Orwell’s Whirlpools

orwellIn a world still awash with totalitarianism – where “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” and Big Brother merely has new names — George Orwell should be remembered on January 21, the 64th anniversary of his passing.

One morning in mid-August 1947, Eric Arthur Blair (his real name) had another close call.  He almost drowned off the west coast of mainland Scotland, two hours after breakfast. Had he done so, we would not have Nineteen Eighty-Four. It happened in the Strait of Corryvreckan, between the islands of Jura  and Scarba. Blair took his niece Lucy, nephew Henry and three-year-old son Richard on a boating trip.

His wife Eileen (née O’Shaughnessy) had died during an operation on March 29, 1945, just nine months after Richard’s adoption, and a month after he left for Europe as war correspondent for The Observer newspaper.  Blair had to raise the boy with the support of his sister, Avril.

In her penultimate letter, she urged him to stop wasting energy on journalism, move to the country and write a masterpiece. Her funeral was on April 3. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith’s diary begins on “April 4th”. As for Room 101 in the Ministry of Love, its prototype probably was at the BBC’s Portland Place headquarters. Legend has it that Blair attended many a dull committee meeting in a room with that number while working at the broadcaster between 1941 and 1943.

In 1944, a doodlebug demolished the Blair basement flat, burying the typescript of Animal Farm, until a Mr Jones dug it out. The omens were not good. It was time to leave London.

At the northern tip of Jura, his 14-foot dinghy entered an area known as the Corryvreckan whirlpool,“cauldron of the speckled seas” (below).


We have an eye-witness account: Henry Dakin’s interview with a local newspaper.

When we turned round the point there was already a fair swell, the boat was rising and falling a lot. But we were not worried because Eric seemed to know what he was doing and we had an outboard motor. The Corryvreckan is not just the famous one big whirlpool, but has a lot of smaller whirlpools around the edges. Before we had a chance to turn, we went straight into the minor whirlpools and lost control. Eric was at the tiller, the boat went all over the place, pitching and tossing so much that the outboard motor jerked right off from its fixing.

Eric said, “the motor’s gone, better get the oars out, Hen. Can’t help much, I’m afraid”. So I unshipped the oars and partly with the current and partly with the oars, but mostly with the current, tried to steady her and we made our way to a little island. Even though that bit of it was very frightening, nobody panicked. Eric didn’t panic, but nobody else did either. Indeed, when he said he couldn’t help very much, he said it very calmly and flatly. He was sitting at the back of the boat, he wasn’t particularly strong, I was younger and stronger and sitting near the oars.

We got close to a little rock island and saw the boat was rising and falling about twelve feet. Then it turned upside down. First Lucy appeared, then Eric. He cried out, “I’ve got Ricky all right”. He had grabbed him out from under the boat and swam to the island. So we were left on this island [Eilean Mor] about a hundred yards long ….with the boat, one oar, a fishing rod and our clothes.

Eric got his cigarette lighter out – never went anywhere without it – and put it out on a rock to dry. “I thought we were goners”, he said. He almost seemed to enjoy it. We waved a shirt on the fishing rod about, and after about one and a half hours a lobster boat spotted us and picked us up. He could not come up close because of the swell and had to throw a rope across to us. We clambered along it one by one, Eric taking Ricky on his back.

The boat landed us at the north of the island. We just walked about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes and came across Avril [Blair] and Jane working hard hoeing in a field. They said to us, “What took you so long?”

Bernard Crick, Orwell’s biographer, struggled to understand it: “To take children in an open boat across such a famous tidal race — legendary in the Western Isles — without being sure of the tides, could appear almost crazily irresponsible.”

Richard Blair never forgot the incident. His ashes are to be scattered there.  As Corryvreckan nearly took his life, it could have him in death:

It will be my final farewell, having them cast into that Gulf. I put uncle Bill’s ashes there, my father’s brother-in-law, and I’m going to go the same way. I shall always be very proud of him and our trip there, ill-fated as it was.

Now 69, Richard recently recorded his family memories as part of an archive to be held at the Service Point at Craighouse, Jura. In a 2009 essay on life with aunt Avril, he remains convinced the accident hastened Eric’s admission to Hairmyres Hospital, East Kilbride in December, 1947. While his father returned to Jura in late July, 1948, he was hospitalized again in early January, 1949. The island seemed to have become the only place he could finish Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But why was the 44-year-old writer in the Inner Hebrides? He was there by chance. His editor’s family had an estate on Jura. Feeling “smothered” by journalism and “like a sucked orange”, he wanted a break. His friend and Observer editor David Astor suggested the island. There were other reasons, too. After Eileen’s death, there were several failed attempts at re-marriage. His older sister, Majorie, died that May. There was a sense of urgency too, given the state of Orwell’s health. But it was a risky move.

Blair met Robin Fletcher, laird of Jura’s Ardlussa estate, during his first visit. He heard about the family farmhouse (below) near the northern tip and moved into Barnhill  in the summer of 1946. (His son, Jamie Fletcher, is the current owner. Stays can be arranged here and here.) At this isolated spot  — reachable only by a 32km drive along a narrow road, then 8km either hiking or motorcycling over potholed bog  -– he wrote 1984.


It was a hard life. He survived by shooting rabbits, catching fish, growing vegetables – and (ominously) smoking. One anecdote claims his sister Avril once said, “So much for Eric being sacrosanct. Sacrostank would be more like it”. He was, to her dismay, a black shag tobacco addict who had turned the whole house into his smoking room. The writing proved  hard. By late 1946 he had completed only about 50 pages.

Local resident, Mike Richardson, has another memory: “He used to sleep in a large army tent in the garden. Apparently they thought that a night in the fresh open air would do you good. Heaven knows if it made things worse.”

Blair left Barnhill on October 9– avoiding one of last century’s coldest winters — and returned on 11 April 1947. He wrote a letter the next day to 29-year old Sonia Brownell. The house was “beginning to look quite civilised”; a rum ration and some hens were expected soon. He suggested she bring her raincoat and “gum boots if you have them.”

They married on October 13, 1949, just three months before his death. As one of his literary executors, she devoted her remaining years to protect and promoting her husband’s reputation before succumbing  to a brain tumour in December, 1980.

Brownell was also Blair’s “girl from the fiction department” and inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Julia.

The girl from the fiction department… was looking at him [Winston]… She was very young, he thought, she still expected something from life… She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated… All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead.

As for the book’s progress, on June 9 he told Canadian anarchist George Woodcock it wasgetting on very slowly but still it is getting on. I hope to finish it fairly early in 1948.” His “wretched” health had other plans. In early November he wrote to literary agent Leonard Moore:

I have been very unwell & intend to stay in bed for some weeks & try & get right again…I have finished the rough draft of my novel, so I ought to get the book done by abt May or June unless this illness drags out. I can’t work in my present state – constant high temperature etc.

As author and Orwell researcher Tanya Agathocleous explains here, the first draft was a ‘ghastly mess’, as was Blair himself. Coughing up blood, he was admitted to Hairymyres Hospital with advanced tuberculosis of the left lung. The only “cure” for TB at the time was “fresh air and a regular diet.” But there was a promising experimental drug – streptomycin, which avid Astor ordered from the US for his friend. Despite severe side effects possibly due to excessive dosage — throat ulcers, mouth blisters, hair loss, peeling skin and disintegrating nails — he began to improve after a three-month course.

“It’s all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff,” Blair told his publisher, Fredric Warburg. “It’s rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.”

Returning to Jura against medical advice on 28 July 1948, he updated Warburg on progress in a letter dated 22 October 1948 .

I shall finish the book, D.V., early in November, and I am rather flinching from the job of typing it, because it is a very awkward thing to do in bed, where I still have to spend half the time. Also there will have to be carbon copies, a thing which always fidgets me, and the book is fearfully long. I should think well over 100,000 words, possibly 125,000. I can’t send it away because it is an unbelievably bad MS and no one could make head or tail of it without explanation. On the other hand a skilled typist under my eye could do it easily enough…

I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied. I first thought of it in 1943. I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB. I haven’t definitely fixed on the title but I am hesitating between NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR and THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE.

Even in post-WWII Britain, no typist wanted to join him on remote Jura in late autumn. He was forced to do the typing himself, at 4,000 words a day. On November 15 he wrote to Anthony Powell, ‘I am just on the grisly job of typing out my novel. I can’t type much because it tires me too much to sit up at a table’.”

By December 4, 1948, it was done. He advised Moore he had ‘sent off two copies of the MS. of my book to you and one to Warburg’, who replied on December 13, describing it as ‘amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read’.

The heroic effort came at a high cost. On January 6, 1949, Blair was admitted to the Cotswold Sanatorium (Cranham, Gloucestershire). He remained there until September 3, 1949, when he was transferred to University College Hospital, London.

Secker & Warburg published an English edition on 8 June 1949. A US edition was published by Harcourt Brace a few days later.

As for the title, Blair probably chose it as a tribute to Eileen. In 1934, she had written a futuristic poem – End of the Century, 1984 – inspired by Aldous Huxley’s 1932 book, Brave New World.  For Warburg, Nineteen Eighty-Four was more marketable. Warburg visited him on 15 June 1949. He told him “he would make very large sums of money, probably between £10,000 and £15,000 [from British and American sources].” Blair “spoke reassuringly of the auditors who handle his financial affairs, and told me they were turning him into a Limited Company.”

I asked him about a new novel, and this is formulated in his mind—a nouvelle of 30,000 to 40,000 words—a novel of character rather than of ideas, with Burma as background. George was naturally as reticent as usual, but he did disclose this much. Initial draft titled: “A smoking room story.”

This about covers the main points that arose, and I am greatly encouraged by my visit. At worst he has a 50/50 chance of recovering and living for a number of years. Probably everything depends on himself and he does at last realize what is involved and what he has got to do.

He died alone at UCH in the early hours of Saturday 21 January 1950 from pulmonary tuberculosis – a massive hemorrhage of the lung.

In a Will made on 18 January, just before he was scheduled to fly to Switzerland for treatment, he asked to be:

… buried (not cremated) according to the rights of the Church of England in the nearest convenient cemetery, and that there shall be placed over my grave a plain brown stone bearing the inscription, “Here lies Eric Arthur Blair born June 25th, 1903, died____ “

After a London funeral service, he was buried in the churchyard of All Saints, Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire.

Five days later, Warburg wrote to Robert Giroux

This morning I attended the funeral service for George Orwell, one of the most melancholy occasions in my life, and feel not only that a good author and a good friend has passed from this list but that English literature has suffered an irreparable loss. I am sure that you and your colleagues feel in the same way.

Had Blair died near Barcelona while fighting in the Spanish civil war a decade earlier, there also would have been no Nineteen Eighty-Four. On 20th May 1937, he was shot through the neck by a fascist sniper. “The stupid mischance infuriated me,” he wrote in Homage to Catalonia. “The meaninglessness of it! To be bumped off, not even in battle, but in this stale corner of the trenches, thanks to a moment’s carelessness!”

What goes around comes around. Four scarves he apparently wore while in Spain were auctioned in London on October 3, 2013. One has a “small hole and blood”, according to Bloomsbury’s description. They sold for 5,580 pounds.

Eighty years ago, it was all about Triumph of the Will and New Soviet Man. Today it seems all about the triumph of the banal — of trivia and the twitterati , with the glitterati and climate cognoscenti not far behind — at least on our side of the pig pen’s fence.

“I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe that something resembling it could arrive. Totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”George Orwell


Michael Kile, January 2014

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