Gordon Bowker: Orwell on the S. S. Stratheden

  • Passenger list
  • Archive material on the S.S. Stratheden

One of [Orwell’s] pupils, Tony Hyams, remembered him as a very pleasant, easygoing teacher, who when exasperated would say, ‘Oh! Lord you’ll drive me to Hanwell!’ – the name of the local mental asylum, which the boys thought very funny. On dormitory duty, after lights-out, he would retire to an adjacent room and type until the power was cut at eleven o’clock – hardly calculated to encourage sleep among his long-suffering pupils. But it did ensure that by 26 November [1933] he was able to tell [his agent, Leonard] Moore that he had completed Burmese Days. With his first salary cheque he bought a motorbike, and was able to drive over to Moore’s house at Gerrard’s Cross and deliver his manuscript in person. Excited by his newfound mobility, he suggested to Brenda [Salkeld, a ‘friend’ from Southwold, daughter of a Bedfordshire clergyman who taught at a girls’ boarding school] that they go off on the bike for a holiday together. After consulting her mother, however, she turned down the idea. Rather annoyed, he wrote telling her that she had been ‘indiscreet’ to mention it at home. As with Eleanor [Jacques, another romantic interest who later married Dennis Collings, Orwell’s love rival and friend], he preferred to keep his amours and designs secret. Clandestine relations were obviously more exciting to him than openly respectable ones in the approved bourgeois manner.

[…] [On Orwell’s excursion to Morocco, 1938-9, to recover his health]

The idea of the South of France was dropped when Laurence [O’Shaughnessy, Eileen’s brother] suggested Morocco which, according to a French colleague, would be both equable and dry, the perfect place for a man in his condition. The only snag was that their money had again run out. Their plight came to the ears of L.H. Myers who arranged with Max Plowman to send them an anonymous gift of £300 to cover their expenses. Myers was a wealthy Marxist who readily gave away his money (from a sense of guilt, according to Orwell). He never knew the source of this money but happily accepted it on the understanding that it be regarded as a loan.

They planned to travel to Marrakech via Gibraltar, Tangier and Casablanca, while [Jack] Common and his wife moved into the Stores. Marx [Orwell’s dog] was evacuated temporarily to the Dakins’ [Orwell’s sister Marjorie and her husband, Humphrey] new home in Bristol, after accompanying Eileen on a brief visit to Windermere, probably to commune with the Lake poets. Later, together, they visited Southwold, where Richard Blair [Orwell’s father] was in failing health. Now eighty-one, he had still not been persuaded that his son could make anything of his life from writing. What this old Tory thought of having fathered a boy who was a Socialist and had fought with Communists in Spain, can only be surmised.

Just before leaving Orwell began a Domestic Diary, mostly nature notes in the tradition of Gilbert White or W.H. Hudson, which he kept up throughout his time in Morocco and on his return to Wallington. They reveal his love of lists, of detail, or how things work and his encyclopaedic knowledge of flora and fauna. Mr Sillar’s [one of Orwell’s teachers at St. Cyprian’s] enthusiasm had produced a more-than-enthusiastic disciple.

When Orwell left England, there was always the hope of escaping to a better future. On 2nd September he and Eileen sailed from Tilbury tourist class on the S.S. Stratheden. It was Orwell’s second voyage out through the Bay of Biscay and he must have looked with some amusement on the colonials and their memsahibs heading East to take up the white man’s burden. On the passenger list he had designated himself ‘Profession – Novelist’, Eileen had written ‘Profession – Nil’. He had taken a patent seasickness remedy which he was pleased to find worked, and, according to Eileen, ‘walked around the boat with a seraphic smile watching people being sick & insisted on my going to the “Ladies’ Cabin” to report on disasters there’.

On board the Stratheden he had a strange reunion. Tony Hyams, his old pupil from Frays College, was also a passenger, travelling with his mother to the Sudan where his father was in government service. He spotted Mr Blair standing alone on the deck one day and went up to say hello. Orwell was quite pleased to see him but seemed preoccupied. He told Hyams that, having fought in Spain, he was now terrified that, passing through Spanish Morocco to reach Marrakesh he might be arrested and end up in a concentration camp. The terror inspired in Catalonia obviously lingered.

From Gibraltar they went by boat to Tangier, and next day ran the Spanish gauntlet into French Morocco without incident. The following day they arrived in Marrakech where they chose the highly-recommended Hotel Continental. However, as Eileen told Ida Blair, it might have been quite good once, but ‘lately it has changed hands & is obviously a brothel’, something she noticed immediately but George did not. They quickly moved to the cheaper, more respectable Majestic, where Eileen took to her bed with a fever while George made plans for them to move into a villa of their own.

Although surrounded by luxuriant groves and gardens and set on the Blad el Hamra plain with spectacular views of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech was in a state of some decay. Apart from the impressive palace of the Sultan and its imperial parks, and the dominant presence of the Katubia Mosque, many areas were crime-ridden slums. They found a villa outside the town but were unable to move in for a month, so were stuck meantime in a city they found uncongenial. The countryside around was practically all desert and in Marrakech itself, the native quarter was, according to Eileen, picturesque, but with smells which were only rivalled by the noise.

After working in Australia and the Middle East, Gordon Bowker studied at Nottingham and London Universities before teaching at Goldsmith’s College and writing drama-documentaries for radio and television. He has contributed to The London Magazine, Independent, Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, and New York Times. He has written film-location reports for The Observer (including Huston’s Under the Volcano and Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor) and dispatches from Berlin and Warsaw for the Illustrated London News. His books include Malcolm Lowry Remembered (1985); Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry (1994, New York Times Notable Book of the Year); and Through the Dark Labyrinth: A Biography of Lawrence Durrell (1996). His George Orwell appeared in 2003, Orwell’s centenary year. Extracts from page 153, and 242-4 of Gordon Bowker’s George Orwell, courtesy of the author.