By Jean Seaton
In 1948 George Orwell’s instructions for getting to Jura were off-putting. It took two days from Glasgow. The description of the alternative trains, buses, ferries, boats which ended, once you had got to Jura, with taxis, walking 8 miles or a boat (and walking) to get to his house, Barnhill, took 19 lines. Frankly, I am surprised it did not take longer. Now it is all much faster but Jura is still remote, drifting off mainland Argyle, down a long grey loch. Just getting to Jura, let alone on again to Barnhill, as we did with the Orwell Societies’ wonderful recent trip is thought provoking.
Of course we all knew that Barnhill was remote – but measuring it out, pacing the distance is different. It makes the psychological stretch Orwell put between himself and the world – perhaps to escape the drum beat of grief for the death of his wife Eileen, certainly to put writing 1984 and Richard at the centre of his life – tangible. It made the imperative discipline of writing, difficult to comprehend from outside, starker. It was a social distance as well as a physical one. It may have been accidental (his friend, patron and editor David Astor had suggested it – he had land there) but it was extreme.
Orwell built a busy, daily, intimate world there with Richard – Susan Watson, Richard’s nanny and then Avril his sister. There was potato growing, raspberry cane planting, snake and toad watching, (and killing) hen-hutch making, rabbit catching, cow milking, fishing – and Richard tending. Richard recalls the freedom of pottering about outside as a tiny child (he also remembers eating all the peas). Shops, post, modern things like flour and sugar were 2 hours away over a rough track by motorbike. Orwell’s diary records Richard stamping on two cauliflowers, and that Avril and he made a bottle of brandy last a week. Fuel and water were a problem. But this little, complete, world (perhaps glimpsed in 1984 – as a nirvana – when Winston and Julia go out into the country) was maintained at a distance from everything else. In the year before he went to Jura, David Taylor his biographer calculated Orwell wrote 130 pieces of journalism, including several substantial essays, while also campaigning and lobbying. He was astonishingly productive, rattling on, driving himself. In Barnhill he wrote 1984. Everything he had left, (because he was so ill) he gathered and spent for the book – and Richard.
We happy band of Orwell pilgrims went the easy modern way. Many of us efficiently corralled at Glasgow station by Justin Bowles (one of our number) on to a bus, well fed at a lovely restaurant on the way, we were welcomed by Richard and Eleanor Blair and Quentin and Liz Kopp at what was apparently a harbour. But then two fine boats driven by two fine chaps roared in and scooped us up. We sped out down the long loch to Jura. Foam and clouds scudding alongside – it was full of expectation and exciting. At Craighouse, the tiny Jura harbour we walked up to at the friendly and comfortable Jura Hotel. We had rooms that overlooked the harbour and the outlying islands – which looked serenely mysterious and almost eastern across the bay they enclose.
Jura is beautiful and peaceful. It seems familiar, small neat houses, a village hall, a restrained little church, a poignant church yard with tomb-stones rather like Nordic Sagas listing the long lineage of the people buried there: yet also strange. Partly because it is remote and must have been more remote in the late 1940s (though busier) and because now only 180 people live scattered over it. Now visitors come in to sail, walk, bike and watch birds. The climate is mild because of the Gulf Stream. There are banks of yellow flag irises everywhere and spikes of purple spotted heath orchids grow in mounds. It is dominated by three mountains, the ‘Paps’ whose tops were always covered in cloud. So Jura is a puzzle: supposedly wild but rather well mannered, distant and northern but temperate.
Who were we? Congenial, informed, united by an interest in Orwell, everybody contributed to the collective pool of knowledge. People who like Orwell are a likable lot. We gathered (like the Canterbury pilgrims) from all over the world. What Orwell would have made of becoming a secular saint with relics much prized is any-body’s guess. But it was fun and we all had a different angle on ‘George’. There was Jennifer Custer (from the literary agency A.M Heath which manages the Orwell estate who is in charge of all the foreign translations of Orwell) originally from America – full of contemporary literary knowledge and tremendous fun, Chen Yong from China, a visiting fellow at St Anthony’s’ Oxford (sponsored by the Orwell Prize-winning Timothy Garton-Ash) who was working on the reception of Orwell (and who wanted us to be more critical). A lively American academic Carol Biederstadt who is doing a PhD on Burmese Days (she is certainly going to be more critical) and her delightful husband Bill – a Burmese with his own terrible story of politics and dispossession. But there were people with a life long interest in Orwell too like George Wojcik and Anne Drysdale from Canada. Paul and Michelle Lam and Mairi Morrison (mother of 5) also from America were all keen on literary expeditions.
From nearer at hand there was Desmond Avery, and ex-aid worker (who wrote a smashing paper on Orwell at the BBC), David Ryan, a journalist in the last stages of a great project and book on screen adaptions of Orwell – who had really interviewed everyone. Les Hurst whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Orwell was a constant resource, Keith and Christine Lloyd, again with a passion and interest in Orwell. Janice Moss (who had bookshops in her blood) and Justin Bowles, who had been a banker and manager in Asia and who was returning with a sceptical curiosity to Orwell who he had discovered as a teenager. There was Stephanie La Lievre, the Programmes Manager for the Orwell Prize – set up in Orwell’s name to reward the best political writing, now about to move into UCL with the Orwell Archive, but as much a project as a prize, with a Youth Prize unrolling all over the country, lectures (last year Rowan Williams in 2015, Ian Hislop in 2016, next year novelist AL Kennedy and Josie O’Ruarke who runs the Donmar ) events, the founder of workshops in Wigan and the Unreported Britain project I am the Director of the Prize. Which I took over from Bernard Crick who was Orwell’s first biographer.
The real privilege was to be on Jura with Richard where he was in part formed, and with Eleanor who has shared the long after history of Orwell. Beside their busy lives there has always been this public role. But it was also fascinating to share the experience with Quentin, son of Orwell’s complex friend George Kopp – who also died unexpectedly young and Quent’s wife Liz. The whole trip was brilliantly choreographed and we were looked after so thoughtfully by Richard and Eleanor, Quentin and Liz. They had planned everything – and it all worked. Liz worked tirelessly to keep us going (and always made sure we had our tea!). Then we were especially lucky as well to be there with Catherine O’Shaughnessy as was, (Catherine Moncure now) the daughter of Gwen O’Shaughnessy – the wife of Orwell’s brother in law (and doctor) Lawrence. Catherine lives in America after a distinguished life as a midwife all over the world. Richard, Quentin and Catherine had grown up together and their lives been shaped by Orwell and his circle: or indeed by the early deaths of all their fathers. We were there with what the biographer and historian Ben Pimlott called the ‘pooled brood’ of children Kopp and Orwell left to be brought up by formidable women in their wake. Pimlott had as a child shared holidays with Richard, the O’Shaungessys and Kopps in Norfolk and wrote ‘ I remember George as a ghostly presence: a difficult, often exasperating, yet beloved spectre, whose name conjured up muddy boots and dirty finger-nails, adventures in foreign parts, and a stubbornly masculine failure to be practical. For me, Orwell’s stern whimsicality has ever since been bound up with a pre-affluent world that no longer exists – of long-faced, heavy-smoking, New Statesman & Nation-reading men (and a few women), who treated the well-to-do with tolerant condescension, and regarded a commitment to history, literature and the public service as taken-for-granted attributes of any civilized human being.’ Like anthropologists we inspected the way of life Orwell had led with those who had shared it on Jura. How lucky we were.
We literary groupies talked in the bar, talked over very nice breakfasts and smashing dinners and talked as we pottered about the harbour. The next day some of us went to the distillery, (where 1984 Whisky – produced in a limited edition now costs £1,000 a bottle but more modest purchases can be made). In the afternoon we watched, Gary Wilkinson’s revealing film about Eileen O’Shaugnessy – Orwell’s first wife, Wildflower. It was about her background in the North East of England, and her radical politics at Oxford, it made her even more intriguing. It was a gem. But we also saw a wonderful 1984 BBC film The Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura. It was sparely and beautifully written by Alan Platter – who knew Orwell – and shot evocatively by David Glenister at Barnhill. Ronald Pickup, who David Ryan (of course) had interviewed, played Orwell. He looked like Orwell, (though was a small man) but more movingly he communicated a convincing and indeed sweet version of the spirit – a tremendous performance in a really fine film.
The highlight next day was the boat trip around the island to Barnhill. We saw sea eagles in great untidy nests and the ancient and unique Jura raised beaches, we saw seals basking (and perhaps we saw them swimming), we saw abandoned cottages, cormorants and fishes, we saw a herd of deer scampering up a beach – descended, it is said, from the deer the Vikings left on the islands as a larder store for when they came visiting again. We also saw the vulgar new buildings for a ‘golf course’. Half the island has been bought by a rich Australian, and Jura (which unlike the other Hebridean islands did not suffer the forced evictions of the clearances) maybe is now about to become a rich man’s plaything. The famous Jura garden lush in the warm climate has been shut to the public since he bought it in 2011.
Thrillingly we sallied out through the Corryvreckan Whirlpool. The name comes from the Gaelic – meaning the ‘cauldron of speckled seas’, which is just what it looks like. It is caused by a sudden dip on the ocean floor combined with the funnelling of water between two islands. It is huge and menacing. Tiny wicked little whirlpools bubble up around the circumference of bigger swirling pools and the whole is a boiling expanse. Not perhaps as terrifying when you are safe in a powerful motorboat as it would have been in a small boat in the late 1940s. But epic-ally dangerous. It was here that Orwell took Richard and his nieces and nephews and as the engine broke off nearly drowned all of them. We saw the tiny island Orwell managed to bundle everyone onto where they were saved by a passing fisherman. It was, (I thought), interestingly reckless of Orwell to go out towards it in boat crammed with children – it spoke of a risk-taking streak that verged on the un-reasonable. Of course, it all ended well, Richard fished out of the sea by the seat of his trousers.
Then finally at the end of the island we got out and walked up a winding hill to Barnhill itself. The house sits commandingly on the saddle of the island buffeted by winds. It is an austere, assured house, not grand but nevertheless imposing. But it provides perspective – you see things from the windows. Inside it is more or less as I imagine it was when Orwell had it. White painted, comfortable but not ‘comfy’ and upstairs where we (a bit lugubriously) inspected the window where Orwell had his desk and the place where he had his paraffin fire, perishingly chilly in winter. Jamie and Damaris Fletcher– the son and daughter in law of the Fletchers who let the house to Orwell – had extremely kindly come to open it up for us and let us wander about it, (and had baked a very fine fruit cake for us). Later over dinner we also met Kate Fletcher who lives much of the year on Jura. It was very kind of them and it was memorable. They too had had their lives inflected by this odd episode.
Best of all however, was Richard reading a perfectly selected piece from his father’s diary. Orwell treated himself, and his illness, with the curiosity, detachment and observant eye he treated others. It was poignant, magnificent, and in an odd way funny: the worst a writer can imagine is not being able to summon the words to shape reality originally. So in the sun, on the hill overlooking the loch we gathered round to hear Richard read his father’s words:
“When you are acutely ill, or recovering from an acute illness, your brain frankly strikes works and you are only equal to picture papers, easy crossword puzzles etc. But when it is a case of a long illness, where you are weak and without appetite but not actually feverish or in pain, you have the impression that your brain is quite normal. Your thoughts are just as active as ever, you are interested in the same things, you seem to be able to talk normally, and you can read anything that you would read at any other time. It is only when you attempt to write, even to write the simplest and stupidest newspaper article, that you realise what a deterioration has happened inside your skull. At the start is it impossible to get anything on to paper at all. Your mind turns away to anything conceivable subject rather than the one you are trying to deal with, and even the physical act of writing is unbearably irksome. Then, perhaps, you begin to be able to to write a little, but whatever you write, once it is set down on paper, turns out to be stupid and obvious. You have also no command of language, or rather you can think of nothing except flat, obvious expressions: a good, likely phrase never occurs to you…It would seem natural enough if the effect of illness were simply to stop you thinking, but that is not what happens. What happens is that your mind is just as active as usual, perhaps more so, but always to no purpose. You can use words, but always inappropriate words, and you can have ideas, but you cannot fit them together.”