words, nor any conception of the purpose of such things as words, nor any consciousness of time or place, or of her own body or even of her own existence… Who was she? She turned the question over in her mind, and found that she had not the dimmest notion of who she was; except that, watching the people and horses passing, she grasped that she was a human being and not a horse.” And later: “She had no plan, absolutely no plan whatever.”

In Orwell’s next two novels – there is a far greater sense of an inner mission; the protagonists are actively striving to get away from it all. And have an idea where they’re headed.

Gordon Comstock, the anti-social anti-hero of Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is obsessed with the idea of escaping the ghastly go-getting world of wage-slavery. Again and again he plots the path to freedom via the rocky rubble of penury. “He saw that now or never was the time to escape. He had got to get out of it – out of the money-world, irrevocably, before he was too far involved.” Or again, “Somehow, sooner or later, he was going to escape from it”. And so on. Orwell sustains a note of sour comedy at Comstock’s expense because the struggling artist is stuck. Occasionally the blindingly obvious flashes before him: “He grasped, as though it were a new discovery, that you do not escape from money merely by being moneyless.  On the contrary, you are the hopeless slave of money until you have enough of it to live on.”

For all his folly, Comstock’s doomed one-man crusade against the forces of capitalism – and determination to dodge the man-trap of marriage – have an impressive rigour to them. Comstock has a quasi-political programme, and he’s prepared to lay down his life for it. His long-suffering girlfriend Rosemary observes that “It was not only from money but from life itself that he was turning away.” Yet that death-wish has a life-force about it. He decides, in a fanciful idealistic way, to be sure, that if he can cut loose from all conventional codes, then salvation awaits him on earth, in the metropolis that sprawls around him. He can make a heaven of the urban Hades of London: “He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself – to sink, as Rosemary had said.  It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being underground.  He liked to think about the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes.  It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes.  He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning… It comforted him somehow to think of the smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness where you could lose yourself for ever.”

There’s a direct echo of that “huge graceless wilderness” in Coming Up For Air, which you could read as a companion novel to Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with Comstock – who kicks against marriage only finally to be caught by it – segueing into the bowler-hatted figure of George Bowling, the hen-pecked wage-slave of Comstock’s worst fears. On a train-journey into town to get his new false teeth, Bowling surveys the mass of London – and achieves a rare inner moment of calm and lyrical rhapsody: “I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on.  Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on.  Enormous!  And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts.” Here for a fleeting instant is an impression of the industrial machine as an entity so vast and variegated it attains the quality of a benign natural environment.

An illusion, of course – to use one of Bowling’s regular refains. In contrast to Comstock, Bowling wants to escape this dense urban landscape for a few days, leaving wife, kids and the dread of imminent world war behind him for a spot of modest relaxation back in his hometown of Lower Binfield, beside the fondly remembered fish-ponds of his early youth. Where Comstock hankers after impurity, Bowling craves a now-distant purity. Where Comstock wants to burrow downwards into the abyss – Bowling wants to paddle upwards to find the ether.

Just as with Comstock, though, the escape-impulse has at its core something simple, brutal, animal, involuntary. There is a physical revulsion at modern life and a yearning for something less oppressive. As it plays out, this urge acquires complex ramifications. In Coming Up For Air, in particular, I’d argue that Orwell achieves a degree of sophistication in following his protagonist’s conservative-minded bid for freedom, his minor odyssey into known territory, that can too easily be glanced over. 

Let’s break down Bowling’s humble break-out plans into bullet-points. He wants to escape from a number of things that would make sense to the man in the street: 1) He wants to escape from his wife and family commitments 2) He wants to get away from the rat-race and the anxious financial concerns of the Thirties that afflict all working-men, not only married ones. 3) He wants to flee suburbia and what it represents, a kind of “mental squalor”, as he puts it and 4) He wants to get away from thoughts of Hitler and the world war he knows is just around the corner.

What does he want to escape to? Well, 1) he wants to escape to the countryside, and the traditional English market-town he grew up in 2) he wants to find a route back into the past, so that whatever has changed  (and he’s not so naïve as to assume nothing will have changed), he will regain a vivid sense of what once was and 3) he wants to attain mental tranquility which will be some substitute for the pleasures of the flesh he can no longer count upon.

Broadly speaking that is what he is running away from, and what he’s aiming at. The bleak comedy of the novel, as bleak as Keep the Asphidistra Flying, is that the over-run nature of what greets him crushes even his most modest hopes. He knew that what he was escaping “From” could only be evaded for a short while – but whether it’s the bombing planes flying overhead, the cold glares of women, or the premature summons home on account of a misunderstood wireless announcement – the holiday from those grim modern realities is cut short. Furthermore what he has reached out for recedes from him the closer he gets: the countryside has been paved over, his beloved fish-pond is a rubbish-tip,  the past – as O’Brien will later tell Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four – doesn’t exist and his state of mind becomes more restive. The noise infuriates him, the blank indifference to him upsets him, and he comes to regard himself as unreal – a ghost haunting the old places. Upon his return to West Bletchley, he wonders why he has made the trip, whether he has even made it at all. “Gosh! Did I even understand myself? The whole thing seemed to be fading out of my mind. Why had I gone to Lower Binfield? HAD I gone there?”

Coming Up For Air is bit like a shaggy dog-story – it‘s all build-up and no punch line, the last lines are a shrug of the shoulder, a rueful anti-climax. Except that’s it a dark kind of non-joke – rather like digging a tunnel that leads you straight back to your prison cell. There isn’t any air – Bowling laments, in general. And that image of asphixiation rings true to where the novel takes us: Bowling hemmed in on all sides.

What I want to explore, though, is the fact that the novel does takes him and us on a journey – from England as a series of details and impressions to a cluster of ideas.

The frustrations that Bowling encounters meet not only with an amusing line in exasperation but also a notable mood of ambivalence. What’s more, layered as the narrative is with the advantage of hindsight, Bowling reveals that in his heart of hearts he knew he was headed for disappointment. He may be bluff but he’s not a buffoon. You could argue that subconsciously he set out to escape towards the very thing he was ostensibly escaping from. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith will receive a shock that is no shock, a surprise that is no surprise, when he meets O’Brien in the Ministry of Love. “You know this, Winston,” said O’Brien. “Don’t deceive yourself. You did know it – you have always known it. Yes, he saw now, he had always known it.” In Coming Up For Air, there’s the straightforward surface reading of Bowling as the chap who wants to get away from it all – then there’s the latent reading of him as the man who wants to confront the worst there is. It’s often described as a semi-autobiographical novel – because of the connections between Bowling’s Oxfordshire upbringing and the author’s. DJ Taylor remarks in his biography “Orwell’s trick in his previous novels had been to project various aspects of himself on to characters with whom he cannot quite wholeheartedly be identified. Coming Up For Air is the most ingenious, and arguably the most effective, of these projections.” But it’s that process of confrontation, and self-confrontation, the holiday that is no holiday, that I think is the most telling point of comparison.

Bowling himself rationalises that the reason he has gone back to Lower Binfield is to re-acquire a feeling of peace, the better to prepare him for the inevitable war. “It wasn’t that I wanted to watch my navel.  I only wanted to get my nerve back before the bad times begin. Wherever we’re going, we’re going downwards.  Into the grave, into the cesspool – no knowing.” In outline, what he has done is stand at the graveside of the rural England he knew and loved, to bid it farewell and turn to face a future that threatens to bury him – and his kind.

Where can the sustenance necessary for survival come from, though? From nature? Or from man? From the countryside – or his fellow countrymen?

There should be no disbelieving the rapture that Bowling feels in the presence of nature – rapture recalled as a child, and rapture re-experienced as an adult. It’s a rapture we know Orwell experienced in his own childhood, and the book is imbued with the writer’s fondness for flora and fauna – and fishing. Yet Bowling guards against sentimentalising it. He remembers how he used to feel about it – and how he used to feel about it is described in terms that emphasise its unreality.

When Bowling describes the forgotten fish pond, brimming with monstrous carp, he encountered as a boy behind old Binfield House he says: “It was astonishing, and even at that age it astonished me, that there, a dozen miles from Reading and not fifty from London, you could have such solitude.  You felt as much alone as if you’d been on the banks of the Amazon.”  That allusion to the Amazon gets picked up and fleshed out later when he recalls the adventure stories that engrossed him as a child: “I’m twelve years old, but I’m Donovan the Dauntless.  Two thousand miles up the Amazon I’ve just pitched my tent, and the roots of the mysterious orchid that blooms once in a hundred years are safe in the tin box under my camp bed…” The natural world, upon those first encounters, is exotic, unblemished, as dreamy as fiction, and the solitude it promises allows for a boundless freedom.

But Bowling the man cannot and could not get back to that state, and has learned that to embrace nature in older age with the same enthusiasm of early youth is to render yourself suspect. When he encounters the cranky old man at the ruined pool area beside Binfield House, he identifies the mentality immediately: “I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast.” Those treating nature as a refuge can turn it into something as bad as a refuse-area – a dinky, cute, bogus environment. And it’s worth here turning a backward glance to Dorothy’s ecstatic embrace of nature in an early mocking passage of A Clergyman’s Daughter: “All the rites of summer, the warmth of the earth, the song of birds, the fume of cows, the droning of countless bees, mingling and ascending like the smoke of ever-burning altars. Therefore with angels and archangels! She began to pray, and for a moment she prayed ardently, blissfully forgetting herself in the joy of her worship. Then, less than a minute later, she discovered that she was kissing the frond of the fennel that was still against her face. She checked herself instantly, and drew back… She admonished herself. None of that, Dorothy! No nature-worship, please! Her father had warned her against nature-worship. A disgusting modern-fad.” One of the few moments, one suspects, when Orwell might have sympathized with the unlovely rector.

To return to Coming Up For Air: even at the moment that Bowling is bending down to pick up a primrose, the impulse that finally decides him on going back to Lower Binfield, he tells us that he’s no wilting violet about such things. “I’m not soppy about “the country”.  I was brought up a damn sight too near to it for that.  I don’t want to stop people living in towns, or in suburbs for that matter.  Let ‘em live where they like.  And I’m not suggesting that the whole of humanity could spend the whole of their lives wandering round picking primroses and so forth. I know perfectly well that we’ve got to work.  It’s only because chaps are coughing their lungs out in mines and girls are hammering at typewriters that anyone ever has time to pick a flower.” He assesses his primrose-plucking with a political cast of mind – and that phrase and sentiment are ones that readers of The Road to Wigan Pier will swiftly recognise.

The attitude to nature in Coming Up For Air is more hard-headed than it is even in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith dreams of what he calls the Golden Country, characterised as a world of fecundity and sexual possibility: “The landscape that he was looking at recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world.” Winston and Julia do find the Golden Country, after a fashion; and if you look at the instructions Julia gives Winston – a 30-minute train-ride from Paddington, you’re potentially in the same terrain as Lower Binfield – which is a filtered version of the world that Orwell grew up in, around Henley-upon-Thames and Shiplake.

That’s not the world though that awaits the grown-up, married-with-kids Bowling, who sneers with dismay during his first attempt to go fishing: “I got out of the car and walked. Ah!  A knot of little red and white bungalows had sprung up beside the road.  Might have expected it, of course.  And there seemed to be a lot of cars standing about.  As I got nearer the river I came into the sound – yes, plonk-tiddle-tiddle-plonk! – yes, the sound of gramophones. I rounded the bend and came in sight of the towpath.  Christ! Another jolt.  The place was black with people.  And where the water-meadows used to be – tea-houses, penny-in-the-slot machines, sweet kiosks, and chaps selling Walls’ Ice-Cream.  Might as well have been at Margate.” 

There’s no “elsewhere” for Bowling to escape to, and he’s not alone. As Juliet Gardiner’s new book The Thirties: An Intimate History makes plain, the decade saw a newfound appetite for exploration and leisure-trips among the ordinary English, as travel by car became less of an elite luxury. But the idea of escape was being undermined by the relative ease of escape, not to mention the sprawl of modern housing developments. If everyone yearns for the same solitary retreat, what you get is a maddening crowd. It’s instructive I think at this point to take a quick detour into the world of the obvious precursor to Coming Up For Air, namely The History of Mr Polly, written in 1910 by HG Wells.

Like Bowling, Alfred Polly got hooked on adventure stories as a boy, and developed a passion for the natural world: “He would sneak out on moonless winter nights and stare up at the stars, and afterwards find it difficult to tell his father where he had been.” Inhabiting roughly the same restrictive lower-middle class range as Bowling, he has got married, is discontented, bitter, now a middle-aged small-town shopkeeper; quite far into the book, after a farcically hideous attempt to commit suicide he heads off into the wilds of the English countryside to become a tramp. At the risk of putting the two novels into unfair competition, I’d say there’s something far more interesting about the dead-end direction that Orwell’s novel takes, while the first-person narrative allows for a less condescending form of comedy, and Bowling, albeit an archetype, has a greater degree of interiority. Where Polly cuts free, and following a rather Dickensian turn of low-life events, finds a new life,  Bowling is more  conscious of his constraints than ever at the end.

The book is at once narrower, tighter – and yet imbued with an understanding of the broader picture, the world-stage upon which little George Bowling goes about his business. Coming Up For Air of course was written in Morocco, in the wake of Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War – which, famously, marked the turning point in his mission as a writer – “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” How does the novel fit into that? Because I think Orwell is asking, along with Bowling: if there is no escape, what resources does the individual have to resist with? Is there something called a national character that can come into play, at some level? Through the emblematic figure of Bowling, Orwell’s isn’t just capturing the process of rediscovering a particular local landscape, he’s seeing England anew from the outside. Bowling tells us that his stay in Lower Binfield taught him this: “It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got at the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries…” England, then, is not going to be immune much longer to the barbarities of the continent and “abroad”.

Bowling is filled with foreboding – and yet there does seem to be compensation. It’s there in the reference to Gracie Fields’ droll popular song on the title page of the book, He’s Dead but He Won’t Lie Down. And it’s there in the final line, which has that comic, shoulder-shrugging insouciance – avoiding the obvious temptation of a finale rising to a pitch of hysterical unhappiness. It’s that laissez-faire attitude which Bowling has suggested he rather despises in his fellow citizens but acknowledges in himself that allows a streak of optimism to course through the book’s disillusion.

In an article written during the war in 1944, entitled The English People, Orwell wrote: “The English are great lovers of flowers, gardening and ‘nature’ but this is merely a part of their vague aspiration towards an agricultural life. In the main they see no objection to ‘ribbon development’ or to the filth and chaos of the industrial towns. They see nothing wrong in scattering the woods with paper bags and filling every pool and stream with tin cans and bicycle frames.” Orwell is here reflecting on the tendency of the English to turn their green and pleasant land into a pig-sty exactly as Bowling does in Coming Up For Air. Is that a betrayal of their country – though – or in a perverse way an expression of an enduring spirit?

The English People was itself a partial rehash of elements from his better known 1941 pamphlet The Lion and the Unicorn, in which the oft-quoted line appears: “There is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature.”

Those distinct details – red pillar-boxes, smoky towns – are so generalised as to be almost ungraspable – they boil down to the vaguest of ingredients. Likewise, the national character is held up in an ostensibly unflattering light – a foreign observer, Orwell suggests, might decide that “a profound almost unconscious patrotism and an inability to think logically are the abiding features of the English character.”

Yet there’s something subtly admiring about this: England’s saving grace may be that subliminal attitude, that herd-instinct that Bowling briefly surfaces to inspect and rail against, before plunging back down into it again – at its best it’s a murky current of benign tolerance, a sort of stoical thoughtlessness. It’s a cast of mind, or mindlessness, that endures whatever war, destruction and progress throw at it.

“The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities,” Orwell writes. “The power-worship which is the new religion of Europe, and which has infected the English intelligentsia, has never touched the common people.” Writing Bowling helps him burrow deeper into that popular culture, I think, which cuts across all classes, even if the intelligentsia waft disdainfully above it. These thoughts aren’t articulated in so many words in Coming Up For Air but they’re intimated, groped for, anticipated. And it’s possible that they can’t finally be exactly articulated. To systematize them would be, to follow Orwell’s argument, profoundly unEnglish. In his Proustian moment of reverie on the Strand, Bowling is propelled back into a golden age of Empire circa 1900 – an impossibly ordered place where the sun always shone – “Vicky’s at Windsor, God’s in heaven, Christ’s on the cross, Jonah’s in the whale.” He leaves Lower Binfield with none of that to fall back on, and yet it’s hard not to think that he’s the stronger for it.

“However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time”, Orwell will go on to write of England’s influence in The Lion and The Unicorn. “The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.”

The Lion and the Unicorn expresses frustration with the political apathy of the English yet part of Orwell is seduced by the sleep-walker aspect of his countrymen. In that pamphlet Orwell talks about the country’s “emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis.” The line that stands out for me is the following: “The nation is bound together by an invisible chain.” Bound together. There’s no escaping that chain. Bowling certainly can’t. Yet that bond, however much it chafes, might also, paradoxically, act as a guarantor of national liberty. That which cannot be escaped holds forth the possible means, in other words, of escaping the greater peril.

Why does this apparently unremarkable tale of a nondescript middle-class middle-aged man fleeing suburbia for the countryside of his youth have the power to make us think, and feel, keenly about the confining set-up of modern life? There are resonances today that bring us closer towards it – the state of the economy for one – but the elegiac quality most keenly felt today is perhaps for something that isn’t even mourned in the novel. In 1939, Orwell and Bowling could rely on that invisible chain‘s unifying force, to some extent. In England now, can we still count on that shackled sense of collective identity? I wonder.

Review of Peter Davison’s lecture ‘An Orwellian Nightmare’

Ron Bateman reviews Peter Davison’s lecture ‘An Orwellian Nightmare’ at the Marlborough Literary festival. “He considered some interesting parallels between Orwell and the Russian War Correspondent Vasily Grossman..”

Review of Peter Davison’s talk ‘An Orwellian Nightmare’ at the Marlborough Literary festival, by Ron Bateman 23-09-2011

As early as September 1943, George Orwell wrote in his literary notebook under the heading ‘The general layout’ a set of sub-headings including ‘the swindle of Bakerism & Ingsoc.’ This sub-heading had since stymied academics and scholars who have come across it until one day when in 2006 when a research student discovered a series of letters exchanged between Orwell and a horticultural expert C.D.Darlington referring to a talk given by the scientist John Baker in August 1944 referring to the Soviet scientist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.

For Peter Davison, who has written and edited over 29 volumes devoted to Orwell over the last 30 years, this must have been the literary equivalent of a ‘eureka moment’. At this point, when this new material had surfaced, all 20 volumes of The Complete Works had long been published and the proofs of an additional supplementary volume The Lost Orwell were ready to be returned to the printers. Suddenly, the supplementary volume had to put on hold, for it was clear that, not only had the ‘Bakerism problem’ been solved, but something very significant in prompting Orwell to start writing the outline of Nineteen Eighty-Four had been discovered. For the record, Lysenko had been appointed Academician and Director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Science in 1940.

He had rejected traditional hybridisation theories and took his own course which included the dubious belief that he could, for example, change wheat into rye. Josef Stalin had backed Lysenko’s theories to such a degree that opposition to the scientist was outlawed. The significant fact was that Baker had concluded his talk by arguing that the case of Lysenko had provided a vivid illustration of the ‘degradation of science under a totalitarian regime.’ In Nineteen Eighty-Four we see this ‘degradation theory’ written into the fictitious ‘Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein’ which states ‘scientific and technical progress depended on the empirical habit of thought, which could not survive in a strictly regimented society.’

At this year’s Marlborough Literary Festival, Peter delivered a thoroughly enjoyable talk packed with a plethora of similarly interesting facts discovered throughout almost three decades spent editing and writing about Orwell. At the centre of this mammoth contribution is The Complete Works, comprising ‘deluxe’ editions of Orwell’s nine full-length books followed by an additional eleven volumes of letters, essays and journalism.

The task of producing those ‘deluxe editions’ was presented as arduous enough by itself, requiring painstaking word comparisons alongside up to 50 extant editions, amending proofs full of errors, arguments with Literary Editors who took it upon themselves to re-write Orwell and many volumes being required to be pulped in the process. Those ‘deluxe editions’ turned out merely to be just a prelude to the main task of assembling the eleven volumes of additional material that would complete the undertaking.

As I sat listening to Peter, I couldn’t help thinking of the trials of Francis Ford Coppola’s 10-year journey towards completing his epic film Apocalypse Now. Throughout that process, Coppola’s leading man suffered an acute heart attack, President Marcos of the Philippines recalled the helicopters he had loaned to the film crew and many expensive scenes were ruined by adverse weather. Coppola himself was compelled to delay the release date several times while he edited millions of feet of footage. Peter’s 16-year journey towards completing The Complete Works was effectively presented as an ‘apocalyptic’ undertaking in itself. For various reasons the whole project was abandoned by publishers on no less than six occasions and somewhere in that timeline Peter himself had to undergo a sextuple bypass operation. Added to this was the complications brought about by Orwell’s publishers Secker and Warburg changing hands eight times –on one occasion being taken over by a bus company and on another the London Rubber Company!

Peter Davison’s talk again took on a Russian flavour when he considered some interesting parallels between Orwell and the Russian War Correspondent Vasily Grossman. He continued to provide an illustration of how the comparisons between the two effectively illuminate the former’s strength of achievement in the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Referring to Grossman’s own masterpiece Life and Fate we are led through a series of comparisons that include the betrayal of those held dear as in Room 101, the total conformity of thought, the re-writing of history, Hate Week and the confessions of the innocents.

Similar claims can be made of Orwell’s achievements in Animal Farm in which he not only recreated the political life, but also the tone of life inside Russia without ever having been there. As I listen I am reminded of the famous Polish Communist defector Czeslaw Milosz, one of a few ‘insiders’ who succeeded in procuring a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 1953 Milosz wrote ‘For those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.’ Those comparisons between Orwell and Grossman lead Peter Davison to communicate this same amazement to his audience; that astonishment ‘that Orwell, who had never been to the USSR, could so accurately depict the facts and tone of Stalinist life as mirrored in Grossman’s work.

As the talk neared its conclusion, we were given further insight into the unlocking of further riddles, this time in relation to Orwell’s personal life and that of his childhood sweetheart Jacintha Buddicom. Letters, testimonies and an unlikely photograph by a street photographer all add up to a sad and moving tail of love, rejection and regret. ‘If only I had been ready for betrothal when Eric (Orwell) asked me to marry him on his return from Burma,’ Jacintha had lamented many years later. ‘It took me literally years to realize that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met.’ So much more that I have neglected to mention was presented to a fascinated audience providing for a thoroughly enjoyable hour. For me, it was a privilege to hear a master at work on his subject and a further reminder of Peter Davison’s unsurpassable contribution to the study of Orwell’s life and work.

Ron Bateman,  October 2011

Review: Orwell – A Life in Letters, by Peter Davison

George Orwell: A Life in Letters, Harvill Secker, rrp £20

Reviewed by Dominic Cavendish, 2010 for Findlay Publisher

I didn’t expect to well up with tears reading Orwell: A Life in Letters – but several times, against the grain of my own nature, and against the grain of Peter Davison’s richly absorbing selection of Orwell-generated and Orwell-related correspondence, which satiates more generally with fact than feeling, I did so.

The first moment came early on, catching me – as I imagine it may do many readers – by surprise. Professor Davison, whose landmark contributions to Orwell studies need little introduction, albeit more ongoing praise, has arranged the material so that, four pages into the opening selection (From Pupil To Teacher To Author: 1911-1913), he jumps forward in time to 1972, and a letter written by Jacintha Buddicom to a relative. Orwell’s early youth, which has been rushed over with a startling lack of scholarly ceremony, recedes into the distant past.

Jacintha, his one-time close childhood friend, writes: “After the publication last year of The World of George Orwell for which I wrote the opening essay, I am now writing a short monograph of my own on the subject (they edited out most of the important bits) in the hope of ridding myself of a lifetime of ghosts and regrets at turning away the only man who ever really appealed on all levels.”

What follows is so emotionally unsparing, though sparingly written, that to read it feels like eavesdropping on the closest, most quietly whispered confidence. Twenty-two years after Orwell’s death, just before which (as this collection will reveal) the pair corresponded in a belated burst of half-reconciliation, Jacintha mourns the fact that she wasn’t ready to marry Eric when he proposed upon his return from Burma – at a time when their growing intimacy had been shattered by a premature attempt on his part to push her for a full physical relationship.

Bitterness, as well as regret, is recorded here, the bitterness fermented by what she saw as the vengeful portrait of her (as Julia) in Nineteen Eighty-Four. She felt “destroyed” by his public betrayal, and refers to the dell full of bluebells where Julia and Winston meet. “We always wandered off to our special place when we were at Ticklerton which was full of bluebells. They die so quickly if you pick them so we never did but lay amongst them and adored their heavy pungent scent.” 

It’s the detail of that last line that I find so poignant. In that remembered shared decision not to pick the bluebells but to lie among them, savouring their smell, is captured all the aromatic sweetness of blossoming youth, its tenderness, delicacy, sensitivity and still-lingering innocence. Jacintha here recalls the experience so keenly that it lives on in her, while becoming emblematic of the way Orwell, as she saw it, trampled on her feelings, or plucked their experiences apart. The reader gets a swift, almost unbearable glimpse of paradise lost.

Already the inclusion of this letter has caused excitement among those far more acquainted than I am with what is known and unknown about Orwell’s life and work – giving evidence, as it does, as to the strength of feeling he had for Jacintha. My own fascination is the more basic one that lies with Prof Davison’s decision to set down a decent, but by no means exhaustive, selection of letters side by side – allowing us to form our own judgements about what we read. The annotations are meticulous in points of contextual and biographical information, but there’s no attempt to supply a running commentary about Orwell’s interior life, or for that matter his development as a writer. We must piece together our own assessment based primarily on “externals” – passing remarks, references to matters-at-hand, the arduous churn of toil and intention.

If a newcomer to Orwell’s correspondence is initially disappointed that here are to be found few notable expatiations on politics and art – the kind of sustained thinking aloud that so brilliantly animates the essays – the cumulative effect of reading such disparate day-to-day material, which ranges across most of the distinct chapters of his life –  Wigan, Spain, Morocco, wartime London, Jura – delivers its own swathe of insights. Orwell wasn’t writing for a wider public here so, for all the now-dated formality of his letters, the tone feels relatively unguarded. BBC-baiters will relish, for instance, his insider’s assessment of the corporation as “mixture of whoreshop and lunatic asylum”. And the longer you look, the more you notice. As with Jacintha’s passing evocation of a lost world, much is said in the casual aside. Orwell’s life was famously crowded with adventurous incident – but it’s the incidental detail that gives “A Life in Letters” its identity and value.

There are more than a few delightful “who knew?” moments. Maintaining a fastidious and dry – at times drily funny – style throughout his letter-writing career, Orwell makes for a fine chronicler of his own otherworldly foibles while imbuing his reports with a certain kind of boyish obliviousness. There’s a sublime confirmation of his Stan Laurel tendencies in his description, to Brenda Salkeld in 1934, of nearly dying of cold “the other day when bathing, because I had walked out to Easton Broad not intending to bathe, & then the water looked so nice that I took off my clothes & went in, & then about 50 people came up & rooted themselves to the spot. I wouldn’t have minded that, but among them was a coastguard who could have had me up for bathing naked, so I had to swim up and down for the best part of half an hour, pretending to like it.”

Was there a strong romantic downside to that off-hand, aloof, gauche manner? In endeavouring to secure a female companion in the wake of his wife Eileen’s death, he combines a cool matter-of-factness with an ardency of need that makes his desperation, loneliness and confusion all the more involuntarily pronounced.

One smiles, but also slightly shudders, to realise that Orwell was writing a letter – and attending to business – on his wedding day in June 1936 (“Curiously enough I am getting married this very morning – in fact I am writing this with one eye on the clock & the other on the Prayer book”, he informs Denys King-Farlow). And one notes, thanks to the inclusion of chatty letters from Eileen to various parties, that their early days of wedlock were far from bliss-filled thanks to her husband’s workaholic tendencies (“I cried all the time.. Partly because Eric had decided that he mustn’t let his work be interrupted & complained bitterly when we’d been married a week that he’d only done two good days’ work out of seven.”) Was Spain the making of their marriage? Davison allows us to conclude as much. “You really are a wonderful wife,”  Orwell gaily notes in a grateful missive in April 1937 – as if conscious of that fact for the first time.

Eileen comes across as never less than delightful. If Orwell was, as we glean him to be here, determined, diffident, at times vexingly difficult, one admires her indulgence of his ingrained eccentricities and writerly fixations. I loved the affectionate vignette of their rough crossing from  Gibraltar to Tangier, when Orwell walked around “the boat with a seraphic smile watching people being sick and insisted on my going into the Ladies cabin to report on the disasters there” (p117). And how about the nugget of marital comedy in Morocco contained in the wincing allusion to  “a copper tray four feet across” which “will dominate us for the rest of our lives” (Marjorie Dakin later flashes back a conspiratorial wink of sympathy: “My heart goes out to you over the four-foot tray”)?

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what lies in this volume for the attentive reader. In broad terms this collection will help counter the received idea of Orwell as a lone figure. He was far more single-minded about keeping the hand-to-mouth journalism going, and securing his literary ambitions, than some might allow, but there’s little sense of sour anti-sociability amid all the strenuous devotion.

This was a life lived in connection with many other people (93 names appear in the biographical guide to correspondents and relations). And it does something, to cite George Bowling in Coming Up For Air, “to your heart and guts” when you see, unfolding in real-time, those connections being broken.

The inconclusive abruptness of the last words written by Eileen from her Newcastle on Tyne hospital bed, just before she died under anaesthetic, leaving Orwell biting back the grief and holding their newly adopted baby Richard, are once again emotionally searing in their unplanned, spontaneous succinctness: “This is a nice room – ground floor so one can see the garden. Not much in it except daffodils & I think arabis but a nice little lawn. My bed isn’t next the window but it faces the right way. I also see the fire & the clock.” And you try to picture it for yourself, the flowers, the fire and the clock – as he must have done.

Dominic Cavendish

Hail to the Orwell Society website

Professor Peter Davison on the challenges ahead for the Orwell Society: “Orwell reads ‘too easily’. His work does not demand the kind of attention of scholarly interpreters that does, say, Finnegans Wake. Interpreting such a text seems to earn higher academic kudos than does Orwell’s work…”

Hail to the Orwell Society website

Professor Peter Davison, July 2011

THERE is a paradox that – to me at least – seems to affect the serious study of the work of George Orwell. Few twentieth-century writers are as widely and frequently quoted as George Orwell.  I don’t include the mindless repetitions of ‘Big Brother’, or ‘1984’, or ‘Room 101’, even to the extent of misplacing the location of the last of these three.  Of how many other politicians or writers in the English-speaking world does one ask ‘What would So-and-So say of this?’ Winston Churchill? James Joyce? Kingsley Amis? Sir Isaiah Berlin? Bertrand Russell – or perhaps P.G. Wodehouse?

Yet this is not to claim that Orwell is the outstanding political figure or intellectual mind of the twentieth century. Despite all my admiration for him, I do not make those claims.  It is, I think, partly explained because what Orwell expressed was so readily understood, so clear, so unproblematic as to retain its capacity to make an immediate appeal to the understanding.

Whereas there have been many worthwhile biographies – the names Stansky and Abrahams, Sir Bernard Crick, Michael Shelden, Jeffrey Meyers, Gordon Bowker, DJ Taylor, spring to mind – for  the Academy, despite a number of serious studies – among them those of William Steinhoff, John Rodden, Douglas Kerr, Loraine Saunders, Dan Leab, and Philip Bounds – Orwell does not seem to pose sufficiently complex or intractable problems. 

Orwell reads ‘too easily’. His work does not demand the kind of attention of scholarly interpreters that does, say, Finnegans Wake. Interpreting such a text seems to earn higher academic kudos than does Orwell’s work, especially that which seems to be based on ‘mere’ reportage. Hence, I believe, the careless inability to distinguish between the creative in Orwell’s writing and reportage.

This failure is noticeable in, for example, readings of ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’.  Orwell is often far more subtle than he is assumed to be.  Sonia Orwell’s benevolence in founding the Orwell Archive and its later development have not attracted as much attention from scholars, apart from biographers, as might have been expected. Orwell has been misinterpreted as too open to the plain reader, too academically undemanding.      

In the past few years however, there has been a resurgence of serious interest in Orwell and his work.  The Orwell Prize has been revivified by Professor Jean Seaton of Westminster University, assisted by Gavin Freeguard, and has developed a valuable website reproducing, among other things, Orwell’s Diaries.  Dione Venables, having herself republished her cousin Jacintha Buddicom’s Eric & Us, adding a valuable postscript, set up, and personally financed, a website which published high-quality articles every two months.  And there is hope that Dr Michael Sayeau will promote new life into Orwell studies at UCL.

However, although there has been an Orwell Society in Japan publishing annual volumes since 1982, they are chiefly in Japanese so not readily accessible to most of us, and, of course, a modest social society at Eton named after its onetime student, there has been a gaping chasm in the provision of such a society in the United Kingdom.  Now, at last, we have a fully-fledged Orwell Society with its own website edited by the critic and author Dominic Cavendish, notable to Orwellians for his excellent dramatization of Coming Up for Air in 2008.      

When I started to edit Orwell in 1981 I could not imagine that we would ever enjoy such riches! My only regret is that I am too old to be able to contribute very much beyond this expression of delight to what the future has in store.

I started work – in a film cutting room of all places – in July 1942 only becoming an academic in 1960 after a decade of private study. I gave my last lecture some forty years later in 2001 and since then have written or edited six books, three devoted to Orwell.  If this strikes the reader as being too self-centred, I hope it may excuse my fear that there is little more that I can offer except profound delight that events are turning out as we can see all around us in Orwell studies, and this despite the intensely depressing state of the world.  (Perhaps that in itself matches Orwell’s time.)

It is enormously heartening to be able to welcome, in addition to the Orwell Prize and its associated activities, the launch of an Orwell Society and, in particular, this, its website. In addition to encouraging and airing new insights into Orwell and his work, which the society can encourage, there are specific tasks that demand attention, for example:

  1. A corrected version of The Complete Works, Vols X-XX,  taking in material which surfaced after that edition was published – in, for example, The Lost Orwell and A Life in Letters, and all the corrections and additions reported in The Lost Orwell.
  2. Incorporation of the proof corrections to A Clergyman’s Daughter andKeep the Aspidistra Flying reported by Richard Young (see A Life in Letters, pp. 491-2).
  3. Publication of the one or more Diaries written in Spain and believed to be in the NKVD Archive, Moscow.
  4. Publication in full of the letters to Brenda Salkeld which Gordon Bowker had to restrict to summaries in his biography of Orwell.
  5. Publication of the letters to Eleanor Jaques withdrawn from sale by Bonhams.
  6. Finding and publication of letters which Emma Larkin believes he wrote when a police officer in Burma and held by the Burmese authorities.
  7. And, of course, recovering Orwell’s voice. Despite several searches none of the discs of programmes he recorded for the BBC has yet been traced although their BBC numbers are given in The Complete Works.

Alas, nearing 85, I am not in a position to contribute very much more to Orwell studies but I am thrilled to have lived long enough to witness this renaissance in Orwell studies.  I wish all those who are working so hard to launch these ventures my warmest good wishes – and my gratitude.  Let us hope that the Academy will at last take note!

Peter Davison, July 2011

Reflections on Orwell and the island of Jura

Professor Craig Richardson, Professor of Fine Art, Northumbria University, considers Jura. “Given the remoteness of the farmhouse on Jura and the increasingly alarming needs of this overworked writer it is safe to assume that Orwell had not truly made peace with his inherited anti-Scottish prejudices…”

Reflections on Orwell and Jura

Professor Craig Richardson,

Professor of Fine Art, Northumbria University

THE Scottish contemporary artist Graham Fagen’s contribution to BBC4’s 2005A Digital Picture of Britain: Highlands and Northern Ireland focused on his long-time obsession with George Orwell’s last few years as a widower inhabiting an uneasily accessed farmhouse on the island of Jura. Fagen’s anecdotal speculations to camera considered the unknown reasons behind Orwell’s relocation. Gordon Bowker’s biography of Orwell underlined the isolation of the farmhouse ‘shrouded in mist, swept by gales and darkened by louring skies . . . the long-abandoned farm had no electricity and required several hundred pounds’ worth of repairs to make it habitable’.

Why Scotland? Although he hated his given name Eric Blair, it sounded Scottish; Orwell used it on Jura perhaps underlining a commitment to an authentic experience that Northern austerity and the presumption of significant discomfort as a bid to overcome self-imposed obstacles. Eric Blair he might be, Orwell was there to write. Orwell’s relocation to the remotest edge of an island in an abandoned house is then a search for personal renewal through another redemptive performance, a creative method redolent of earlier books including Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). An artist is someone who sets problems, and tests the self-defined limits of their solution. This can be understood as a gamble, and if undertaken with real intent is actually a high stakes game, with the potential to fail, or simply break-even. Even if successful something has to ‘give’.   

Enforced privation may be over-emphasised in this vignette but the emptiness of Jura mirrored well the interleaving of personal memory, tragedy, sickness and nostalgia in Orwell’s outlook – and enabled him to raise and confront anxieties that his travels in post-war Europe provided towards the end of his shortened life. Speculation has it that Orwell was fashioning a life for his young family in preparation for Europe’s post-nuclear war existence and writing out those fears in a pastoral sanctuary. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s description of derelict domestic interiors and the euphoric visit to the landscape pastoral in Winston Smith’s tryst with Julia correspond with Orwell’s newfound sense of enlivenment, but his recently published Diaries offer other correspondences with some of the darker moods and incidents in it. During a 14-mile walk Orwell finds an ‘[o]ld human skull, with some other bones, lying on a beach at Glengarisdale’.  

Orwell’s entry in his Diaries wondered as to the likely source of the skull in Scotland’s history and one of O’Brien’s threats in Nineteen Eighty-Four is Winston’s obliteration from history. As for the infamous Room 101’s rats, two days after Orwell’s encounter with the skull the Diaries noted ‘Avril [Blair’s sister, there to help with his son] found what was evidently a young rat dead near gate. Hitherto no rats or mice (i.e. other than field mice) round this house.’  In Nineteen Eighty-Four O’Brien underlines Winston’s fear of rats, ‘in some streets a woman dare not leave her baby alone in the house, even for five minutes. The rats are certain to attack it.’     

Given the remoteness of the farmhouse on Jura and the increasingly alarming needs of this overworked writer it is safe to assume that Orwell had not truly made peace with his inherited anti-Scottish prejudices and his hostility to regional nationalism but sought the authenticity of imagined simplicity and silence, down an impassable road far away from intrusion. Presented on BBC4 as a nascent digital photographer, Fagen pondered the problem of how nowadays to represent Orwell’s simplified lifestyle on screen, when privacy no longer offers true security and the ubiquity of mobile phone camera technology means we are all ‘Big Brother’.

Fagen’s resultant photograph is simply structured; a distant Barnhill sits within ‘a band of sea, a band of land and a band of sky’, his fragment of anecdotal history sought a dialogic continuity with a creative forerunner, one for whom ideas of empty ‘breathing space’ were just remotely attainable.

Craig Richardson, Oct 2011

Richard Blair on Life With My Aunt Avril


Richard Blair

First Published January – March 2009 Findlay Publisher


Canonbury Square 1946

‘Ouch’ followed by tears of fright as I stuck my fingers into the contacts of a Leclanche cell and received an electric shock from the battery powering the doorbell of 27b Canonbury Square.

This was the flat my father was renting at the end of the second World War. It was also my first conscious memory of life and of my father, George Orwell, who probably thought my misfortune mildly amusing. Lesson learnt; keep your fingers out of things that bite, sting or cut. There is little more that I remember of the flat, except that it was very dark, either because of dark paintwork or low wattage light bulbs, perhaps both. I must have been used to the dark, never having known anything else, and it is something that has never bothered me since. I do vaguely recall playing with my father’s workshop tools such as chisels and a plane, and this he did not find amusing. Obviously the cut part of the earlier lesson hadn’t sunk in and they were removed forthwith, no doubt with tears from me. I also recall being cold at some point and saying so!

This may have been the occasion when Vernon Richards* came to spend two days taking photographs of my father and me, so there was probably quite a lot of time spent outdoors with me in my wheelchair without a coat, feeling cold. Apart from these early memories, I remember little else from that period. However, it can be seen from the photographs that Vernon Richards took that day that his gentle way of dressing me was not posed but showed a genuine love and affection. I seemed to derive a great deal of amusement from that two-day photographic session.

All this came about because of the death of Eileen, my mother, in March 1945 when I was 10 months old. My father was travelling to Germany to cover the end of the War for his friend, David Astor who had asked him to write for The Observer.

Meanwhile Eileen had been admitted to hospital to undergo a minor gynaecological operation. The details that made this necessary have never been fully established. During the operation she died under the anaesthetic. My father had reached Cologne when he was told and, deeply upset, he returned at once to take care of me. There is no doubt that he was profoundly moved by her death, but kept a stiff upper lip, as was the norm for ‘people of a certain class’ at that time. 

However, it left him with the problem of deciding what to do for my future. Some of his friends suggested that, as he had adopted me, he should ‘unadopt’ me. He would not even consider this. Beneath that intellectual exterior beat a heart of deep paternal warmth and he was determined to continue to bring me up as his son. To that end he enlisted the help of friends and relatives until he could engage the services of a nanny, which he soon did. Her name was Susan Watson and she cared for my father and me for about 18 months.

During 1946, at the invitation of David Astor, my father spent a few weeks enjoying the pure air of the island of Jura, off the West coast of Argyll. It was this experience that led him to make the decision to move up to Jura permanently, and to that end he rented a farmhouse called Barnhill at the north end of the island. It was a remote spot, eight miles from the nearest village of Ardlussa and at the end of a very rough track.

*Vernon Richards, George Orwell at Home, essays and photographs. ISBN 0 900384 94 8

1947 – 1950

My father’s sister Avril, always known as Av, had been working in a canteen during the War and had also looked after her mother until her death in 1945. Finding herself at a loose end, she was asked by my father if she would come up to Jura and help look after the house at Barnhill with Susan Watson, my nanny. However, this turned out to be an unhappy combination as Susan and I were already there and Av’s arrival shortly after caused considerable friction. Susan had a physical disability in that she was lame, due to a botched hip operation and Jura was not a place for someone who wasn’t fully mobile. Coupled with this disadvantage, Susan and Av did not see eye to eye over the way I should be brought up and Av disliked the fact that Susan called my father George and not by his proper name of Eric.

The upshot of all this was that my father had to let Susan go, and that left Av in charge of my upbringing, something I think that she did very well.

It was soon after we had settled into Barnhill that Bill Dunn arrived. Bill came from a well respected Glasgow family and had been injured during the War. He lost a leg below the knee, courtesy of an anti-personnel mine in Sicily on the day that I was born, the 14th May 1944. Having tried university after the War, and unable to settle down to reading Agriculture, he came to Jura to learn the practical way, and was soon invited by my father to become an unofficial partner in running the farm side of Barnhill, something that my father was quite unable to do.

The irony of this arrangement was that Bill was hardly 100% fit either, but he was young, strong and had mastered his artificial limb. There followed visits from a succession of young relatives, who came to stay for various lengths of time, nephew, nieces and also friends of my father. I continued my early education into the harsh realities of Life by finding a disgusting old tobacco pipe in the garden and I recall that after lunch one day I got down from the table and, grovelling in the fireplace, was able to collect my father’s roll-up cigarette stubs and stuff them into the filthy pipe. I remember thinking how odd it was that nobody seemed to notice – even to the point of asking my father, sitting with his back to the fire, for his lighter, which was duly handed down with no comment. Although I was not successful in lighting the pipe at that point, I did manage it later; the world soon rotated faster and faster until I was violently sick!

That cured me of smoking until I reached the late 50s, when I became more successful with my endeavours.

One other traumatic memory was watching my father making a wooden toy for me one afternoon while standing on a wooden chair to get a closer look. Losing my balance, I fell and cracked my forehead on a large china jug, like the ones found in bedrooms in the days before en-suites. Blood and tears flowed and as it was quite a serious cut I was taken down to Ardlussa, where the doctor from Craighouse was summoned and he put in two or three stitches.

I have the scar to this day. The other vivid memory of my father was our near-drowning experience – but more of that later. Jura is famous for its red deer. The word Jura means ‘deer’ in Gaelic. However, its other inhabitants are less appreciated – adders, and many of them. They could be found sunning themselves on rocks and stone dykes, and you had to be careful not to put your hand anywhere without checking first! I recall my father catching a very large adder once, by putting his foot on its head and disembowelling it with a knife, an act that Bill found rather strange.

My earliest memory of Av was one evening at Barnhill during the summer of 1947 when I was about three. We were going down to the bay in front of Barnhill to go out in our little 12’ dinghy to check lobster pots and I kicked up a fuss about not being allowed to go. Av reached up to a shelf to get down a plate for my supper, which meant going to bed immediately afterwards. I thought this was not a good idea after all and thus another useful lesson was learned; it was called discipline. Av was not in the ‘huggy kissy’ brigade but she was very protective of me and made sure that I was well looked after, with her own version of love, which may not have been demonstrative but a child of that age soon adapts and is comfortable with the situation. On that foundation I felt that I had a happy childhood. People talked to me and I was allowed to do pretty much as I wanted as far as play was concerned, even wandering round the farm on my own which probably led to getting into trouble and one day getting lost. Bill was less impressed but Av persuaded him that a sharp smack on the bottom was not always necessary. She must have decided that I had frightened myself sufficiently not to wander off too far in future.

Av was also devoted to my father and without her practical, no-nonsense way of looking after the house and his needs he would not have been able to cope. This allowed him to concentrate on writing what was to be a lasting legacy to the literary world, Nineteen-Eighty Four. Life was hard in those days after the War. Rationing was still in force and buying groceries, or anything for that matter, was a struggle. There was one small shop at Craighouse: some 23 miles south of Barnhill and the mailboat, universally known as ‘the steamer’ called three times a week. This required forward planning, something I think Av was consummately good at because we never seemed to be short of essential food. To my mind she was a very good cook, nothing elaborate but wholesome and she and my father enjoyed growing our own vegetables so we were well provided for. She was also good with flowers and shrubs, something she enjoyed growing all her life but seemed never able to devote enough time to fulfil her dreams. There was always manual work to be done on what little arable acreage we had at Barnhill. With little mechanical help, apart from the most basic equipment such as a horse-drawn plough and cultivating implements, everything was done manually. We did buy a 2-wheeled hand-controlled tractor towards the end of our time, which helped.

The hours were long and the weather invariably conspired against you, so that hay and harvesting oats was always something of a gamble. Av would work tirelessly with Bill Dunn, who was doing his best to make the farm pay; not easy as we really didn’t have a great deal of stock and they were spread very thinly over a great many acres of the Ardlussa estate.

During this time Av, as well as looking after me and helping Bill, also looked after my father, who took to his bed from time to time as he worked tirelessly on his novel. His health was not improved by a near-drowning experience that he, along with myself and his nephew and niece, Henry and Lucy Dakin, had in the Gulf of Corrievreckan in June 1947 when I was three. We were returning from a week of camping on the west side of Jura when we ran into trouble in the infamous stretch of water known as the Corrievreckan Whirlpool. We had arrived at this spot when my father realised that he had miscalculated the tidal stream so that instead of calm, manageable water, the tide was still on the flood. The consequence of this situation is that a standing wave is created in the middle of the tide race. This causes the surrounding currents to become extremely confused, giving it the local title of ‘whirlpool’. It was here that we found ourselves in real trouble. The little outboard motor became swamped and died and, unable to re-start it, Henry took to the oars and managed to row us to one of two rocky islets, where he jumped out onto the rocks and taking the mooring line, tried to secure the dinghy. At this point the swell receded and our dinghy rolled back and overturned, throwing father, Lucy and me into the sea beneath the boat. Fortunately I had been sitting on my father’s knee and he was able to pull us both out from under the dinghy. Lucy did the same and we all scrambled onto the rocky islet. Everything in the boat was lost. There was nothing for it but to try to dry ourselves as best we could and wait to be rescued. This might have been a very long wait but fortunately a lobster boat soon came through and took us to safety. My father – being my father – asked the fishermen to drop us off at the nearest access point to our home track, and we walked back to be greeted with the question, “Where have you been?” My father’s reply was that we had been shipwrecked – an understatement if ever there was one.

This episode resulted in my father being admitted to hospital at Hairmyres in East Kilbride later in the year as the involuntary swim had done him no favours. Although he recovered sufficiently to return to Barnhill in the Spring of 1948 to continue writing, the effort took its toll and by 1949 he was back in hospital. He never returned to Jura, the place he had grown to love. It was during this rather poignant last journey of his from Jura to hospital that I was in the car with him, Av and Bill. As so often happened on these trips we had a puncture and Av and Bill had to walk back to Barnhill to fetch the spare wheel and jack. My father and I stayed in the car, stranded several miles down the lonely track, waiting for them to return.

During this time he talked to me of this and that and read me poetry which he might well have written himself. It was one of those rare and intimate periods when, with just the two of us, he may have felt it was the last he might have with me. I think he realised that he would not return to Jura. It was indeed the last time that we were ever to be close to each other again, apart from brief visits to his sickbed at Cranham Sanitorium. I was then five years old.

For the next ten months or so my father’s address was to be Cranham Sanitorium, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. At the beginning of June, following his wishes, I left Jura and was placed in the care of Lilian Wolfe, who ran a ‘colony’ at Whiteway, near Stroud. Whiteway had been an anarchists’ colony during the First World War and was a strange place to accommodate me but as far as I can recall I was perfectly happy there and even attended a local kindergarten for a few weeks, until mid-August. I remember regularly waiting with someone to catch a bus to go and visit my father and, on arrival, would always ask him where it hurt. To me there appeared to be no signs of his illness, apart from a corpse-like pallor, though I don’t suppose I would have noticed that at five years old. It was at Cranham that he was at his most infectious with TB and his dilemma was to balance his desire to see me as often as possible with the responsibility of making sure I was not exposed to possible infection, so there was no physical contact at all. As I was in pretty good health I think it was unlikely that I was actually in any danger but he would not have taken the risk. Although he always gives the impression of being an optimist, I’m sure that in private moments, alone in his room, he must often have wondered if he would ever be well enough to be an active Father to me again. He was under no illusion about his illness and recovery this time was not a foregone conclusion.

I returned to Jura in mid-August and at the beginning of September was enrolled at the local school. The most practical solution to travelling was for me to stay with the local postman and his family during the week and to travel back and forth to Barnhill by boat. It was no wonder that when I finally went to boarding school in 1953, I was able to settle in without being homesick! I have lost count of the number of people/families with whom I had stayed in my short life up till then.

Concluding this period, I am fairly certain that I was in London for Christmas and New Year of 1949 and so, although I do not actually remember it, I would certainly have seen my father before his death on the 21st January 1950.

1950 – 1951

The first we knew of the death of my father was a BBC News item at 8am announcing that he had died. Telegrams in those days travelled no faster than the ordinary mail! The news, I remember, caused Av great distress and plans were hurriedly made to leave Jura and travel down to London for his funeral. Arrangements in London were made by my father’s great friend David Astor, who persuaded the local vicar at Sutton Courtney that to have a distinguished author buried in his churchyard might be ‘ a good thing’. My father’s death caused Av and Bill to re-think their future as, by this stage, they had decided to get married. Although my father had married Sonia Brownell just prior to his death, arrangements had already been made that, had my father survived a planned trip to Switzerland in the early part of 1950 (and the prognosis was that he might have regained a limited degree of health), I was to live with him and Sonia. Were he not to survive, as was the case, then Av and Bill would continue to bring me up.

In the end Av and Bill decided that it was no longer feasible to continue on Jura and that they would have to look for somewhere on the mainland to set up home after they were married. By the end of that summer those plans were put into effect and we left Jura for the last time. Bill was looking for a suitable farm to rent at this point so Av and I went to live with her brother-in-law and wife, Humphrey and Ve Dakin. ( Humphrey’s first wife was Marjorie, Eric and Av’s elder sister), who lived in the Garden Cottage with a sizable market garden attached, beside Rufford Abbey, a large ruined house beside a lake in Nottinghamshire.

Humphrey’s market garden included several huge greenhouses. I can still remember the smell of tomatoes and chrysanthemums and it takes me back to those childhood days. Sweetcorn was something else that Humphrey grew in abundance and I recall making myself sick eating too many of them, to the point that it was another 40 years before I could face them again. It was here that Av and I settled down for the Winter and she continued to care for my welfare. I have no cause to think it was done with anything less than her form of love, which we were both comfortable with. I certainly had a very happy time at Rufford. I had cousins who, although older, were extremely tolerant of me, and a half cousin (Humphrey and Ve’s daughter) to play with, plus going to school in Edwinstowe.

Incidentally, I had started school on Jura and attended, very briefly, the kindergarten near Stroud when my father had gone into Cranham Sanitorium in 1949. By mid-1950 Av was making plans to get married the following February as Bill had found a farm not far from Barnshill, as the crow flies, but on the mainland in the parish of Craignish, some 25 miles south of Oban.

By the end of January 1951 Av left to go up to Glasgow for her wedding, leaving me behind, and in March I was put on a train from Nottingham to Glasgow by myself, now aged six but watched over by the guard. Imagine doing that in today’s paranoid climate! Someone would have been prosecuted for child neglect or cruelty. I was perfectly happy to be on my own, although I was very worried at one point when the train arrived in Leeds and then proceeded to go backwards.

This was in order to continue over the Seattle and Carlisle line to Glasgow, where I was met by Av and Bill, by now newly married. We took a bus to where they were living temporarily with a friend in a village called Strachur, which was opposite Inverary on Loch Fyne. Again I went to the local school for a few weeks whilst the final arrangements were made to move to our new home. This school was, at age six, my fourth! Finally, on the 6th March 1951 we moved to Gartcharron Farm in the parish of Craignish, a 360 acre hill farm which had 60 acres of good quality arable land.

So far, this has been strictly a calendar of events with very little about my relationship with Av. It is difficult to form an opinion at such an early age since one’s memories are, by definition, rather fragmented. Apart from being fed and clothed, there is no doubt that Av treated me as her own (she was never to have children) and there was certainly a bond between us.

Was it as strong the other way round? I guess so, but one must remember that her relationship was not one of hugs and kisses. Nevertheless, it was warm and loving. In those far off days there was never any question of tantrums, shouting and kicking. This would have been very quickly brought to order, although I suppose I had my fair share of bad moods. I think she tolerated them and they passed. I don’t recall her ever shouting at me, and insubordination or bad manners was dealt with firmly and calmly. She could be very stubborn when necessary, as Bill was to find out during their marriage – a marriage that could be very stormy indeed at times, as Bill became incensed by inconsequential matters and was prone to intolerance, fuelled in no small way by alcohol. In the early days drink was a luxury as money was very tight, but as the years went on it was to become more of a problem. My impression was that it never got completely out of hand.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself.

1951 – 1960

Over the next few weeks we settled into our new home. With very little spare cash (what money there was had to be spent on buying the ‘in hand’ stock) life was hard, but Av soon had as comfortable a home set up as she could manage with the furniture from Jura. She and Bill spent long hours working on the farm, doing as much as they could without having to be reliant on help from outside as this would cost money. Of course they had to call for occasional help when it came to clipping or dipping sheep, or when the vet called to test the cattle for TB which happened annually. There were many visitors during the summer and they all wanted to help making hay, which made Bill grind his teeth because they would inevitably be more of a hindrance than a help, time and weather always being a factor. Av bore all this with stoical indifference. She even had time to set up her own market garden. As it was all part of the farming enterprise Bill was quite happy with this. She grew vegetables and soft fruit, mainly strawberries for selling to whoever would buy the produce and this was another useful source of income. Bill was not so tolerant when she also spent time in the garden as this did not contribute to the farm income. But over the years she planted an impressive shrubbery in front of the house. Much of it still exists today.

Meanwhile, soon after arriving in March 1951 I was enrolled at the village school where I emained for two years. This was now school number five! It was during my time at this school that in November 1952 Av was taken very ill and was rushed to hospital in Glasgow where she underwent a hysterectomy at the age of 44. In those days one spent far more time in hospital, recuperating, than one does today. I suppose I would have been very concerned about Av. After all, I had lost my mother and then my father in fairly quick succession and the thought that I might now lose Av too must have weighed on my mind.

However, to take my mind off such thoughts I was packed off to Glasgow to stay with an uncle of Bill’s where I had a splendid Christmas visiting the circus and funfair at the Kelvin Hall. Av returned in due course and slowly resumed her work.

The question eventually arose about what would happen to me for further education. Av was all for me going to Oban High School but because there was money set aside by my father, specifically for my education, Bill persuaded her that I should go to his old school, Loretto near Edinburgh. I was duly dispatched to start the summer term at the Loretto prep school in May 1953. I think this was the only time I consciously remember Av giving me a kiss. I think she found it hard to see me go. Maybe she was thinking of my father’s appalling prep school.

However, my experience couldn’t have been more different. We were all well looked after and the staff were human and kind. Corporal punishment still existed in those days so one always tried to follow the 11th Commandment – ‘Thou shalt not be found out.’ During my schooldays Av would do her best to come and see me when we had a Saturday or a Sunday ’leave’. These events would end with a 10/- note being given to me, which was always welcome.

The relationship between Av and Bill, although stormy at times was, by and large, very loving. There was a genuine relationship between the two of them. Indeed, I recall an episode when we had been to the local pub and drink/driving was not yet a serious issue. Bill didn’t have a driving licence at the time so Av did all the driving. Bill would hold the steering wheel at the bottom while Av waved with both hands and a broad smile at passing motorists. It occurred to me that this was outrageous for grown-ups to do, but held my council. Av’s favourite tipple was dry sherry. She didn’t like beer and I don’t think she drank whiskey.

It was towards the end of my prep school days when Av and I were on our own, driving somewhere, she raised the subject of my birth and told me that I had been adopted. There was little information forthcoming, only that my father and mother had adopted me at birth, but there were no details from Av. I suppose this incredible piece of information must have come as a  bombshell and would have set me thinking but I can’t say that I remember being overwhelmed by this. After all, so much had already happened in my short life.

I think I just accepted the fact without question This lack of information applied to sex education as well, except that this was never mentioned at all. I think I was supposed to have picked it all up from watching the bull in action.

During my second year in the Upper School at Loretto I got into trouble for smoking, which earned me a pretty sharp caning from the head of school. Prefects and house prefects were allowed to cane pupils. A few weeks later I found myself in more trouble over an incident involving several of us who were accused of intimidation of a fellow classmate. I was no more guilty than some of the others but I was hauled out with the ring leader and given ‘six of the best’. As my previous tally was four, I had now notched up a total of ten strokes, something of a record. During that rather traumatic time I had nothing but support from Av. She may have privately been upset by it all but never offered me more than a gentle rebuke. Once again, maybe she felt that I had been punished enough and would have learned my lesson. I did not – but I was never caught smoking again. During my days at Loretto Av never missed a week without writing to me, even though my replies were rather brief and uninteresting. Her letters were something I always looked forward to getting, and have appreciated to this day.

As far as living at Gartcharron was concerned, I was generally on my own although, as I progressed through school, I did occasionally have friends to stay. In the early days I learned to amuse myself when Av and Bill were working in the fields. I did get involved as I got older, being expected to pull my weight on the farm, and I was driving the tractor by the age of eight.

Later on I was trusted to wander about with firearms, both shotgun and rifle and I would go off looking for pheasant, but with little luck. Av pretty much allowed me to grow up with minimum apparent guidance. However, I am sure that she fostered in me a sense of right and wrong and good manners.

Where was Sonia during my time with Av and Bill? Well, she did keep in touch and occasionally would turn up at Gartcharron. However, Av and Sonia did not always see eye to eye, and as Sonia was opinionated and Bill was intolerant, there used to be titanic rows between them, especially ‘when drink was taken’! I could hear all this from my room above and I cannot say I enjoyed it much. I think that the subject under discussion was usually money. However, Sonia was deeply loyal to my father and as he had indicated in his Will that I was to be looked after, she took that very seriously and indeed I think she underwrote the farm from time to time. I have to say though, that was pretty much all she did, ie: help was always at arms length. Although we had little money, food was never an issue, there was plenty of it and meat was always available as any animal, beef or sheep, that wasn’t fit for the market was dispatched with the aid of a bullet and expertly butchered by Bill. Av was an excellent cook.

My academic prowess never hit the high spots and the Headmaster at the time suggested that I would be better off if I left school at the end of my third year. By the Summer of 1960 when I was sixteen I left Loretto and spent an idle holiday with friends who came to stay, although Bill would rope us in when it came to harvest time. The question arose about what I should do now that I had left school. The decision was taken that I would go to the Isle of Bute and work on a pre-college farm as I had decided to go to agricultural college at some stage and needed to gain more practical experience. So in November 1960 I left home for the last time and only returned briefly from then on.

1960 – 1978

Once away and working for someone else, I felt a sense of freedom. I was being paid £4 a week all-found, which I was quite happy with. I had three days off every month and made friends with local people of my age on the island so we went to the cinema, cafes and the local dance hall where we discovered girls. There was little communication with home, apart from Av’s still regular letters, and I phoned occasionally. This ‘on farm’ experience lasted until the following August when Sonia, who in 1957 had re-married an aristocratic farmer with a large arable/stock farm in Wiltshire, by the name of Michael Pitt-Rivers, made arrangements through Michael for me to go to the Wiltshire Farm Institute at Lackham, near Chippenham. I spent a weekend with them prior to starting college although, already, the marriage was falling apart. Indeed, by Christmas 1961 she was back in her old flat in Percy Street in London.

I enjoyed my time at Lackham and, fortified by my saved earnings from Bute and Av’s new contribution of £4 per month, I was able to go out with the other students and enjoy our weekends. At the end of the year I passed all the exams and came away with a Credit, which seemed to please everybody. I then spent three months at home helping Bill and at the same time applied to enrol at the North of Scotland College of Agriculture in Aberdeen for the beginning of the 1963 academic year. I had to wait a year for this in order to get another twelve months of practical time on an approved college farm.

What a contrast; unlike the farmer I stayed with on Bute where it was comfortable and the food excellent, my new digs were a misery, there was not enough food and what we were given was of poor quality – and there was little or nothing to do in the evenings. With only 30/- a week for wages, plus Av’s £4 a month, money was extremely tight. However, the other students and I made the best of it and managed to find a few friends. The one thing I always remember was the cold. It was the year of one of the coldest spells experienced for a very long time. The snow in Aberdeenshire lay on the ground from Christmas 1962 until March 1963, during which time the temperature never rose above freezing. With little or no heating in the digs it was hard work keeping warm, and having to get up at 5am and walk a mile to the dairy to milk the cows in unsuitable clothes did not put a smile on our faces. The year progressed and in the autumn I began my studies again in college in Aberdeen.

What of Av? Apart from her monthly cheque, always accompanied by a newsy letter, I had little communication. To help the college fees Sonia, in conjunction with Jack Harrison, the accountant in charge of George Orwell Productions, the company set up by Jack to look after my father’s affairs, had decided to grant me a small income. This was money left over from my aborted schooldays. Thus I was able to survive in digs in reasonable comfort. It was at the beginning of February 1964 that I was introduced to Eleanor Moir by a mutual friend. Eleanor was looking for a partner to go to a friend’s party. What no one expected, not even us, was that we fell completely in love, much to our delight. An even more unexpected result was that in no time she became pregnant. In those less-enlightened times, both Eleanor’s parents and Av and Bill were upset as they felt that we were too young to consider marriage. I think they felt sure that because we had not known each other for long, the chances of survival together were slim.

We were determined to go ahead, whatever the parents said so Sonia came over from France to try and persuade us not to marry. When that failed she made us agree to go down to London to see Jack Harrison because Sonia had asked him to do his best to persuade us not to get married. However, he could not force us and did not press the point. One has to remember that at that time, in Sonia’s eyes, Jack Harrison could do no wrong. This was to turn into a disaster later on when she was forced to take him to Court to gain control of my father’s affairs.

Meanwhile Eleanor and I pressed ahead and arranged to be married in King’s College Chapel, Aberdeen which we did on June 24th 1964. Eleanor’s parents attended and had, by this time, given their blessing. Along with a few other friends we had a very happy ceremony, followed by  a short honeymoon. I think that Av and Bill very nearly separated and divorced at this time. Av was certainly upset at not being invited to the wedding, something I have always regretted. I, quite wrongly, thought that she might be too ashamed of me to be there.

Eleanor and I decided to make a clean break and we left Aberdeen in November of that year. There had been some reconciliation between myself, Av and Bill with the birth of our son and we were able to go and see them before we left for a new job in Herefordshire.

Some time after we had settled into our first home in Herefordshire Bill wrote to me to tell me that I was no longer welcome at Gartcharron. I never got to the bottom of this bombshell.

However, Av continued to write occasionally and indeed she and Sonia came to visit a year or so later. It was not until the early 1970s that there was a real reconciliation between myself and Bill and we were able to make occasional visits to Gartcharron again. By that time we had two small sons who loved going there and messing about in old dinghies that Bill had on the shore in front of the house, and there was no question that both Av and Bill had taken to them. These seemed more settled times. Bill was no less argumentative but one could humour him better. In 1975 I joined Massey-Ferguson and I think Av decided that at last I was making progress in my life. However, I’m sure they both felt that our marriage would not last for very long. There was, after all, no doubt that under the outward appearance of domestic bliss, theirs was a fairly stormy marriage. Av could be prone to long periods of silence when she and Bill had a row and he found that difficult to cope with, and yet there was still a spark between them. A sort of ‘can’t live with you; can’t live without you’ relationship.

It must have been after one of these stormy occasions on the 10th January 1978 that Bill stomped off to the pub, leaving Av complaining of not feeling well. When he returned later, he went off to bed. They had separate rooms by then but he woke on hearing a thump and found Av lying on the floor in her room. She had died of a heart attack, aged sixty nine. It was 3am on the morning of the 11th January.

Bill was so distressed that he hardly knew what he was doing.

As a result the undertaker made hasty arrangements and Av was cremated on Friday 13th January. It was not until the evening of the 15th that an old schoolfriend, who was visiting, was horrified to discover that Bill had neglected to tell me of Av’s death, and made him phone me. We were at that time living in Warwick and I was working for Massey-Ferguson in Coventry. I drove straight up to Gartcharron the following morning, arriving in the afternoon, to find Bill looking down the barrel of a bottle of whiskey. However, we sorted things out, and in due course he settled down to living on his own.

This situation resolved itself later in the year when Av’s niece, Jane Dakin, returned from teaching in Jamaica and, at Bill’s invitation, became his companion and partner at Gartcharron until his death.

© Richard Blair


DJ Taylor on Orwell’s Poetry


First published by Findlay Publisher December 2008 – January 2009

Peter Davison’s magisterial Orwell: The Complete Works (1998) prints 26 poems by, or ascribed to, George Orwell. Continue reading “DJ Taylor on Orwell’s Poetry”