Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

Today is the 70th anniversary of the death of George Orwell, on 21 January 1950. One of the greatest writers of the 20th Century passed away just after midnight in Room 65 of University College Hospital, London. He was just 46 years old.


At the time, Orwell, diagnosed with tuberculosis since 1947, was hoping to travel to a clinic in Switzerland to help improve his chronically weak lungs. His medical team were also considering treating him with penicillin, then a new wonder-drug, but still in short supply.

Orwell knew he was dying. Working with his doctor, Dr Morland, it was hoped that he could extend his life for a few more years at least. Morland had previously treated D.H. Lawrence for TB, but ultimately without success.

The writer had been checked into hospital in September 1949. He had a private room costing £17 per week (good socialist!). In this room, on 13 October, he was married for the second time, to Sonia Brownell (1918 – 1980) whom he’d met at Horizon, the literary magazine run by Cyril Connolly, his school friend from Eton. For the ceremony, he was too ill even to leave his bed, but nonetheless exceptionally happy. Brownell took care of all his affairs from then on and indeed years after his death, sometimes controversially.


The old University College Hospital building, now Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research. Pic: M Paterson.

In his final days, one of Orwell’s main concerns was his son Richard, whom he’d adopted with his first wife Eileen. Fear of infection prevented the boy from coming close to his father which caused terrible frustration. After the writer’s death Richard Blair was brought up by Orwell’s sister Avril. In retirement, he is very supportive of Orwell-related events and activities. Interview.


When Orwell checked in at UCH, Nineteen Eighty-Four had been published just three months. While Animal Farm (1945) had turned him into a widely known writer, it was his masterpiece that secured his finances, reputation and legacy. Indeed, fame.


George Orwell’s grave, Sutton Courtenay, near Oxford. Pic: M Paterson.

George Orwell in Wikipedia.

Orwell The Authorised Biography by Michael Shelden.
George Orwell: A Life by Bernard Crick.
Orwell: The Life by D.J. Taylor.

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Today is the anniversary of the Coronation of Edward VII, at Westminster Abbey in 1902. Consequently, every year on this day I am reminded of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, but reporting on events of the previous summer. The whole of Chapter VII is about the author’s experience of the Coronation. He observes the parade from Trafalgar Square during the day:

And as it was thus at Trafalgar Square, so was it along the whole line of march—force, overpowering force; myriads of men, splendid men, the pick of the people, whose sole function in life is blindly to obey, and blindly to kill and destroy and stamp out life. And that they should be well fed, well clothed, and well armed, and have ships to hurl them to the ends of the earth, the East End of London, and the “East End” of all England, toils and rots and dies.

…  and then spends the evening on the Embankment with the destitute.

On the bench beside me sat two ragged creatures, a man and a woman, nodding and dozing. The woman sat with her arms clasped across the breast, holding tightly, her body in constant play—now dropping forward till it seemed its balance would be overcome and she would fall to the pavement; now inclining to the left, sideways, till her head rested on the man’s shoulder; and now to the right, stretched and strained, till the pain of it awoke her and she sat bolt upright. Whereupon the dropping forward would begin again and go through its cycle till she was aroused by the strain and stretch. …

…  Fifty thousand people must have passed the bench while I sat upon it, and not one, on such a jubilee occasion as the crowning of the King, felt his heart-strings touched sufficiently to come up and say to the woman: “Here’s sixpence; go and get a bed.” But the women, especially the young women, made witty remarks upon the woman nodding, and invariably set their companions laughing.

When describing the Coronation celebrations and its participants, London’s writing drips with seething sarcasm; his writing about the poor is fueled with pure anger. He uses this chapter in particular to highlight the chasm that existed between the well-off — and indeed even ordinary people — and the destitute poor. All of this in the capital city of the wealthiest and most powerful nation which had ever existed: ‘Abyss‘ is laced through with this particular irony, utterly and deliberately without and ounce of subtlety.


Coronation souvenir. Royal Collection Trust.


East End tenement. Photo by Jack London.

The People of the Abyss is an important piece of reportage which should be familiar to all historians of modern London. I see it as a sort of progress report between the bookends provided by Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Mayhew, of course, didn’t feel the need to be ’embedded’ as the other two did, but he did have a penchant for impoverishing himself nonetheless – another story. ‘Abyss’ is far more angry than the other two and certainly more ‘left-wing’. All have the virtue of being easy-to-read despite their most harrowing subject matter. I think the explanation for this is that the writers were all journalists who wrote extraordinarily well.

People of the Abyss (1902) by Jack London is available online for free from the Project Guthenberg, here. Scroll down for the Coronation, Chapter VII.

British Pathé footage of the Coronation of Edward VII.


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george orwell hayesMost Wednesday mornings, Hayes FM are kind enough to have me on to talk about local history. Today we discussed George Orwell’s time in Hayes from April 1932- July 1933. It got me suitably fired up to jump in the car and go for an explore, accompanied by Mark Machado from the radio station.

Being a schoolmaster doesn’t fire the imagination quite like service in the Imperial Indian police in Burma or getting shot in the throat during the Spanish Civil War, but several key events in the author’s career occurred while in Hayes. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London was published by Victor Gollancz in January 1933. In order to save the blushes of his family about his career as a plongeur and a tramp, Eric Blair for the first time chose the pen-name George Orwell, having previously and occasionally written under the name P.S. Burton in magazine articles. He had to spend much of his spare time editing the manuscript for a nervous and demanding Gollancz, while simultaneously writing his next book, Burmese Days.

After resigning his police commission and returning from Burma in 1927, Orwell divided his time over the next five years between investigating the lifestyle of ‘gentlemen of the road’, living an impoverished bohemian lifestyle in Paris, and hanging out at his parents’ retirement house in Suffolk. Although he had some success getting articles accepted in the Adelphi magazine and the New Statesman, he was nonetheless skint. So he took a teacher’s job at a private prep school in Hayes: the Hawthorns High School. There were only 14-15 boy pupils and one other teacher, a Mr Shaw. This made Orwell – being the senior of the two – technically headmaster.

george orwell hayes

Hawthorns Boys School. I had not seen this picture before today. Mr Shaw is back-row, left. Derek Eunson, owner of the school, is standing next to Orwell.

Orwell was known as being strict in the classroom (not a word of English was allowed in French lessons), yet kindly and enthusiastic at extra-curricular activities. He frequently took the lads on nature rambles, showing them how to capture marsh gas in jars, that sort of thing; he also wrote and directed the school play – Charles II – which was performed in St Mary’s Church nearby.

george orwell hayes

St Mary's, Hayes. Despite its high church smells and bells ways ("popish"), Orwell was fond of spending time there, befriending the curate and volunteering to do odd jobs.

Orwell wrote about Hayes that it was “one of the most God-forsaken places I have ever struck”. Given what we know, he was hardly giving the area a fair crack of the whip. Much as he worked on being empathetic to the common man, Orwell was a bit of a snob, particularly when it came to the suburban middle-classes. His time in Hayes provided a rich vein which he mined profitably in both A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (and probably Coming Up for Air, which I don’t remember very well). So one would like to think that rather than having a deep-felt antipathy for poor Hayes, Orwell was simply impressing his literary friends .

Today, the building that was the Hawthorns High School is the Fountain House Hotel. It has a plaque to Orwell on the front of the building, sponsored by the Hayes Literary Society. Our thanks to Rose and Yusuf of that establishment for their warm welcome at our unannounced arrival and for letting us have a bit of a mooch around.

george orwell hayes

The Fountain House Hotel today, formerly Hawthorns High School.

george orwell hayesThe most famous picture of Orwell (and possibly the best, the one of him smoking over the typewriter is a contender)  is his mugshot for his NUJ card. Several days’ beard growth, frayed collar, lush barnet. It’s the one which more than any shows his essential kindness and decency and was taken in 1933 and is therefore exactly contemporary with his time in Hayes, aged about 30. Armed with this and today’s sojourn, I have a great mental picture of the writer during that time in west London suburbia, the period of his breakthrough, about to start delivering arguably the finest writing of the 20th Century.

Sources: Orwell: The Authorised Biography by Michael Shelden (1991); Wikipedia here; a nice local newspaper article from 2003, Orwell’s centenary, here.

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