Richard Blair on Life With My Aunt Avril


Richard Blair

First Published (online) January – March 2009 Findlay Publisher (website)


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


7 thoughts on “Richard Blair on Life With My Aunt Avril

  1. This is a lovely piece, plain and unaffected and it gathers together a few loose ends for those interested in the GO household. I remember the collected works coming out in the 1970s. I worked in a car factory at the time and spent my breaks reading them. One of the other workers said “I don’t know why you would read that it won’t do you any good.” Well it did. Thanks


  2. I enjoyed the read very much. I noted this was printed by Findlay in 2009 but could not find it as a print version in Amazon UK.


  3. Fascinating. A roller coaster of an upbringing told without bitterness or rancour. Avril had a tough life looking after her dead brother’s adopted baby. No doubt her parents saw Eric as a pest who had failed to ‘settle down and get a proper job’ (joining the socialists in the Spanish Civil War cant have been that popular in a family that had scrimped and saved for an Eton scholarship) – and Avril’s relationship with Eric’s (Orwell’s) surviving wife was clearly not good either.


  4. Fascinating. I’m so pleased to have come across this after hearing Richard on a Radio 4 programme about the Orwell BBC statue. I wanted to know more about him, hoping that he’d had a happy life after being orphaned so young. I googled away and was delighted to find this autobiographical piece. Thanks.


  5. A fascinating account. My father was an old school friend of Bill Dunn’s. During my boyhood in the 60s we had many weekend visits to Bill and Avril’s farm at Gartcharron. (Bill’s powerful homebrew provided my first taste of beer!) I remember Avril well – a kindly, thoughtful and endlessly patient soul.


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