Peter Davison bids Farewell & Hail to Orwell site

Farewell and Hail, Peter Davison

Jacintha Buddicom in her Notes to Eric & Us starts with an explanation of her and Eric’s use of their private salutation: ‘Farewell and Hail we adopted as our private salutation, ending Farewell and Hail, so that we should meet again’. It came, she explained, from Catullus’s Ave Atque Vale1. Orwell concludes his last letter to Jacintha, written from Cranham Sanatorium on 15 February 1949, ‘As always ended so that there should be no ending. Farewell and Hail Eric’.2 It makes, I think, an apt title for this short tribute to the enterprise initiated in 2008 by Dione Venables, Jacintha’s cousin, and now being continued by the newly-formed Orwell Society under the Chairmanship of Christopher Edwards.

Over twenty articles have appeared on the Eric & Us website running for two or more months each. They were then made available for downloading in PDF format using an Adobe Acrobat Reader. These are the titles of the principal essays:

Orwell As Comic Writer, Bernard Crick (Jan/March 2008) 
Orwell: Religion and Ethical Values, Peter Davison (March/May 2008)
The Biography Orwell Never Wrote, Gordon Bowker (May/July 2008) 
Between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World: A Far Cry from Orwell’s Socialism, Loraine Saunders (July/September 2008) 
Orwell, Kipling, and Empire by Douglas Kerr (Sept/November 2008) 
Orwell’s Poetry, DJ Taylor (November/January 2009)
Life With My Aunt Avril Blair, Richard Blair (January/March 2009) 
Orwell and Sport, Peter Davision (March/May 2009) 
Papa And St. George: The (Un)Meeting May-July 2009
John Rodden with John Rossi (May/July2009)
WHY ORWELL WENT TO BURMA: Re-visiting the Buddicom Thesis (July-September 2009) by William A Hunt
Searching for Orwell: A Reminiscence (September-November 2009) by Peter Stansky 
No Room at the Hypocrites’ Club (November 2009-January 2010)
By Ron Bateman 
Getting it Right (January-March 2010) By Peter Davison
Biographical Review Orwell Never Wrote (March-May 2010) By Professor John Rodden Orwell’s Crystal Chandelier (May-July 2010) By Professor Steve Wadhams
New Light On Orwell’s Lost Youth (July-September 2010) By William Hunt
The Trail That Never Ends: Reflections of a Biografiend (September-December 2010) By Gordon Bowker
Coming Up For Air Revisited: Orwell, England & The Idea Of Escape (November 2010-January 2011) By Dominic Cavendish
Two Wasted Years? (31 January-30 March 2011) By Peter Davison
Being Eric/Being George: Or, What it’s Really like to Become Someone Else (April/May 2011) by Emma Larkin.

In addition to these essays there has been an active Forum enabling readers to comment and offer their own perspectives on the essays. These responses have struck me as being of a high level and there has been a genuine interaction of ideas. Thus, I was prompted to write a lengthy essay to take up the responses to my essay on ‘Orwell: Religion and Ethical Values’, going so far as to include an illustration of the very fine war memorial by Charles Sergeant Jagger to the Great Western railwaymen killed in the First World War on Platform 1 of Paddington Station. Later, prompted by Orwell’s thoughts on the forced repatriation of Polish servicemen to Communist Poland after the Second World War, to offer an essay to mark the seventieth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. This included reproductions of Solidarity stamps for its underground postal service which featured a fine cartoon of Orwell, and photographs of three of the six Polish airmen who had stayed at our house after the Fall of France.

One of the much appreciated aspects of the interest in Orwell and his work in recent years has been the co-operation between the Eric & Us website and the Orwell Prize website run under the direction of Professor Jane Seaton of Westminster University with Gavin Freeguard.

The Eric & Us website has been the inspiration of Dione Venables, a cousin of Jacintha Buddicom. Through her we now know a great deal more of the childhood friendship of Jacintha and Eric Blair and the reasons for the sad breakdown of that relationship and the barren years that ensued. Mrs Venables not only sponsored the website but provided all its financial support.

A little while back I wrote a short piece on the prospect that an Orwell Society might be formed in England. As I mentioned then, although there are some 150 literary societies in the UK, none was devoted to Orwell. The Orwell Society at Eton College is not a literary society although there is an Orwell Society of Japan. The latter has been running for almost thirty years and has published an annual journal since 1982. That is chiefly in Japanese which does limit its readership. The establishment of an Orwell Society in England is thus very much to be welcomed. Now that it is time for Mrs Venables to relinquish the burden of running the Eric & Us website, it is a happy coincidence that the new Society is prepared to take over from her. With the Orwell Prize now very actively promoted by Professor Seaton and much expanded in its activities, Orwell and his writing are at last being given valuable foci of attention.

I am, obviously, very old. (The excellent Dutch TV programme on Burmese Days by Hendrik Willemyns charmingly and tactfully refers to me as ‘elderly’.) Consequently I am particularly astonished at the way information can be disseminated nowadays. Those who have grown up with the internet will not find this spread of information at all surprising. Indeed, what might astonish them is my ignorance. Perhaps I might explain because it might also cast a little light on how Orwell would have experienced and responded to the development of broadcasting. For many years he and Eileen had no access to a radio. If they wanted to hear the news from the BBC during the war he had to visit the local pub and persuade the barmaid to switch on a radio. When he did acquire a radio it was powered by accumulators which had to be taken to a garage to be recharged. That, indeed, had been my experience – the accumulators, not the pub: I was far too young for such delights! Thus, when he did become involved in broadcasting to India the experience was as eye-opening as the internet has been for me.

Curiously, however, shortly after Orwell worked at the BBC I had practical experience of ‘broadcasting’ of a rather different kind – technical not creative – and the station I worked from had a strange coincidental similarity to one aspect of the BBC. Let me explain.

Orwell worked at the BBC from 18 August 1941 to 24 November 1943 (see my contribution, ‘Two Wasted Years?’ to the Eric & Us website). The BBC – and therefore Orwell – faced three basic problems in getting what was broadcast from London heard in India. First was the technical problem of ensuring adequate reception given the radio techniques then available; second was the small proportion of radios in India. Laurence Brander in his report on the BBC’s Indian programmes starts off by pointing out that among the 300,000,000 people then living in India (and in 1943 ‘India’ included what we now know as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) there were only 121,000 radios. Thirdly was the variety of languages spoken in India. The BBC could only cover a few of these and at best the chosen languages might receive only a single broadcast a week lasting a quarter-of-an-hour. As he points out members of the audience had to remember to tune in for that quarter-hour once a week – and from time to time the frequency might have to be changed to ensure reception. 3

On 9 July 1946 I worked at the Port Radar, HMS Terror, the naval base at the north of Singapore Island. On the 9th December 1946 I was posted to Suara a couple of miles to the west. This was a radio transmitting station. Its name meant ‘Voice of the Winds’ and it rejoiced in a motto: Kama Chapkap Sama Dunia: ‘We Speak to the World’ – echoing the BBC’s motto. This had none of Boradcasting House’s luxury (however much its denizens may complain about that). Above is pictured Suara’s magnificent control desk. The blackboard lists our seventeen transmitters with the services they provided and their current broadcast frequencies. The latter often changed of course. Only the last-listed was an RF transmitter; the others transmitted high-speed Morse using Creed relays. The signallers transmitting traffic were in a base a few miles away. We broadcast to the Admiralty in London, and bases in Ceylon and Hong Kong and to British and Allied Shipping in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There were only two technicians at a time in charge of all these transmitters and the eight technicians – Leading Telegraphists and Petty Officers (as I was) – worked an average 62 hours a week. Illness might leave us short-staffed and then we would operate three watches and so some 76 hours a week. Days off were almost unknown. Even by overloading the equipment (that is, increasing the anode voltage beyond safe limits causing very frequent breakdowns), and constant changes of frequency, we could at best get messages through in Morse to the Admiralty for about fifteen hours a day. Transmission of speech was impossible for us over such distances.

Below, to the right, is one quarter of our banks of transmitters, the nearest and largest being the RF transmitter weighing in at a couple of tons, as I recall it, and shifted by rolling it on steel piping. On the floor can be seen the latest technology in microphones! This enabled us to transmit speech but only about as far as to warships in the Malacca Straights. Contrast that with then technical problems the BBC faced broadcasting programmes to India!

Whilst I was working at Port Radar Orwell was in Jura trying to break free, at last, from the incredible grind of his daily journalism. By 26 September 1946 he could tell Humphrey Slater that he had ‘only done about 50 pages’ of what would become Nineteen Eighty Four. But it is not the progress of his last novel to which I wish to draw attention. I have tried to evoke the problems posed for broadcasters in the mid 1940s in order to highlight what must seem to those who enjoy the astonishing revolution in the transmission of knowledge today the incredibly primitive nature of broadcasting sixty or so years ago. To most readers of this little essay, the rapid transmission of information by e-mail and internet, never mind twittering and tweeting, the past really is ‘a foreign country’ and we certainly did things differently then! To old people like me the speed of transmission and its incredible spread is astonishing: indeed, miraculous. To offer one more contrast. I can today e-mail to and fro to a son in Sydney and to grandchildren at university in Wellington, New Zealand, many times in an hour; when in Singapore the only means of communication was infrequent and irregular mail – delays of perhaps three weeks or a month. When I cam back to England, to telephone the girl who would become my wife required queuing outside a telephone box for upwards of an hour – and calls were strictly limited to three minutes. I am sure readers will be well aware at what I am driving at. The Eric & Us website – and the Orwell Prize website – make possible the communication of our thoughts and beliefs about Orwell in a way that is natural to the present generation but astonishing, almost inconceivable, to old people like myself – despite its happening. To give just one example, what struck me so forcibly about this new medium was that my modest essay on Orwell and Sport was read by many times more people in Russia and the Ukraine in a fortnight than had I written it for an academic journal in the 1960s, even though that, published in about a thousand copies, was distributed worldwide, in ten years.

It has, therefore, been a matter of some anxiety to some of us that Dione Venables must give up her labours. However, the good news is that it has proved possible for the work she has pioneered to be taken on by the New Orwell Society under the chairmanship of Christopher Edwards. I am sure many, many people, worldwide, will rejoice that there is to be an Orwell Society with a Museum and an active web presence together with that sponsored by Jean Seaton and Gavin Freeguard under the auspices of the Orwell Prize. Books and journals have always, through the medium of print, ‘spoken to the world’ but radio, television, and the internet have made this speaking more immediate and more thorough. The BBC’s crest carries the motto, ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation’, Suara was more modest but perhaps more accurate: ‘We speak to the World’.

I began this essay by quoting from Orwell’s last letter to Jacintha written from Cranham Sanatorium on 15 February 1949, ‘As always ended so that there should be no ending. Farewell and Hail Eric’. How apt is that for this ending that ushers in a new beginning! So Farewell but Hail! I am sure Jacintha and Eric would approve!

Peter Davison


Eric & Us, second edition, 2006, with Postscript by Dione Venables, p. 165.
Complete Works, Vol. XX, p. 44.
See Brander’s report, 11, January 1943, CW, XV, pp. 343-56


One thought on “Peter Davison bids Farewell & Hail to Orwell site

  1. Farewell and Hail, Peter, but of course you won’t be going anywhere because of the miracles you have described. For all I know, you might be having a late-night cocoa or Whisky Mac and click on to this the moment I pop next door to hold Sandra’s hand as I drop off. What I do know is that this Catford lad – born in a prefab, dad a driver, mum a home-help, sneered at by a snooty grammar school after passing the 11-plus – got the warmest of welcomes from the Orwell Society, particularly from Jacintha’s cousin whom I shall have the pleasure of meeting next month. My love of Orwell – on top of his liberating and wonderfully wild generalisations – sits most comfortably in the common decency for which I’m sure most of us crave. By the way, Peter, I share your problem with accumulators…bloody Ladbrokes!


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