In his forthcoming novel, Barnhill, Norman Bissell explores the final years and possible thoughts of George Orwell. In this extract, exclusive to the Orwell Society, Bissell takes us into Orwell’s last hours.
21 January 1950, University College Hospital, London
I fell asleep early last night and woke up again after midnight. Now I can’t get back to sleep, my brain’s too alert. The only sound is my breathing and occasional coughing. The rest of the hospital seems to be fast asleep. I’m being well looked after here and the doctors and nurses have been much more attentive than at Cranham. Yet I feel I’m getting worse. And that last time Tony and Malcolm visited me you would think they’d seen a ghost. Well, boys, I’m still here. I might be thinner and weaker, not unlike Winston, but there’s life in the old dog yet.
There’s no doubt that marrying Sonia has given me hope. And where there’s life… She’s cheered me up no end and she’s very practical and enjoys organising things like our flight to Switzerland. Whatever she says, I still suspect Morland doesn’t want another corpse on his hands and that’s why he wants me to go. He could probably see the headlines now: ‘First Lawrence then Orwell. Who’s next?’ I don’t really mind that Sonia’s bringing along her former lover Lucian Freud since I can’t fulfil her needs in the state I’m in. Although I’m only forty-six, I’ve not had a bad innings really. And if I’m bowled out, I’m sure Sonia and Rich will look after my work the way it should be taken care of. My last two books have caught the public’s imagination and I’ve managed to achieve what I set out to do – to warn the world about the dangers of totalitarian rule. It’s up to them now as to whether they’re smart and committed enough to stop it happening. I’m sure there will be other would-be dictators in the future but it’ll be up to the people to stop them too. I still believe in the common decency of ordinary people, they’re the best guarantee of our freedom in the future. I feel I’ve done my bit, and now I’d like to live long enough to indulge my interest in other writers like Conrad and Waugh, and to write another novel or two like the short one I’ve already started. I can just see me fishing in those icy, turquoise Swiss rivers once I’m better. And, once I return, I’d like nothing better than to show Ricky how to catch trout and tench in the Upper Thames where I grew up. I can see us now, casting into some deep, dark pool and the fish lazily swimming about waiting for that moment to pounce on that fly and us on the bank waiting patiently for them to bite… Dace and tench swimming dreamily, trout and…
In the early hours that morning George’s room was dark and completely silent. The corridor light shone a beam into the room and his fishing rods still stood propped up in a corner. On his bedside cabinet a bag of tea sat next to his pile of books along with framed photographs of Eileen and Ricky, and one of Sonia. George lay face up and perfectly still in his bed. Blood seeped from his lips on to his thin chest forming a large, dark pool. He was dead. A massive lung haemorrhage, brought on by tuberculosis, had killed him.
An earlier section of Barnhill dealing with George Orwell’s time passing through Glasgow at New Year 1946-1947 can be found on the author’s website, NormanBissell.Com.
Luath Press will be publishing Barnhill in May 2019. Advance orders can be placed here.
George Orwell died in University College Hospital, London on January 21st 1950.
Uploaded January 19th 2019