George Orwell, the man known as ‘Uncle Eric’
12th August 2011
He may be a titan of modern letters but, to his surviving relatives, the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four will always be Uncle Eric, a man who read French poetry in the car – and squeaked at puddings. First published in the Daily Telegraph, Aug 12, 2011
‘Even if we thought he was famous, we wouldn’t have thought we’d be talking about him 60 years later,” says Henry Dakin, reflecting on the status, at the time of his death in 1950, of his uncle Eric Blair – known to the world as George Orwell. “Many people make their name and, after a bit, they pass from view, don’t they? But he’s still a name to conjure with.” He laughs quietly. “We’re happy to bask in reflected glory.” His sisters, Jane Morgan and Lucy Bestley, agree, chiming in with expressions of pride and amazement.
We’re sitting in the Keswick home shared by the two women (Dakin lives not far away, on the other side of Derwentwater) and it’s almost equally extraordinary that all three are still around and able to reminisce clearly about “Uncle Eric” and the days spent with him long, long ago. Morgan is now 88, Dakin 85 and Bestley is 80.
Although it’s Orwell’s adopted son Richard, now in his late sixties, who bears his father’s family name, the trio – the offspring of Orwell’s eldest sister Marjorie and her husband Humphrey, a civil servant – are his closest surviving blood relatives. It’s hard not to detect, or possibly project, inherited traits as they chat over coffee: in Morgan’s writerly turn of phrase and spirited determination, in Dakin’s wry, often detached manner, and in the refined, hooded shape of Bestley’s twinkling eyes.
It’s incredible to hear first-hand the stories handed on to biographers over the years, especially their experiences on the Scottish west-coast island of Jura, where Orwell lived in frugal isolation and growing ill health with his younger sister Avril while working on Nineteen Eighty-Four. The notorious episode in August 1947, when Orwell’s boat capsized at the Corryvreckan whirlpool, nearly drowning him and Dakin, then 21, Bestley, only 16, and Richard, just three – is relived with much laughter at their uncle’s expense.
Having scrambled to shore, after losing almost all the contents of the boat except for a fishing rod and a potato, “Eric said, ‘We must get a meal’,” Bestley recalls. Dakin chips in: “We didn’t really want a meal, we’d only had breakfast about an hour before, but this was what he thought you should do when you’re shipwrecked.” When they were eventually picked up by a lobster boat, Orwell insisted to their rescuers that they were perfectly fine to walk the three miles or so home. “He was all right because he had his shoes on, but we’d lost ours,” Bestley says. “Typical Eric.”
She recalls the first holiday she took alone to Jura the previous year, when it was decided they’d have a goose for dinner. “Eric said,” she imitates his dying-away drawl, “’Oh, I will shoot it.’ And he walked round and round Barnhill and the goose kept running away. It was not the best-laid plan, nor well-executed.” One reminiscence gives rise to another, the constant clack of the typewriter, a treasured walk to look at sea anemones in Walberswick, his illness after returning from Burma. They all recall his fondness for desserts – and the squeaky approving noises he’d make at the sight of a good pud.
“He liked jokes,” Morgan suggests. “Oh, I don’t think he was very witty,” Dakin counters. “Well, sometimes he made himself laugh,” she parries. As the oldest, Morgan – born in 1923 – has more copious memories and summons an early image of the struggling writer, who had been staying with the family in Leeds, wedged into the back of the car as they all set off one icy December for a Christmas holiday at the Blair family home in Southwold: “Being a tall man in a small car, his knees were right up and I remember him just reading the whole time as we got ready for the journey – not taking any notice of anything at all. Apparently it was a book of French poetry!”
Do such stories matter? Orwell’s considerable worldwide reputation rests on the foresight and far-reaching nature of his writing. Yet because so much of that writing, and not just his prolific journalism and landmark non-fiction books, grew out of first-hand observation, it doesn’t feel frivolous to comb over the fine detail of his highly itinerant life. At the very least, we can usefully be reminded, as we are by the incidents recounted above, that he had his quirks and failings – and that the oracular nature of some of his most enduring work didn’t come from on high, but from his total immersion in the ebb and flow of life’s turbulent currents.
One reason why his nephew and nieces are keen to speak about him now, having kept a remarkably low profile over the years, is that, as Morgan explains, “People are beginning to turn him into a myth, and not a real person at all.” Keeping Orwell recognisably human is one of the driving forces too behind the recent launch of the Orwell Society, which finally gives Orwell the kind of literary society, aimed at appreciation, debate and discovery, accorded to numerous other British authors. It’s the initiative of Dione Venables, octogenarian cousin of Jacintha Buddicom, the closest female friend of his early youth in Shiplake, and its patron is Richard Blair.
Equally happy nowadays to share memories of his father, who took a devoted interest in bringing him up after the death of his first wife Eileen in 1945, Blair believes Orwell would have viewed the formation of the society with “quiet amusement – he’d be interested to see how he has made his mark on the world”.
The society’s launch coincides with a surge of passionate engagement in Orwell’s life and work on these shores. September sees the inaugural George Orwell Festival in Letchworth, celebrating Orwell’s days in the nearby village of Wallington, where he lived with Eileen in the mid-Thirties, running a local shop, keeping chickens and a goat and working on The Road to Wigan Pier and A Homage to Catalonia. Not only is an impressive array of political discussions planned but, as local organiser Richard Hallmark explains, there will be walks following in Orwell’s footsteps – which will doubtless point up the telling fact that the farm up the road is called Manor Farm. Already, Hallmark adds, several people have come forward to say they remember Orwell from those days, including the woman who ran the pub at the time – so more vignettes lie in store.
And in December, there’ll be “Animal Farmyard”, an evening’s entertainment at the Kenton Theatre in Henley-upon-Thames, where young Eric lived after the family moved from Shiplake, featuring a debate, readings and music, all in aid of the laudable efforts by Pete Burness-Smith, a local buff, to open a year-round centre for Orwell appreciation in an old Victorian chapel.
Would the man himself have objected to a knees-up in his honour? Having spoken to those who knew him, I sense that, dry and driven as he could be, he’d have said (far more eloquent) words to the effect of “Go for it!”