Thursday, March 26, 2009

Oxford Literary Festival: George Orwell's son speaks for the first time about his father

John Carey talks to George Orwell's son, Richard Blair

Richard Blair with his father George Orwell photographed in 1946 by Vernon Richards.(CopyWhat would it have been like to be brought up by George Orwell? Pretty grim, you might think. But you would be wrong. In June 1944, Orwell and his wife Eileen adopted a three-week-old boy whom they named Richard Horatio Blair (Eric Blair being Orwell's real name). Now a retired engineer living happily in an immaculate house in a picture-book Warwickshire village, Blair has never publicised the fact that he was related to Orwell, always preferring to remain in the background. But ahead of a talk at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival with Orwell's biographer DJ Taylor (details, below right), Richard agreed to speak to me about his memories of his childhood.

Richard was only six when Orwell died in January 1950, but he remembers him with great warmth. He had, he says, "a heart of deep paternal affection". As you might expect, Richard's recollection of their time together is patchy, and he cannot recall Eileen at all. What do remain vivid for him, however, are the years he spent with his father on the island of Jura off the west coast of Argyll.

Orwell had been drawn to Jura after the premature death of his wife in London in 1945. Eileen to my mind is the heroine of the Orwell story. She had not been keen on the idea of adoption, but agreed to it because she knew that Orwell, who believed he was sterile, was desperate for a son. Knowing she was ill with a tumour, she put off consulting a specialist, for her husband's and Richard's sake, until the adoption was finally legalised. As her letters show, she quickly came to love little Richard, but the delay in seeing a doctor cannot have helped her and she died on the operating table under anaesthetic.

Living, after Eileen's death, in a cramped, dark flat in Canonbury Square in north London, Orwell was determined that his son should grow up in the country, where he could fish and hunt and get back to nature. He had discussed the idea of moving away from London with Eileen before she died, and in 1946, at the invitation of his friend David Astor, the editor of the Observer, he spent a few weeks on the island. Captivated by the sea and air and emptiness, he decided to move up there permanently.

Barnhill, the farmhouse at the north end of the island that he rented for himself, Richard and Richard's nanny Susan (soon replaced by Orwell's bossy sister Avril), had no electricity or telephone and the mail came only twice a week. The nearest village, Ardlussa, was eight miles away along a rough track, and it was 25 miles to the nearest shop. To most settlers these might seem inconveniences, but they were positive attractions to Orwell, even though he was beginning to suffer badly from the TB that would eventually kill him.

He had always been critical of the "softness" of civilisation, and as the illness took hold the need to pit himself against physical challenges grew. Besides, Barnhill's remoteness would ensure that he was not pestered by visitors, and could settle down to a serious spell of writing. It was at Barnhill that he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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