Writing Barnhill

Author Norman Bissell lives within sight of the island of Jura. He has spent nine years researching George Orwell’s (real name Eric Blair) dramatic life. This is an extended version of an essay originally published as an afterword in his recently published novel Barnhill.

I first walked into Barnhill on the Isle of Jura in September 2006 but didn’t go inside the gate. I knew that George Orwell had written Nineteen Eighty-Four in that remote farmhouse but was puzzled by the contrast between his dark, dystopian novel and that beautiful location by the coast. I could see a little of Jura behind Scarba from Cullipool village on the Isle of Luing where I came to live in 2007.

I began to research Orwell’s life and work and, the more I read about him, the more I understood why he went there and why he was determined to write his novel as a warning to the world — whatever the consequences for himself. Bernard Crick’s was the first biography I read as it was based on first-hand accounts by those who knew Orwell. Remembering Orwell by Stephen Wadhams, published in 1984, and recently re-issued as The Orwell Tapes, also provided me with fascinating recollections by more than sixty people who knew Orwell.

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The last seven years of his life seemed to me the most poignant because this was when he adopted a baby son and decided to move to Jura. Then his wife Eileen died and his marriage proposals to other young women were rejected. His desperate struggle to finish writing Nineteen Eighty-Four was successful but he had fatally damaged his health in the process. Rather than write another Orwell biography, I felt that his story would make a wonderful screenplay and novel which would bring it to a wider audience and enable me to get inside his head at this crucial time in his life.

After successfully applying in 2011 to DigiCult’s Incubator scheme funded by Creative Scotland, I worked with Paul Welsh, a Scottish film producer, to develop and write a feature film script over the next two years. He is continuing to take it forward and seeking to raise the necessary finance to make the film. In 2014 I was awarded a Creative Scotland artist’s bursary to undertake research and professional development to write my first novel, about Orwell’s last years, drawing on my work on the screenplay with Paul.

I continued to read lots of biographies and memoirs about Orwell and the other main characters, his letters, diaries, essays and novels, and carried out research in the Orwell Archive at University College London. I looked at the papers of Sonia Brownell, who married Orwell in October 1949, as well as delving into the archive treasure trove that contains almost all things related to Orwell. In October 2014 I visited Orwell’s former flat in Canonbury Square. It was smaller than I had imagined it and Orwell’s workroom was much narrower, but I had a much better picture of where he, Eileen and Ricky lived in London at the end of the war. During my research I also discovered that Donald Mackay, the creel fisherman who rescued Orwell, his son, nephew and niece in the Gulf of Corryvreckan, came from the village of Toberonochy on the Isle of Luing.

Luath Press had previously published my poetry collection Slate, Sea and Sky but I had never written a novel before and I realised that I should seek professional advice on how to go about writing one. So, I attended novel writing courses at the Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre in the Highlands, at Ty’n y coed in North Wales and an Emergents novel editing course at Portree on Skye. I wrote the novel throughout this time and finished it in early summer 2017.

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In June 2018 I visited Barnhill with Richard Blair, Orwell’s son, his wife Eleanor and a large group of other members of the Orwell Society. It was a dream come true to finally be inside the house I had imagined and written about for many years, to be in Orwell’s kitchen with its large stove, to see his free-standing bath in his upstairs bathroom and to stand in the bedroom where he wrote most of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Amazingly, some parts of what was probably his motorbike were in the barn and I helped carry them out and assemble them. The house hasn’t changed that much, it remains relatively spartan and I felt that there was still a strong sense of Orwell about the place. It’s worth noting that Barnhill is a private residence and visitors to Jura should only visit it by arrangement with the owners.

After I had finished my novel and it was to be published, it was quite a shock to learn that an Australian author Dennis Glover had also written a novel about Orwell’s final years – great minds… – although perhaps not that surprising considering the significance and appeal of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Orwell’s dramatic struggle to finish it on Jura. Whilst covering similar themes in Orwell’s life, our approaches to the story and styles of writing are very different but equally valid. My novel focuses on the last seven years of Orwell’s life and is told from both Orwell’s and Sonia Brownell’s points of view.

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Barnhill is based as far as possible on the actual events of the final years of Orwell’s life. However, some incidents have been altered and recreated, and others invented for dramatic effect. For example, whether and where Orwell met Hemingway in Paris is uncertain, he didn’t have a sidecar for his motorbike and the women in the Compton Arms in Islington and the couple in Port Ellen jail are fictional characters. There is no record of how Orwell spent two days in Glasgow at the New Year of 1946–1947, so I have written what I imagine he might have done and some of the people he could have met. Similarly, there is no evidence of Sonia meeting with George after he went to Jura and no record of her visiting him at Hairmyres Hospital. She did visit him at Cranham and accepted his marriage proposal. I have tried to show that there were strong psychological reasons for her decision to do so rather than that she was simply out to benefit from his royalties. Of course, Sonia did not write about her life with Orwell as she was dying in November 1980, but her point of view is essential to the story and I have tried to convey it as fully as possible.

It has been suggested that Orwell was paranoid because he carried a gun in his last years. However, evidence was uncovered in Russian archives by one of Orwell’s biographers, Gordon Bowker, that shows that Orwell was right to be concerned. David Crook (well-named I’d say), a young Communist Party supporter who spied on George, Eileen and the Independent Labour Party contingent fighting with the POUM on the Republican side in Spain, was trained by Ramon Mercador. The very man who murdered Leon Trotsky with an ice axe in 1940. It is quite possible that Stalin’s NKVD (KGB) would do anything they could to stop Orwell finishing Nineteen Eighty-Four after the popular success of Animal Farm. Moreover, some of MI5’s files on Orwell have recently been published, his house was raided by police in 1939 and banned books by Henry Miller were taken away. Malcolm Muggeridge, a close friend of Orwell who regularly dined with him, said in his diaries that he worked for MI6 at that time. Paranoid? Maybe he had good reason to be.

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There is also some mystery surrounding the untypical visit by Andrew Gow, Orwell’s tutor in Greek at Eton, to see Orwell at University College Hospital just days before his death. The art critic Brian Sewell, who hid Anthony Blunt in his flat after Blunt was exposed as the fourth Soviet agent in the Cambridge Spy Ring in 1979, was convinced that Andrew Gow was also a Soviet spy. When Sewell asked Blunt directly if this was the case he did not deny it. In my novel I have Sonia speculating about that visit, based on Sewell’s evidence.

Open relationships were quite common in free thinking artistic circles in the twentieth century. It was considered by many that monogamy was unnatural, and the Bloomsbury Group was well known for such relationships, as were Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in France. Eric and Eileen Blair made an agreement of this kind until his affair with Sally McEwen went too far for Eileen and she insisted he end it. Orwell’s masculine attitudes and lustful behaviour towards women were typical of some men at the time. The character of Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four is at least partly based on Sonia who believed in free love and was probably as amorous as he was. Judging him by present day moral standards and attitudes may not always be the best approach.

Although poetic licence has been used where appropriate in writing Barnhill, I have tried to remain true to the significant events of Orwell’s later life. Living here on the Isle of Luing only twelve miles from Barnhill, I feel a strong affinity with Orwell, not just as a writer and democratic socialist, but as someone who loved these Inner Hebridean islands and the natural world of which they are part.

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Find out more about George Orwell, Norman Bisell and buy Barnhill here.

Norman Bissell became principal teacher of history at Braidhurst High School in Motherwell after obtaining an MA (Honours) degree in Philosophy and History from the University of Glasgow. His first poetry collection Slate, Sea and Sky features poems written in his native Glasgow and on the Isle of Luing where he now lives in sight of Jura.

His work has been widely published in newspapers, books and journals, and he has spoken at many festivals and cultural events, including Glasgow’s Aye Write! Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In 2014, he was awarded a Creative Scotland artist’s bursary for research and professional development to write this novel.

Gavin MacDougall