In 1949, Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith, an influential American sportswriter that won a Pulitzer Prize, was asked if doing a daily column was exhausting. “Why, no,” he said. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
Recently someone asked us if, even though we have always wanted to write, we only seriously sat down to carry it on at the supposedly “late age” of 55 years old. We paused for a few seconds to rummage through the dark attics of our Subconscious, clandestinely peeking at the long litany of emotions that tough circumstances provoked in our spirit. “Well,” we replied, “it was the inevitable moment…Memories finally got the best of me.”
Eric Arthur Blair—better known for his pen name of George Orwell—was born on June 25th 1903 in Moltihari, Bihar, British India, as his father worked in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service and passed away on January 21st 1950 in University College of London, a victim of Chronic Tuberculosis. He had a very tumultuous and exciting life that spanned several countries and political realities. As he could not afford to continue studying at the prestigious Eton School, he joined the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma—now the country is called Myanmar. While he was still very young, he had multiple policing responsibilities in the Burmese countryside, and he got a firsthand exposure to the exploitation of farmers. He had a reputation of “a loner” that preferred the company of books and church services.
After returning to England in 1927, he lived in the city of London where he continued his writings; in 1928 he moved to Paris where he settled in a working-class quarter. He contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to the Hôpital Cochin where medical students received clinical training—still operational to this day. Like Jack London, his hero, he liked to explore the down-trodden sections of the cities. He returned to England in 1929. Based on these experiences he published The Spike, an essay, and his first book titled Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. He wrote reviews for Adelphi and he worked as a private tutor for children. In 1932 he became a teacher at The Hawthorns High School, a preparatory school for boys. After finishing A Clergyman’s Daughter—based on his experience as a rural teacher—he moved to London and took up a job as an assistant in the Booklovers’ Corner, a second-hand bookshop. He traveled to Northern England to study the working people’s plight and in 1937 he published a book on the subject titled The Road to Wigan Pier.
Blair sympathized with the Socialist cause but abhorred the excesses of Stalinism. In June 1936 he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy and when the Spanish Civil War broke out, he traveled to Barcelona as an international volunteer against Fascism. There he saw first-hand the bitter divisions of the leftist organizations and how they manipulated the information to justify their violent methods and sectarism; he was incensed at the strong elbowing of the Communist Party against the P.O.U.M.—the acronym of Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista—a more moderate formation. They were falsely accused of collaborating with the Fascists by the Communist press. Caught in the middle of that factional fighting, he retreated to a roof to read . He was sent to the relatively quiet Aragón front but, in May a sniper’s bullet almost killed him; with a serious wound to the throat, he was referred to a Lérida hospital. He returned to England in July 1937 and published Homage to Catalonia in 1938.
At the beginning of the Second World War, his wife Eileen started to work in the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information; Blair applied for a similar position, but he was rebuffed to his delicate medical condition. In 1939 he wrote Inside the Whale, a collection of essays, and collaborated with several publications by reviewing plays, books, and films. The death of Lawrence, Eileen’s brother, in France, shocked them both. He joined the Home Guard, a people’s militia that started civilian training for a possible Nazi invasion of the island. In 1941 he started writing for the Partisan Review, an American magazine of like-minded socialists that became anti-Stalinists after the Molotov-Ribbentrop (or Hitler-Stalin) pact.
In 1941, Blair was finally accepted in the Eastern Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to do what he actually was longing for: “war work.” The Joseph Goebbel’s Propaganda Ministry in Berlin was actively broadcasting to India to sow dissent in the civic institutions against the British occupation; he supervised the counter-Nazi propaganda cultural programs, committed to its military mission. He became active in leftist intellectual circles and started writing for The Tribune—a leftist weekly publication, directed by the Labour MPs Aneurin Brevan and George Strauss; Brevan was the mastermind of the National Health Service (NHS)
The Blair couple moved to a better apartment with a basement in a middle-class neighborhood; unfortunately, a few months later, a V-I flying bomb totally destroyed it. Blair resigned to the BBC in 1943 in order to have more time to focus on writing his new book, Animal Farm, which became ready in April 1944. As the Communists considered that book an open attack on the repressive Soviet regime, they pressured the British government—allied in the fight against Hitler—to block its publication. In March 1945, Eileen was surreptitiously admitted for a hysterectomy in a London hospital and she did not give proper notice to her husband due to financial worries. She did not survive the anesthesia and Blair was devastated by the abrupt loss.
Blair continued to take care of Richard Horatio, the child they adopted in May 1944. After the war ended, Animal Farm: a fairy story was published on August 17, 1945.
The publishing success of Animal Farm opened the doors of the English literary establishment for Blair, which enabled him to contribute to several newspapers and magazines. He started to write Nineteen Eighty-Four but felt distracted by the city bustle. His friend David Astor helped him secure a farmhouse in the isolated island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides (Scotland) where he settled down with his young son. Before Christmas 194 he became seriously ill and was admitted to Hairmyres Hospital in the outskirts of Glasgow where they made the clinical diagnoses of tuberculosis. His physicians secured the help of Aneuris Bevan, then UK’s Minister of Health, to obtain a much-prized schedule of streptomycin to treat his infection. In July 1948 he was able to return to his seclusion in Jura and finished the manuscript of 1984 by December. Extremely weakened, he was escorted by his friends for an extended admission to a hospital in Cranham, Gloucestershire, in January 1949.
In June 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four was finally published, becoming a great success. In mid-1949 he announced his engagement to Sonia Brownell before entering University College Hospital in London for further treatment. On January 21st ,1950, a small artery burst in his chest and he passed away at age 46. Following his wishes, he was interred following the Anglican Rite in the churchyard of All Saints’ in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. His gravestone has the following simple epitaph:
“Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, born June 25th 1903, died January 21st 1950.”
In a follow-up article, we will discuss the precious literary legacy of George Orwell.
Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.
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Don’t leave me alone.