“George Orwell - Writer and Parent”

Talk by Richard Blair, George Orwell's adopted son.
On Tuesday 9th October 2018

It was an astonishing and delightful surprise to learn that Richard Blair, Orwell’s adopted son, lives just a few miles outside Leamington, at Long Itchington.  It was almost equally surprising to learn from Richard that although there is a George Orwell Society and a George Orwell Foundation, these were set up as recently as 2007 and 2009, nearly 60 years after Orwell’s death.  It was good to hear that Richard is at the centre of these important institutions keeping Orwell’s vitally important and enduring political and literary legacy alive.  His talk attracted the biggest audience to a Leamington Literary Society meeting in living memory – at least 100 crowded into the St Peters Hall to hear him speak.

Though he died very early at just 46, Orwell packed more into his life than most ordinary mortals can only dream of.  Richard gave us a fascinating description of it, from his birth and early years onwards.

Born in Bengal (his father was Sub Deputy Opium Agent, 4th Grade) he subsequently spent his childhood in England, first in Suffolk, then via a scholarship, at Eton.  After school he joined the Indian Civil Service, and it was there that he became politically aware, seeing at first hand what the ruling British Empire entailed, particularly in its treatment of the native population.  His experience was put to use in his first novel, “Burmese Days” and also, perhaps more grippingly, in one of his essays.  This was a major change in Orwell’s life, leading directly to his becoming a lifelong socialist and major literary figure.  Back in England, he deliberately put himself through the horrors of destitution, before chronicling them in “Down and Out in Paris and London” and later, in 1936, “Road to Wigan Pier”, commissioned by Victor Gollancz.
1936 also saw his marriage to Eileen O’Shaunessy.  She remained a rock in his life, even following him during his participation in the Spanish Civil War. Richard gave a graphic account of his few months there, where he almost lost his life.  A bullet through his neck miraculously missed his main artery and gullet.  Returning to England, he joined the BBC, which saw him become the  finest political essayist of his generation. However, his health was already failing, and very sadly he also lost Eileen to cancer in 1945. The year before, Richard was born, and adopted by the Orwells.  According to Richard, Orwell was a wonderful father, and here his account became both very personal and insightful, as he described his years on the Isle of Jura, where Orwell lived from 1946 to 1948, courtesy of David Astor.  This is where he wrote “1984”, for which, together with “Animal Farm” (an odd omission from Richard’s talk) he will be forever remembered.  Richard gave a graphic description of a near drowning when out on a boat.  

Orwell died in January 1950, finally succumbing to TB, which the new drug Streptomycin sadly failed to cure.  Shortly before his death he married Sonia Brownell, who became his literary executor and responsible for later publishing his huge output of essays, which stand as testament not just to his profound political and literary legacy but also to his enduring influence.

Richard’s talk unsurprisingly drew a large number of questions from the record audience.  We came away with a fresh appreciation of Orwell’s extraordinary life and work, but also with a new insight to Orwell’s humanity as a loving father. (A delightful photo of Orwell with Richard on his knee appears on the front cover of D.J. Taylor’s definitive “Orwell: the Life” published in 2003.) Richard’s very full account unfortunately left little opportunity to discuss Orwell’s continued relevance to today’s highly polarised world, where aspects of the nightmare vision of “1984”s  are being realised.  The Ministry of Truth (i.e. lies) precisely prefigures the Trump era, where “alternative facts” are set against objective facts (and frighteningly believed), and impartial reporting is dismissed as “fake news”, with the media vilified as “enemies of the people”. All of us who fear where the present political climate is leading would do well to go back and read the words of the real seeker after truth that Orwell was.

Barry West

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