Richard Blair, Orwell’s only son, remembers his time on the island with his father
After my mother Eileen, died in march 1945 my father was rather at a loss as to what to do next. So after a series of relatives and friends were coerced into looking after me, he decided to go up to Jura. This was at the invitation of David Astor, whose family had a large estate on the island. When he came back to London he decided that Jura had some plus points, namely that it would be difficult for people to get at him, as he now had the genesis of a book which turned out to be 1984.
He took the tenancy of a farm house and some land at the north end of the island, called Barnhill. This belonged to the Fletcher family who, through their descendants, still own the estate today along with the Astors. He moved up in the summer of 1946 and I followed on soon after with my nanny, Susan Watson. Also moving in was my father’s sister Avril, whom my father had persuaded to come and keep house for him. She was out of work at that time, having been in a canteen all through the war. Susan – who had a bad limp and wasn’t really fit enough to put up with the rigours of island life – did not get on with Avril and left soon after our arrival. So the three of us settled down and the following year we were joined by a young and recently wounded man by the name of Bill Dunn. He had lost a leg during the war (incidentally on the same day as I was born, 14th May 1944) so was hardly fit either but he was a whole lot stronger and wanted to learn about farming. Dunn ran the farm part of Barnhill for my father who really wasn’t fit enough.
1947 was a year in of several memorable incidents and I’ll relay them in no particular order, because I can’t remember the sequence in which they happened. I was watching my father making a wooden toy for me, something he did quite often, when I fell off a chair I was standing on and crashed onto a large china jug. The result was a large gash on my forehead, lots of blood and snot and the eventual calling of the local doctor, who lived 30 miles away. I was taken 8 miles down the road to the Fletcher’s house and the doctor came up to stitch my forehead.
The second incident involved finding a disgusting old pipe in the garden and at lunch time getting down from the table and filling this thing with the dog ends of my father’s cigarettes then asking for a light. What amazed me was that nobody seemed to notice what I was doing! The result was inevitable, I turned green and gave up smoking until I got to the senior school twelve years later. Needless to say I gave up for good 30 years ago.
Incident number three happened during the summer when as a family, we went to the west side of Jura to an old bothy for a weekend of rest and relaxation. We used a small dingy to get there and the journey required us to travel through very dangerous waters, called the Gulf of Corrievreckan (you can find this on a map of the west coast, it’s between the north end of Jura and the island of Scarba). It was on the return that things went wrong; some of the family chose to walk back to Barnhill over the hills but my father and I – aged three and a bit – took the boat with my two older cousins, Lucy and Henry. My father had misread the tide table and the flood tide was still going strong; the outboard was swamped and pulled off the dingy. Henry had to take to the oars and managed to get us to a little grass covered island where he jumped ashore with the mooring rope just as the swell receded and the dingy rolled over and threw the rest of us into the water. I had been sitting on my fathers knee and the two of us were pulled under the dingy while Lucy had managed to get ashore pretty quickly. Father and I spluttered to the surface and eventually made it ashore where we waited for a couple of hours. A small fishing boat that happened to going back through the gulf picked us up and took us to a landing spot near Barnhill from which we walked home. With no more than a “where have you been?” followed by “we were shipwrecked” the incident was deemed silly. The point now being that it could have been a tragedy; no Orwell, no 1984.
As time moved on so too did my father’s health, for the worse. In 1948 he was admitted to Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride where he was treated with Streptomycin obtained through David Astor. Unfortunately, this didn’t do him any good as he was allergic to it. Meanwhile I continued to play and roam around the farm and surrounding fields. We always had friends and relatives coming to stay, so I don’t think I was ever lonely. Around this time my uncle Bill, as he was to become when he married Avril in 1951, acquired a motor boat. It was about 26 feet long with a small inboard engine. We took the boat on the eight mile journey to Ardlussa, where the Fletchers lived. The road from their house to Barnhill was bloody awful and the car we had was forever getting punctures. The boat also enabled us to get to the mainland at Crinan and thus have quicker access to goods and groceries.
My father returned in due course and continued to struggle with his book, finally finishing it and getting it off to his publisher. Meanwhile I was enrolled at the school at a little village called Inverlussa, a mile from Ardlussa. I would go down on the boat on a Monday morning and come home on the Friday afternoon. During the week I stayed with the postmaster and his wife. I don’t recall being homesick so I must have been well looked after. In spite of rationing, I think we all ate quite well. We had access to fish, lobsters, crabs, rabbits and probably a little poached venison too! I recall the day when the GPO came and installed a telephone kiosk outside the postmaster’s house in 1949.
Once 1984 was published my father was exhausted and really quite ill. Upon examination by a specialist, he was transferred to Cranham Sanatorium near Stroud in Gloucestershire. I was sent down to be near him and stayed with some strange people called Wolff in an Anarchist colony called Whiteways. Again I was sent to school during the week and taken to see my father at weekends. Being innocent I would ask him where it hurt, having no idea of what he was suffering from. He was always very careful not to get too close to me for fear of passing on the Tuberculosis he was being treated for. I know it pained him terribly to have to keep me at arms length. He feared it would distance me from him, the last thing he would have wanted.
I remember his last journey from Jura when he travelled to the Sanatorium. We were in the car – just the two of us – struck with a puncture. Avril and Bill had gone back to Barnhill to get the jack and spare wheel and he sat with me telling stories and reading to me. I believe it was raining, it did quite a lot up there. It was a poignant moment as I think he may have realised that he might never come back again. Later on he did think he might have some more time, in which he could return but in the event that was wishful thinking. He was transferred to the University College London hospital in Autumn of 1949. On 23rd January the next year his bronchial artery gave way and he drowned in his own blood. His fishing rod was at his bedside because he had hoped to go to Switzerland to recuperate but it was not to be.
I was at Barnhill when he died and the first we knew of it was an announcement on the radio home service saying George Orwell is dead. I remember Avril having to go to London straight away, leaving me behind quite upset. I had obviously picked up on the tense atmosphere in the house. She came back bearing a large box containing a model railway to keep me occupied. We stayed on at Barnhill through the summer whilst plans were made and spent some time apart before Avril and Bill were married in February 1951 and we all moved in together with my Aunt as my legal guardian. The farm we moved into as a family was on the mainland but, as the crow flies, only about four miles from Barnhill.