It was a bright, cold day in October and the clocks were striking 13:00 when the first guests arrived at the luxuriously-appointed house Toftcombs, by bucolic Borders Biggar, for a meeting of the Orwell Society.
(Photograph by Quentin Kopp)
Quentin and Liz Kopp, indefatigable hosts, were already there. Quentin’s father Georges Kopp and his wife Doreen occupied Toftcombs post-war, Quentin was born there, and there George Orwell himself actually visited his old comrade from the Huesca trenches. Before one of Liz’s marvellous meals, a weekend-long convivial spirit was established.
Business began on Saturday morning by visiting the cottage of Hugh McDiarmid, the Scots poet and polemicist. Our leader for the tour and for the first lecture of the afternoon was Doctor Alan Riach, a Glasgow University lecturer. As a youth spellbound by McDiarmid’s use of language, he had actually visited the cottage occupants. This enthusiasm came through in his talk and the Q and A afterwards.
Next was Eleanor Blair with ancestral insights into the Blair family, particularly its maritime and Caribbean aspects. Eleanor brought along with her a folding bookcase, about the size of a large TV nowadays, which contained a compendium of self-improvement volumes, presumably an ideal companion at sea for the likes of Captain Horatio Blair.
Elli was followed by Denis Frize, who saw parallels in the lives of Orwell and Robert Louis Stevenson, both products of eminently Victorian parents who in youth threw off their advantages of upbringing and education only to come good as masters of the written word, particularly in social observation and insight into the dualism in the human condition. And finally Les Hurst reminded us of the night George Orwell spent in another Scottish location, the floor of a jail in Port Ellen.
George Orwell once defined his Socialism as ‘Common decency’ and this must have also been in Robert Owen’s mind when at the beginning of the 19th century he took over his father-in-law’s cotton spinning works at New Lanark and turned it into a sylvan social settlement for orphans. One could only wonder at the Maths exercise book an eight-year-old produced in 1803. A World Heritage site indeed for our conducted Sunday morning visit.
First afternoon speaker was Norman Bissell, already a published poet, who introduced his new book, Barnhill. Based on Orwell’s diaries, he traced imaginatively and affectingly the writer’s course to the triumph of crystal spirit over illness in producing Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Norman was followed by Journal editor Marsha Karp. She lived through the latter Soviet era, and developed her thesis that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not fictional dystopia but was well grounded in reality. Instantly disappearing citizens, chaotic food supplies, her own surreptitious copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, all gave us an insight into a world which Orwell posited and she proved.
Last up was Les Hurst with interesting extensions of our normal perceptions of metaphor and irony in Nineteen Eighty-Four. For example ‘Floating Fortress’ is easily paralleled with Flying Fortress. But Les’s researches reveal that under the auspices of Mountbatten, there was really an ice ship developed that was called the Floating Fortress. Similarly, Les delved into the reality behind concepts such as The Brotherhood of the novel.
Next morning off we whizzed to our various abodes, from Canada to Camden. Our thanks to Quentin and Liz Kopp filling the Scottish air.
Quentin Kopp adds:-
Toftcombs House was my parents’ home for two years after the war. George Orwell’s diary records his visits in May 1946 and again in June, one year before I was born there. During our weekend Dr Alan Riach revealed that Orwell’s friend Paul Potts had passed through with him, and had written ahead to try to arrange a meeting of Orwell and Hugh McDiarmid (so far no evidence of a meeting has been found). Thank you, Dr Riach.
Our Saturday theme was George Orwell and Scotland.
Our Sunday theme was Nineteen Eighty-Four: on its Seventieth Anniversary.
Uploaded 2 November 2019