Rick: ‘I came to Casablanca for the waters.’
Captain Renault: ‘The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.’
Rick: ‘I was misinformed.’
As ever on returning home [this time from Spain], Orwell was overcome by the beauty of the countryside and the civilised quality of English life. But, after the events of the past six months, the paradise of Southern England, ‘the sleekest landscape in the world’, had taken on a new significance. It now seemed to him a country of sleepers unaware of the impending nightmare. Earthquakes, famines and revolutions happened elsewhere, the smoke and misery of industrial towns were out of sight and far away.
Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which 1 sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
After a short rest, convalescing with the O’Shaughnessys in Greenwich, he heard from Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, that his ‘Eye-Witness in Barcelona’ was unacceptable. Orwell’s conclusion, that in Spain ‘the present Government has more points of resemblance to Fascism than points of difference’, ‘could cause trouble’. As a sop he was offered Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit to review, and in doing so, with characteristic bloody-mindedness, took the same line. This, too, was rejected with a letter from Martin stating that it controverted ‘the political policy of the paper’, but assuring him that he would be paid – ‘practically hush-money’, Orwell called it. He never forgave Martin, referring to him later as a ‘Decayed liberal. Very dishonest’, no more than a supine fellow-traveller. The review was finally taken by Time and Tide, and ‘Eye-Witness in Barcelona’ appeared in Controversy, a magazine with mostly ILP readers. Whether Orwell took Martin’s ‘hush-money’ is unclear. He was now taking the ILP line that war against Germany would be a capitalist war that would reduce Britain to Fascism, as the war in Spain threatened to do there.
‘Eye-Witness in Barcelona’ refuted the Communist version of the May events, explaining the intricacies of Spanish politics and the various Catalan factions. The story of an Anarchist and POUM uprising was false, the Government’s response revealing it as more anti-revolution than anti-Nationalist. The move to crush the POUM appeared well-prepared and involved decidedly Fascist methods. The arrest and killing of POUM leaders had been kept out of the papers and from the troops at the front. The same could soon happen to the Anarchists, now the only hope for revolution and victory against Franco. It is evident why the New Statesman, wedded to the Soviet idea of the Popular Front, found this unacceptable – it was brilliantly argued and carried the conviction of first-hand experience.
A second piece, ‘Spilling the Spanish Beans’, followed in the New English Weekly, beginning with the telling sentence, ‘The Spanish war has probably produced a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War of 1914-18.’ From the outset he attacked the left-wing press for suppressing the truth about Spain, indicting the Communists for instigating a ‘reign of terror’. In effect a ‘Liberal-Communist bloc’ was robbing the Catalan worker-revolutionaries of what they had won in 1936. This anti-revolutionary coalition of Communists and right-wing Socialists known as the Popular Front, was like ‘a pig with two heads or some other Barnum & Bailey monstrosity’. Fascism and bourgeois ‘democracy’ were ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’. He defended the POUM as ‘an opposition Communist Party roughly corresponding to the English ILP’. Communism, on the other hand, was now ‘a counter-revolutionary force’.
The feeling of being silenced was only intensified when he contacted Gollancz. From Spain, Orwell had written to him, saying, ‘I hope I shall get a chance to write the truth about what I have seen. The stuff appearing in the English papers is largely the most appalling lies.’ Now, arm in sling and voice still hoarse, he visited Gollancz’s office and outlined the book he had in mind to his old enemy Norman Collins who undertook to pass on the proposal. Within a week he received Gollancz’s reply, in effect a rejection. His book, he was told, might ‘harm the fight against Fascism’. Gollancz then went on to remind him that he still had an option on his next three novels. ‘Ten years ago,’ wrote Orwell bitterly, ‘it was almost impossible to get anything printed in favour of Communism; today it is almost impossible to get anything printed in favour of Anarchism or “Trotskyism”.’ The following day he received an unexpected invitation to meet Fredric Warburg, Brockway’s publisher, saying that it had been suggested to him by certain ILP people that, ‘a book from you would not only be of great interest but of considerable political importance’.
When he and Eileen arrived back in Wallington, they found that Aunt Nellie, unable to cope, had left The Stores in a complete mess and overrun by mice, but Orwell enjoyed getting things back to normal, tending his garden and livestock. With Hector back in Southwold, they acquired a black poodle which they christened Marx, though whether after Karl or Groucho visitors were left to ponder. They also acquired another goat, which they called Kate, this time after Aunt Nellie (Kate being her middle name).
Letters arrived from Kopp, describing his perilous situation in jail in Barcelona. These were sent, significantly perhaps, to Eileen, care of Laurence. ‘I agreed with your sister,’ he wrote, ‘to communicate with her through you. Tell her I am intensely thinking of her and give her my love. Shake hands to Eric.’ It was she in turn who took up his case with McNair, urging that it receive maximum publicity in the New Leader. Since he had not been charged, he wrote, he had gone on hunger strike and written to the chief of police asking for a chance to defend himself. He was being held in squalid conditions with common criminals, denied exercise and been poorly fed. A second letter ended in characteristically positive mood: ‘I am not at all downhearted but feel my patience has definitely gone; in one or another way I shall fight to freedom for my comrades and myself.’ He also mentioned in passing that ‘David’ had sent him a book of French poetry inscribed, ‘from an almost subterranean swine’, which sounds like a cryptically ironic confession from the man who had spied on him.
Not all letters from fans about The Road to Wigan Pier had fallen into the hands of the Spanish secret police. One, from a young trainee midwife, Amy Charlesworth, led to a correspondence which appeared to animate Orwell. Signing himself ‘Eric Blair (“George Orwell”)’, he told her he would quite like to meet her sometime, later confessing to Heppenstall that he had concealed from her the fact that he was married, imagining that she was young and single. When it transpired that she was a 35-year-old divorced mother of two, Eileen was gleeful, which suggests that the occasional dalliance was tolerated on both sides. He turned a blind eye to Kopp, Eileen indulged his fantasies over an impressionable admirer. Some stresses and strains in the relationship did eventually surface, mostly because of George’s philandering. However, in his mind at least, the marriage seems to have been declared open and he was at liberty to cast his eyes elsewhere whenever the mood took him.
It soon became apparent that English POUMists were not altogether beyond the long arm of the Stalinists. When Stafford Cottman arrived back in Bristol his home was picketed by a group of Young Communists with banners denouncing him as ‘an enemy of the working class’, and people going in and out were questioned. When Orwell heard about this he got Lawrence to drive him to Bristol where they organised a protest in defence of the young rebel. ‘What a show!’ he wrote. ‘To think that we started off as heroic defenders of democracy and only six months later were Trotsky-Fascists sneaking over the border with the police at our heels.’ He was clearly shocked that Communist attacks on people with POUM connections had been taken up back in England. After all, he even more than Cottman was a prime target of Communist spite.
Following Pollitt’s hostile review of Wigan Pier, attacks on him continued in the Daily Worker. Finally he complained to Gollancz, hinting at possible libel action. Gollancz passed on the complaint to Pollitt, and for the time being the attacks ceased. It confirmed to Orwell just how closely his publisher was embroiled with the extreme left. He told friends that obviously he was ‘part of the Communism-racket’, and ‘not too bright intellectually’.
Since he now saw Gollancz as little more than a Soviet propagandist, he arranged to meet Warburg at his office just off the Strand, to discuss his proposed book. Warburg had taken over the business from Martin Seeker a year earlier in partnership with Roger Senhouse, Lytton Strachey’s quondam lover and another Eton contemporary of Orwell’s. The firm had an impressive list including Kafka, Mann and Lawrence, but was then financially weak and lacked prominence. Unlike Gollancz, however, Warburg warmed to the eccentric Orwell and became a personal friend and confidant.
Orwell’s angry state of mind is evident from his reply to Nancy Cunard who sent him a questionnaire soliciting his views for a book to be called Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War. ‘Will you please stop sending bloody rubbish … I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender, I was six months in Spain, most of the time fighting, I have a bullet-hole in me at present and I am not going to write blah about defending democracy or gallant little anybody.’ She had obviously knowingly ‘joined in the defence of “democracy” (i.e. Capitalism) racket in order to aid in crushing the Spanish working class and thus indirectly defend your dirty little dividends’. He concluded with a dig at one of his bêtes noires: ‘By the way, tell your pansy friend Spender that I am preserving specimens of his war-heroics and that when the time comes when he squirms for shame at having written it, as the people who wrote the war propaganda in the Great War are squirming now, I shall rub it in good and hard.’ However, he was perfectly happy to answer Amy Charlesworth’s questions at length, adding, ‘I must apologize for lecturing you about Spain, but what I saw there has upset me so badly that I talk and write about it to everybody.’
His feeling of solidarity with the POUM, drew him to the ILP Summer School at Letchworth – well-attended, no doubt, by a goodly crowd of fruit-juice-drinking, nut-eating, sandal-wearing vegetarians. He shared a platform with Douglas Moyle, Stafford Cottman, Jack Branthwaite, Paddy Donovan and John McNair, although his contribution was brief and hindered by the lingering effects of his throat wound. ‘My voice is practically normal,’ he told Heppenstall, ‘but I can’t shout to any extent. I also can’t sing, but people tell me this doesn’t matter.’
Moyle, Donovan and Branthwaite were invited to Wallington, and were amused to find that, after working in his garden and tending his livestock all day looking like a tramp, Orwell insisted on dressing for dinner. Noting the number of animals around the place, Branthwaite remembered saying, ‘I wonder if we handed over the reins of government to the animals, if they’d do any better?’ He was thinking about the horrors of Spain, but Orwell, he felt, had been taken by the idea, and after dinner disappeared upstairs. ‘It may or may not have started a train of thought which ended up as Animal Farm, an idea that he thought might come in handy.’ Orwell certainly placed the book’s origins as 1937, but his story of its origins is slightly different:
On my return from Spain 1 thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone and which could be easily translated into other languages. However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat. I proceeded to analyse Marx’s theory from the animals’ point of view. To them it was clear that the concept of a class struggle between humans was pure illusion, since whenever it was necessary to exploit animals, all humans united against them: the true struggle is between animals and humans.
What he did not mention was that directly opposite The Stores stood the entrance to John Innes’s Manor Farm, which in those days boasted a fine herd of Berkshire pigs. Farmer Innes must be a strong candidate for the original Farmer Jones, and Manor Farm, Wallington for Manor Farm, Willingdon. But if the idea of Animal Farm was conceived in the summer of 1937, in the six or seven years of gestation leading to its being written, there would have been proddings and promptings and encouragements from various directions, not least from Eileen, whose help with it he later acknowledged.
The couple’s Spanish experience seemed to have brought them closer; when Heppenstall came visiting he noted how fondly they acted towards one another. ‘He and Eileen behaved with conspicuous affection, fondling each other and sitting, if not on each other’s knees, at any rate in the same armchair.’ Cyril Connolly, who had been to Spain as a journalist, wrote saying he was also keen to see him. He shared Orwell’s concern about censorship used against anyone expressing sympathy for the Spanish Anarchists or Trotskyists. To Connolly, Orwell was one of the few people able to articulate a clear non-Communist anti-Fascist line, and slowly he would emerge as a spokesman of his generation (its ‘wintry conscience’, according to V.S. Pritchett), to whom others would look to clarify their own political ideas. Geoffrey Gorer was also eager to talk to him about Spain, and soon even the ‘nancy poet’ Spender would be asking to meet him.
The Blairs had lived in the village for only six months before George left for Spain and were still considered outsiders, and rather odd ones at that. Some villagers thought that a man who could be heard tapping a typewriter late at night must be up to no good, could even be a spy. On his parish rounds the vicar was concerned to learn that he had fought for the Republicans in Spain, revolutionaries who, according to the newspapers, destroyed churches and executed priests. However, when they told him they were only Catholic churches he seemed happier. Eileen later reported that the vicar’s wife had told her in confidence that her ladies’ prayer circle had included George in their weekly prayers.
That summer, invited to contribute to the Soviet magazine International Literature, he first informed them that he had served with the POUM militia in Spain. The reply was stern. ‘Our magazine, indeed, has nothing to do with POUM members; this organisation, as the long experience of the Spanish people’s struggle against insurgents and fascist interventionists has shown, is a part of Franco’s “fifth column” which is acting in the rear of the heroic army of Republican Spain.’ With Moscow as well as Pollitt ready to denounce him and Gollancz refusing to publish him, he felt like a marked man with his name on some hit-list. He told Gorer that ‘the Daily Worker has been following me personally with the most filthy libels, calling me pro-Fascist etc.’, and to the editor of the Manchester Guardian he wrote, ‘As I was serving in the POUM militia, my name is probably on the list of political suspects.’
The Frankford allegations denouncing the POUM as a fifth column had surfaced in the Daily Worker. Kopp was named as a traitorous go-between, and the charges were clearly being used as a pretext to hold and interrogate him. Brockway later reported Frankford turning up at McNair’s London office and apologising on his knees for what he had done, saying that he was in prison for stealing paintings and signing the statement had been the price of his release. The Communists, he said, had distorted the story he had given them. But the damage was done, and Orwell was outraged. It was bad enough being lied about by Communists but to be lied about by one of your own men was too much to bear. He wrote a letter, signed by fourteen other old comrades, to the New Leader denouncing Frankford as a poor, undisciplined soldier and a troublemaker, and refuting all his charges in detail. ‘He was arrested as a deserter,’ he wrote, ‘[and] in the circumstances was lucky not to be shot.’ No doubt this sad case only heightened his sense of not knowing quite who could be trusted.
By the end of August his book was making good progress, thanks no doubt to the notes McNair had salvaged. On 1st September he signed Warburg’s contract for Homage to Catalonia, for an advance of £150. Orwell was embarking on a new writing career. His transformation into a writer ‘against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism’ would be completed with this book. In The Road to Wigan Pier he had still not grasped who were his enemies and where he wanted to go. Now he was a wiser man and a more surely directed writer, also more aware of his own prejudices and tendency to caricature. ‘Everyone writes of [politics] in one guise or another … And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.’ To him honesty was the prime virtue, even though one might be honestly wrong. At the same time he saw himself not as simply a crude propagandist, but as also a man of letters, a man who believed he could turn political writing into an art.
Still not fully recovered from his wound and the exhaustion of trench life, the effort of writing this book had taken a great deal out of him. Again he had produced the kind of work he admired, ‘part reportage and part political criticism … with a little autobiography thrown in’, responding to the prevailing orthodoxy of a time ‘when fierce controversies were raging and nobody was telling the whole of the truth’. In it the voice and vision are clear, the eye to detail precise, the quiet narrative tone perfectly pitched for conveying the experience of idealism betrayed, of high hopes brutally crushed. Here again are Paradise Gained and Paradise Lost. It was, he said, a difficult book to write even when one knew the facts.
Homage to Catalonia is not just a work of shining integrity, but the clearest expression of Orwell’s own version of socialism, one inspired more by Christianity than Marx. T. R Fyvel considered it ‘The starting-point for the idea of a new humanist English Left movement which he [Orwell] tried to express later.’ Stephen Schwartz, the American political journalist, has cast the book in a Dantesque light – the Paradisal vision of Barcelona and the saintly image of the Italian militiaman giving way to the Purgatory of trench life mitigated by a sense of comradely solidarity, and finally the dream destroyed in the Hell of Communist terror after the May events. It was this religious dimension of the story (embodying compassion) that Schwartz believed so angered the pagan Stalinists (embodying revenge). On this view, Homage to Catalonia stands as the quintessential expression of Christian Socialism (and the highest virtues of Judaism and Islam). No doubt this book went a long way towards confirming the image drawn by both Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender, of Orwell ‘the secular saint.’
The Communist position was that Orwell was largely ignorant of the big picture and of Spain. But most British volunteers who went to the war were ignorant of it – the International Brigaders had little or no contact with Spaniards in the fighting line and could not, or would not, learn the language, nor were many of them aware of the cruel methods used against other left-wing parties by their own side or how they were used as tools of Russian foreign policy. Orwell admitted that he knew little about Spanish politics until the May events, but at least he learned to communicate with Spaniards, fought beside them in Aragón, and saw through unclouded eyes what happened to the POUM in Barcelona. Only at that point, it seems, did his sociological imagination wake up and take notice. The Communists condemned his ‘ignorance’ because he did not buy their version of events. They were required to swallow a ‘correct’ line – dissenters risked either excommunication or something worse. To fight Fascism in company with those who would themselves impose totalitarianism was horrific to Orwell, who set about trying to inform the world of the sort of people they were up against.
Although he thought it necessary to include two chapters on the labyrinthine nature of Catalan politics, such matters made the man of literature uneasy. He told Stephen Spender, ‘I hate writing that kind of stuff and I am much more interested in my own experiences, but unfortunately in this bloody period we are living in one’s only experiences are being mixed up in controversies, intrigues etc. I sometimes feel as if I hadn’t been properly alive since the beginning of 1937.’ Apart from Spain there was good reason for him to hate Stalinism; it had brought about what he saw a vile confusion of argumentation of such boring mindlessness as to deflect him from his main literary purpose. He damned ‘all the political controversies that have made life hideous for two years past’. The ‘happy vicar’ would never forgive those who had frustrated his creative ambitions, and he was outraged by their blatant injustice and readiness to lie.
The Spanish Civil War had a mesmeric effect on many of Orwell’s contemporaries, who felt that stopping Fascism in Spain might prevent a European-wide war. The left poets – Auden, Spender and Day Lewis – wrote with biting lyricism about the fate that had overtaken their generation in having to face up to Fascism. Some, like Ralph Fox and John Cornford, paid with their lives; others, like Dylan Thomas, George Barker and Malcolm Lowry, never went but could not avoid writing about it. Most were sympathetic to the Communists of the International Brigade, Auden even referring to the ‘necessary murder’, something to which Orwell took great exception, having himself seen the bodies of murdered men. In The Road to Wigan Pier he had sneered at Auden as ‘a sort of gutless Kipling,’ a remark he later withdrew as ‘unworthy’, but his contempt for the Oxbridge clique never entirely vanished.
It was evident to Orwell, as to many others, that war with Germany was now brewing. After Spain he saw that a war against Fascism would be followed inevitably by a war against Soviet Communism, which he also regarded as Fascistic. Desmond Young, who got to know him around this time, remembered Orwell saying to him that this was ‘only the first act of a tragedy that would be played not in two acts but in three’. Already he saw clearly the enemy beyond Hitler, the enemy he would depict with such savage irony in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
By December he had completed a draft of Homage to Catalonia and had time to spare to meet friends. Connolly asked if he would like to meet Spender for lunch, and he responded eagerly, though he wondered how the poet would regard him after the rude things he had said of him. Spender remembered how well they got on and was surprised when afterwards Orwell took him aside, apologising for having attacked him. Later Orwell told Connolly, ‘Funny, I always used him & the rest of that gang as symbols of the pansy Left … but when I met him in person I liked him so much & was sorry for the things I had said about him.’ After meeting Spender, Orwell almost never again referred to ‘nancy’ or ‘pansy’ poets.
He took every opportunity to speak and write about Spain. Not long after he delivered the manuscript of his book to Warburg, who planned to bring it out in the spring, he reviewed Arthur Koestler’s Spanish Testament. From very different backgrounds and political experiences, Orwell and Koestler had arrived at very much the same position at the same time and would eventually become close friends. Koestler, a Hungarian Jew, had been a staunch Communist, but had fallen foul of the Party. At the outbreak of the Civil War he went to Spain as a war correspondent for the News Chronicle. Hoping to get a good story, at the fall of Malaga he remained behind and was captured, put into a Fascist jail, condemned to death and threatened with execution. Orwell found the book ‘of the greatest psychological interest – probably one of the most honest and unusual documents to be produced by the Spanish war’. It laid bare, he said, ‘the central evil of modern war – the fact that, as Nietzsche puts it, “he who fights against dragons becomes a dragon himself”.’ Koestler had written that, faced with the bestiality he had suffered at the hands of the Fascists, he could no longer pretend to be objective. Orwell agreed: ‘You cannot be objective about an aerial torpedo. And the horror we feel of these things has led to this conclusion: if someone drops a bomb on your mother, go and drop two bombs on his mother.’ He may have thought that a war with Germany would be nothing short of a capitalist war, but his warrior spirit had been by no means diminished by his time in Spain.
Homage to Catalonia was published at the end of April 1938. Orwell was hoping for a good sale and wide coverage. In the event, Warburg printed 1,500 copies but sold only 800. The remainder was not finally sold until after Orwell’s death. There were reviews, some eulogistic. The Observer called Orwell ‘a great writer’, and the Manchester Guardian noted the author’s ‘fine air of classical detachment’ in describing the horrors of war. There were highly appreciative notices from Geoffrey Gorer in Time and Tide, John McNair in New Leader, Philip Mairet in the New English Weekly and Max Plowman in Peace News. Mairet observed shrewdly, ‘It shows us the heart of innocence that lies in revolution; also the miasma of lying that, far more than the cruelty, takes the heart out of it.’ and Gorer concluded, ‘Politically and as literature it is a work of first-class importance … George Orwell occupies a unique position among the younger English prose writers, a position which so far has prevented him getting his due recognition.’ Gorer had reason to stress this. Orwell had told him that he was convinced Gollancz was using every means to prevent his book being mentioned. He was even frightened, he said, that he might have him eliminated. If this is what he told Gorer, it reveals how paranoid he now was about the Communists. After all, in Spain there were English commissars prepared to excuse ‘the necessary murder’ and sanction executions. ‘An education in Marxism and similar creeds,’ he wrote, ‘consists largely in destroying your moral sense.’ Herbert Read wrote to say that his book was ‘as good as anything that came out of the so-called Great War’. His referring to the Stalinists as ‘the new Jesuits’ would have struck a resounding chord with Orwell. He hoped that Connolly would review the book, promising in turn to write up his Enemies of Promise when it appeared (‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’) but, in the event, neither review was ever written.
There were hostile notices in the Tablet, however, from a Catholic critic who wondered why he had not troubled to get to know Fascist fighters and enquire about their motivations, in the TLS, from a Party-liner misrepresenting what Orwell had said (prompting an indignant letter from the author), and in the Listener, also from an obvious Communist, attacking the POUM but never mentioning the book – producing another angry response from Orwell. The Listener’s literary editor, J. R. Ackerley, sided with Orwell, but the chance of a fair notice there was lost. A somewhat ambivalent review in the New Statesman by V. S. Pritchett, appeased the editor no doubt by declaring Orwell politically naive about Spain, but adding, ‘No one excels him in bringing to the eyes, ears and nostrils the nasty ingredients of fevered situations; and I would recommend him warmly to all who are concerned about the realities of personal experience in a muddled cause.’ When he heard how few copies Warburg had sold in three months Orwell was horrified, and wrote asking [his agent Leonard] Moore to confirm the figures, fearing he had misread them. Gollancz and his friends, he now felt sure, were pressurising papers not to review it.
In what had come as a complete yet intriguing surprise, the previous November he had been invited by Desmond Young, editor of the Lucknow Pioneer in India, and later a distinguished war reporter, to work for him as a leader writer. The idea of returning to the land of his birth as a journalist, and to work for the Pioneer, as Kipling had, must have appealed greatly to the romantic in Orwell, and the chance to write against British imperialism was obviously a great temptation. But when Young approached the India Office in February he was discouraged from pursuing Orwell, who, because of his honesty and strength of character, was thought likely to cause trouble to the authorities.
In fact he was in no condition to travel to India, or anywhere for that matter. Just before Homage to Catalonia appeared, after a week in bed with bronchitis, he began coughing up blood. It was extremely frightening for Eileen, who told Jack Common, ‘The bleeding seemed prepared to go on for ever & on Sunday everyone agreed that Eric must be taken somewhere where really active steps could be taken if necessary – artificial pneumothorax to stop the blood or transfusion to replace it …’ Laurence O’Shaughnessy saw him and had him transferred immediately by ambulance to Preston Hall Village, a British Legion sanatorium, near Maidstone in Kent, where he was consultant thoracic surgeon. He was admitted on 17 March. Since childhood, hospitals had held a peculiar dread for him and he grumbled to Eileen about being sent to ‘an institution devised for murder’. But the fact that he was in the care of a doctor he knew clearly helped. Not only that, but he was put in a private room paid for by Laurence.
Hard work and neglect had taken their toll. Since returning from Spain, in addition to writing his book he had produced four articles, twelve reviews and several letters for publication. He was clearly exhausted, but still refusing to admit his wretched condition. Although no tubercle bacilli were found in his sputum, further tests told a rather different story, as his medical record reveals. The doctors found ‘heavy mottling over the lower lobe of the left lung.’ He was treated initially for pulmonary tuberculosis, but tests suggested ‘bronchiectasis of the Left lung, with nonspecific fibrosis of Right lung’, and he was treated with injections of vitamin D. However, at the conclusion of their tests the doctors drew a darker conclusion, and a postscript to his report reads ‘T. B. confirmed’.
Even though, finally, he had to face up to the bad news, he still tried to play it down, telling Stephen Spender, ‘I am afraid from what they say it is TB all right but evidently a very old lesion and not serious.’ Two weeks later, writing to Gorer, the old complacent Orwell had returned, denying the cruel reality of his broken health. ‘I am much better,’ he wrote, ‘in fact I really doubt whether there is anything wrong with me.’ (Years later, clearly diagnosed as having full-blown tuberculosis, he blamed it on the freezing Spanish winter he had spent shivering and coughing in the trenches on the Aragón front. But he could have acquired it at any time in his life – as a child out in Burma, among tramps, even in a Paris hospital.)
He was ordered to rest and refrain even from ‘literary research’ for three months. It was particularly galling for Orwell, who already had another novel in mind. In December he had outlined the idea to Moore: ‘It will be about a man who is having a holiday and trying to make a temporary escape from his responsibilities, public and private. The title I thought of is “Coming Up For Air“.’ Escaping from reality, of course, is just what he found so unacceptable and difficult to understand in Henry Miller, the fatalist who himself advocated living like Jonah, ‘inside the whale’. Orwell wanted to explore this tendency in himself, a tendency already seen in a less political context in the ‘escapes’ of Dorothy Hare and Gordon Comstock. But the man who most needed air was George Orwell, the man whose lungs were refusing to work for him.
Two and half months after his admission he was still unable to get the novel started. Eileen told Leonard Moore that ‘the book seethes in his head and he is very anxious to get on with it’, but surrounded by movement and noise it was not easy to work. She told Lydia Jackson it was a novel ‘about a man with a couple of impossible children and a nagging wife’. His hope was to escape from the shadowland of European politics into sunlit uplands of literature, but he knew that was not possible. As he told Jack Common in May, ‘The rest … has made me keen to get started … though when I came here I had been thinking that what with Hitler, Stalin & the rest of them the day of novel-writing was over. As it is if I start it in August I daresay I’ll have to finish it in the concentration camp.’ The novel he was writing was somehow different, a first-person narrative with past, present and future ponderings mimicking the mind’s reflective movements and Orwell’s own attempt to see a way through the chaos of the times providing a political commentary. But he could not hope to do any serious work until the summer and would not be able to let Gollancz have the book until Christmas at the earliest. Meanwhile he killed time doing crossword puzzles and worrying about the state of his garden.
He felt a bit isolated in a private room, but was able to mix a little with other patients and receive visitors. Once a fortnight Eileen took the tortuous journey from Wallington to Maidstone (two buses to London, a trip across the city and a train down to Kent and back), once accompanied by her admirer Karl Schnetzler. There were also visits from Douglas Moyle, Reginald Reynolds and his wife Ethel Mannin, Stephen Spender and Lydia Jackson. Denys King-Farlow came more than once, and Max and Dorothy Plowman brought the novelist L. H. Myers, another Old Etonian, who had long admired Orwell’s work and was keen to meet him. Eileen, in fact, had written to all of his friends with news of his illness and this produced a spate of sympathetic letters and promises to visit. Richard Rees, still in Spain, wrote as soon as he heard of his illness. But Orwell was less worried about his health than his literary future. He continued to express anger with the dictators for interrupting his career now it was in its own rocky way at last launched. ‘I … see a lot of things that I want to do and to continue doing for another thirty years or so, and the idea that I’ve got to abandon them and either be bumped off or depart to some filthy concentration camp just infuriates me.’
Spender found him endearingly phoney. He thought that the deliberate descent into tramping had been an act, turning himself into a make-believe member of the working class. However, he did not find this annoying. ‘Even his phoniness was perfectly acceptable, I think. Orwell had something about him like a character in a Charlie Chaplin movie, if not like Charlie Chaplin himself. He was a person who was always playing a role, but with great pathos and great sincerity. He probably impressed us more than he impressed the working class; in fact, I’m sure he did. I always found him a very nice and rather amusing kind of man to be with.’ Jon Kimche had observed this role-playing element in Orwell previously; Anthony Powell and Michael Foot would notice it later, and Ruth Pitter noted his ‘dual nature’. Most intriguing to Spender was Orwell’s telling him that, although he had attacked him, he had changed his mind on meeting him. ‘It is partly for this reason that I don’t mix much in literary circles,’ he said, ‘because I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to, like the Labour MPs who get patted on the back by dukes & are lost forever more.’
One visitor who intrigued him was John Sceats, a contributor to Controversy, whose articles Orwell admired. They spent a day together discussing Homage to Catalonia, and the prospect of war with Germany. To Sceats Orwell seemed defeatist on the question of war, feeling that Fascism within would be the main problem, and the need to oppose it through secret political activity and the use of clandestine presses. The fact that his visitor had once worked as an insurance salesman gave Orwell the occupation of the central character in his new novel. Even though he was unable to get down to serious work, the character of ‘Tubby’ George Bowling was obviously evolving.
It was spring when Lydia visited him. The time of year and his improved health probably led to a situation which, according to her, left her profoundly embarrassed. Orwell took her for a stroll through the sanatorium grounds and, to her embarrassment made a sudden pass to which she responded. She did so, she said, out of pity for the man but in truth found contact with him distasteful, and felt guilty because of Eileen. Unfortunately for her she failed to make her feelings clear enough to Orwell and he was encouraged to think she welcomed his attentions. Perhaps it was Bowling (the fat man struggling to get out of the emaciated Orwell) whose wayward lusts were being rehearsed in this moment of dalliance.
In June he joined the Independent Labour Party. That warrior cast of mind which had urged him to fight in Spain had been supplanted by a pacifism based on opposition to the Popular Front policy of the Communists, which he saw as yet another racket – to lure the democracies into a war against Fascism, a war that he thought would not defeat Fascism but simply bring it to Britain. The ILP served no moneyed interest and he found its vision of socialism closer to his own than that of any other party. But he was in no mood or condition to accept an invitation to attend the Eton Collegers Dinner held on 7 July at the Park Lane Hotel. King-Farlow and members of his Election, saluted their sick schoolfellow afterwards, sending him the menu, signed by all present, bearing the slogan, ‘Homage to Blair’. It was a kind recognition of his latest work by erstwhile readers of College Days.
When finally allowed to do a little writing he reviewed Assignment in Utopia by Eugene Lyons who had spent several years in the USSR, witnessing starvation in the Ukraine, the Five-Year Plan and the all-pervading power of the secret police. ‘The system that Mr Lyons describes,’ he wrote, ‘does not seem to be very different from Fascism.’ All real power was in the hands of the few, the proletariat ‘reduced to a status resembling serfdom’. ‘The GPU, are everywhere, everyone lives in constant terror of denunciation, freedom of speech and of the press are obliterated to an extent we can hardly imagine.’ There were periodic waves of terror, ‘liquidations’ of whole peoples, idiotic show trials, betrayals of parents by their children, while the invisible Stalin was worshipped like a Roman Emperor. Here too one was expected to accept unquestioningly all pronouncements by the omniscient and omnipotent ruler. If 2+2=5 (the slogan for the Soviet Five-Year Plan) so be it. Lyons had interviewed the dictator and, like Wells, found him ‘human, simple and likeable’. But, observed the old College cynic, Al Capone was a good husband and father, and the Brides in the Bath murderer was deeply loved by his first wife. Lyons’s description of a totalitarian state was a foreshadow of the fictional state Orwell himself created out of the nightmare of Spain which would consume him until the end of his life. It was one that would be glimpsed also in his next novel. By the end of June he was able to report to Leonard Moore that he had completed a sketch of it, and also a pamphlet on pacifism.
He was to remain at the sanatorium for five and a half months, by which time he had gained nine pounds. That summer it was decided that he needed to go abroad, ‘somewhere south’ to convalesce for the coming winter. He asked Yvonne Davet, a French woman who was translating Homage to Catalonia, to help find him a place beside the Mediterranean, and suggested to Common that he might like to have the Wallington cottage rent-free in return for looking after the animals – thirty chickens and two goats – and George’s lovingly tended garden.
The idea of the south of France was dropped when Laurence 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 Common and his wife moved into The Stores. Marx was evacuated temporarily to the Dakins’ 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 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 for Morocco Orwell began a Domestic Diary, mostly nature notes following the tradition of Gilbert White and W. H. Hudson, which he kept up throughout his time in Africa and on his return to Wallington. They reveal his love of lists, of detail, of how things work and his encyclopaedic knowledge of flora and fauna. His old teacher Mr Sillar’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 3 September he and Eileen sailed from Tilbury tourist dock on the SS 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’, while 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 Marrakech 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 Bad 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; in Marrakech itself the native quarter was, according to Eileen, picturesque, but with smells which were only rivalled by the noise.
The day after they arrived, Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich to discuss Hitler’s demand to incorporate the Sudetenland into his Third Reich. Orwell noted the lack of interest in the local papers and the refusal to believe that a war was likely. ‘The whole thing seems to me so utterly meaningless,’ he told Common, ‘that I think I shall just concentrate on remaining alive.’ At that moment his lungs must have seemed a greater threat to his health than the Wehrmacht or the menacing prospect of a Fascist Britain. However, letters from England spoke of war fever – air-raid shelters being built, gas masks being issued, and pro- and anti-war demonstrations in London. Both he and Eileen were firmly in the anti-war camp. Eileen thought that had they been at home George would probably have landed in jail, but they were strangely supportive of the Conservative Prime Minister. Eileen wrote to her sister-in-law Marjorie, ‘It’s very odd to feel that Chamberlain is our only hope, but I do believe he doesn’t want war either at the moment & certainly the man has courage.’ They decided that the English people, given a voice, would not want a war either, but would fight if a war was declared.
They were finding Marrakech not much to their liking – interesting but … dreadful to live in. ‘There are beautiful arches with vile smells coming out of them & adorable children covered in ringworm and flies,’ wrote Eileen, and an open space which they thought a lovely spot for observing the sunset turned out to be a graveyard. It was, Orwell told Connolly, ‘a beastly dull country’ – no forests, no wild animals and the people near the big towns ‘utterly debauched by the tourist racket’ which had turned them into ‘a race of beggars and curio-sellers.’ The place seemed so unhealthy, that they wondered how a leading doctor could recommend it as a place to convalesce.
Arab funerals both fascinated and horrified them. Eileen described one to Gorer: ‘The Arabs favour bright green [shrouds] & don’t have coffins which is nice on funeral days for the flies who leave even a restaurant for a few minutes to sample a passing corpse.’ This memorable and revolting image would form the opening to an Orwell essay on Marrakech, and suggests that key ideas in his later work may have emerged from mutual observations and discussion with the poetic Eileen.
In their temporary villa, Orwell worked on his novel, kept up his diary and wrote regularly to his parents and friends. In his diary he monitored the daily press, observed the strange ethnic composition of the French colonial forces, noted the effect of a two-year drought, the prevalence of female labour on French estates, the large numbers of homeless, beggars and street children, the blackmailing tourist guides and the poverty and squalor of the Jewish quarter. As in Burma he hoped to visit a place of worship to talk to Muslim priests but found the mosques closed to foreigners. He was fascinated by the veiled Arab women, by the Touareg tribesmen and the French Foreign Legionnaires, who seemed to him surprisingly puny. He was hoping vaguely to write a book about Morocco on his return to England, where his future looked a little insecure. With the sales of Homage to Catalonia so poor, he faced the prospect of returning with little more than £50 to his name and a debt of £300.
War to him was a nightmare prospect, not only because he had a vision of Fascism and the concentration camp descending on England, but also saw his writing plans for the coming thirty years under threat. A sense of isolation and defeatism threatened to overwhelm him. He and Eileen planned to survive if possible if only to ‘add to the number of sane people’. He signed several ILP anti-war manifestos, one asserting ‘the need for resisting political censorship and the suppression of truth.’ In this frame of his mind his new novel was taking shape – ‘Tubby’ Bowling was articulating his pacifist sentiments and seeking comfort in memories of the England of his childhood.
When Chamberlain, returned from Munich at the end of September clutching his ‘piece of paper’ signed by Hitler, guaranteeing peace, Orwell recorded his relief. ‘Thank goodness the war danger seems to be over, at any rate for the time being, so we can breathe again.’ They were in one mind over this. Eileen told Geoffrey Gorer, ‘I am determined to be pleased with Chamberlain because I want a rest.’
With the weather growing hot and intolerable, in October they moved to their new home, the Villa Simont, which stood in an orange grove at the foot of the Atlas mountains. They furnished it cheaply from the bazaars and attempted to recreate their WaIlington life by keeping chickens and goats and even growing a few vegetables. Orwell soon buckled down to work, reviewing two books on Spain for the New English Weekly, producing an article, ‘Political Reflections on the Crisis’ for the Adelphi, attacking ‘gangster and pansy’ warmongers, and continuing with his novel.
The fate of the POUM leaders on trial in Spain began to concern him, and he wrote to various people seeking their support. But Moscow’s attempt to mount a show trial against the Spanish ‘Trotskyists’ failed when their confessions, extracted under threat, were retracted in court, and the charges were shown to be preposterous. As yet, Republican Spain was not a Soviet dictatorship, but Orwell was suitably horrified when British papers such as the News Chronicle and Observer and pro-Franco French papers reported that they had been found guilty. ‘It gives one the feeling that our civilization is going down into a sort of mist of lies where it will be impossible ever to find out the truth about anything.’ Another dimension of his nightmare – the end of truth – seemed to be getting that much closer.
Much to his disgust, in November he became ill and was confined to bed for three weeks, ‘What with all this illness,’ he told John Sceats, ‘I’ve decided to count 1938 as a blank year and sort of cross it off the calendar.’ In that frame of mind he was cheered by a request from Penguin Books for permission to republish one of his novels in paperback. He offered Burmese Days, Down and Out in Paris and London, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (which later he would want suppressed, along with A Clergyman’s Daughter, written, he said, simply for money). As the weather improved and there were signs of things growing, his health showed some improvement, he coughed less and began putting on a little weight. Their hens were laying, their two goats kept them well-supplied with milk, and they acquired bicycles for shopping excursions to the town bazaars.
In his essay, ‘Marrakech’, Orwell captured the drift of his thoughts about the place. It begins with that disturbingly gruesome image Eileen had conjured up for Gorer: ‘As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.’ It developed into a methodical attack on European imperialism. Somehow the hurried funerals, the shallow burial ground, ‘merely a huge waste of hummocky earth’, symbolised for him the degradation to which imperialism condemned whole populations, in Morocco as much as in Burma. In a few vivid images he captured the wretchedness of the people’s lives: the neglected graveyard, the wolfish hunger of the poor, their windowless homes, crowds of sore-eyed children clustered like flies, the swarming Jewish ghetto, the back-breaking misery of peasant life, shrunken old women ‘mummified by age and the sun’, invisible under heavy bundles of firewood. But finally he wondered how long it would be before the black colonial soldiers he saw would turn their guns on their French masters.
Writing Coming Up For Air focused his mind on his childhood, and he discovered how very retentive a memory he had. He told Jack Common, ‘It’s suddenly revealed to me a big subject which I’d never really touched before and haven’t time to work out now.’ Reflecting a fortnight later on his family and idyllic days in Henley and Shiplake, he had conceived the idea for a further novel, in fact a trilogy. ‘I have been bitten with the desire to write a Saga. I don’t know that in a novelist this is not the sign of premature senile decay, but I have the idea for an enormous novel in three parts which would take about five years to write.’ Since he thought himself incapable of perpetuating the Blair line, at least he could leave some trace behind by enshrining his family history in a novel – yet another reason not to want a European war.
Doubtless in that same mood of nostalgia he and Eileen passed their spare time reading Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and Henry James to one another. Connolly may have helped prompt this plunge into literary nostalgia. His Enemies of Promise, of which Orwell had now seen reviews, dwelt on his Eton and prep school years, reliving memories with which he had long wrestled and which he would deal with head-on in his own later reminiscence of St Cyprian’s. His passion for Dickens and other nineteenth-century novelists stemmed from his schooldays, and rereading them was another way of returning there in imagination. In that world an England threatened by war would have been unthinkable.
However, with the left baying for a Popular Front war ‘in defence of democracy’, and Chamberlain, having bought time at Munich, now slowly gearing up to confront Hitler, the outlook for peace looked uncertain. In the New Year he wrote, in some secrecy, to Herbert Read, the anarchist, suggesting that, in anticipation of this, they should organise a clandestine press to ensure that a dissenting voice could continue to be heard once the totalitarian darkness descended.
George Kopp, in Paris and free at last, got a letter to them which can only have intensified Orwell’s nightmares. Kopp described in detail his eighteen months in prison, how he had been isolated, beaten and left in a dark room overrun by rats. When he refused to sign papers admitting collaboration with Franco and implicating others, his Communist gaolers had attempted to poison him, and then to work him to death. He was released finally when Belgian trade unions put pressure on the Republican Government through the Belgian embassy, but his health was shattered and he had lost seven stone. By now, however, the Francoists were winning the Spanish war, the power of the Communists and NKVD was reduced, and Barcelona was a shambles. The ‘war for democracy’ in Spain was about to be lost.
In the New Year a draft of Coming Up For Air was completed, and he and Eileen left for a week’s break at Taddert in the Atlas Mountains. He was very taken by the Berbers who lived there, especially the women. ‘[They] are fascinating people,’ he told Gorer,’ … & the women have the most wonderful eyes. But what fascinates me about them is that they are so dirty. You will see exquisitely beautiful women walking about with their necks almost invisible under dirt.’ He later told the wife of a friend that ‘he found himself increasingly attracted to the young Arab girls and the moment came when he told Eileen that he had to have one of these girls … Eileen agreed and so he had his Arab girl.’ In his diary he only hinted at the attraction they held for him. ‘All the women have tattooing on their chins and sometimes down each cheek. Their manner is less timid than most Arab women.’ Harold Acton, the Old Etonian aesthete, reported him enthusing not only about the ‘sweetness’ of Burmese women but also about the beauties of Morocco. ‘This cadaverous ascetic whom one scarcely connected with fleshly gratification admitted that he had seldom tasted such bliss as with certain Moroccan girls, whose complete naturalness and grace and candid sensuality described in language so simple and direct that one could visualise their slender flanks and pointed breasts, and almost sniff the odour of spices that clung to their satiny skins.’ Eileen’s friend Lettice Cooper neatly summed up this aspect of Orwell. ‘I don’t think George was the kind of person who likes being married all the time.’ she said.
His encounter with the Berber women and the mood of secrecy he had shared with Herbert Read perhaps inspired him to write to Lydia Jackson, in the hope of pursuing further their amorous encounter at Preston Hall. As with Read, he asked her to keep his letters secret. ‘So looking forward to seeing you!’ he wrote. ‘I have thought of you so often – have you thought about me, I wonder? I know it’s indiscreet to write such things in letters, but you’ll be clever and burn this, will you? … Take care of yourself. Hoping to see you early in April. With love, Eric.’ He wrote to her again but neither letter appears to have brought a reply.
Their plan was to return directly to England by boat from Casablanca at the end of March (thereby avoiding Spanish territory), then find a house somewhere a little warmer and further south than Wallington. Dorset was the preferred choice, no doubt reflecting his prevailing mood of nostalgia and urge to write a family saga. With his father’s life approaching its end, how better to get back to his Blair roots than to live in the county of his paternal ancestors? His novel was almost finished, and as usual he thought it good only in parts. Now his mind turned homewards – to the flowers, the rhubarb, Muriel and Kate. He wrote asking Common if he would mind putting up Kopp, presently convalescing in Greenwich with the O’Shaughnessys. Kopp, however, declined the invitation. Perhaps the primitive cottage sounded too much like the grim conditions he had just escaped in Spain.
On 28 March 1939 they sailed from Casablanca on board the SS Yasukunimaru, a Japanese liner bound for London from Yokohama. The weather was good and he hardly needed his seasickness pills. Arriving in London, the first thing he did was deliver to Moore the manuscript of Coming Up For Air, which Eileen had typed just before they left. One thing about it made him rather proud – there was not a single semi-colon in it, he claimed. It was an unnecessary stop, he had decided, and had to be banished. He was still unhappy about Gollancz. ‘If he tries to bugger me abt I think I shall leave him,’ he told Common. He then hurried to Lydia’s flat in Woburn Place, and was disappointed to find her out, even though he had cabled ahead to be sure she was there.
Unable to linger, he travelled on to Southwold, where his father’s condition continued to deteriorate and his mother was also ill with phlebitis. From there he rang Lydia three times, without success, so wrote to her complaining that she had let him down. When Eileen arrived at Montague House he had gone down with flu and taken to his bed. But his mind was still on Lydia. As if she had not ignored his letters and avoided him, he wrote to her again, apologising for not turning up and promising to meet her when next in London. However, she was not, she claimed, at all flattered by his attentions. ‘I was annoyed by his assuming that I would conceal our meetings from Eileen, revolted by deception creeping in against my wishes. I wanted to avoid meeting him when I was in that hostile mood, capable of pushing him away if he tried to embrace me.’ At this stage, it was a strange, one-sided affair, conducted by an apparently self-deluded Casanova. However, she did reply to him later, and even agreed to see him, though, according to her, only on a platonic basis.
After his bout of flu, his brother-in-law Laurence referred him to the Miller Chest Hospital to see Herbert Morlock, a Harley Street consultant, inventor of the bronchoscope. Orwell was duly tested, and confirmed as having bronchiectatis, an enlargement and distension of the bronchial tubes leaving the lungs prone to infection – a condition possibly caused by child-hood pneumonia and explaining that ‘chronic cough’ to which he was still susceptible. Morlock was a breezy extrovert who wore morning dress, stiff and cuffs, a cravat with a pearl pin and (when out) a silk top hat. Blithely he told Orwell not to worry about coughing up blood; it might be good for him. Orwell was impressed with the up-beat manner of this colourful character, and years later, when he was very much worse, he expressed a repeated wish to see him again. After his tests Orwell spent a week with the O’Shaughnessys in Greenwich.
The novel he had left with Moore reflected the state of mind in which Orwell faced the prospect of war. Many of the acute fears he felt at this time permeate Coming Up For Air – a repetition of 1914 and the abolition of the bombing of towns and the threat of the concentration camp. Isolation in Morocco had distanced him from the daily ebb and flow of news and the prevailing air of crisis which would have engulfed him in England. Apart from events and yet part of them, he was able to achieve a novel that was both highly personal and yet politically and socially perceptive at the same time. Its first person narrator is his self-reflective alter ego and social commentator rolled into one. As he himself said of fiction-writers, ‘By their subject-matter ye shall know them.’
He hoped it would offend Gollancz, with its sneers at young Communists and its guying of Left Book Club meetings, even if it meant losing the £100 advance on acceptance specified in his contract. But neither the sneers nor the satirical jibes put off the publisher who paid up promptly and put the novel on his list for publication in June. If A Clergyman’s Daughter was the Orwell novel most influenced by Joyce, Coming Up For Air is more suggestive of Proust. But whereas it is a subtle taste that triggers the memory of the author of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, here it is sparked by a veritable spectrum of smells. This was no mere device, and can only be an honest account of how memory worked for the author attempting consciously to recapture a forgotten past. More obviously it is a novel in Wellsian vein, the tale of a ‘little man’ trying to make sense of the modern world – ‘Wells watered down,’ Orwell called it.
George Bowling (a surname borrowed from the old folk song about Tom Bowling or perhaps from Smollett’s Roderick Random) is, like all Orwell’s protagonists, trapped in a soul-destroying routine and champing to get free. The action begins with Orwell’s usual chronological precision. ‘I remember the morning well. At about a quarter to eight I’d nipped out of bed and got into the bathroom just in time to shut the kids out.’ He has been fitted with his first set of false teeth and feels that his life is already more than half over. A newspaper headline and a whiff of horse dung arouse memories and stir longings, and soon George is set upon rediscovering the Golden Age of his past. A win at the races tempts him into truancy – a lie to his wife, an illicit trip to the small town where he grew up, with its memories of boyhood adventures in a bygone age. He is also in search of Katie Simmons, the love of his youth and the idyllic countryside where he played, but above all the hidden pool where he dreamed one day of fishing for a massive and elusive pike. There again is the Laurentian reverie, recalling his first taste of sex with Katie out in the open fields. Here, in Orwell’s memorable phrase, is his ‘thin man struggling to get out’ of the fat insurance salesman. Not only is Bowling fat but unattractive in many other ways – worn down by a loveless marriage, the expense of a family, children who despise him, a man henpecked by a colourless money-obsessed wife and her carping mother. Of course, his journey is doomed – the small town had been engulfed by suburbia and his woodland paradise infested with fruit juice-drinking, sandal-wearing, nudist vegetarians, and Garden City cranks. The Golden Age is done for, Katie, his childhood sweetheart, is now a worn out middle-aged drab and the secret pool with its giant pike, the symbolic centre of his childhood fantasy, turned into a rubbish dump. The horrors of mass society have overwhelmed the holy places and Doomsday threatens in the form of Hitler, Stalin and their streamlined battalions, dedicated to ruling through terror, the distortion of the truth and the elimination of the past. George returns to his bourgeois prison to face again his nagging wife and unlovable children. The Paradise Gained was no more than a sad illusion.
Coming Up For Air was published on 12 June. Gollancz (‘that Stalinist publisher’, Orwell now called him) is said to have disapproved of it politically, but published it nevertheless – perhaps to deflect accusations of prejudice against a dissident leftist, and perhaps because he saw in its singularly oracular quality a book that would strike a chord with readers. If so, his judgement was sound. It proved to be a novel of the moment, catching the mood of nervous tension widespread during that uncertain summer of 1939, and the feeling that an old world, already fading over the past two decades, was about to pass away forever. The TLS made it a Recommended Novel of the Week, highlighting a passage that had clearly touched the imagination of its anonymous critic:
And yet I’ve enough sense to see that the old life we’re used to is being sawn off at the roots. I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loud-speakers telling you what to think … There are millions of others like me … They can feel things cracking and collapsing under their feet.
The reviewer noted that the book’s indirect, ‘conversational and slangy’ style, which made it so readable, carried not just a narrative but a running commentary on the state of the world. The author seemed to be saying that the old way of story-telling was over and readers must nerve themselves for the bad times ahead. There was also applause from the Times, heralding it as the answer to ‘one of the age’s puzzles’ – ‘the cult of the “little man”’. Kate O’Brien in the Spectator, thought it ‘above average’ but not as sharp as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and detected signs of haste and weariness. She did, however, note that Orwell ‘manages to make his novels easily distinguishable from those of other people’, perhaps the first public recognition of the authentically ‘Orwellian’ voice. There was recognition, too, in the national press, where James Agate featured it prominently in his book column for the Daily Express. Most interesting, and perhaps significant, was a letter from Max Plowman who wrote, ‘My Golly! What a book! I could write another about it … It’s done to the life and your little man lives all right & so gets his immortality,’ adding the strangely portentous afterthought, ‘Imagining I know you, I rather hope you’ve started on a Fairy Tale by way of reaction!’ Plowman was right, and, if Orwell is to be believed, that fairy tale was already ticking away in his mind and had been doing so for the past two years.
Two weeks after his book appeared his father’s condition worsened, and Orwell went home to Southwold to be with him. On 25 June, George’s thirty-sixth birthday, Richard was close to death. That day, the Sunday Times carried a review of his novel. At the very last it must have seemed that an erring son had somehow redeemed himself. In a letter to Moore he gave ‘a touching account of the old man’s end:
I was with the poor old man for the last week of his life, and then there was the funeral etc., etc., all terribly upsetting and depressing. However, he was 82 and had been very active till he was over 80, so he had had a good life, and I am very glad that latterly he had not been so disappointed in me as before. Curiously enough his last moment of consciousness was hearing that review I had in the Sunday Times. He heard about it and wanted to see it, and my sister took it in and read it to him, and a little later he lost consciousness for the last time.
He told Rees that, in accordance with tradition, he had placed pennies on the old man’s eyes, and had then thrown the pennies into the sea. ‘Do you think some people would have put them back in their pockets?’ he asked. He now inherited the Blair family Bible to stand beside Great Uncle Horatio’s books, and a portrait of Lady Mary Blair to hang in the cottage beside his Burmese swords, all perhaps to act as totemic inspirations in the writing of his family saga. The death of a parent is often the occasion for an increased sense of one’s own mortality. No doubt he found some consolation in contriving to meet his old flame Brenda Salkeld and taking her for a nostalgic walk, across the old bridge to Blythburgh. George Bowling would have done no less. He tried to broach the subject of an affair, intimating that he and Eileen enjoyed an open marriage and neither was at all jealous and possessive of the other. But Brenda, the clergyman’s daughter, no doubt scandalised, had simply changed the subject. She had read all about Mr Warburton and knew just how to handle his real-life alter ego.
After attending his father’s funeral, he returned to Wallington and again opened a diary. He wanted to plot the slow but inevitable approach of war from a careful reading of the press and weekly reviews. Ruminating later on diary keeping, he wrote how it helped to put the immediate present into wider perspective and keep track of one’s opinions. ‘Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may forget that one ever held it. Political predictions are usually wrong, but even when one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating.’ In July he recorded the build up to the Danzig crisis, fighting in Manchuria, agitation for Churchill to be allowed into the Cabinet, British and German overtures to Russia and the call up of reservists. In passing he noted the annual Eton versus Harrow cricket match at Lord’s had ended in fighting, for the first time since 1919. It was strangely symbolic of the times.
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.