Some thoughts on The Orwell Society visit to Jura
8 – 11 June 2018
by Richard Lance Keeble
Photographs by Quentin Kopp
The Road to Crinan Pier
Maryline and I drove up on Thursday night from Lincoln up to Penrith: the massive sky above the Cumbrian Pennines dazzlingly golden red in the setting sun. In the morning we headed north, the drive around Glasgow somewhat hairy as cars around us weaved swiftly in and out of the lanes, past beautiful Inveraray (with its kitsch castle), its buildings standing sturdy, white and impressive on the shores of Loch Fyne; and finally right on to the B841, over beautiful landscape and alongside the canal to Crinan Harbour and pier. After the warm welcomes with the fellow Orwellians we set off in the ferryboats (Venture West and Shannick) to Craighouse, 21 nautical miles away on Jura: 17 men and six women from all parts of the globe (reflecting the enormous reach of Orwell’s work): Australia, Spain, Germany, California, New Mexico – and, of course, England, Scotland and Wales.
Heading to Jura
A Fisherman’s Daughter?
There are 6,000 red deer on Jura (named after the Norse for ‘deer island’) and Orwell once described it as ‘ungettable to’. But now we had finally got to it. And so my main aim (as a proper journo) was to secure a scoop. First, I needed to speak to the oldest of the 200 inhabitants of the island. Perhaps they had memories of the Great Man never yet recorded? Maryline and I spent the first morning walking down the (surprisingly busy) beautifully scenic coastal road under the hot sun to Jura Forest where I spoke to a chap (wearing just shorts and big boots: he was just back from his honeymoon) who said the oldest person on the island was a Drew Fairman. But on seeing shortly afterwards the island’s postman getting out of his van, Maryline suggested I run up to him to possibly corroborate that name. ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘Drew’s not your man. Try Nancy Maclean. She lives at Glenasdale on the seafront – just as the road turns off to the cemetery at Keils.’
View of the coastal walk
So I banged on her door. A white-haired, old lady in slippers shuffled to the door. ‘Do you remember seeing George Orwell?’ I asked bluntly. ‘Oh yes,’ she replied. Wow! Could it be true? Had I the Great Scoop on my hands that had eluded Davison, Taylor, Meyers, Shelden, Bowker, Crick and Co? We wanted to get back to the village hall for the showing of two films (Wildflower, very moving, about Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and The Crystal Spirit, excellent, with Ronald Pickup as GO and script by Alan Plater) so we arranged with Nancy to come back at 5 pm.
In the meantime, my imagination went into overdrive. Could the many Orwellian mysteries still remaining be about to be resolved? For instance, why had Winston Smith’s anti-Party co-conspirator and lover been called Julia? Could it have been the name of a glamorous fisherman’s daughter Orwell had secretly dated on the island? And why was Winston’s friend-turned-torturer called O’Brien? Could he have been a car mechanic on the island who had helped him so many times after the truck given by Georges Kopp broke down? My exclusive source, Nancy, I was confident, would help solve all the riddles. Moreover, it was exciting to imagine where she had met him – perhaps at a dance in the village hall where he may have appeared a little gauche and over-pensive – constantly puffing on a cigarette as he peered at the gathered, jovial islanders.
I wanted to inspire Nancy’s memory with a few gifts so we asked at the village shop what goodies she liked. ‘Oh yes,’ they said, ‘she likes chocolates. And, by the way, would you mind delivering her paper to her?’ So with a box of chocolates and some biscuits (plus newspaper) I, nervously expectant, and Maryline (both of us having conspicuously shuffled out of the film showing a little early) were ushered into her living room overlooking the sea. Nancy, looking quite elegant, said she was 89. She had married and lived on the island most of her life. She giggled a lot. How many times had she seen Orwell? ‘Several,’ she said. And that was about all she could say. How did Orwell look: was he tall, brooding, clutching a book? ‘Ordinary.’ Oh well: at least I’d spoken to someone on the island who had seen Orwell. But then, on reflection, I’m left wondering: had she really?
Such, Such Was the Joy!
Our visit on the Sunday morning to the remote house where Orwell had written Nineteen Eighty-Four in the years before his untimely death at just 46 in 1950 proved to be the high point of the trip.
Barnhill from the sea
We were warmly welcomed by the owners, the Fletchers, and served fruit cake, tea, coffee and cordial. And what a pleasure it was to hear Richard Blair recounting (with deep affection and often wry humour) his memories of being with his father, other relatives, friends (such as Richard Rees), various hangers-on (such as Paul Potts), and neighbours (such as Bill Dunn who went on to wed Orwell’s sister Avril) at the house. Here was the place where he had fallen and cut his head, here he had fallen sick after smoking surreptitiously a pipe; here was the little bedroom where Rick had shed ‘buckets of tears’ when his nanny, Susan Watson, had left (after falling out with Avril); here the kitchen where breakfast was taken and (quite numerous) visitors entertained; here the dining room where they had dinner and high tea; Orwell always punctilious in his daily routine wanting long stretches alone in his room upstairs to write. In the surrounding fields he had grown vegetables, oats, made hay, planted fruit trees and reared chickens. The azaleas which Orwell had planted in front of the house are thriving – thanks to the Fletchers driving away the wild goats. Indeed, Orwell the gardener is a subject well worth exploring, said Richard. In a letter from Barnhill to George Woodcock, on 9 August 1947, Orwell had written that ‘Richard likes to roll about in the hay stack naked’. Quipped Richard: ‘Ah, but he didn’t say with whom!’ Richard also remembered being taken away when the pig was killed– just hearing their desperate, dying squeals in the background.
Orwell’s working view
And here finally was the upstairs room looking out across the fields to the sea beyond where Orwell had composed the great novel either at the table or in the bed – forever smoking and kept warm by the paraffin heater (its fumes adding to the ‘disgusting’ smells). Today there is a generator for electric lighting and charging phones: in Orwell’s day there were candles, open fires, Tilley paraffin lamps – but the water ran hot and cold.
All houses reflect aspects of their owner’s personality. And how Barnhill does just that! For instance, it reflects his love of the outdoors and nature; his sturdy, practical side that saw him mixing with the down-and-outs in Paris and London and mucking in with the militiamen in the trenches during the Spanish civil war. It reflects his extreme and profoundly unconventional character.
Barnhill’s isolated position
But above all, it struck me as I walked around the house, that the splendid isolation of Barnhill (23 miles north of Craighouse up a road that deteriorates to a track for the last five miles) captures Orwell, the ultimate outsider. Yet throughout his life Orwell used the distance he cultivated to look deeply and critically into things: poverty, the courage of his Spanish comrades, the growth of totalitarianism, the corruption of language and so on. His friendship with fellow old-Etonian David Astor, the journalist and future editor of the Observer, had not only led to his renting Barnhill in the first instance (Astor owned a large estate on the island and had recommended the house as a one-off place to holiday in) but had introduced him to the world of intelligence. Orwell may even have travelled in 1945 to Paris under journalistic cover to report on the final weeks of the Second World War for Astor, who was co-ordinating British intelligence links with European resistance groups. Orwell’s handing over the ‘little list’ of crypto-communists to his friend Celia Kirwan, of the Information Research Department, in 1949, rather than an aberration, could be seen as part of a deeper, long-standing commitment. All this to say that while Orwell became involved with the secret state he was clearly alarmed at seeing the extent of intelligence’s collusion with elites in both the East and West, its social, political and economic powers and its penetration into the daily lives of ordinary citizens. And isolated on Jura, he used his amazing imagination to compose the novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Had he written a polemic against the secret state we would not have been visiting Jura: Orwell knew that he could most effectively confront so many crucial issues only through a novel, with its extraordinary cultural power.
Coming up for Blair
And so, after Barnhill, we took the ferryboats up to Corryvreckan, the world’s third largest whirlpool, named after Breckan, the Viking captain who fell in love with a Scarba chieftain’s daughter. It was here where Orwell, Richard and his young cousins, Henry and Lucy Dakin, had almost drowned in the summer of 1947 during an ill-fated dinghy ride. As Orwell wrote in a letter to Celia Kirwan on 20 January 1948 (from Hairmyres Hospital, East Kilbride): ‘We did have a very nasty accident in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan (which comes into a film called I know where I’m Going) & were lucky not to be drowned. The awful thing was having Richard with us, however he loved every minute of it except when we were in the water.’ Publicity on the island was profoundly reassuring about the safety of our trip: waves could reach up to 30 ft, they warned, and the resulting turbulence could be heard 10 miles away. But in the end, the sea for our visit was placid and calm. And Richard was able to point at the very rock where he, his father and young relatives scrambled onto a tiny island – only to be rescued luckily a few hours later by a passing lobster fisherman who had spotted the fires they had lit. As Richard pointed out, if, in some terrible accident, Orwell had struck his head on the rock and drowned there would have been no Nineteen Eighty-Four – and we would not be on Jura that day…
While, the stormy seas were missing on our trip (luckily) so were other things:
- Midges: Quentin Kopp, the amazingly efficient organiser of the trip, extremely well supported by wife Liz, had warned us about the threat of midges on the island and the newspapers were reporting on the dangers of unprecedented plagues of insects (wasps, ants, daddy-long-legs as well as midges) across the whole of Scotland. In the end: mercifully nothing.
- Rain: which normally people expect in Scotland. But not a drop fell during our stay. All the locals were amazed as they had experienced two weeks of sunshine. And as the Scottish Sun reported (with perhaps an excess of alliteration) on 2 June: ‘Scotland is set to bask in a searing heatwave as rocketing temperatures start a sizzling summer this month.’
- Crowds: the front page of the current edition of the lively, news-packed local, independent, fortnightly journal for Islay and Jura, Ileach (on sale at the village hall for £1.40) reported on the large crowds attracted recently to the Fèis Ile festival with ‘seemingly endless queues’ outside the famous whisky distilleries on the island. By the time we arrived, the crowds had dispersed.
But we did see seals swimming in the sea, sea eagles flying high above the trees and rhododendrons flowering on the hills in the distance.
Appendix: Richard reading
While at Barnhill, Richard had read to us part of the handwritten letter Orwell had sent to Sonia Brownell (later to be his second wife), on 12 April 1947 trying to entice her up to the island. In typical, Orwell style, he lists meticulously the details of the trip: from 8am boat train leaving Glasgow Central for Gourock; then joining boat for Tarbet arriving about 12 noon; bus to West Tarbet to join boat for Craighouse, arriving 3.30 pm. If she wants to go by plane he lists those details. He suggests she brings a raincoat and if possible stout boots or shoes. He adds: ‘I am afraid I am making this all sound very intimidating.’ Indeed, Sonia was duly intimidated and never visited Barnhill during Orwell’s lifetime. As Mrs Nelson, of Ardlussa, who came to know Orwell reasonably well, writes in a pamphlet on sale at the Jura Hotel (which served us excellent meals throughout our stay): ‘In January 1950, she came to stay with us at Ardlussa. Robin [her husband] took her to Barnhill which she saw for the first time and where she went through Eric’s papers. She was clearly upset by its lack of comfort and amenities and felt that she could not have lived there without drastic modernisation.’
Towards the end of the letter to Sonia, Orwell writes: ‘Meanwhile take care and be happy.’ While Orwell is so often associated with the gloom of the dystopian vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four, what strikes me throughout his writing is also his constant humour: his wish to make his readers happy and the joie de vivre he conveys through his play with language and ideas – and the flowering of his creative imagination and intelligence. Indeed, it was an unforgettable privilege to hear Richard (always accompanied by his wife Eleanor) share with us his happy memories of his very special times with his father on Jura.
Richard Lance Keeble is chair of The Orwell Society
Uploaded 18th June 2018