An Attendee Writes
Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who married Eric Blair, was born in South Shields on the mouth of the River Tyne in 1905, and died hearing the same accents only a few miles away in Jesmond in 1945. That final date was March 29th, and on the seventieth anniversary of her death Orwell Society members, lead by her son Richard, made a commemorative visit to Tyneside.
Arriving as a vanguard on the 27th, Sylvia Topp – author of a biography-in-progress of Eileen – and Les Hurst explored the intellectual life of Tyneside through a visit to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Institute, before taking a ride on the Metro to Cullercoats, home to a Victorian artists’ colony and a century-old marine laboratory. Sylvia has been liaising with local researchers from her home in New York as well as making visits such as this one, so was able to tie together all that she saw. When Eileen was growing up on Tyneside it was an industrial, a scientific and an intellectual powerhouse.
The next day, Saturday March 28th, saw the arrival of the Society members, including Richard and Eleanor Blair and events organiser Quentin Kopp and his wife, Liz; ten of us altogether. From the start we were able to keep to our timetable, and heading to the nearby Metro station we took a ride out to South Shields, passing through Jarrow on the way. At South Shields Library Theatre we met Gary Wilkinson, a local historian and the director of ‘Wildflower’, a film biography of Eileen, and Tom Kelly, a local poet and historian. After being fed by The People’s Cafe we watched ‘Wildflower’ on the big screen and heard Tom Kelly read his poem ‘You, You, You’ – his response to all he had learned of Eileen’s life. It was then time to explore the locations of Eileen’s childhood, as all the homes in which she had been born and raised in the town are extant. Our group made its way through the bright, if wind-whipped streets, especially impressed by Westgate House, the long-term family home, before walking back to see the Customs offices on the High Street, and continuing to the riverside Customs House, where Eileen’s father had been the chief officer (now an arts centre with a cafe providing warm relief from the elements). Thanks to Sylvia for identifying the houses and to Gary for planning such a pleasant walk.
Saturday evening found us back in the city in an Italian restaurant for a group meal. Just as we had experienced at lunchtime in the People’s Cafe, we had fascinating and wide-ranging conversations. They are a feature of the OS, and one reason why the society deserves to exist.
On Sunday morning at 10am our darker mission began. We took the Metro again, to Jesmond, where Fernwood House in March 1945, had been a medical clinic and Eileen was due for an obstetric operation. Now the head office of Gregg’s The Bakers, David, the Manager of the Gregg’s Foundation, opened the building to show us the rooms which had existed seventy years ago. The house was built by one of the Novocastrian ship owners with a belvedere on the roof, from which he would have looked down at his fleet on the river. It was in this building that Eileen died on the operating table.
Eileen’s husband, Eric, was in Paris as a war correspondent, and though he returned as soon as possible when he learned she had died, the funeral arrangements were made by George Mason, a former colleague and family friend of Eileen’s brother Laurence O’Shaughnessy. We continued from Fernwood House to Haldane Terrace where Mason had lived, in which Eric/Orwell stayed for the funeral, and then made our way to St Andrews cemetery and to Eileen’s grave, as Mason and Orwell would have done seventy years before. Richard Blair, with porterage supplied by Liz Kopp, had brought a rose to plant on the grave. Orwell had once done the same, though his has been lost. The rose planted, Richard read Tom Kelly’s poem, ‘You, You, You’, as the rain which had held off during all of our previous excursions began to fall.
We returned to the city centre from West Jesmond station and made our separate journeys home.
Along the way we learned more: that Eileen herself in 1934 had written a poem on the year 1984; that the concept of the year 1984 was a Tyneside invention (it was the Venerable Bede in Jarrow who used the BC/AD dating system in which 1984 is a year). Perhaps one of our symposia mentioned that Newcastle was once home to Yevgeny Zamyatin, who recalled ”In England [in 1916], I built ships, looked at ruined castles, listened to the thud of bombs dropped by German zeppelins’, all of which would have been among Eileen’s formative experiences as well. Eileen would know war with Orwell in Spain, but unlike him, she lived through the coastal air raids of the Great War. Perhaps – as with the authorship of ‘Animal Farm’, we will never know – she contributed something to George Bowling’s vision of bombs falling in ‘Coming Up For Air’. And perhaps in the experience of Eileen’s loss of her brother Lawrence at Dunkirk, which changed her forever, Orwell also learned some of the loss he placed in Winston Smith.
We are grateful to Gary, Tom and David, to the ladies of the People’s Cafe and to everyone else on Tyneside who helped us. Such a visit is not one to be made frequently, but in five years time some of us may visit Eileen’s grave again, to check that the rose planted by her son is flourishing.