By Paul McHugh
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Literary pilgrimages can be fraught undertakings. What if you visit a famed writer's homestead, then make an unwished-for discovery, one that diminishes the author and his work? Or worse, find nothing, and your journey begins to feel wasted?
A trek I made to George Orwell's last writing retreat, out on the wild isle of Jura, off Scotland's west coast, provoked neither problem. Instead, I enjoyed a fascinating scene, one that gave me clues to messages of hope buried in Orwell's dark and dystopic masterwork, "1984."
With our guides, my wife and I rumbled in a rented sport-utility vehicle over the last length of boggy track that led to the north end of Jura. In the distance, we saw Barnhill, a white stone farmhouse alone in a lush setting, with a sweeping view of the sea between the island and the Kintyre Peninsula. Soon, I was standing at a window in that centuries-old farmhouse, gazing out upon the vista that greeted Orwell's eyes whenever he happened to glance up from his desk. It was captivating to think of him sitting right in this spot, just 60 years ago.
A long, winding road led Orwell to a room in this rustic house.
Of course, he wasn't George Orwell when he started. He was born Eric Arthur Blair, in 1903, in Motihari, India, where his father worked in the Opium Department of the British Raj. What young Eric observed sparked his education in the abuses of power. Britain had fought two wars to ensure that a great many Chinese customers would stay addicted to opium. By the early 20th century, Queen Victoria and her successor, King Edward VII, could have laid claim to being the planet's leading drug lords.
Blair attended college at Eton but by 1922 was back East, in Burma, as an officer with the Imperial Police. Then the writer in him -- and the political theorist -- began to stir. One of his first pieces, "A Hanging," published in the Adelphi quarterly in 1931, told of the death of a poor Hindu, one of 70 hangings performed yearly to keep the Burmese in line. As that man walked to his death, Blair saw him sidestep to avoid a puddle.
Until that moment, he wrote, "I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. . . . I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting life short when it is in full tide."
So began a lifelong devotion to the causes of the working poor and underclasses. Books such as "Down and Out in Paris and London" and "The Road to Wigan Pier" firmly established this egalitarian mission. And "Homage to Catalonia" revealed that he himself was unafraid to put more than a literary life on the line. That book recounts how, in 1936, he went to fight in Spain against Franco on behalf of the anarchists and socialists, and survived being struck in the throat by a fascist's bullet.
By then, Blair had split the difference on a writer's quest for success and renown and his instinctive suspicion of fame. He picked out the nom de plume George Orwell, as a "good round English name," one that could keep the public from "working magic" on him by knowing his true identity. During the war years, he worked for the BBC, making him an astute analyst of propagandists on both sides. He and his first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, adopted a child, Richard.
But 1945 bestowed upon Orwell both tragedy and triumph. Eileen died during surgery. And "Animal Farm" was published to rave reviews. The pithy novella combined Orwell's sentiment for animals (he was an unabashed Beatrix Potter buff) with a stinging critique of political manipulation and mendacity. It brought him substantial acclaim, a steady income that he dubbed "faery gold" -- and it sent him fleeing to Jura.
Then, as now, Jura's north end is one of the most remote spots in the Hebrides island chain. For Orwell, reaching it from London was an ordeal that involved linking a medley of trains, boats and taxis, then hiking five miles up a boggy track to reach this old farmhouse, rented from the Fletcher family. After he moved there full time, in 1946, Orwell used a motorbike to cover that last bit. It frequently broke down; locals commonly saw him poking at its innards with a screwdriver.
Things have improved, somewhat, in modern times (see box). But once on Jura, visitors must drive from the ferry on a long and winding single lane (often shared with livestock), past the looming Paps of Jura, a pair of tall quartzite peaks. After nine miles, one comes to the village of Craighouse, holding Jura's sole hotel, single pub, solitary distillery and only store. Twenty-one more miles brings you to the pavement's end. Here, visitors either park and hike to Barnhill or do what we did: hire relatives of the Fletcher family to take us in a four-wheel-drive SUV the rest of the way.
This last stretch makes you appreciate the isle of Jura as Scotland's best wilderness, home to 5,000 red deer but only 170 people. Our rig meandered over heather-clad hills (don't call them "moors," as that's an English term) and rumbled over logs laid atop soggy peat bogs, to eventually deliver us to Barnhill's splendid views.
Orwell didn't trek out here just to achieve aesthetic distance from the big-city bustle, but also to make highly productive use of his remaining time. In 1935, he had been diagnosed with a fibroid form of tuberculosis, a condition that progressively worsened. It wasn't helped by long hours spent conjuring the bleak vision of "1984" while puffing hand-rolled cigarettes of black shag tobacco.
If you haven't reread "1984" recently, don't worry. World headlines still conjure its main themes. Orwell envisioned a grim globe wrapped in three totalitarian governments, all perpetually at war against one another, with their benighted populations held in subjugation by a ceaseless flood of disinformation, as well as grinding poverty.
The protagonist of "1984" is Winston Smith, 39, a peon paid to distort reality in the oppressive government's Ministry of Truth, dominated by such slogans as: "War Is Peace," "Ignorance Is Strength" and "Freedom Is Slavery." Smith tries to hide tiny spasms of rebellion from the Thought Police while taking slight comfort in oily gulps of Victory Gin. A ray of light suddenly dawns in an unlikely romance with the feisty Julia. The core tragedy of the story is that Julia and Winston have their hearts and wills crushed by Inner Party leader O'Brien and end up betraying each other.
So, where's the hope? Well, the first bit of it appears in the sheer organic resilience of the "proles," or proletariat. These commoners might reel about, stuffed with political jingoism, tawdry pornography and paltry pop tunes. But "the proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened inside. They had held on to the primitive emotions, which he himself [Winston] had to re-learn by conscious effort."
There's another clue in "1984's" appendix. Orwell dissects Newspeak, the language of oppression, designed to destroy the tools of independent thought. But Orwell describes it all in the past tense, surely no mistake for such a meticulous wordsmith. Somehow, Newspeak faded into history.
But the most durable hope comes from the same natural beauty he saw pouring into that upstairs window at Barnhill when Orwell looked up from his manuscript. A fleeting escape from the Party is won in "1984" when Julia lures Winston to travel out beyond Paddington Station to a forest-fringed field. It's the Golden Country, otherwise existing solely in Winston's dreams. Here he finds sweet air, singing thrushes, flowering bluebells and, however briefly, a bold and beautiful girl in his arms.
That idyll does pass, and Winston and Julia do get squished. But in the full vision of the book, nature continues to endure beyond the corrosive grasp of the Party, beyond those gray, grim streets. It remains available for the nurture of other Winstons, other Julias, until, as Orwell implies, the Party and its system can be overthrown. Or at very least, succeeded by something else.
After he finished the novel, Orwell was in and out of hospitals in England until he died in 1950. He hoped till the very end to make it back to his favorite refuge.
Barnhill on Jura is where a talented writer planted fruit trees he would not live to harvest and roses he would never see bloom. Yet here he could look out upon tumbling, brushy fields, alive with birds, the sweeping arc of the rocky cove and, beyond, a blue, breeze-swept seascape. That brief refuge of Winston Smith was Orwell's also.
"The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing," he wrote.