Day 1: London
Damp and drizzle didn’t deter a party of 13 from the Orwell Society on the first day of October as we set out to explore the author’s London haunts in Hampstead and Canonbury, and then Paris on the Sunday. Our guide Michael King almost fell at the first fence, falling flat on his back a mere five minutes into the Canonbury stage of the walk after slipping on a conker shell. But being made of stern stuff, he gamely continued with the walk, albeit sporting a slight limp for the rest of the weekend.
Michael took us first to the bookshop Booklovers’ Corner at 1 South End Green in Hampstead, which provided Orwell with employment, accommodation and inspiration for his writing, most notably as the model for Gordon Comstock’s bookshop in the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (this year marking the 80th anniversary of is publication). After a short cut across the bottom of Hampstead Health, we then came to 77 Parliament Hill, which is notable for being the lodging from where he met his wife-to-be Eileen O’Shaughnessy.
Being something of an expert on the 20th century English novel, Michael took delight in placing Orwell amongst his peers, many of whom lived and worked in the same locality. A few doors down from Orwell at 68 Parliament Hill was the home of the poet Anna Wickham, which provided a literary venue (and source of food and alcohol) for the likes of Dylan Thomas and Malcolm Lowry (author of Under the Volcano). Anna’s life was peppered with personal tragedy and tragically she took her life in the same house in 1947.
Next stop (and jumping a decade in Orwell’s life) was 27b Canonbury Square, Islington. This flat brought back some distant memories from Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair who accompanied us on the tour. Though a very small boy, Richard remembers the flat as being very dark and dingy, although his Father was completely indifferent to the state of his surroundings, as long as he could write. Canonbury witnessed a turn in Orwell’s financial fortunes, which had been a constant worry, until after the publication of Animal Farm. On a darker note, it was during his time here that his wife Eileen died, although Orwell was travelling as a war correspondent on the continent at the time. Canonbury also saw the birth of his novel Nineteen Eight-Four, although his most famous work was completed on the island of Jura in Scotland.
Michael also took us around to 17 Canonbury Square, where Evelyn Waugh once lived and worked. This happened to have also been the home of the parents of another member of our tour: Quentin Kopp. The tour ended with lunch at the Canonbury Tavern, which recognizes its famous literary patrons Orwell and Waugh with some lovely framed book covers decorating the walls. In Orwell’s case, the connection with this pub goes beyond a quick pint, as the pub’s garden is reputedly one of the models for the Chestnut Tree café in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This was where the regime of Big Brother would park its dissidents after they had been physically and mentally broken.
Report by Justin Bowles