Twenty-five years beyond “1984,” we’re still living in George Orwell’s world.
Or at least the queen of England is. In March, Queen Elizabeth surprised a few people by giving the visiting president of Mexico a copy of George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984" -- not the usual empty pleasantry exchanged by global leaders.
Then a BBC documentary maker unveiled an old rejection letter in which poet, critic and publishing executive T.S. Eliot told Orwell that the manuscript of his classic-to-be, “Animal Farm,” was “unconvincing” and unsuited to the political climate of 1944. (Another publisher released it in 1945.)
This got us thinking about how the author’s travels connect with his writing. The result is this armchair adventure, which not only follows the author around the world and back again, it tells how you can sleep in the Scottish island cottage where Big Brother was born.
The first thing to remember, charting a course through Orwell’s journey, is that he isn’t really an Orwell.
The author’s given name was Eric Arthur Blair. He was a child of colonialism -- born in Bengal, India, in 1903 -- who spent much of his life bemoaning the injustices that come with empire-building.
He studied at Eton with Aldous Huxley as a master. And he lifted the pen name Orwell from the scenic river that flows through England’s Anglia region.
Orwell’s first book was “Down and Out in Paris and London,” (1933), a semi-fictionalized memoir and examination of how the underclasses worked and lived in those big cities.
Besides working as a dishwasher in Parisian restaurants, he lodged in London’s rough-and-tumble East End and followed migrant laborers to work in the hop fields of Kent.
One of Orwell’s first jobs out of college, in 1922, had been as assistant superintendent of the colonial police in Burma, now Myanmar. On that job, he came to realize how much the Burmese resented British rule. He drew upon the experience for his first novel “Burmese Days” (1934).
Orwell got around, and wrote it all down. Since last year, a group of academics have been publishing Orwell’s diary entries, exactly 70 years after he scribbled them, as blog posts. (In late April, he was paying close attention to his hens’ egg production. In May, he didn’t have much to say.)
In the late 1930s, Orwell headed to Spain to write about the Civil War there and wound up joining the fight against communism. In combat at Teruel, he suffered a lasting injury to his throat. He fought in Barcelona too (apparently, there’s now a Plaza de George Orwell). From these bad times came one of his best books: “Homage to Catalonia.” But the books that became his best-known classics were yet to come.
With “Animal Farm” in 1945 and “1984" in 1949, Orwell established himself as a major author, introduced the terms “Big Brother,” “double-think” and “thought police” to public conversation, and made a little money for himself at last.
With some of the income from “Animal Farm,” he leased a rural property on the rugged Scottish island of Jura and spent about three years in a cottage known as Barnhill. Apparently, Orwell was on Jura in 1948, already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1950, when he pounded out the last chilling words of “1984.”
“He loved Big Brother.”
All these years later, deer still outnumber people on Jura (about 5,000 to 200, the local tourism folk say), and there’s just one hotel with 18 rooms in the island’s only village, Craighouse. (There’s also a distillery with a writer-in-residence program.)
But here’s the big news: Orwell’s old Barnhill cottage is now a summer vacation rental. Five bedrooms, one bath, hiking and fishing handy, about $780 (550 English pounds) per week.
Barnhill, the rental listing says, is “only 8 miles from the nearest telephone and 25 from the pub.” A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended " for the 7 miles of rough track between the public road and house.” Power is by generator.
About two miles away, you can look out from land at the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, a locally legendary ocean hazard that almost killed Orwell and his son in a boating accident.
To reach Jura, fly to Glasgow, Scotland. Then fly or catch a ferry to the Scottish island of Islay, or the mainland coastal village of Tayvallich (you know, at the head of Loch Sween). Then catch a ferry to Jura. Now, on to Orwell’s last stop.
About five miles outside Oxford, In the well-tended graveyard at All Saints Church in Sutton Courtenay, Abingdon, you will not find George Orwell, not exactly.
You will, however, see the headstone of Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-50, who created and hated Big Brother.