In September 1984 Canadian broadcaster Stephen Wadhams published Remembering Orwell, interviews with many who had known George Orwell. Wadhams had spent much of 1983 travelling the British Isles to find his interviewees in order to make a series of radio programmes for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Now that book, which had grown increasingly rare, has been re-issued to deserved acclaim, as Carol Biederstadt describes in this article.
The Orwell Tapes by Stephen Wadhams
Orwell aficionados who tried to get their hands on a copy of Stephen Wadhams’s Remembering Orwell as recently as just a few months ago will well know a thing or two about the law of supply and demand, for the Penguin paperbacks, published in 1984, had become as pricey as they were scarce. Fans of Orwell will thus be pleased to know that the book was recently reissued by Locarno Press under the title The Orwell Tapes, making this gem once again available to all.
As the title suggests, the book is based on a series of interviews Wadhams conducted for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1983. A journalist known for his radio documentaries, Wadhams says he originally conceived of the project “as Orwell’s fateful year approached” in order to record the memories of people who had actually known Orwell. Even when meeting with them in 1983, however, as he notes in the original edition, most of the interviewees “were well into their seventies or eighties”, and, sadly, most of them are now gone. But thanks to Wadhams, who has skillfully woven the words of the various interviewees into a thoroughly readable and entertaining biographical narrative, many of their memories of Orwell live on.
The new edition, containing the original introduction by the late George Woodcock, author of The Crystal Spirit, also features two new additions: an updated preface by the author and a Foreword by preeminent Orwell scholar Peter Davison; otherwise, the original text remains essentially the same. Divided into five chapters, each section of the book is based on a specific period in Orwell’s life. Packed with little-known details from firsthand accounts, the book is a page-turner from start to finish.
The first chapter, “To Burma and Back”, focuses on Orwell’s formative years and paints a riveting picture of the young Eric Blair. The reader soon finds, however, that the memories of the interviewees do not always concur with that which Orwell himself has written. Regarding Orwell’s stinging account of his time at St. Cyprian’s, described in the posthumously published essay “Such, Such Were the Joys”, for example, both Sir John Grotrian, a year behind Orwell at St. Cyprian’s, and John Wilkes, son of the headmaster and mistress, disagree with Orwell’s damning depiction of the academy. Instead, their recollections seem to resonate with those set forth in fellow Etonian Cyril Connolly’s 1972 essay “Such Were the Joys”, although Grotrian does add the curious factoid about the young Orwell intentionally keeping his hair greasy so that Mrs. Wilkes wouldn’t be able to give it a hard tug as punishment for forgetting Bible verses! Similarly, using the shop’s old ledger book, Jack Wilkinson Denny, once the leading tailor in Southwold, challenges, perhaps unwittingly, Orwell’s intimations that his family had been strapped for cash by demonstrating that Orwell always ordered the highest quality fabric for his suits; indeed, a footnote indicates that calculated at today’s costs, the six pound overcoat Orwell ordered in 1927 would now “cost around five hundred pounds or eight hundred dollars”.
The second chapter spans the years 1927 to 1936, the period during which, Wadhams says, Orwell can be dubbed “the chronicler of injustice”. Covering Orwell’s return from Burma up until his marriage to Eileen, some highlights of this section include the recollections of Mabel Fierz, the old friend who helped him find a publisher for Down and Out in Paris and London after both Faber and Cape had rejected it. It was also in part thanks to Fierz, we learn, that Orwell was to meet his wife, Eileen. And those curious about Orwell’s courtship conventions will surely be interested in the claims of Kay Ekevall, another female friend from Orwell’s Booklover’s Corner days. Implying that Orwell was once her “boyfriend”, Ekevall maintains that although she always told her suitors bluntly, “Look, if you find someone else don’t hesitate to say so”, Orwell was “the only one” who ever actually came right out and said, in reference to Eileen, “Look, I’ve met a girl I want to marry”.
The recollections of ILP and POUM volunteers who knew Orwell during his days fighting in the Spanish Civil War take the spotlight in the third chapter, including those of former British ILP General Secretary Lord Fenner Brockway, “the man who helped Orwell get to Spain in December 1936”, and John McNair, the ILP representative in Barcelona to whom Orwell had been introduced by Brockway. Also of interest are the accounts of Jack Branthwaite, who was with Orwell not only in the Hotel Continental when “a shot came through the window” at the outset of the “May Days”, but also on the Aragon front when Orwell was shot in the neck later that May. Suggesting that he may also have inadvertently influenced Orwell’s literary career, Branthwaite claims that while visiting Orwell in Wallington after they had returned from Barcelona, the various animals at Orwell’s home prompted him to remark: “‘. . . I see you’ve got some animals here. I wonder if we handed over the reins of government to the animals, if they’d do any better?’” He claims that Orwell “never said a word, but he left dinner and went upstairs and we didn’t see him any more that night”, concluding that “[i]t may or may not have started a train of thought which ended up as Animal Farm, an idea that he thought might come in handy.”
Spanning the mid-thirties to mid-forties, the fourth chapter, “The Road to Animal Farm”, covers a period that includes not only the war years, but also other key events in Orwell’s life such as the adoption of his son, Richard, the death of Eileen, his time at the BBC, and the publication of Animal Farm. Remarking on Orwell’s affinity for the common man during his years at Wallington, Patricia Donohue says that Orwell “was a countryman at heart”, although she sadly concludes that his lifelong desire to be accepted as an Everyman continued to elude him: “I think he was quite well liked in the village, but he was never one of them. He might have liked to have been, but he was never one of the countrymen really, you know”. Also included in this chapter are some of the most amusing anecdotes in the entire book, Michael Meyer’s retelling of a series of incidents in the on-again off-again relationship between Orwell and Eileen and the “paranoiac” H.G. Wells, a tale guaranteed to give any fan of Orwell or Wells a chuckle.
The last chapter of the book, corresponding with the final chapter of Orwell’s life, ranges from his Jura days and the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four to his October 1949 bedside marriage to Sonia Brownell and, finally, to his death in Room 65 of University College Hospital on 21st January 1950. Particularly poignant are the accounts of Paul Potts, who was likely the last person to see Orwell alive, and David Astor, who took it upon himself to find a cemetery associated with the Church of England that would be willing to bury the non-practicing George Orwell. Astor describes seeking the help of the vicar of a church in Sutton Courtenay, where Astor had a country home; in turn, Reverend Gordon Dunstan, the vicar, tells of seeking the approval of the villagers and telling them: “‘You don’t know this man, but one day he’ll be famous and people will come here to see his tomb’”. Time has proved his predictions could not have been more prophetic.
The Orwell Tapes is based on Stephen Wadhams’s interviews with more than seventy people, and while some of those interviewed are already well known among Orwell enthusiasts, many will be unfamiliar to most readers. The tidbits these previously anonymous figures in Orwell’s life bring to the discussion make this book a truly fascinating read, giving one the feeling of having insider information about Orwell. With the recent resurgence of interest in Orwell, the re-issuance of this volume could not have been timelier.
Upload 7th January 2018