At Orwell’s House

GEORGE Orwell did not believe in ghosts. Any reader who respects his work could not possibly think that Orwell’s shade now haunts the remote farmhouse on the Isle of Jura where he wrote his final novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and spent his last days of relative health and happiness. (He died of tuberculosis in 1950, and was buried elsewhere, in an English churchyard, under his real name, Eric Blair.) Even so, I’m jittery.

On reaching Barnhill today, I knock three times and shout hello. The house looks and sounds deserted but it’s still available to rent for holidays, and after passing through a gate marked “private”, it seems prudent to check if anyone is home. There is no answer. But it’s still disturbingly easy to imagine Orwell’s thin, white, gloomy face appearing at the door, neither pleased nor surprised by the intrusion. A local charter boat captain named Duncan Phillips, brought me as far as a disrepaired old jetty on the rocks nearby. He put it like this before motoring away and leaving me alone here: “There’s not much going on up at Barnhill. But there is definitely an atmosphere.”

Orwell arrived on Jura to try and start a new life, and a new book, 60 years ago this summer. This anniversary is no more or less meaningful than any other. There were organised celebrations in 2003 to commemorate the centenary of his birth, and, just after the millennium, to mark 50 years since his death. Back in 1984, when Orwell’s fated, fabled year came to pass, many millions of people were compelled to reflect on how closely the world then resembled the one imagined in his most famous piece of fiction; control of their lives was divided between superpowers, under conditions that had always felt slightly unreal, in the shadows cast by nuclear missiles.

At the time, the Soviet Bloc seemed almost to define the word “Orwellian”, which entered the dictionary as an adjective some time after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1948 (the title was a partial inversion of that date, although the author initially planned to call it The Last Man In Europe). Officially, it refers to anything reminiscent of the statist, dehumanised society described in that book, which had itself been inspired by the dictatorial tactics, secret policing and systematic falsification of history practised in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

These days, the word is used more often and freely than ever, and might currently be applied to aspects of modern China and North Korea, the US military detainment camp at Guantanamo Bay, the totalitarian strain of religious law now spreading among certain Islamic states or the UK’s own Asbos and CCTV cameras. But there seems nothing Orwellian about the Isle of Jura, or the house at Barnhill.

The author described it as “an extremely un-getatable place”, and so it remains. Jura residents recently voted against plans for a car ferry service, and a “short sea crossing” has been proposed, and opposed for 40 years. Most literary pilgrims still follow Orwell’s footsteps by coming the long way round – two ferries over the Kintyre peninsula, then a drive up the island before a hike to the old farm.

My own shortcut, via private boat from Craobh Haven, leads me up a faint and disused path from the green and quiet northern shoreline right to the rear of the building. Around the front, which faces southeast across the Sound of Jura, there is a meadow leading down to the sea, overgrown with long grass and wild flowers, and partly broken by a metal fence that has rusted, bent and half-collapsed into the landscape. The only sounds are the wind, and the waves, and the birds.

This environment is so far removed from the vicious and miserable future London of Nineteen Eighty-Four that it’s hard to imagine how Orwell was even able to create it here. Until, perhaps, you remember the one tiny glimpse of earthly paradise in a book which otherwise shuts out all natural light, when his characters Winston Smith and Julia take a short break from lives lived under constant surveillance to find love in the countryside, and a thrush suddenly breaks into song.

“In the afternoon hush, ” wrote Orwell, “the volume of sound was startling. The music went on and on, minute after minute, with astonishing variations, never once repeating itself, almost as if the bird were deliberately showing off its virtuosity . . . Winston watched it with a sort of vague reverence. For whom, for what, was that bird singing? What made it sit at the edge of the lonely wood and pour its song into nothingness? . . . He stopped thinking and merely felt.”

Eric Blair did not ever want to become the subject of biographies, but inevitably, there have been many (which have all reflected on his reasons for using a pen name, and the essential contrast between his gentleness as a private man and the fearlessness of his best fiction and journalism). Bernard Crick’s book George Orwell: A Life was the first of them, published in 1980. In the chapter about his Jura days, it is noted that the author liked to work downstairs at Barnhill in the summer, so it is more than possible that he wrote the above lines in the sitting room, on the other side of the window through which I’m now staring.

This reminds me, obscurely, of Orwell’s famous declaration that “good writing is like a windowpane”. And to look around the house, from the outside in, is to experience a vision of the 1940s. For all the people who have stayed here since Orwell was in residence, along with his adopted son Richard, and his sister Avril’s family, there are few signs that time has passed. A newish cooker has been fitted alongside the traditional kitchen stove, some modern cleaning products stand by the sink, a synthetic duvet is rolled up in the lower bedroom, and there are relatively recent dates on the magazines stacked up around the sills – a copy of Country Life from 2004, a Smithsonian from 1999, a New Yorker from 1995.

Almost everything else might have been owned or used by Orwell himself, for all I know. The careworn patterned rugs and chair cushions, the old-fashioned, sturdylooking tables and lampstands, the porcelain cow on the mantelpiece, the yellowing hardback book about sea otters. Probably not the set of antlers, though. It is well known that Orwell loved animals, and hated the hunting, stalking classes.

On the other hand, Eric Blair had killed small creatures for sport as a boy in Oxfordshire, and once shot a rogue elephant in Burma, although not without such lasting shame that he wrote one of his most magnificent essays about it, which in turn caused some to suggest that he invented the incident for the sake of saying something more profoundly truthful about human nature and imperialism. “Of course he shot a fucking elephant, ” his widow Sonia Orwell later screamed at Bernard Crick. “He said he did. Why do you always doubt his f***ing word?”

Crick’s approach as a biographer was basically forensic. He refused to speculate on Orwell’s psychology, or accept memories as facts in the absence of evidence. As a result, his book still seems entirely valid, given that even lifelong friends and astute peers considered Orwell a particularly difficult man to know. “I understood him up to a point, ” wrote fellow novelist VS Pritchett, “but it was hard to define him, because just when you had fixed on a view he would contradict it.”

Leaving the beauty of this spot aside, for example, it is not quite clear why Orwell would have wanted to come here. He had, by many accounts, regularly revealed a prejudice against Scotland, which has since been attributed to his resentment of the “kilted lordlings” he first went to school with in Sussex (documented in his essay Such, Such Were The Joys), and the “whisky-smelling” Scottish expatriate drunks he apparently considered the running dogs of the British Empire.

But he had also recorded in a wartime diary entry of June 1940 that he was “thinking always of my island in the Hebrides, which I suppose I shall never possess or see”. Soon after that, his home in London was smashed open by the blast from a German V-1 rocket, his first wife Eileen died during a hysterectomy operation, and his own health deteriorated, over a lifetime of serious lung disorders, to the point where it seemed almost suicidal to relocate himself so far from medical assistance.

Bernard Crick has pointed out that this doesn’t mean he had a death wish – the climate on Jura is made mild by the gulf stream, and Orwell may have thought it would do him good. When I spoke to Crick on this subject, he told me there was always “an element of accident” in the move to Barnhill. “Orwell wanted out, ” said Crick, “and his friend David Astor knew of this farmhouse he could rent. That may have been all there was to it.”

And as he wrote in his biography, “elaborate critical theories of Orwell’s character and of his last writings have been built on isothermic fantasy”. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a case in point, considered by some to be a morbid and bitter final curse on the world that he was preparing to leave. Orwell was in fact so ill during this period that his precious few summers on Jura were broken by long winters in the sanatorium – first in East Kilbride, and then in Cranham, Gloucestershire.

But it is also well documented that once the book was finished, he immediately started on another and told Astor, among others, that “I must try and stay alive for a while, because apart from other considerations I have a stunning idea for a new novel”. Death didn’t scare or anger him, as frequently attested by the anti-fascist volunteers who had fought alongside Orwell in the Spanish civil war. When he was shot in the neck by one of Franco’s snipers in 1937, his solitary thought had been “the meaninglessness of it . . . to be bumped off in this stale corner of the trenches, thanks to a moment’s carelessness”.

Orwell’s only fears towards the end seemed to be loneliness – Sonia Brownell was the last of many women that he asked to become his second wife, and she accepted when he was on his deathbed, having refused to visit him on Jura. He also hated the idea of leaving work unfinished. Crick has concluded that “Nineteen EightyFour was no last testament: it was simply the last major book that he wrote before he happened to die”.

There must also, as with so much of Orwell’s thinking, have been an element of class consciousness in his presence on Jura. The local crofters did not at all resemble the wealthy, Anglicised Scots that he despised. Born “shabby genteel”, Orwell had developed an affinity for working people that often bordered on affectation, and found full expression in his book of reportage The Road To Wigan Pier. According to Crick, the author took the crofting lifestyle very seriously. “He would have competitions with his brother-in-law, Bill Dunn, as to which of them knew more about farming, but both of them were equally incompetent. Or as the locals might have put it, ‘not acclimatised’.”

ORWELL welcomed visits from the locals more readily than the distractions of literary friends from London. They knew him as Mr Blair, and seemed to respect him in kind. When Crick interviewed those crofters in the 1970s, he got the impression they knew more about Blair than they let on.

“I recorded yards of tape with practically nothing on it, ” he told me. “I would ask what they talked to him about, and they would reply, ‘Oh, the usual things men talk about. The culling. The prospects for the harvest’. They were terribly discreet, even protective, which I took as a sign of how much they had accepted him.

“Orwell was quite an old-fashioned republican in a way, and I think he might have found Scotland very congenial from that point of view. He liked small countries. One of his objections to the Britain of the imperial era was that it was simply too big, and throwing its weight around. Scotland was another country, another culture, which was starting to defend itself in a way he admired. Certainly when he went back to the sanatorium, Orwell said he had become unused to ‘the high-pitched braying of English voices’.”

It is now common to wonder, or presume to know, what Orwell would have thought of the most recent developments, and which of them he might have foreseen. He had a low opinion of television from the beginning, but could he possibly have anticipated the irony of Big Brother – a name he invented within Nineteen Eighty-Four to represent the ultimate inhumanity of power – becoming a “reality” programme in which a select group of people are governed and monitored for the entertainment of everyone else?

He also wrote, on the evidence of second world war economics, that “private capitalism . . . does not work”, so what would he have said if he had known that the free market and its values would soon rule the world? Crick was politely reluctant to play this guessing game with me, although he did say that Orwell’s other novels, particularly his dispirited story of conformity, Keep The Aspidistra Flying, suggest he knew which way the wind would blow. “The intensity of what we call ‘globalisation’ might have depressed him, ” said Crick. “But I don’t think it would have surprised him.”

Orwell’s prose was so clear, and his judgment so morally authorative, that his words will probably ring of truth, and of prophecy, forever. He described the recent invasion of Iraq half a century in advance without seeming to think particularly hard about it. “Every war when it comes, or before it comes, ” wrote Orwell, “is represented not as a war but as an act of self defence against a homicidal maniac.”

He might also have been able to imagine the kind of hostility now facing the forces of occupation at ground level in that country, on the basis of his own observations as a self-disgusted young imperial policeman in 1920s Burma. “I was constantly struck, ” he noted later, “by the fact that the common soldiers were the best-hated section of the whole community, and judged simply by their behaviour, they deserved to be.”

Because of its potency and lucidity, his language has also been used to support the arguments of people that Eric Blair might gladly and literally have shot. Even enemies of democratic socialism have long since realised that he who quotes Orwell controls the argument. Late in 1983, while Reaganite conservatives in the US justified the invasion of Grenada by claiming that the fascist-killing author of Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been on their side, the American journalist Paul Gray identified a recurring impulse in politics and culture “to hold Orwell’s coat while sending his ghost out to battle”.

Earlier this year, our own Chancellor and prospective leader, Gordon Brown, read aloud a line from Orwell’s celebrated ode to the unnamed republican militiaman he met the day he joined the Spanish civil war – “no bomb that ever burst shatters the crystal spirit” – during a speech to the Royal United Services Institute which confirmed the government’s intention to introduce compulsory identity cards and expand the budget and remit of state security agencies.

The original Labour Party, for whom Orwell canvassed in 1945, disgusted him with what he considered betrayals of original principle when they actually won power. So it seems fair enough to say that he would surely find the new party unrecognisably right-wing, and unforgivably presumptuous in claiming that poem for their own purposes.

This appropriation seems symptomatic of Orwell’s own feeling “that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world”. Which was, among other things, what caused him to write Nineteen EightyFour. But what has been forgotten, in defining Orwell by that book alone – which Bernard Crick has called “an artistic achievement in pessimism” – is that it was not the only thing he wrote, nor the only way he saw the future.

Sitting on the grass outside his old house, feeling strongly but without good reason that I am closer to understanding Orwell here than I would be anywhere else, I think about the diary he kept in this house. It said nothing about the state of the world or the pain in his chest, recording only the growth of plants, the movements of local wildlife, the changes in the weather.

Crick holds a view which he says is becoming more widely accepted, that Orwell should be remembered not just as a political novelist “but as an essayist, an egalitarian, a lover of nature, a proto-environmentalist”.

The best-kent tale of Orwell’s time on the island tells of his near-death in 1947, when he mistimed the tides on a fishing trip across the infamous Gulf of Corryvreckan between Jura and Scarba, and almost drowned in its ever-turning natural whirlpool with his niece, nephew and son before they were saved by a lobster boat. So when Duncan Phillips comes back to collect me, he suggests that we take his trusty old motor launch, which is called the Farsain, out to where Orwell “got himself into trouble”.

It is flood tide in the gulf, and while the Corryvreckan is apparently not as “unnavigable” as Royal Navy legend would have it, the waves become large and strange for such an otherwise calm blue day, creating vortices in the water that pull us in unpredictable directions. It feels like an extension of the peculiar psychic, or magnetic, or imaginary field that seems to surround Barnhill. The Farsain has been “spun like a top” on previous occasions, but this trip is such a joy that the skipper has to ask me to calm down.

There are seals in the water and an eagle overhead, and Phillips points out razorbills, gannets and guillemots arranged in ranks and squadrons around the rock from which Orwell and the children were rescued. Steering the boat back to the harbour, while the rising tide tries to carry us into the sky, he says he is “older than I look”, which makes him old enough to remember watching the BBC’s live black-and-white TV adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1954.

“When I was growing up there were hydrogen bombs going off, ” says Phillips. “We had a thing called the four-minute warning, and a thing called the Berlin Wall. A lot of the younger generation don’t realise what we lived through. I don’t think they even really believe it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is an insight into all that.”

This is true, of course, and even now there are people in the world suffering under conditions that confirm the author’s fears. But Orwell also wrote that “by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more likely”.

And without presuming to speak for a dead man, he would probably prefer that the language be slightly amended so that days like this, and places like this, could also be described as Orwellian, in the very best sense of the word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *