The American Scholar magazine published a version of this story, about one-third shorter, in the Spring 2019 edition. This is the original version. Think of it as a “director’s cut.” It was a “Notable” essay in both Best American Essays 2020 and Best American Travel Writing 2020.
It’s hard to know what would be a good place to imagine a future of bad smells and no privacy, deceit and propaganda, poverty and torture. Does a writer need to live in misery and ugliness to conjure dystopia?
We’d been walking more than an hour. The road was two tracks of pebbled dirt separated by a strip of grass. The land was treeless as prairie, with wildflowers and the seedless tops of last year’s grass smudging the new growth.
We rounded a curve and looked down a hillside to the sea. A half-mile in the distance, far back from the water, was a white house with three dormer windows. Behind it, a stone wall cut a diagonal to the water like a seam stitching mismatched pieces of green velvet. Far to the right, a boat moved along the shore, its sail as bright as the house.
This was where George Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The house, called Barnhill, sits near the northern end of Jura, an island off Scotland’s west coast in the Inner Hebrides. Given that it was June 2, sunny, short-sleeve warm, with the midges barely out, it’s fair to say it couldn’t have been more beautiful.
Orwell lived here for parts of three years, the last of his life. He left periodically (mostly in the winter) to do journalism in London and, for seven months in 1947 and 1948, to undergo treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis. Although he rented Barnhill and didn’t own it, he put in fruit trees and a garden, built a chicken house, bought a truck and boat, and invested numberless hours of labor in what he believed would be his permanent home. When he left it for the last time, in January 1949, he never again lived outside a sanitorium or hospital.
I came to Jura after a two-week backpacking trip across Scotland. My purpose was to drink single malt on Islay, the island to the south, and enjoy two nights of indulgence at Ardlussa House, the estate house where Orwell’s landlord lived. I was not on an Orwell pilgrimage. Barnhill is not open to the public, and no one among the island’s 250 residents remembers him.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think of him here. With a little work, a person can almost retrace his steps day by day.
Orwell kept a diary from at least 1931 until four months before his death in January,1950. In his introduction to a 2012 edition of the diaries, the late Christopher Hitchens—Orwell’s biggest contemporary champion—wrote that they “enrich our understanding of how Orwell transmuted the raw material of everyday experience into some of his best-known novels and polemics.”
The entries from Jura, however, are an exception. They offer no look into Orwell’s mood, thoughts on politics, or difficulties with his novel. The only hint he might be a writer is the entry of August 31, 1947, when he wrote: “Most of afternoon trying to mend typewriter.” Instead, they’re an account of seedlings planted, eggs collected, fish caught, and gasoline lost from a leaky tank; of the depredations of birds, rabbits, deer, and slugs on the garden; of his walks, his guests, and their outings.
The conventional wisdom is that Orwell’s years on Jura killed him and almost robbed the world of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” None of his biographers or friends seem to consider that Jura, despite or because of its harshness, might have extended his life and given him the psychic space to imagine a place utterly unlike it.
The island is just as empty, and life only a little less difficult, than when he was there. The 21st Century has moved closer to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” than it has to Jura.
* * *
George Orwell didn’t like the Scots and was embarrassed that his real name—Eric Blair—led some people to believe he was one. Nevertheless, he’d had the idea of moving to a Hebridean Island for at least five years before he set foot on Jura in September 1945.
The place was recommended to him by David Astor, an editor at a London newspaper, The Observer, for which Orwell wrote reviews. Astor’s family, wealthy as few others, had a summer estate on the island. (On holidays, his father, Viscount Astor, brought a cow from England so he could have the milk he liked). He arranged for Orwell to stay with a farm family. While there, the writer made plans to rent a vacant house near the northern end of the island the following year. “I was horrified when I heard this,” Astor later said. He called Jura “just the most remote place you could find almost in the British Isles.”
Orwell wouldn’t seem the best candidate for life there.
He was tired from work as a broadcaster at the BBC, as a war correspondent in France, and a member of the Home Guard, during World War II. He had a chronic form of tuberculosis; nearly everyone remarked how thin and ill he looked. In a few months he would suffer a pulmonary hemorrhage. His wife had died in surgery earlier in the year. He was raising their son, a year and a half old, with the help of a housekeeper.
At the same time, Orwell was famous for love of adversity. He’d made his name living rough with migrant farmworkers and coal miners in England. Destitute, he’d worked as a dishwasher in Paris, and almost died in a paupers’ hospital there. He’d fought in the Spanish Civil War. Less known to his admiring readers was a fondness for gardening, do-it-yourself furniture-making, and rural life.
The house he rented was part of a 20,000-acre estate, Ardlussa, that comprised one end of the island. The estate was owned by Margaret Fletcher and her husband, Robin, who had moved there after the war and were trying to restore its economic viability. They were happy to have another tenant even if he wouldn’t be a farmer. Fletcher had been a housemaster at Eton, the boarding school Orwell had attended, which gave the two men a bond beyond the obvious one.
What must have been most striking, however, was not what the war had done to Jura but to its inhabitants.
Robin Fletcher had been in the Gordon Highlanders, was taken prisoner in Singapore, and had worked on the Burma-Siam Railway (of “Bridge On the River Kwai” and “Narrow Road to the Deep North” fame). His wife received three postcards of 12 words each—the limit the Japanese allowed—during his three-year captivity. Three weeks after the war ended in August 1945 she received word he was alive. Her two brothers had died during the war. One, a worker in a Glasgow aircraft factory, collapsed mysteriously at 22. The other, who had owned Ardlussa, was killed in Belgium.
Among the estate’s tenants were two men who landed at Normandy, two who’d fought in Italy, and two who’d also been prisoners of the Japanese. At the end of the island near Barnhill lived a single man, Bill Dunn, with a below-the-knee amputation from a war wound. He’d placed an advertisement in the Oban Times seeking a farm tenancy that Robin Fletcher had answered. In a nearby croft was a former Polish soldier, Tony Rozga, who was married to a Scottish woman.
Orwell hadn’t been wounded in the war, but he had been in its rehearsal. He took a through-and-through sniper shot to his neck in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bullet damaged his right recurrent laryngeal nerve and the C7 nerve root, but miraculously didn’t kill him. Its only permanent effect was on his voice, which people reported was high and soft. (Curiously, despite Orwell’s long employment at the BBC, no sound recording of him is known to exist.)
Jura had one store, one telephone, and one physician, at a village called Craighouse, 16 ½ miles south of Ardlussa House. Mail was delivered to the settlement there three times a week and forwarded on to Barnhill, seven miles farther north, each Thursday. Food-and-fuel rationing was in full-swing. The store in Craighouse kept the ration books and island residents put in their orders by mail.
Orwell spent one night at Ardlussa House after a 48-hour trip from London. Interviewed decades later, Margaret Fletcher remembers that “he arrived at the front door looking very thin and gaunt and worn . . . a very sick-looking man.” The next day she and her husband took him up to Barnhill and, worried, left him alone in the four-bedroom house. They’d scrounged up a little furniture to tie him over until his own was shipped up from London. But the place was cold and almost empty.
Orwell got to work.
On May 24, 1946, in his second diary entry on Jura, he wrote: “Started digging garden, ie. breaking in the turf. Back-breaking work. Soil not only as dry as a bone, but very stony. Nevertheless there was a little rain last night. As soon as I have a fair patch dug, shall stick in salad vegetables. This autumn shall put in bushes, rhubarb & fruit trees if possible, but will need a very high & strong fence to keep the deer off them. Shot a rabbit in the dusk & missed him.”
A few days later, his sister, Avril, five years younger, arrived. She’d spent the war as a factory worker and was ready for a long vacation. Soon she decided to stay for good, too.
Many people, both friends and biographers, have speculated about why Orwell decided to move to Jura. They came up with a list of reasons, although Orwell himself never addressed the question.
He sought a place lacking distraction, which would let him write a book he’d been thinking about for a while. He was pessimistic about the world’s ability to avoid nuclear war and a Hebridean island would be far from first-strike targets. He wanted to raise his son where the boy could run around outdoors. Some people also thought he feared Soviet agents might try to kill him as they had Trotsky, another of Stalin’s sworn enemies. He always kept a loaded Luger close by.
Richard Rees, the editor of a magazine that published Orwell’s essays and reviews, saw in the writer a streak of self-punishment that a Hebridean island satisfied perfectly. Years after Orwell died, he told an interviewer: “I fear that the near-impossibility of making a tolerably comfortable life there was a positive inducement to Orwell to settle in the remotest corner of the island of Jura.”
Perhaps his neighbor Tony Rozga summed it up best.
“I didn’t ask him why he came to Jura, but the impression I got was that he came for much the same reasons I did,” Rozga said. “Hiding from people, fed up with the war, fed up with people. Hiding oneself in a corner and enjoying life.”
* * *
The current laird of Ardlussa is Andrew Fletcher, the grandson of Orwell’s landlord. He’s 46, wiry, and not afraid to wear pink running shoes around the house.
He and his wife Claire, moved to Jura from Glasgow in 2007. He’d been a landscape gardener and she a programmer at a radio station; together they have four daughters, all still at home and in school.
The house is a cream-colored, vaguely Georgian structure with a forest of chimney pots on the roof. (Parts of the building are older, dating from the 1600s). The front hall is what you might expect from a Scottish estate house—the resting place of dozens of rubber boots and waxed cotton coats, with houndstooth hats and canvas field bags hanging on hooks and a bouquet of bamboo rods sticking out of a bin.
Inside the big doors is a bookcase filled with bound volumes of agriculture and estate management periodicals from another century. Farther in is a 3-D relief map of the estate in a glass case, two shelves of Orwell literature, and a tray holding a bottle of single malt that’s always open for business. Upstairs are rooms down little corridors that seem not to connect to other parts of the house.
Orwell had spent time in the house. After finishing the first draft of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in October 1947, his health worsened. A physician in Glasgow was called. Orwell came to Ardlussa House for the consultation, which lasted several days. There is no plaque denoting the room where Orwell sojourned in bed.
In truth, there’s almost no mention of Orwell on Jura today. So, it’s not surprising there’s little Orwell memorabilia. Barnhill (which is owned by Andrew Fletcher’s aunt and uncle) has a rusting claw-foot bathtub that reputedly dates from Orwell’s occupancy. But the writer’s motorbike was junked more than a decade ago because—Andrew recalled his uncle saying—“It was damaged beyond repair.”
Like Andrew’s paternal grandparents, Andrew and Claire are trying to reinvent Ardlussa as a sustainable business. Hunting (“stalking” in local parlance) and a small hydroelectric plant (“hydro scheme”) are the main sources of income. The estate also gets a conservation subsidy as a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” (mostly because of its mosses and lichens), and an agricultural subsidy for 65 head of cattle.
The land supports about 1,000 red deer, a large elk-like species, and hunters take about 130 a year. The estate charges £600 to hunt stags and £400 to hunt hinds, or females. That doesn’t include room-and-board charges. Most hunters stay a week, and there’s no shooting on Sundays. The estate keeps the meat. The best cuts are sold to London restaurants, the rest to supermarkets. Clients can keep the heads, although getting them home may be difficult.
Stalking is all about the experience, walking the hills or, if the weather is bad, going over them in an ATV. (“If the deer are in the pouring rain, we should be in the pouring rain,” Andrew says).
My companion, Judy, and I were there a half-year off hunting season and we didn’t see a single deer. Jura’s latitude is above that of the Aleutian Islands and the days were arctic-length. It was sunny and warm, but not so warm that a fire in the fireplace wasn’t welcome as we dined on the estate’s venison and salmon. Quilted window coverings blotted out the sun, which was up until 10 o’clock. We were there for the best part of the year—the cozy winter nights of June.
When the sun woke us early the next morning, we looked out one window and saw a red-haired girl leading a pony. Out another, her red-haired sister was herding ducks. The daughters are also in charge of 25 sheep. Jura is a place where you take responsibility.
Andrew has a 22-year-old Massey-Ferguson tractor, “the last one you can get spare parts for on eBay,” he declared. He’s learned to repair other machines too, and roofs and drains. “You either learn or it doesn’t go.” Claire Fletcher and two other women recently opened a one-pot distillery. They make gin from grain alcohol flavored with 15 botanicals they gather or grow on the island. The enterprise, Lussa Gin, has made living in the middle of nowhere more interesting.
Nevertheless, to stay on the island a person must have a sense of destiny as well as something to do. Or so believes Alicia MacInnes, a 40-year-old Australian, one of Lussa Gin’s partners. She has a broad, smiling face. She remembers the evening when she arrived long ago.
“It was absolutely pelting rain. The woman picking me up, from the Jura Hotel, had backed the car down to the ferry. The boot was up. I could see her smiling face,” she told us one evening. After a pause, she switched to the second-person, as if she were describing someone no longer herself. “You’ve been on a long journey. The car’s warm. Soon you’re traveling along single-track roads, exactly where you wanted to be.”
Her memory might be called Orwellian, in a pre-“Nineteen Eighty-Four” sense of the word.
* * *
The road from Ardlussa House to Barnhill is seven miles. The last three were what Susan Watson, the young woman who’d been Orwell’s housekeeper and nanny to his son in London, called “impassable to normal traffic.” While the mail delivery from Ardlussa, and Orwell’s motorcycle and a pick-up truck (neither of which worked reliably), traveled it regularly, walking was the default mode of travel.
Orwell walked the track—like all non-American dirt roads, it’s always called a track—many times. A few weeks after moving in, he returned to England to get his son and Susan. When they returned they walked the last three miles, Orwell carrying Richard on his shoulders. When Susan’s lover, David Holbrook, visited in August 1946, he walked the last miles carrying his luggage, fending off biting midges and listening to the bugling of deer in the rut. “I kept walking and half-running and then walking, and eventually I came over a little hill and there was this fellow shooting this goose,” he recalled.
It was Orwell.
You can now drive to a dirt parking lot four miles from Barnhill and seven miles from Corryvreckan, the headland overlooking Scarba, the next island to the north. Both are worth the walk. There’s a whirlpool below Corryvreckan, in the strait dividing the two islands, that’s the second biggest in Europe and the third biggest in the world. The Corryvreckan Whirlpool is as much a tourist destination as anything Orwell-related on Jura today. It was a destination for us, although we were looking to get a non-windshield tour of Barnhill enroute.
We parked the car and headed up the road. We soon came to a padlocked gate. The gate was not attached to a fence, but with ditches on each side there’s no need for one. You can’t go off-road in Jura in a car. Even on foot it’s a slog, given the exuberant grass and ferns. Orwell, however, enjoyed bushwhacking.
Two weeks after moving to Jura in June 1946 he walked across his end of the island, a round trip of 10 miles. At that point in his life he had an eye for menace. One wonders what he thought about a relic he found on the far side.
“Old human skull, with some other bones, lying on beach at Glengarrisdale,” he noted in his diary. “Said to be survivor from massacre of the McCleans by the Campbells, & probably at any rate 200 years old. Two teeth (back) still in it. Quite undecayed.”
Soon we passed a rusty pavement roller whose drum was as wide as one of the ruts. The ruts were as hard as concrete, although there was a grassy strip between them. Had Orwell tread here? It seemed unlikely the road had been moved. He walked to Ardlussa, he noted soon after arriving, in “exactly 2¼ hours,” a healthy pace for a seven-mile trip, and given how he was described, a surprise. So the answer was, “Probably yes.”
The stones underfoot might also have tormented his motorbike, his preferred mode of travel when it wasn’t broken down. His neighbors said he sometimes strapped a scythe to the rear seat in case he had to cut the track’s grassy middle. It must have been a sight—the cadaverous Orwell as the Grim Reaper assigned to an RFD route.
The road rose and fell along a low ridge. When Barnhill came into view it was far off and far below, its whitewashed face looking toward the mainland. A spur road led down to it through a sea of ferns and cottongrass. Stone barns sat on either side. You can’t go up to the house without opening a fence, guarded by a blooming foxglove, which we didn’t do.
Barnhill is available for vacation rental, starting at £1000 per week. We saw no people. As in Orwell’s tenancy, it has a coal-fired stove, now supplemented with electricity from a generator and a gas refrigerator. Trip Advisor reviews and pictures suggest it’s still damp and shabby.
A connoisseur of discomfort, Orwell never planned to leave. He landscaped Barnhill as if he owned it, and with a touchingly optimistic view of his life expectancy.
In his first weeks, he planted a garden with lettuce, radishes, onions, watercress, spinach, turnips, and seven types of flowers. The next month, he ordered four dozen strawberry plants, two dozen raspberry bushes, a dozen black currant, red current, and gooseberry bushes, a dozen rhubarb plants, and a half-dozen apple trees. On January 4, 1947, he planted “1 doz fruit trees” and more currants gooseberries, rhubarb and roses. On September 19, 1948—three months before he left Jura to enter an English sanitorium—he wrote: “Planted peonies (six, red) . . . Pruned raspberries. Not certain whether I did it correctly.”
The house is back from the water. One renter said it was a 20-minute walk, but you wouldn’t guess that from Orwell’s diaries. He and his sister, and later Bill Dunn, the amputee farmer who married her in 1951, spent a lot of time messing around in boats. Fishing was particularly good at dusk, which in June lasted until after 10 o’clock. Some hauls were gluttonous. One evening in 1947, they caught 31 fish. But this wasn’t for sport.
Orwell’s Jura diary reads like a survivalist handbook. In his entry from August 18, 1946, he described the method of preserving pollock.
“Gut them, cut their heads off, then pack them in layers in rough salt, a layer of salt & a layer of fish, & so on. Leave for several days, then in dry sunny weather, take them out & hang them on a line in pairs by their tails until thoroughly dry. After this they can be hung up indoors & will keep for months.”
We imagined Orwell digging in the garden and hanging his fish out to dry. Then we headed back to the main track. We had a way to go.
* * *
Hillwalking is Scotland’s national pastime. It knows no age limits. A mile up the road we ran into four people, age 67 to 74, who were lounging in the grass eating snacks. They, too, were on their way to see the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, but were more ambitious than us. A day earlier they’d visited Jura’s other natural oddity—three bald, scree-sided, 2,500-foot hills called The Paps, a Norse-derived word for breast.
“The highest one, funnily enough, is the easiest to walk up,” said Kate Robinson, a teacher of dyslexic children from the north of England. “Not a total doddle, but if you’re used to mountains it’s fine.” It was 7 ½ hours round trip from the road. They could see Ireland from the top.
I asked if Orwell had drawn them to Jura. The answer was no, but that was no reflection on Orwell. Bill Scott, a retired professor of linguistics from Glasgow with hawkish features and wrap-around shades, recalled that a collection of Orwell’s essays “was the first book I bought when I’d left school and had a few coppers in my pocket. I had it until quite recently.”
We chatted for a while. “You do know this isn’t usual Scottish weather,” Wendy Scott said as we all lay in the noontime sun. We knew that much, and also enough to move on before we were tempted to nap.
Soon, we reached several buildings, the settlement of Kinuachdrachd to which Orwell regularly came to get milk for his son before Barnhill secured its own cow. There, the road ended. A sign lying on the ground pointed us up a trail to “Gulf of Corryvreckan 2 miles.”
As we walked up the hill we saw beyond the last house a rocky cove of Caribbean color and clarity. As we climbed higher, we could make out the incoming tide’s chaotic embroidery on the water. Soon, we could hear the maelstrom itself, a distant sound of water running over pebbles.
The hillside was covered in bright green cottongrass, horsetail, and sphagnum, with dark patches of heather here and there. As we reached the top, we looked to our right and got an aerial view of the Sound of Jura. Rocky, flat-top islands looked like a fleet of battleships lying in wait. Beyond them was the mainland, furrowed by fjord-like “sea lochs.”
We stopped at almost the highest spot, with a spectacular view of Scarba, the next island to the north, which hasn’t had permanent residents since the 1960s. It was impossible to tell whether the grassy terraces lead to the water or cliffs. Birds were gliding in long arcs below us. We took off our shoes and got out our Ardlussa-packed lunches.
In front of us was the passageway between Jura and Scarba, called the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Water moved from the sound on the eastern side of the islands to the Atlantic Ocean on the west, and back, twice a day. Two miles long and three-quarters of a mile at its narrowest, the gulf is some of the most dangerous water in the United Kingdom. The tidal current can reach 10 miles per hour—the same velocity as in the Bay of Fundy, whose tidal height is four times Corryvreckan’s 13 feet.
The speed and turbulence are partly due to the strait’s irregular depth—200 to 350 feet in most places, but with a 640-foot trench and an underwater buttress that near the Atlantic end rises to 90 feet below the surface. Wildly deflected water creates the whirlpool. It is sometimes a picture-book vortex, but more often standing or breaking waves. Even on windless days there’s whitewater. Corryvreckan is a corruption of a Gaelic phrase meaning “cauldron of speckled water.”
Ardbeg, a distillery on neighboring Islay that makes some of Scotland’s peatiest (and best) whisky, has a version named after the whirlpool. “Corryvreckan” is 57.1 percent alcohol and costs about $90 a bottle. The description of its nose begins: “Swirl the glass for torrents of tarry creosote.” Taste? “The first plunge is deep, peppery and chewy with crispy seaweed.”
Sitting there eating lunch, however, the most remarkable thing wasn’t the whirlpool. It was the rest of the stream. The deep turbulence was projected onto the surface in the form of upwelling water that formed areas that looked like giant thumbprints or amoebas, which floated past us out to sea.
Soon, two Zodiacs appeared. Spectators in yellow helmets and orange life jackets sat on benches, like snapped-in Lego people. One boat cut its engine and drifted quickly along the far shore before resuming under power. The other, after detouring into a cove, approached the breaking water of the whirlpool from below. The boats came and went from the edge of the rough water, like children tossing sticks into a bonfire. After 15 minutes, they disappeared around the Atlantic side of Scarba.
“That may have been the show,” Judy said.
Ours was just as good.
George Orwell’s was better than everybody’s, by a long shot.
In the middle of August in 1947, two of Orwell’s nieces and one nephew—the children of his deceased older sister, Marjorie—came to Barnhill for a vacation. Orwell took them, his three-year-old son Ricky, and his sister Avril, to the Atlantic side of Jura on a camping trip. They stayed several days in an abandoned cottage. When it was time to go home, Avril and one of the nieces, who’d been spooked by the boat ride over, chose to walk back. “Uncle Eric” (as they called him), and the three others returned in the dinghy, which was powered by an outboard motor.
Orwell, however, had misread the tide table. They entered the gulf halfway between high and low tide, when the current was fastest.
“Before we had a chance to turn, we went straight into the minor whirlpools and lost control,” Henry Dakin, who was about 20 and on leave from the Army, recalled years later. “Eric was at the tiller, the boat went all over the place, pitching and tossing, very frightening being thrown from one small whirlpool to another.”
The chop bucked the outboard off the transom. It went into the water, and to the bottom. Nobody was wearing a life jacket. “Eric said, ‘The motor’s gone, better get the oars out, Hen. Can’t help much, I’m afraid’.” He pointed to his chest.
Dakin maneuvered the boat to a rocky island called Eilean Mòr, the last bit of land before the open ocean. Tossed against it by waves, the boat capsized. Orwell rescued Ricky from under it. Everything but a fishing rod and a couple of blankets was swept away.
The island was occupied by nesting puffins. Orwell got a fire started after his cigarette lighter dried out. A few hours later, they got the attention of a passing lobster boat by waving a piece of clothing from the end of the rod. The fisherman offered to take them to Barnhill, but Orwell said all they needed was to get to shore, even though he was the only one who still had shoes. A half-century later, his niece and nephew were still stupefied (and mad) at having to walk back barefoot.
Many versions of this calamity have the boat capsizing at the edge of the whirlpool. (“Their motor-boat was drawn into one of the smaller whirlpools and overturned. Fortunately, with Mr Blair’s help, they all reached a small islet . . . ” read the account in the Glasgow Herald 11 days later). However, anyone who’s sat where we did knows that if that had happened, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would have ended in 1947.
There’s one more unusual feature of the Gulf of Corryvreckan.
The water flows with such force that it has swept the bottom down to bedrock. Like a desert wind, the tides have deposited sand and shell in underwater dunes at both ends of the strait. Below a stretch of water called the Great Race at the Atlantic outlet, bathymetry has revealed a lightless Sahara, 400 feet down. Dunes rise 30 feet off the bottom, measure 200 feet from crest to crest, and are three-quarters of a mile long.
Buried in one of them is George Orwell’s outboard.
* * *
If you write in a diary almost every day and are famous enough that all your house guests are asked to record their memories, the world is going to know a lot about you, including some of the embarrassing stuff.
That is certainly true of George Orwell’s years on Jura.
The writer’s diaries provide a record of his daily life in odd and exquisite detail. The entries invariably begin with a phrase or sentence about the weather. Most end with the number of eggs collected that day, and the total since the flock was acquired. The day after the Corryvreckan mishap it was “5 eggs (291).”
Coal, propane, kerosene, and gasoline were rationed. Orwell was frugal. He kept an account of how much of each fuel the household was using, the rate of loss or leakage, and whether the supply would last until the next delivery. He noted when to change the battery for the radio, the only connection to the wider world besides the mail.
He did a lot of tinkering and building, often without the right materials and adequate skill. “Put up sectional henhouse,” he wrote on April 13, 1947. “Wretched workmanship, & will need a lot of strengthening & weighting down to make it stay in place.” Two weeks later, his son recuperating from the measles, Orwell noted: “R. better. Tried to make jigsaw puzzle for him, but can only cut pieces with straight edges as my only coping-saw blade is broken.” When he lost his tobacco pouch, he made a new one out of a rabbit skin, lined with an inner tube.
He was an unsentimental naturalist.
Rabbits were a scourge of the garden. One spring day while digging his recently plowed potato patch, Orwell uncovered “a nest of 3 young rabbits—about 10 days’ old, I should say. One appeared to be dead already, the other two I killed.”
He could show flashes of cruelty.
On a picnic to a nearby island one time the party encountered an adder, Scotland’s only venomous snake. Bill Dunn, the farmer who married Avril, recalled that Orwell held its head down with his foot and “deliberately took out his penknife and opened it and slit the snake from top to bottom. He degutted it, filleted it.” Orwell always disliked snakes, but one can’t help wondering what part of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” he was working on that week.
He could also behave in a way that doesn’t comport well with his reputation as the tribune of the working man and everyone’s favorite socialist.
In 1946, a few months after Orwell arrived in Jura and assembled his household, David Holbrook, the lover of nanny Susan Watson, came for a visit. He’d been a tank commander during the war and had attended Cambridge. He was also a member of the Communist Party, which made Orwell immediately suspicious. During Holbrook’s stay, the owner of the estate and Orwell’s landlord, Robin Fletcher, visited Barnhill to discuss hunting. With him were several “beaters”—hired men who flush game. Orwell’s nanny and her boyfriend were given strict instructions to make themselves scarce.
“The laird was going to be entertained in the sitting room, which was not very often used, and they were going to have tea there, and we were not to appear,” Holbrook recalled in a 1984 interview. “Susan and I had tea in the kitchen with the beaters, and Orwell and his sister had tea in the sitting room with the laird, which we thought was very comic.”
Elsewhere in the interview Holbrook describes his disappointment at meeting Orwell, whom he described as “this miserable, hostile old bugger that we just had to put up with.” He faulted Orwell for giving up on the world, which is how he interpreted the move to Jura. “It was disturbing to see this man shrinking away from humanity and pouring out all this very bitter hopelessness.” That hopelessness, of course, was “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
Orwell doesn’t mention this, or other domestic dramas, in his diary. Nor does he talk about the progress of his novel (although he does occasionally in letters). He doesn’t describe a daily schedule. We don’t know how he divided his time between writing and planting peas, poisoning rats, cutting peat, hauling lobster pots, fixing his motorcycle, and playing with his son. Visitors remember hearing him type in a room over the kitchen many mornings, appear for lunch, and then sometimes return upstairs to type some more.
He came and went from Jura numerous times, for both work and medical care. He spent November and December of 1946 in London doing journalism, returned to the island in January to plant trees, went back to London, and returned (he thought permanently) in April 1947.
By then he was well into “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” He finished the first draft on November 7, 1947, typing in bed because of illness. From Christmas until mid-summer the next year, he retired to a hospital outside of Glasgow, where he was treated for tuberculosis. He started a second draft of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” there.
His strength somewhat restored, he returned to Jura on July 29, 1948. He finished the rewrite in early November. He was unable to find a typist willing to come to Barnhill, so he retyped the manuscript himself, again mostly from bed. He wrote a letter to a friend on November 15 saying that he was so weak he couldn’t pull up a weed.
His final Jura entries are short. They describe no activity. On November 24 he wrote: “Cold during the night. Today fine & sunny, but cold. Wind in the East. Wallflowers keep trying to flower.” Four days later he wrote: “Beautiful, windless day, sea like glass. A faint mist. Mainland invisible.” They’re like Chris McCandless’s one-sentence journal entries as he was dying of starvation in Alaska in “Into the Wild.” Their message was: “I am still alive.”
Orwell left Jura for the last time just after New Year’s Day 1949. He went to a sanitorium in Gloucestershire, England. In September, he was transferred to University College Hospital, London. He died there on January 21, 1950 after bleeding from one of his TB-damaged lungs.
* * *
So, is there anything about Orwell’s time on Jura that informs the book he wrote there? Or is the mystery of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that it bears so little relationship to its creator’s life?
The answer to both questions is yes.
Although “Nineteen Eighty-Four” begins on April 4, 1984 in the dystopian empire of Oceania, its setting is clearly England in 1946. The food is bad and there isn’t enough of it. (Meat was rationed in England until July 1954). Whatever your vehicle, you’re constantly worried about running out of gas. Your house is cold, the plumbing leaks, and privacy is hard to find.
Winston Smith, whose evolution into an enemy of the Party is the novel’s narrative backbone, has more than a little of Orwell in him.
Both have an aversion to sulfurous odors (cabbage, feces). Winston’s first transgressive act—starting a diary—is something Orwell had been doing for years. As Winston stares at his book’s blank pages, it’s hard not to hear the author talking to himself: “For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage. The actual writing would be easy. All he had to do was to transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head, literally for years.”
There are other grains of autobiography.
When Winston goes to help unclog the sink of the woman in the neighboring flat, he hopes he doesn’t have to bend down, “which was always liable to start him coughing.” This was a problem Orwell had when gardening. Winston ruminates early in the novel that “in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy, but always against one’s own body.” Orwell must have felt the same when he twice left Jura to seek treatment for his failing lungs.
The inadequacy of Barnhill’s “paraffin”—kerosene—lamps whispers in the description of how “the feeble light of the paraffin lamp” didn’t permit Winston to see that the prostitute he hired was a toothless woman in her fifties. The trysting place where Winston and Julia first make love is described with a bird-watcher’s eye: “A thrush had alighted on a bough not five metres away . . . It spread out its wings, fitted them carefully into place again, ducked its head for a moment, as though making a sort of obeisance to the sun, and then began to pour forth a torrent of song.”
Even in the famous scene in which Winston is shown the torture device made for him—a facemask attached to a cage of hungry rats—there’s a precursor on Jura. In the diary entry for June 12, 1947, Orwell noted: “Five rats (2 young ones, 2 enormous ones) caught in the byre during about the last fortnight . . . I hear that recently two children at Ardlussa were bitten by rats (in the face, as usual.)”
But that’s about it. Which is no surprise.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is an extreme product of the imagination. It didn’t just render life under totalitarianism (which Orwell hadn’t experienced), it imagined the R&D that would go into the totalitarianism of the future. That included the purging of the historical record, state control of procreation, government surveillance of public spaces by camera, and the invention of electronic screens that both project images and record activity occurring in their presence.
Most of that has come true, which is one of the reasons the novel, despite its wooden characters, still finds readers.
One of Orwell’s insights was that there’s no best place in which to imagine such a world, so you might as well do it where you want. For him, that was Jura.
But if he thought it would be a quiet place without distraction, he was wrong. There were endless chores, things to fix, plans to bring to (literal) fruition, and a child to educate and entertain. Also, endless guests. When he returned to the island in July 1948 after seven harrowing months in the hospital—he’d endured a painful reaction to the drug streptomycin called Stevens-Johnson syndrome—Orwell soon had so many summer visitors that he erected a tent in the garden to accommodate them.
His willingness to persevere on Jura in spite of ill health was almost universally criticized by his friends. Many felt guilty about his presence there. However, Paul Potts, an eccentric poet who met Orwell during the war, idolized him, and visited him on the island, made an observation that gets closer to the truth: “Ever since I had known him he’d been given up as hopeless. During that time he’d lived a fuller life than a whole company of A.1 recruits.”
Jura was a strange choice, but almost certainly not one he made for show.
When I think of Orwell and Jura now, what comes to mind is not the Corryvreckan calamity, or him tapping away in his upstairs aerie, or the image of a pulmonary cripple cutting 150 blocks of peat (which he did one June day in 1947). It’s an event on his next-to-last day on the island, sometime in the first week of January 1949.
He’d been confined to bed for a month. (“Have not been well enough to enter up diary,” he wrote after a 12-day gap in the record). He was once again leaving to be treated for tuberculosis. The plan was to go to Ardlussa, spend the night with a villager, and travel south to the ferry terminal the next day.
His sister Avril and Bill Dunn, her soon-to-be husband, drove Orwell and Richard in Dunn’s ancient Austin. On the way, it slid off the road into a ditch. That’s an accident from which there’s no self-rescue. I have a friend who twice went into a ditch on Jura, requiring extraction by tractor each time.
Avril and Bill walked four miles back to Barnhill and got the “lorry”—a kind of pick-up Orwell owned—and drove it south. Orwell and Ricky stayed in the car.
“We just sat there together, talking,” Richard remembered years later. “It was raining. It was cold, and I do remember my father giving me boiled sweets. He was a very sick man, but he was quite cheerful with me, trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. It was getting dark by the time Avril and Bill got back with the lorry.”
Richard Blair was about to be orphaned a second time. This was one of his last memories of his father.
The lorry couldn’t pull the car out of the ditch. But as it happened, the accident was at one of the few places where a vehicle could detour onto the heath for a few yards. Orwell and his son were rescued and delivered to Ardlussa. From there, Orwell moved onward to Cranham Sanatorium.
Judy and I passed that spot in the road as we walked back from Barnhill on our endless June afternoon. I have no idea where it was. At this point, probably nobody does. But it’s there someplace, a symbol of love and optimism, which are just two of the things defeated by the end of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”