Orwell and Sport, by Peter Davison

ORWELL AND SPORT – Peter Davison

Published in Finlay Publisher March–May 2009


‘I had to be jolly quick to pick them up [shots at goal] and kick them, because most of the chaps [on] the other side were in aufel [sic] rats and they were runing [sic] at me like angry dogs’. So Eric Blair, aged eight, writing to his mother on 3 March 1912 (CW, X, 13-14). He had, he told her, lost his place in the six-a-side team to a much older boy but had played goal in ‘ordinary football’ his side winning 5-1. Orwell’s excitement shines through but one could not gauge from this whether he would become internationally famous as a goalkeeper or a writer. Orwell’s letters from St Cyprian’s Preparatory School show how much he enjoyed football and cricket – and nature walks. Despite making no claim to sporting ability it is clear from his time at Eton that he was not without talent. Between September 1918 and December 1920 he played in the Wall Game on eighteen occasions, sixty times ‘in the field’, and in three unspecified games; he missed thirteen games. Goals are very rarely scored in the Wall Game but The Annals of Lower College Foot-Ball, vol. 13, 1916-1921, states that for the Wall Game on 6 October 1920 the ‘feature of the first half was a superb goal neatly shot by Blair from the halfway line’. His prowess culminated in the St Andrew’s Day game (the annual needle match between King’s Scholars – of which Orwell was one – and fee-paying boys) on 4 December when the report states, ‘Blair kept and kicked very competently under considerable difficulties’ (see CW, X, p. 57).

Orwell and Denys King-Farlow inherited the periodical College Days and are said to have made handsome profits from its sale (£86 in 1920 and £128 at Lord’s in 1921). Contributions were unsigned but it is probable that among the contributions made by Orwell was a parody of Kipling’s ‘If’ on the Wall Game, and two cricket items, a parody of Walt Whitman, ‘The Wounded Cricketer’, and quite a neat short story, ‘The Cricket Enthusiast’. (See CW, X, 53-4 for attributions, and 56 and 70-2 for these three items.) Of course, writing a jeu d’esprit does not entail participation in its subject.

Field Sports

Orwell’s sporting recreations were not limited to football and cricket though some today might not regard his skill at shooting and in firing a catapult as ‘sport’. However, despite his frequent protestations that he was not a good shot, he certainly seems to have had a good eye and a steady aim. In his letters to Prosper Buddicom in 1921 he describes catching a rat, putting it into ‘one of those big cage-rat traps’ (a foreshadowing of Nineteen Eighty-Four?), letting it out and trying to ‘shoot at it as it runs’. Then a sign of his sense of fair play: ‘If it gets away I think one ought to let it go & not chase it’ (X, p. 78). Orwell’s friend, Roger Mynors (later Sir Roger and Professor of Latin at, successively, Cambridge and Oxford Universities), who shared a great passion for biology with him, described Orwell’s prowess with a catapult when they were at Eton. ‘One day Eric Blair killed a jackdaw with a catapult on the roof of the college chapel, which was entirely illegal, and we took it round to the biology lab and dissected it. . . . the bird met a messy and rather smelly end because we did it all wrong. We made the great mistake of slitting the gall bladder and therefore flooding the place with, er . . . Well, it was an awful mess’ (Stephen Wadhams, Remembering Orwell, pp. 18-19). His fascination with catapults continued when he was in Morocco. He records in his diary on 2nd December 1938: ‘Find that the weaker of the two catapults will throw a stone (less satisfactory than buckshot) 90 yards at most. So a powerful catapult ought to throw a buckshot about 150 yards’. In The Lost Orwell there is an illustration of Orwell aiming a catapult when at Marrakech (plate 10). We can also gather from a later diary entry (11 January 1940) that he evidently enjoyed ice skating. The church pond at Wallington had frozen sufficiently to bear skaters but, alas, he had no skates with him.

Undoubtedly one of the best-known incidents in Orwell’s life is his shooting of an elephant in Burma, described in an important essay (often said to foreshadow the fall of the Raj) published in 1936 (X, 501-6). It is worth repeating the start of this essay: in Moulmein he ‘was hated by a large number of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me’. He goes on to describe how, as a police officer, he was an obvious target on the football field – so football still played a part of his life – and ‘When some nimble Burman tripped me up . . . the referee (another Burman) looked the other way [and] the crowd yelled with hideous laughter’. Although shooting tigers and elephants could then be regarded as sport, Orwell’s shooting an elephant was not sport. It is unnecessary to repeat the account given by his colleague, George Stuart, of how Orwell came to be called upon to deal with a rampaging elephant which had killed a man.

However, it might be worth contrasting what happened to Orwell and the much less well-known account of the treatment of a fellow officer who had shot an elephant a few months earlier.

Orwell’s superior, Colonel Welbourne was furious with Orwell and he was despatched on 23 December 1926 to Katha (the Kyauktada of Burmese Days; see X, 506, n. 2). Major E. C. Kenny, the subdivisional officer of Yamethin was treated very differently. According to the Rangoon Gazette for 22 March 1926 Kenny was on tour in the Takton township and came across an elephant that had killed a villager and caused great havoc to the plantations. He ‘brought it down to the delight of the villagers’ (contrast Orwell’s ‘I heard the devilish glee that went up from the crowd’, X, p. 505). Unlike Orwell, Kenny was not punished but on 13 December 1926 promoted to Deputy Commissioner (see The Lost Orwell, p. 166). Had this news item in the Rangoon Gazette been known much earlier it is interesting to ponder how ‘Shooting an Elephant’ might have been interpreted. One line in the essay that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt is Orwell’s statement, ‘I was a poor shot with a rifle’. He may have mistaken the elephant’s most vulnerable point, but he was not a poor shot: this is an example of Orwell’s creativity and self-deprecation.

Orwell never lost his interest in rifles. In Homage to Catalonia he offers a mini-disquisition on the variety of rifles used on the front line in his section of Spain (VI, pp. 33-4). In ‘As I Please’, 7, he discusses the formation of volunteer rifle clubs in the 1860s to face French armies if they invaded, so that ‘peaceful citizens cowered in ditches while bullets of the Rifle Clubs (the then equivalent of the Home Guard) ricocheted in all directions’ (XVI, p. 60). In ‘Bare Christmas for the Children’, 1 December 1945, he talks of ‘One of the advantages of being a child 30 years ago was the lighter-hearted attitude that then prevailed towards firearms’ and he describes his purchase for 7s 6d (37½d in today’s currency, the equivalent of about £12) of ‘a fairly lethal weapon known as a Saloon Rifle. I bought my first Saloon Rifle at the age of 10, with no questions asked’ (XVII, p. 411). Given the damage he could wreak on his comrades in the Home Guard with a Spigot Mortar (see XII, p. 328), one hopes he was safer with a rifle.

The use of a rifle to shoot an elephant and as a weapon of war is anything but sport but Orwell’s not pulling the trigger to shoot a man when in the front line in Catalonia says much about Orwell and is perhaps worth quoting in full even in the context of Orwell and sport:

Early one morning another man and I had gone out to snipe at the Fascists in the trenches outside Huesca. . . . Some of our aeroplanes were coming over. At this moment a man, presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot [again!] and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards, and also that I was thinking chiefly about getting back to our trench while the Fascists had their attention fixed on the aeroplanes. Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at “Fascists”; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a “Fascist”, he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him. [‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, 1942?, XIII, p. 501]


Water had two attractions for Orwell: pre-eminently fishing but also, at least at school, swimming. There are two well-known pictures showing Orwell at Eton, one in swimming trunks with four friends (one of whom is Steven Runciman) posing in pre-Goodies’ silly postures and another showing Orwell, cigarette in mouth, wearing a floppy white hat and carrying under one arm a rolled-up towel with, perhaps inside it, swimming trunks (see Sir Bernard Crick, George Orwell: A Life, plates 7 and 8). Sir Bernard correctly identifies the first of these illustrations as taking place at a favourite Eton swimming hole on the Thames half a mile up-stream from Windsor called ‘Athens’. The second he descriptively captions, ‘Asking for trouble’. This second picture is reproduced in Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, vol. 3 (BBC, 2002) on p. 458.

Here the caption – not written by Simon Schama – states ‘Eric Blair on vacation in Athens, 1919’. Orwell, of course, never got to Greece.


Though a novel, Coming Up for Air clearly demonstrates Orwell’s passion for fishing. It is not only George Bowling who is confessing to ‘that peculiar feeling for fishing’ and who so delights in the pool at Binfield House, ‘swarming with bream’ and with an enormous fish – ‘the biggest fish I’d ever seen, dead or alive’. As both Georges put it so evocatively, ‘There’s a kind of peacefulness even in the names of English coarse fish. Roach, rudd, dace, bleak, barbel, bream, gudgeon, pike, chub, carp, tench. They’re solid kind of names. The people who made them up hadn’t heard of machine guns . . .’ (VII, pp. 76-81). Orwell had very little time away from the BBC when working for its Eastern Service, but he was able to spend a few days fishing at Callow End, Worcestershire, at the beginning of July, 1942.

The local pubs, the Blue Bell and the Red Lion, either ran out of beer or kept it back for locals, and the fishing was hardly exciting. Orwell recorded his catch for his 14 days at the farm: 18 dace (though one might have been a roach), 1 perch and 2 eels. On five days he caught nothing (XIII, 384-5). When he died, his fishing rods stood in the corner of his room at University College Hospital in the hope that, if he recovered, he might be able to take them with him to Switzerland where it was hoped he could recuperate.

Contemporary Attitudes

It might be useful to interject here something about the way sport and attitudes to sport have changed over the past hundred-plus years. Recently the President of Fifa, Herr Sepp Blatter, referring to Cristiano Ronaldo’s wish to break his freely-entered-into contract and move to Real Madrid from Manchester United, said that there was ‘too much modern slavery in transferring players’. It was quickly pointed out that Herr Blatter, though a lawyer, seemed to have a tenuous grasp of the terrible things inherent in ‘slavery’ and Ronaldo was damned in language I shall not repeat here for agreeing with Herr Blatter about his ‘slavery’ (Brian Moore, Daily Telegraph, 12 July 2008).

I do not have space, nor competence, to outline the history of sport since say, the Powderhall New Year Sprint Handicap at Jedbergh in 1870 which offered monetary prizes (won by D. Wright in that year with a 12-yard handicap over 160 yards). Two fine recent books sketch changes between then and contemporary ‘football slavery’. The professional foul is now de rigeur (so much so that it became the title of Tom Stoppard’s TV play of 1977 which brilliantly simultaneously dramatises the worlds of politics and soccer). Orwell’s biographer, D.J. Taylor, gives an excellent account of how this has come about in On the Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism in Sport (2006). It is refreshing to read how the Corinthian’s goalkeeper would vacate the space between the goalposts rather than attempt to save a penalty on the assumption that his team was at fault and should not benefit therefrom. In 1901 footballers’ pay was limited to £4 a week; two years after Orwell wrote ‘The Sporting Spirit’ (14 December 1945, XVII, pp. 440-3 with follow-up letters, pp. 443-6, one of which based its argument by claiming that ‘It is obvious . . . George has never played football for the love of it’), the maximum was raised to £12 and later to £20; a maximum was abolished in 1961. Now the average wage of a Premier League footballer is £1,100,000 per week (Daily Telegraph, 12 July, 2008). The ratio between what a footballer and the average spectator earned in 1901 was about double; it is now roughly 2,800 times. Who is the slave, one might ask?

The second book is a stunning account of a stunning occasion: Janie Hampton’s The Austerity Olympics: When the Games came to London in 1948 (2008), an Olympics totally different in spirit despite (because of?) austere times from the Nazi-inspired Games of 1936. As Laura Thompson in her review in the Telegraph wrote, ‘It is hard not to feel that there is a vast gulf between 2012 and 1948 . . . This book made me envy anyone who attended them’ in 1948. My wife and I, who visited Wembley and saw Fanny Blankers-Koen, Emil Zátopek, and the hockey (in which Great Britain took the silver medal – games we both played) would heartily concur. In 1948 there seem to have been no drugs – though one could chew Horlicks tablets, which were not rationed. Three extracts will succinctly sum up the difference between the time when Orwell wrote about sport and today. Dennis Watts, the AAA champion in long jump and hop-step-and jump was selected for the British team – until it was discovered he had applied for a job as a sports teacher: he had yet to be interviewed. He was immediately dropped because he was considered to be a professional (p. 43). The New Zealand wrestling champion, Charlie ‘Croga’ Adams, was caught cycling on a public footpath and fined five shillings (25p). The NZ Olympic Committee decided that made him a convicted criminal and he was dropped (p. 213). My favourite example relates to the Olympic Bond signed by the seven members of the New Zealand team in which they agreed to ‘win without swank and lose without grousing’ (pp. 46-7).

The cost in 1948 for the whole Games was £732,268 (equivalent to about £20,000,000 today). There was a profit of £29,420 (having deducted the Argentine cheque for £280 which bounced, p. 7), and the Labour Government, which had played no part in organising the Games (doubtless ensuring their success), took a tax cut of £9,000 from that profit (p. 322).

Moscow Dynamo Tour 1945

Orwell was prompted to write ‘The Sporting Spirit’ following the ill-starred visit of Moscow Dynamos in late 1945. As he makes plain, he didn’t see any of the games and I am not sure that I would agree with whoever informed him that the match between the Russians and Glasgow Rangers ‘was simply a free-for-all from the start’. By a lucky chance a friend of mine and I managed to obtain tickets (costing 1s 9d, about 9p) by looking like real sailors just ashore.

That is not how we recall the game nor do the two minutes of extracts from the Pathé newsreel which can be seen on the web (go to ‘Glasgow Rangers v. Moscow Dynamos, 3 December 1945’), but that is hardly the point. Where Orwell’s analysis is correct is that as international sport has developed, ‘the most savage combative instincts are aroused . . . At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare’ (p. 441). The 1948 Games showed the better, more Corinthian, style of sport for its own sake, but, in general, Orwell correctly divined the future.

The very idea of ‘play’ in ‘The Great Game’ was past. I am inclined to think that booting a football to initiate ‘The Great European Cup Final’ at the Battle of the Somme saw more than a tragic loss of life: it marked, bloodily and finally, the end of innocence, of sport for fun by ‘muddied oafs’, amateur or professional. 1


What of Orwell and cricket? Orwell played cricket at St Cyprian’s and seems to have had an abiding affection for the Eton v Harrow annual fixtures at Lord’s (see X, pp. 53; XI, 175-6, 372-3; XII, 183, 379; XIII, 154). If one was slightly cynical one might suggest that was because they reminded him of the killing he and Denys King-Farlow made selling College Days but cricket went deeper. His review of Edmund Blunden’s Cricket Country (XVI, 161-3) shows a real affection for the game and he is able to correct and amplify Blunden’s ‘team’ of poets and writers (headed by Byron, who played for Harrow). He quotes his line, ‘And I have seen the righteous man forsaken’ from ‘Report on Experience’, which refers to the 1914-18 War, since, ‘as he sadly perceives, cricket has never been quite the same since’ (XVI, p. 162). Orwell also refers to Sir Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitaï Lampada’ (as relay runners passing on ‘the torch of life’ – Lucretius) with its evocative lines, ‘There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night – / Ten to make and the match to win’, and especially its ‘Play up! play up! And play the game!’. Despite being cut in stone by Gilbert Bayes on the wall of Lord’s facing Wellington Road in 1934, these lines are today easily mocked. Orwell seems to do that for Newbolt when he has a fellow Old Cliftonian taking inspiration from such a game to the North-West Frontier (XIX, p. 69)

Nevertheless, he tellingly suggests that the sentiment be compared with ‘Full Moon at Tierz: Before the Storming of Huesca’ by the Communist poet, John Cornford: the ‘emotional content of the two poems is almost exactly the same’. He concludes this essay (‘My Country Right or Left’, Autumn 1940) by pointing to ‘the spiritual need for patriotism and the military virtue, for which, however little the boiled rabbits of the Left may like them, no substitute has yet been found’ (XII, p. 272). Cornford was killed at Córdoba.


It is, however, a short reference to an incident at a village cricket match recalled in ‘As I Please’, 20 (14 April 1944), with which I should like to conclude because it links the sporting and the political to perfection. A batsmen had been given out and as he walked back, the squire’s face ‘turned several shades redder’; furiously he shouted to the umpire, ‘Hi, what did you give that man out for? He wasn’t out at all!’ The umpire dutifully recalled the batsmen and the game continued. Orwell, only a boy at the time, says it struck him as ‘about the most shocking thing I had even seen. Now, so much do we coarsen with the passage of time, my reaction would merely be to inquire whether the umpire was the squire’s tenant as well’. But it is what reminded Orwell of this boyhood occasion that links old-fashioned sport, politics, and right behaviour for Orwell. He likens this incident to ‘the goings-on in the House of Commons the week before last’ (XVI, p. 152). And what were those? On 28 March 1944 MPs voted 117 to 116 against Government advice for equal pay for women teachers. The next day, Churchill furiously demanded a vote of confidence on his conduct of the war and that he won. That coincidentally had the effect of nullifying the vote for equal pay. Churchill explained, ‘We had to show the government is in control. The German wireless was scoffing at us’. It would not be until 4 March 1955 that the Burnham Committee decided that equal pay for women teachers should be introduced – by stages. To Orwell, Churchill’s action was as shocking as that squire’s. Alas, I doubt if there is such a thing as a ‘Corinthian Spirit’ in any field of life nowadays, not sport and certainly not politics, so much have we coarsened with the passage of time.

1. Captain W.P. Nevill of the 8th Surreys bought four footballs, one for each of his platoons, to kick across No-Man’s-Land on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. One platoon painted on its ball: ‘The Great European Cup / The Final / East Surreys v Bavarians / Kick Off at Zero’. They did valiantly kick off but were slaughtered. Two footballs survive (they are in Army museums) but Captain Nevill, who kicked off first, did not. He is buried at Carnoy Cemetery (Martin Middlebrook, The First Day of the Somme (1971), pp. 87, 124, 254, 335, and 340).

Hansard links added 8 April 2017

Sub-headings added 9 April 2017

Orwell as Comic Writer, by Bernard Crick


Published in FinlayPublisher, January to March 2008

Bernard Crick


Some years ago when working on my biography of Orwell I had a largely useless interview with Malcolm Muggeridge, the famous television personality, once a socialist and friend of Orwell’s, by then a self-promoting right-wing Christian convert and commentator. He seized the initiative with a malicious provocation, “Gloomy bugger wasn’t he? Don’t you agree?” “No, I don’t.” He was being deliberately perverse because he knew Orwell as a major English essayist and a good minor novelist long before reading Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Nearly all Orwell’s essays use humour to make serious points. This prompted me to offer talks on Orwell as a comic writer, but what most tempted me to write up my notes was, a few years ago, going into Saughton prison, Edinburgh, to give that talk as part of a prison education programme – young offenders working for A levels or Scottish Highers. The lads seemed to like the talk but told me that the real “Orwell buff” hadn’t come because he was desperately finishing a painting of Orwell that he wanted to give me. As I was about to leave, he appeared with a truly striking face of Orwell, stern, sad and terrible, painted all in gloomy blacks and greys. It is on my wall as I work but I wish he had come to the talk instead – ah, but then he might not have finished it.

Most people throughout the world, indeed, have read Orwell backwards, if they read back beyond Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm at all. Nineteen Eighty-Four creates the grim preconception of “Orwellian”, rather than the “Orwell-like” image of the discursive and great humanistic essays of which not all, by any means, exist in translation. Some dedicated pessimist readers even seem to miss the humour in Animal Farm.

One of the difficulties with multi-faceted satires is that we only see what appeals directly to our own experience. In lecturing in Poland and Czechoslovakia shortly after the fall of the Wall I found audiences quite angry at the idea that Nineteen Eighty-Four referred to anything other than Communism, or contained anything to laugh about. I tried to remind them of what was dear Julia’s job:

“She had… been picked out to work in Pornosec, the sub-section of the Fiction department which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles. It was nick-named Muck House by the people who worked in it, she remarked. There she had remained for a year, helping to produce booklets in sealed packets with titles like Spanking Stories or One Night in a Girls’ School, to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal. “What are these books like?” said Winston curiously. “Oh ghastly rubbish. They’re boring, really. They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit.

Of course I was only on the kaleidoscopes. I was never in the Rewrite Squad. I’m not literary dear, not even enough for that”….

“There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope called a versificator.”

Well, of course it was to be called a synthesizer not a versificator. But the Poles got quite cross when I pointed out that the puritanical Stalin or Gomulka would not have stood for any of that Pornosoc filth, as Orwell knew quite well – and Hitler neither. He could only have been satirising elements of the British press and publishing. And if I hadn’t been losing my audience rapidly I would have pontificated, as I now do, that this was a typical Orwell-like device, not “Orwellian”: to wrap up a profound theoretical point in broad humour – here a black humour, or what Germans call “gallows humour”… For he really did believe that capitalism controls the “proles”, the common people, not by physical oppression, but by bread and circuses, as it were, by cultural debasement, “dumbing down” as we now say of our press, even of the BBC.

Orwell was full of rage, a Swiftian satiric rage, that four generations of compulsory secondary education had led to the rise of what his generation still called the Yellow Press and a steady decline in the quality press, both in numbers and quality – even back then. Anthony Burgess called Nineteen Eighty-Four “a comic novel”. Well, that’s going too far, meant to shock us into thought; but I have long argued that the book is to be read as Swiftian satire, black humour, just like Gulliver’s Travels. Orwell used much the same device to talk about the great difficult subject of Britain in the 1930s. No, not sex: class.

“Many people, however, imagine that they can abolish class-distinctions without making any uncomfortable change in their own habits and ‘ideology’. Hence the eager class-breaking activities which one can see in progress on all sides. Everywhere there are people of good will who quite honestly believe that they are working for the overthrow of class-distinctions. The middle-class Socialist enthuses over the proletariat and runs “summer schools” where the proletarian and the repentant bourgeois are supposed to fall upon one another’s necks and be brothers for ever; and the bourgeois visitors come away saying how wonderful and inspiring it has all been (the proletarian ones come away saying something different). And there is the outer-suburban creeping Jesus, a hangover from the William Morris period, but still surprisingly common, who goes about saying ‘Why must we level down? ‘Why not level up?’ and proposes to level the working class “up” (up to his own standard) by means of hygiene, fruit-juice, birthcontrol, poetry, etc. Even the Duke of York… runs a yearly camp where public school boys and boys from the slums are supposed to mix on equal terms and do mix for the time being, rather like the animals in one of those ‘Happy Family’ cages where a dog, a cat, two ferrets, a rabbit and three canaries preserve an armed truce while the showman’s eye is on them.”

This is worth a whole barrel of academic sociology. But notice the deadly sociological precision, the precise observation of “summer school”: that is where the classes meet at their fleeting closest in England of the 1930s, even in the socialist movement; not in the thick prose of Marxist theory or in the once-a-month local meeting of a political party. His humour lies in literal truthtelling, removing all euphemisms, a way of wrapping unpalatable deep truths in sardonic homely observations. I suspect he learnt it partly from Dickens, partly from H.G. Wells and partly from George Bernard Shaw, but also from actually talking to ordinary people during his tramping days.

Hardly has Orwell announced his conversion to socialism, when in the same work, The Road to Wigan Pier, he attacks the image that middle class English socialists have created of themselves. And he prefaces it with a wild and provocative generalisation: “As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents”. Notice the lack of any qualification in this. Victor Gollancz, the socialist and indeed fellow-traveller, then his publisher, must have screamed at him either to take that out or at least to put in that sensible, hedging, temporising, politic pronoun “some of its adherents”.

However, that would have spoilt Orwell’s intended double effect: to shock his fellow socialists into thought, but also to mitigate their anger by forcing them to laugh – not Gollancz, by the way, who had no sense of humour whatever.

When Orwell went over the top, he went over the top; and, as it were, two-tongued: one tongue sticking out rudely, the other firmly tucked in his cheek. England in the 1930s was not Spain.

“The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle class. The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working-man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaler and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. This last type is surprisingly common in Socialist parties of every shade; it has perhaps been taken over from the old Liberal Party. In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth [a new model town favoured by progressive intellectuals] when the bus stopped and two dreadful- looking old men got onto it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long gray hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple.

Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured, ‘Socialists’, as who should say, ‘Red Indians’. He was probably right – the ILP were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary man, a crank meant a Socialist and a Socialist meant a crank.”

I love “secret teetotaler”. Heroic exaggeration throughout, but also commonsense. Tom Paine used that word first like a sledgehammer, before Conservative politicians made it a soft rubber toy. Of course Orwell didn’t mean that all British socialists were cranks, but he was saying that a few such, perhaps more than a few if never a majority, spoilt the game for all. It was a wise warning needed at the time. Perhaps there is even some self-irony in it. For what was he doing on a bus in Letchworth? That was then a new town synonymous with the ambience of seekers and alternative lifers – riddled with vegetarianism, as he provocatively added. He was attending the annual conference and summer school of the Independent Labour Party, a force – if force it was – uniquely compounded of hard anti-Stalinist Marxists (whom he had joined in Catalonia) and soft sandaled groupuscules of intellectual “alternative-life” doctrinaires. Many of his friends were like those he mocked. He enjoyed the company of the free left. 

In Coming Up For Air, a much underrated novel by the way, his humour is more gentle and elegiac. The character George Bowling, the lower-middle class commercial traveller running away from his nagging wife Hilda to recover his youth, has been denounced by critics as rotten with nostalgia. This is probably what his friend Cyril Connolly had in mind when he called Orwell “a revolutionary in love with the 1900s.” But I think a reader is pretty stupid not to see that Orwell, despite some nostalgia, is rejecting any possibility of putting the clock back. He is a shrewd proto-environmentalist who sees that the good life must embrace both town and country, agriculture and industry, or in the deeper symbolism of Nineteen Eighty-Four, both light and darkness.

“I’ve always had that peculiar feeling for fishing. You’ll think it damned silly, no doubt, but I’ve actually half a wish to go fishing even now, when I’m fat and forty-five and got two kids and a house in the suburbs. Why? Because in a manner of speaking I am sentimental about my childhood – not my own particular childhood, but the civilisation which I grew up in and which is now, I suppose, just about at its last kick. And fishing is somehow typical of that civilisation. As soon as you think of fishing you think of things that don’t belong to the modern world. The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before airplanes, before Hitler.

There’s a kind of peacefulness even in the names of English coarse fish. Roach, rudd, dace, bleak, barbel, bream, gudgeon, pike, chub, carp, tench. They’re solid kind of names. The people who made them up hadn’t heard of machine-guns, they didn’t live in terror of the sack or spend their time eating aspirins, going to the pictures and wondering how to keep out of the concentration camp.

“Does anyone go fishing nowadays, I wonder? Anywhere within a hundred miles of London there are no fish left to catch. A few dismal fishing-clubs plant themselves in rows along the banks of canals, and millionaires go trout-fishing in private waters round Scotch hotels, a sort of snobbish game of catching hand-reared fish with artificial flies. But who fishes in mill-streams or moats or cow-ponds any longer? Where are the English coarse fish now?’ When I was a kid every pond and stream had fish in it. Now all the ponds are drained, and when the streams aren’t poisoned with chemical from factories they’re full of rusty tins and motor-bike tyres. ”

Again, heroic exaggeration; things are not quite as bad as that; but they could become so. And the unreflective, even rather stupid common man, George Bowling, yet is given by Orwell an insight into the natural beauty of things: this marvellous litany of the solid names of ordinary things. It certainly isn’t pantheism, but it is a kind of naturalism and pietism – a deep respect for, almost an attribution of sacredness to, natural objects. I think of Gustav Mahler’s song from the Knapewunderhorn of St Francis preaching to the fishes; the same mixture of irony and love.

The piece of coral, useless and beautiful, that Winston Smith finds in the junk shop in Nineteen Eighty-Four will surface later, like George Bowling’s fish, in Orwell’s imagination. The master of plain prose used it to reach philosophical and moral depths which are closed to the common reader in works of academic philosophy. Or to put it more mundanely, had he lived long enough to get fed up with trying to fathom the compromised psuedo-philosophy of today’s New Labour, he might well have joined the Greens and they would probably have found him a hell of nuisance, for his arrows always shot inward as well as outward.

Greens like making fun of their opponents, but never of themselves – a common human failing, after all. Orwell was somewhat exceptional, and a born member of the great English radical awkward squad – expertly marching out of step. He is that voice one can still hear from the North Bank of the Arsenal stadium shouting “What a load o’ rubbish. Sell ‘em!” – an Arsenal supporter. 

Only in the essay on dirty sea-side postcards, “The Art of Donald McGill”, did he reflect on the nature of humour. Mostly he saw it simply as release, a safety valve for the common people impotent to change the structures of politics and required to conform to the moral standards of their so-called betters. “Judge (in a divorce case). ‘You are prevaricating, sir. Did you or did you not sleep with this woman?’ Co-respondent. ‘Not a wink, my lord!’.” But he ended by raising a more profound imagery from Cervantes: the dualism of us all having inside ourselves both a bit of Don Quixote and a bit of Sancho Panza. Part of our self is lean, idealistic, austere and heroic, while the other is fat, cowardly and dedicated to surviving however dishonourably. The Don rides Rozinante, head in the air, and Sancho rides on a farting mule and is master of the deflating dirty joke.

“Whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie, and the reason why so large a proportion of jokes centre round obscenity is simply that all societies, as the price of survival, have to insist on a fairly high standard of sexual morality. A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise. So also with all other jokes, which always centre round cowardice, laziness, dishonesty or some other quality which society cannot afford to encourage. Society has always to demand a little more from human beings than it will get in practice. It has to demand faultless discipline and self-sacrifice, it must expect its subjects to work hard, pay their taxes, and be faithful to their wives, it must assume that men think it glorious to die on the battlefield and women want to wear themselves out with childbearing. The whole of what one may call official literature is founded on such assumptions. I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of Fuhrers and Prime Ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and Left Wing political parties, national anthems, temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal. Nevertheless the high sentiments always win in the end, leaders who offer “blood, toil, tears and sweat” [Churchill’s words in 1940] always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic. Women face childbed and the scrubbing brush, revolutionaries keep their mouths shut in the torture chamber, battleships go down with their guns still firing when their decks are awash. It is only that the other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside us all, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.” 

This is the true humanist who sees both the tragedy and the humour of life. Please read Nineteen Eighty-Four again thinking that it is a Swiftian satire on the abuse of power and not a morbid prophecy.

© Bernard Crick


Orwell Prize looks at the Riots

This year’s Orwell Prize will launch with a debate on ‘Writing the Riots’, at the Frontline Club, London on Wednesday 9 November. The schedule for the evening is as follows:

6.30pm Drinks
7pm Launch of the Orwell Prize 2012 and announcement of judges
7.05pm Discussion, ‘Writing the Riots’

The event is now sold out but names can be added to the waiting list – please email gavin.freeguard@mediastandardsdtrust.org to reserve one. The twitter hashtag for the event is #orwellprize.

Entries for this year’s Prize will open on Wednesday 9 November 2011 and close on Wednesday 18 January 2012, for all work published in 2011. The rules are available elsewhere on the website. 

The Orwell Lecture 2011, Guardian editor speaks

The Orwell Prize will be holding its annual Orwell Lecture on Thursday November 10th, at 5pm, University College, Gower Street, London WC1 6BT. The lecture for 2011 will be given by the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger, who will speak on “The Future of the Press”. Admission is free. It’s advisable to check the Orwell Prize website for further details and booking information nearer the time.

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