To mark the first official Orwell Day and the anniversary of his death, there’s a nice little piece in History Today on the publication of 1984. It sent me back to my diary; not for 84 but for June 1983. I had just finished a degree in English at university; jobless but with a vague notion I would like to be a journalist. My girlfriend and I were spending a few days on her father’s crabber.
Anchored off the Scottish coast at Craignish, we rowed ashore to visit an old friend of my girlfriend’s family for supper. Bill Dunn was a bluff, bucolic farmer with a mischievous sense of humour, a drink problem and one leg. He’d lost the other fighting in World War 2. He was also Orwell’s brother-in-law. It was in Bill and Avril’s farmhouse in Scotland that Orwell finished 1984. When we’d done a few chores on the farm – I remember, in particular, helping to coax a prize bull into the back of a lorry – we sat down to dinner and a lot of whisky and listened to his memories of Orwell. He could recall vividly the painful weeks the writer spent writing 1984, and the moment he came down the stair to announce, matter of factly, it was complete. Orwell’s sister died in the seventies, I think, and Bill had married Orwell’s niece, Jayne. Rowing back to the boat by moonlight I was light headed with his stories of Orwell and the whisky. And still a little drunk perhaps when a few months later I started an apprenticeship in newspapers.
Orwell is still a hero, for his clear electric prose, his imagination and humanity. One summer evening ten years later, I was wandering round a village churchyard in Oxfordshire when I stumbled – literally – against a simple stone: Carved on the front was the name, Eric Arthur Blair.