Reflections on Orwell and the island of Jura

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

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