Gordon Bowker: Orwell’s London

Although George Orwell (Eric Blair) was born in India and grew up in Henley-on-Thames, he was a Londoner by adoption[1]. He lived and worked in various places around the city, not all of them marked with commemoration plaques. It was in London in the early 1930s that he was down-and-out, and in London in the late 40s that he found a fame and fortune he would never live fully to enjoy. London features in much of his writing, and one can still recreate important stretches of his life by visiting parts of the city where, at various times, he tried to scratch a living as schoolteacher, bookseller, novelist and reviewer.

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By 1917, young Blair was a scholarship boy at Eton. At about that time, his mother moved from Henley to London to do war-work for the Ministry of Pensions, renting a pied-à-terre at 23 Cromwell Crescent, Earl’s Court, a house sadly no longer there. Later, in one of his ‘London Letters’ for the Partisan Review, he wrote disdainfully of ‘The foul… endless… “London fogs” of my childhood’, and, in The Road to Wigan Pier, about ‘the dreary wastes of Kensington and Earl’s Court’, home of the slowly expiring upper middle-classes.
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But not everything about Georgian London was distasteful to him. His Bohemian Aunt Nellie Limouzin lived not far away, in a top-floor flat at 195, Ladbroke Grove where she frequently entertained her Suffragette and literary friends. There he met such figures as G.K. Chesterton and E. Nesbit, the children’s writer and composer of socialist hymns, and the communist vicar, Conrad Noel, who famously ran the red flag up the tower of his parish church at Thaxted. It was through Nellie (a one-time vaudevillian) that he first discovered the London music halls (the world of the vulgar seaside postcard brought to life, as he saw it), and came to relish the bawdy humour of Marie Lloyd, George Robey, Little Tich and later Max Miller.

During the Second World War, he reviewed a Miller performance at the Holborn Empire for Time and Tide. ‘Max Miller, who looks more like a Middlesex Street hawker than ever when he is wearing a tail coat and a shiny top hat,’ he wrote, ‘is one of a long line of English comedians who have specialized in the Sancho Panza side of life, in real lowness. To do this probably needs more talent than to express nobility.’ However, he rated Little Tich ‘the real master’ of the low comedic art, concluding that ‘It would seem that you cannot be funny without being vulgar.’

The musical theatre obviously appealed to the young Etonian. Seeing the long-running musical Chu Chin Chow at His Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, as a boy, gave him a vision of the mysterious East (somewhat different from that of Kipling), which may have coloured his expectations of Burma when he went there as a nineteen year-old. The charm of the show, he recalled, ‘lay in the fantastic unreality of the whole thing, and the droves of women, practically naked and painted to an agreeable walnut-juice tint. It was a never-never land, the “gorgeous East”, where, as is well-known, everyone has fifty wives and spends his time lying on a divan, eating pomegranates.’ And he long remembered seeing Nigel Playfair’s acclaimed productions of The Beggar’s Opera and The Blue Lagoon in 1920 at the Lyric Hammersmith.

By 1918, the Blairs had moved to a flat in Mall Chambers on Kensington Mall at Notting Hill Gate. They were not particularly well-off (his father was a retired Indian Civil Servant), and Mall Chambers was a block of low-rental flats provided mainly for artisans. The area probably suited him well because of its many literary associations — Wyndham Lewis, Hilaire Belloc and Ford Madox Ford lived nearby and William Cobbett had set off on his rural rides from Notting Hill.

After Eton, Blair joined the Indian Police Service in Burma, but resigned after five years, disgusted with what policing the Empire had required of him. (Famously, he was once witness to a hanging.) His first novel, Burmese Days, and the confessional passages in The Road to Wigan Pier are good guides to his state of mind at that time. He was determined to seek redemption by sinking into the lower depths. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his third novel, he writes of his alter ego, Gordon Comstock:

He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself — to sink…It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being underground. He liked to think about the lost people, the under-ground people, tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.

Gordon finds that purgatorial underground in the slums of old Lambeth, but initially the twenty-four year-old Eric Blair sought it elsewhere.

In late 1927, his friend Ruth Pitter, the poet, found him an unheated attic at 22 Portobello Road, a short walk from his old home at Notting Hill Gate. The room was so cold that he had to warm his hands over a candle-flame before he could start writing in the morning. From this icy cell he set out in old clothes to mingle with the tramps and down-and-outs who slept along the Embankment, in common lodging-houses and ‘spikes’, the casual wards of workhouses. Most of these spikes and lodging-houses (or ‘kips’) have long gone, though a few of the old workhouse buildings survive, often as NHS hospitals. It was from a kip in Lambeth that he tramped down to Kent to go hop-picking among the East Enders and gypsy families who migrated there every year for a working holiday. This experience is recaptured in his very first article for the New Statesman in October 1931, and also lies at the heart of his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter.

After almost two years in Paris, where poverty forced him into working as a menial plongeur in the kitchens of a luxury hotel, he returned home. His family were now living in Southwold on the Suffolk coast, but he often tramped to London to spend time with his friends the Fierzes, who lived in Oakwood Road, Golders Green. Mabel Fierz, a vivacious and opinionated middle-aged woman, considered herself something of a talent-spotter, and it was she who took the manuscript of what was then called Days in Paris and London to the literary agent who sold it to Victor Gollancz. The re-entitled Down and Out in Paris and London, for which he first took the pseudonym ‘George Orwell’, appeared in 1933.

A year earlier, in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled, Orwell decided to get himself arrested. He thought of starting a bonfire in Trafalgar Square — where occasionally he slept out under newspapers with the other vagrants — but his friend, Jack Common, told him that if he wanted a decent stretch inside he should go in for theft. Finally, he went down to the Mile End Road, drank five pints followed by a quarter bottle of whisky and ended up in an East End police cell. Sadly for Orwell, however, after just one night behind bars, the magistrate dismissed him with a small fine. This experience produced a short essay, ‘Clink’, published for the first time in The Complete Works of George Orwell (2000), and also found its way into Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

Other experiences of underground London further informed his novels. Rayner Heppenstall, the novelist and broadcaster, remembered how difficult it was to pry Orwell loose from the clutches of an eager tart in a Hampstead pub, and earlier he had been thrown out of lodgings in Paddington for entertaining ladies of the night in his room. But this was all grist to his fiction-mill. In A Clergyman’s Daughter, he describes how Dorothy finds herself unexpectedly in a house of ill-fame, and in Keep the Aspidistra Flying how Gordon is whisked off to a brothel by a Piccadilly prostitute. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith recalls a loveless encounter with an aging hooker (‘She threw herself down on the bed, and at once, without any kind of preliminary, in the most coarse, horrible way you can imagine, pulled up her skirt.’) Each of these descriptions smacks of first-hand experience.

In 1934, like certain other contemporaries — Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, for example — Orwell did a stint as a schoolteacher, first in Hayes (The Hawthorns) then at Uxbridge (Frays College), where he lamented the encroachment of hideous suburbs across the idyllic country landscape of southern England. Even so, it was amid this urban desolation that first he completed Burmese Days, then caught pneumonia and came close to death. The following year, he was back in the city, working at a Hampstead bookshop, Booklovers’ Corner, at the corner of South End Green and Pond Street, just below the Royal Free Hospital. The bookshop has gone, but Orwell’s time there is commemorated with a plaque[2]. The shop and his life as a bookseller were described in his 1936 essay, ‘Bookshop Memories’, later included in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (1968), and feature in somewhat exaggerated form in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

For a while he lived at 77, Parliament Hill, overlooking Hampstead Heath, and there at a party he met his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, an Oxford English graduate who had been taught by J.R.R. Tolkien. She was then doing an MA in psychology at University College and living with her widowed mother in Greenwich. Finding the rent too high, Orwell moved into a flat with his young friends, Heppenstall and the Irish poet and critic, Michael Sayers, at 50 Lawford Road, Kentish Town, where Sayers made a strange discovery about their eccentric housemate. One day, in the first-floor living-room, he found the man he called ‘Eric Orwell’ copying passages from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, trying, he said, to perfect a style which excluded adjectives. It was a style he demonstrated soon afterwards in his celebrated essay, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ — probably the first example of the windowpane-like prose for which he is now celebrated.

For the next four years, after marrying Eileen in 1936, he lived in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, with absences to investigate unemployment in the North, fight in the Spanish Civil War, and finally, after an attack of TB, convalesce in Morocco. Before leaving for Spain and after his return, the couple stayed at 24 Croom’s Hill, Greenwich, the home of Eileen’s surgeon brother Laurence. It was there in October 1939, that Orwell had a grim but prophetic vision of the looming war, as he told Rayner Heppenstall — ‘I was down at Greenwich the other day and looking at the river I thought what wonders a few bombs would work among the shipping.’ He was also staying with Laurence in Greenwich on the day war broke out, 3 September 1939, and from there that in August 1940 he watched the first real raid of the London blitz and saw the East India docks going up in flames.

Occasionally during those immediate pre-war years, he travelled into the city to visit his publishers, whose offices stood just off the Strand — Victor Gollancz, to the north, at 14 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, and Secker and Warburg to the south, at 22 Essex Street, down towards the Thames. The Strand is where George Bowling, hero of Coming Up For Air, has the Proustian moment — a newspaper headline and the recalled smell of sainfoin chaff evoking the Golden Age of his Thameside childhood — which sends him off in search of lost time. Pedestrians swarming along the Strand also provided him with another eve-of-war vision — a recurrent one for Orwell — of England sleeping even as bombs and a war of annihilation threaten:

The usual crowd that you can hardly fight your way through was streaming up the pavement, all of them with that insane fixed expression on their faces that people have in London streets, and there was the usual jam of traffic with the great red buses nosing their way between the cars and the engines roaring and horns tooting. Enough noise to waken the dead, but not to waken this lot, I thought. I felt as if I was the only person awake in a city of sleep walkers…And this kind of prophetic feeling that keeps coming over me nowadays, the feeling that war’s just round the corner and that war’s the end of all things… We’re all on the burning deck and nobody knows it except me. I looked at the dumb bell faces streaming past. Like turkeys in November, I thought. Not a notion of what’s coming to them. It was as if I’d got X rays in my eyes and could see the skeletons walking.

Mostly, the ungainly, ascetic Orwell avoided London literary circles and what he called ‘the slimy careerism’ of certain writers and critics, but on at least one occasion in the 30s, at a time when left-wing politics were becoming fashionable, he attended a party thrown by his friend Cyril Connolly at his flat in the King’s Road, Chelsea (at number 312) attended by a number of fashionable women, and made an unexpected impression.

He came along, looking gaunt and shaggy, shabby, aloof [recalled Connolly], and he had this extraordinary magical effect on these women. They all wanted to meet him and started talking to him, and their fur coats shook with pleasure. They were totally unprepared for anyone like that and they responded to something — this sort of John the Baptist figure coming in from the wilderness — and suddenly the women feel it doesn’t matter what his political views are, he’s a wonderful man. And that was rather the effect he had everywhere, I think.

For a couple of years after the outbreak of war, he reviewed both plays and films for Time & Tide, for some months commuting from his cottage in Hertfordshire for the purpose. Eileen found employment first at the Censorship Office in Whitehall and later for the Ministry of Food in Portman Square; Eric (unfit to fight) went to work as a radio producer with the BBC’s India Service, for which he worked from August 1941 until November 1943 from make-shift offices in the old Peter Robinson store at 200, Oxford Street (known familiarly as the ZOO). To be near their work they moved back into London, living first in a tiny flat at Dorset Chambers in Chagford Street, close to Regent’s Park (where he drilled with his Home Guard platoon), then at the more spacious Langford Court in Langford Place off Abbey Road (said to be the model for Victory Mansions in Nineteen Eighty-Four), and finally at 10 Mortimer Crescent, in Kilburn, which was wrecked by a flying bomb in June 1944. They then found a large top-floor flat at 27 Canonbury Square, Islington, while Orwell worked as Literary Editor for the left-wing review, Tribune (at 222, the Strand). There, with some help from Eileen, he completed Animal Farm and began sketching out Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Islington flat was reached by a back-breaking climb up a brick staircase at the rear of the building, which was hard on Orwell’s weak lungs. But he ran a cosy household, the climax of each day being the 5 o’clock ritual of high-tea, always with the same appetizing menu. In a fond memoir, ‘Don Quixote on a Bicycle’, first published in the London Magazine, Paul Potts, the rangy Irish-Canadian poet Catholic-educated libertarian, notorious sponger and haunter of London’s Bohemia, recalled the Pickwickian scene:

Nothing could be more pleasant than the sight of his living-room in Canonbury Square early on a winter’s evening at high tea-time. A huge fire, the table crowded with marvellous things, Gentleman’s Relish and various jams, kippers, crumpets and toast. And always the Gentleman’s Relish, with its peculiar unique flat jar and the Latin inscription on the label. Next to it usually stood the Cooper’s Oxford marmalade pot. He thought in terms of vintage tea and had the same attitude to bubble and squeak as a Frenchman has to Camembert. I’ll swear he valued tea and roast beef above the OM and the Nobel Prize. Then there was the conversation and the company, his wife, some members of his family or hers, a refugee radical or an English writer. There was something very innocent and terribly simple about him. He wasn’t a very good judge of character. He was of roast beef, however. He loved being a host, as only civilized men can, who have been very poor. There was nothing bohemian about him at all. However poor he had been it did not make him precarious. But he tolerated in others faults he did not possess himself.

One of his best and most lyrical short Tribune pieces, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’, celebrated the end of the cruel winter of 1946 and the signs of a belated spring to be glimpsed in even the gloomiest of London streets and round and about the Bank of England. While some wartime winters had appeared to be permanent, he wrote, spring, like the common toad, always stirred eventually. Despite the grimness of the bombed-out city, Orwell was ever alert to the movement of the seasons and never as enshrouded in gloom as he is sometimes depicted.

After Eileen died unexpectedly during an operation in early 1945, he kept on the Islington flat but began spending more time on the Hebridean island of Jura with his young adopted son, Richard. There, in 1948, as his health continued to deteriorate and he was often too exhausted even to get out of bed, he finally completed Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The setting of that novel — a society terrorized by the all-seeing Big Brother whose Thought Police torture and brainwash their victims in Room 101 at the Ministry of Love — is really the bombed-out London Orwell remembered from his war years there. Winston Smith, the book’s persecuted hero, works at rewriting history along Party lines at the Ministry of Truth, based partly on London University’s Senate House in Malet Street, wartime headquarters of the Ministry of Information (where Orwell worked occasionally in 1941), and partly on Broadcasting House and 200 Oxford Street. The infamous Room 101 itself was a committee room at 55 Portland Place. On a day Orwell’s department is known to have had a meeting there he succumbed to a violent attack of bronchitis, which could explain why he associated that room with torture.

In the novel, Trafalgar Square becomes Victory Square and Nelson’s Column stands as a monument to Big Brother. The rundown proletarian district where Winston and Julia find a love-nest over Mr Charrington’s antique shop is the area between King’s Cross and Islington through which Orwell usually walked home while working at Tribune. Reading the book, anyone familiar with the capital will recognize the London where Winston is misguided enough to think that he can outwit Big Brother and remain a freethinking individual.

As most people know, finally, under the weighty effort of completing this depressing novel, Orwell’s health collapsed completely, and he spent several months in early 1949 trying unsuccessfully to recover at a Gloucestershire sanatorium. However, he did return one final time to London.

On 3 September 1949 he was transferred to University College Hospital where first he got married to the youthful Sonia Brownell, assistant editor of the literary magazine Horizon, the model for Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Julia — the girl from the Fiction Department — and then, on 21 January 1950, died of a haemorrhage of the lungs brought on by TB. His last months were spent not only dying wretchedly but also observing in his then gloomy way how the equalities of austere wartime London were being eroded as advertisements for servants reappeared in The Times and Rolls Royces once again began to be seen on the streets.

He had two funerals, one for George Orwell, the now famous author, and the other for Eric Blair, the obscure presence behind the name. The first, Orwell’s funeral, attended by his many friends, was held at Christ Church, Albany Street, near Regent’s Park, now an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral whose patron saint, curiously enough, is St George. Blair’s funeral, attended by his widow and a solicitor, was held in Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire where he lies buried between the First World War Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, and a family of local gypsies — taking in the compass-range of his whole being: the nineteenth century liberal on the one hand and the travellers and hop-pickers on the other.

One interesting feature of the London districts in which Orwell lived, is that all of them figure in the novels of his favourite author, Dickens. The Dickensian interest is also to be seen in some of the London characters in Orwell’s own work — Bozo the screever and Ginger the thief, in Down and Out in Paris and London; the down-and-out Mrs McElligot and the demonic Mr Tallboys in A Clergyman’s Daughter, kipping among the tramps in Trafalgar Square [3]; Gordon Comstock, the dropped-out poet, slumming through Lambeth in Keep the Aspidistra Flying; Mr Charrington the antique-shop owner in Nineteen Eighty-Four. None of these characters would be out of place in a Dickens novel, and one might still come across them in the back-streets and dingier corners of the capital.

Orwell’s preferred Soho pub was the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place; his favourite restaurants were the long-gone Barcelona Café in Beak Street, the still-thriving Elysee in Percy Street and Bertorelli’s in Charlotte Street. It was at Bertorelli’s in 1935 that he entertained Sir Richard Rees and three others to the dinner at which he blew his £50 advance for the US edition of Burmese Days, and after which, in drunken high spirits, he knocked off a policeman’s helmet, leaving Rees to smooth things over and escort him home. The incident duly found its way into Keep the Aspidistra Flying, re-enacted with much panache by Richard E. Grant, with Julian Wadham, and Helena Bonham-Carter in attendance, in Robert Bierman’s 1997 film of the novel.

The Moon Under Water pub described so enthusiastically by Orwell in an Evening Standard article of February 1946, was imaginary, and the five pubs with that name in today’s London phonebook have clearly borrowed it from Orwell’s fantasy.

Orwell claimed to hate London, as did Eileen, but in many ways, along with Dickens, George Gissing, Patrick Hamilton and Peter Ackroyd, he is one of those novelists who has contributed most to the tradition of the London novel. He had a feeling, too, for the people who lived there. During the war he wrote movingly about the Londoners sheltering from air-raids in the city’s crypts and underground stations, praised London theatre audiences who remained to watch the show even while the bombs were falling, and told his friend Julian Symons, ‘I hate London. I really would like to get out of it, but of course you can’t leave while people are being bombed to bits all around you.’

What he loved about London were the art galleries — inexpensive places to take girls he fancied — and the parks — convenient spaces for casual seductions. He enjoyed the Regent’s Park zoo and had a great affection for the city’s junk-shops — treasure-houses of the past, as Winston Smith discovers in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But against what he might have regarded as the ‘romantic’ aspect of the city, he was ever conscious of its inhuman aspect. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he wrote that ‘London is a sort of whirlpool which draws derelict people towards it, and it is so vast that life there is solitary and anonymous. Until you break the law nobody will take any notice of you, and you can go to pieces as you could not possibly do in a place where you had neighbours who knew you.’ That was his picture of the city in the mid-1930s, but, for those living on its margins, the grim London Orwell described there so vividly is no doubt still a cruel reality.

© Gordon Bowker 2008

The Orwell Prize is very grateful to Gordon Bowker for permission to publish this piece online. An earlier version of this article appeared in Planet in June 2006.


[1] Peter Davison’s Complete Works of George Orwell has innumerable references to Orwell in London, and John Thompson’s 1984 book, Orwell’s London, has many valuable period photographs of locations with Orwell associations.
[2] Apart from the plaque at Booklover’s Corner in Pond Street, there are plaques at 22 Portobello Road, the Fountain House Hotel (site of the Hawthorns School in Hayes, Middlesex), 77 Parliament Hill, 50 Lawford Road, and 27 Canonbury Square.
[3] There is no statue of Orwell in London, but the spare plinth in Trafalgar Square would be the perfect site for one.