Homage to Orwell
Monday, July 14, 2003
11. 27B CANONBURY SQUARE
The excitement I was feeling as we travelled by underground from Hampstead to Islington (see Andy MacDonald's map) was hard to contain. We were on our way to Orwell's flat on Canonbury Square where he'd lived from October 1944 to December 1948, during which time Animal Farm was published and 1984 was started. Being on the street where he lived was all I'd originally expected to do, but miraculously - through an acquaintance of the person presently living in the flat - we had an invitation to go inside and were now on our way to that appointment.
As we rumbled along, swaying side to side with the rhythm of the fast-moving train, I was looking forward to seeing the flat that I'd seen pictures of in the biographies and about which lots of anecdotes had been told. For Orwell the years on Canonbury Square were "the best of times and the worst of times".
It was a happy time for the Orwells when they moved to Canonbury Square after a V-1 "doodle-bug" destroyed their previous flat and temporarily buried the typescript of Animal Farm. They had a five month old baby boy named Richard Horatio Blair who they'd adopted in June 1944. Their eight-year marriage was made stronger by their mutual adoration of the baby and they were very indulgent parents. Eileen quit her job at the Ministry of Food where she'd been working since 1942. Orwell was making enough money from his journalism for them to scrape by financially. Since quiting the BBC in 1943 he'd been literary editor of the Tribune and was writing a weekly column named "As I Please". He was also writing book reviews, essays and columns for other publications.
Then in February 1945 - as the war was winding down - the Observer offered Orwell a job as their war correspondent to France. This was the kind of job Orwell had wanted all through the war years and he jumped at the chance, telling Eileen he'd only be gone for two months. So he quit his job at the Tribune, put on a war correspondent's uniform and left for the front lines.
Eileen, who had some health problems that she was concealing from Orwell, moved with Richard up to Newcastle to stay with Dr. Gwen O'Shaugnessy, her deceased brother's wife, the one who had found the baby for them. While waiting for Orwell to return Eileen decided to have a hysterectomy to remove the tumours that were causing internal bleeding. That way she could be recuperated and ready to join him by the time he came back in April. On March 22nd she sent him an eight page letter telling him all about her reasons for having the operation and expressing her hopes and dreams for their future. She told him she hated London and wanted to move into the country where he could stop wasting time with journalism and get started on his next book. A week later she asked the Observer to cable him asking for his consent because the letter would take too long to get to him in time. Orwell cabled back his consent, having no idea there would be any problems. On March 29th, while Eileen was lying in her hospital bed waiting to be taken into the operating room, she started a letter to Orwell, "Dearest", telling him that she was already starting to feel drowsy from the morphia. After a couple of paragraphs her words trailed off in mid sentence. A short time later the operation began but within minutes something went wrong. Eileen's body reacted adversely to the anaesthetic, and she suffered a heart attack. All attempts to revive her failed and she died on the operating table.
At the same time as Eileen was having health problems in England, Orwell was having health problems in Germany. While she was in hospital in Newcastle, he was in hospital in Cologne. He'd had a serious flare-up of his lung disease, possibly a hemorrhage, and at one time, he later told a friend, 'I thought it was all up with me'. He'd just returned to Paris when he got the Observer's telegram asking for his consent. Then the next day he got another telegram from the Observer telling him that Eileen had died. He got on a military plane - his first ever flight - and arrived in London on March 31. Her sudden and unexpected death overwhelmed Orwell with guilt and grief. He felt guilty that she had given up her career for him and that he had subjected her to a hard life and a poor existence and had left her to go to Spain and hadn't looked after her while she was sick the way she'd looked after him and that he hadn't told her how much he loved her and that now, just when she was able to quit work and enjoy the baby, she had died. Orwell made arrangements for the funeral in Newcastle and Eileen was buried in a cemetary there.
Richard was looked after by their friend Kopp who had married Gwen's sister and who also lived on Canonbury Square. Then - wanting to stay busy to stay sane - Orwell returned to Europe, from April 8 to May 24, to be on the move as a war correspondent. His friends thought it would be too difficult for forty-two year old Orwell, inexperienced as he was with chidren, to look after a baby. They thought he would give Richard up but Orwell loved his baby boy and his link to Eileen. He became a devoted, capable father.
Sheldon, in Orwell: The Authorized Biography describes what happened next:
"In June 1945 Orwell began looking in earnest for a nurse-housekeeper who could help him care for Richard, and who could live with them at the flat in Canonbury Square. He found such a person in July. Susan Watson was twenty-eight and had spent the war years working at a day nursery in Hampstead. At nineteen she had married a Cambridge don - a mathematician at King's College - but the marriage had not worked out, and they had lived apart since the early days of the war. They had one child - a daughter - whose fees at boarding school were paid by her father, but otherwise Susan received very little financial support from her husband and needed to work in order to make ends meet. Mutual friends recommended her to Orwell, and he offered her a job at five pounds a week, with room and board as an extra. She considered that arrangement a generous one for the times, and was pleased to have a nice place where her daughter could come to stay during school holidays."
"Susan was intrigued by the fact that Orwell asked her almost nothing about her background or experience. ...She was also surprised that he made no comment about the fact that she walked with difficulty. One of her legs had been impaired by cerebral palsy. But throughout the time that she worked for him, he never made any remark about this disability except to say that he would be happy to carry Richard up and down the stairs leading to the flat if she wanted him to."
"She found him to be an easy person to work for, but she could not help being amazed at how hard he worked. He began at eight or nine in the morning, and usually did not stop until lunch, when he would go out to a nearby pub or meet friends for a meal elsewhere. He took another break for high tea, which Susan prepared for him, and which included such things as kippers, Gentleman's Relish on toast, homemade scones with jam, and tea so strong that - when rationing allowed - ten or eleven teaspoons were allowed to stew in the pot before being served with fresh milk, but no sugar. After taking part in this ritual, he would go back to work, and sometimes continue until early in the morning. Susan became so used to sleeping at night with the sound of the typewriter in the background that she would wake up when it stopped."
"She learned that he was a man with many peculiar interests and habits. He sometimes woke up in the mornings with a shout, suffering from nightmares, and later explained to Susan that in Burma his manservant had helped him awaken peacefully by gently tickling his toes. She taught Richard to do this and was delighted to find that it worked. In the mornings, while she made breakfast, she would hear him giggling after Richard had gone in to wake him. He liked Victorian clutter and bought an old 'scrap screen' to keep out draughts in the sitting-room. He decorated it with cards featuring paintings of, among other things, pretty girls carrying baskets of fruit. He seemed to be fond of a cosy domestic atmosphere, yet he once remarked to Susan that if it were not for Richard he would like to live in a lighthouse."
"It was not difficult to see that he enjoyed creating for himself the impression that he could live a simple, self-reliant existence if he wanted to. One evening when she went into his room to tell him that his tea was ready, she found him making gunpowder, presumably practising his skills in preparation for the day when bullets would be scarce or illegal. In an effort to keep his life simple he once asked her to dye all his shirts navy blue. And she discovered one night when he was ill that he had no use for proper pyjamas but wore woollen combinations in bed. Proper, shop-bought toys for Richard were also unnecessary. When the boy took an interest in one of his carpentry tools - a small leather hammer - he let him take it to bed, and the child slept with it as though it were a cuddly toy. 'I suggested to George one morning at breakfast that I should buy Richard a teddy bear to cuddle. George answered in genuine surpirse, "What does he need that for when he has my small hammer to take to bed?". Susan remembered that he had a special fondness for objects which were adapted to serve some use for which they were not intended or were put together in a way which was flawed in some respect. Her grandmother once knitted a pair of socks for him, and though one came out a lot shorter than the other, Orwell wore them and even insisted that he liked them."
"Eileen's presence was something which could still be felt in the flat. A photograph of her holding Richard was prominently displayed on the mantlepiece, and her clothes were still hanging in one closet..."
"While Susan was working for Orwell, Animal Farm was published in August 1945. It became clear very quickly that the book was going to be a great success, but during the first few weeks following publication one problem did bother Orwell. Susan recalled that he came home one afternoon mumbling something about bookshops. As it happened, he had found Animal Farm placed among the children's books in a couple of shops, and he had taken it upon himself to move them. He had already discovered that the book was easily misunderstood by people who gave it only a cursory glance. Dial Press in America had rejected it because, Orwell was told, there was no market for animal stories."
"The money from the book's large sales did not begin to flow into Orwell's account right away. The American edition, which sold in such vast quantities, did not even appear until August 1946. But the book's popularity brought Orwell many offers to write articles and reviews, and for a period of several months in 1945-1946 he was a regular contributor to four papers - the Evening Standard, the Manchester Evening News, the Observer, and Tribune. The sheer volume of his journalism at this time is incredible. Week after week, the words flowed from his typewriter, and many of the pieces which were done so swiftly, and with such apparent ease, have since become classics."
"...Orwell's reaction to Eileen's death can be gauged in one crude, quantifiable way. In the year which followed the tragedy he wrote more than 130 articles and reviews. He kept himself so busy that there were not many spare hours when he could reflect on the fact that she was gone. He could not blot out all memories of her - nor did he want to try - but work was one practical refuge from depressing thoughts about the past. None of these many pieces give any hint of the tragedy except A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray, which appeared in Tribune on 26 April 1946. Only sixteen days earlier he had visited the cottage at Wallington for the first time since Eileen's death, and had been faced with the sad job of sorting through some of the letters and other personal effects which she had left behind. In the essay he refers to this visit ('Recently, I spent a day at the cottage where I used to live'), and though there is no mention of Eileen, the short piece is a poignant meditation on death, guilt, and immortality. ...On a visit to the little church at Bray, in Berkshire, Orwell had once been shown a 'magnficent yew tree' suppposedly planted in the eighteenth century by the vicar of Bray...and it prompted him to recall the plantings he had made at his cottage. ...What he did not tell the Tribune readers was that most of his trees and bushes had been planted in the first year of his marriage, and that they were living reminders of the hopes he and Eileen had shared for their new life together. ...Sorrow and regret over his wife's death lay at the heart of the piece but only old friends, such as Richard Rees, might have recognized the connection between Eileen's death and 'A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray'."[see story about Orwell's grave ~ jj]
Jeffrey Meyers in Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation describes the flat on Canonbury Square from a different perspective:
"From October 1944 to December 1948, with long absences in Jura and a sanatorium, Orwell lived in 27B Canonbury Square - a bleak tenement in a down-at-heel area...The flat was in a row of rather uncomfortable eighteenth-century houses. The living rooms and big bedroom were at the back, and two other rooms and a kitchen looked out onto the square. Fyvel, a frequent visitor, remarked on 'the utter cheerlessness of the awkwardly built flat...It looked as if every door had a slice of the bottom sawn off so that cold draughts could whistle through the entire place'..."
"Certain aspects of the flat went straight into Nineteen Eight-Four. In one of his 'As I Please' columns he mentoned that 'accumulations of snow have caused water to poor through the roof and bring down plaster from the ceilings.' In Winston Smith's flat, 'the plaster flaked constantly from ceilings and walls, the pipes burst in every hard frost, the roof leaked whenever there was snow.' The long climb up six flights of the stone staircase to the top floor--the most dangerous place to live when the bombs began to fall--was not easy for a tubercular invalid who often had to carry groceries, coal buckets and a heavy infant. Woodcock, Meyer and other friends noticed that Orwell was wheezing and gasping for breath by the time he reached the door. In the novel, Winston always has a violent coughing fit when he wakes up, and when climbing to the top floor he always 'went slowly, resting several times on the way.'"
"...He kept a goat, once again, to provide milk for Richard. When rationing continued after the war and he had trouble getting enough protein for the baby, he bought a hen--which laid eggs without shells...Responding to Richard and learning to care for him allowed the normally inhibited Orwell to be tender and affectionate. When Fyvel admired the way he looked after the child, Orwell remarked: 'Yes. You see, I've always been good with animals'. ...Even when he could afford them, Orwell wanted very few material things in life. He dearly wanted Richard to have a handsome white perambulator with wavy gold lines on the sides, which usually goes with a uniformed nanny in Kensington Gardens, but they were hard to find during the war. Instead, he steered Richard around the seedy streets of Islington in a rickety no-frills push-chair with a wicker grocery-basket hanging behind."
"...In a rare interview of September 1946 a reporter from the style-conscious Vogue magazine, boldly venturing into darkest Islington, noted that 'the stuff around his rooms--a Burmese sword, a Spanish peasant lamp, the Staffordshire figures--show something of his foreign life, his strong English solidity.' The centerpiece of the living room was a huge screen, which also kept out drafts, covered with shellacked pictures he'd cut out of magazines. (It appears in three photos by Vernon Richards). Orwell proudly described the screen, 'all too rare nowadays,' that was pasted over with colored scraps to make more or less coherent pictures: 'In one corner of my own scrap screen, Cezanne's card-players with a black bottle between them are impinging on a street scene in medieval Florence, while on the other side of the street one of Gauguin's South Sea islanders is sitting beside an English lake where a lady in leg-of-mutton sleeves is paddling a canoe.' Woodcock agreed with Fyvel that 'it was a dark and almost dingy place, with a curiously Dickensian atmosphere. In the living room stood...a collection of china mugs, celebrating various popular nineteenth-century festivals, crowded on top of the crammed bookshelves...By the fireplace stood a high-backed wicker armchair of an austerely angular shape...and here Orwell himself would always sit, like a Gothic saint in his niche. The small room which he called his study looked like a workshop, with its carpenter's bench, its rack of chisels and its smell of new cut wood'."
"The furniture and food went perfectly with the decor. As Orwell wrote in his description of the ideal pub, 'everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century'--except that in his flat things were uncomfortable as well as ugly. He loved to work with his hands, but was not very good at manual jobs and quite helpless with machinery. He'd made a chair and would offer it to guests, but it was torture to sit in no matter what position one took. During the war he wanted to make bookshelves and Meyer managed to get some wood through his father. The finished product, according to Meyer, was awful beyond belief. He'd made shelves without proper supports that sagged like hammocks, then whitewashed the lovely cherrywood in a 'criminal way'. On the shelves, Orwell admitted, were ten books that he'd borrowed and not returned."
"He kept the proletarian habits of rolling his own cigarettes from Nosegay Black Shag (a strong tobacco that stained his teeth) as well as pouring tea in his saucer and blowing on it. The desperately poor, half-starved Canadian Paul Potts--who printed and sold his own poems in pubs--painted an idealized picture of high-tea with Orwell on a winter's evening: 'a huge fire, the table crowded with marvelous things, Gentleman's Relish and various jams, kippers, crumpets and toast.' But Koestler, who'd been brought up on Continental cuisine, agreed with Lydia Jackson that the man who loved boiled cod with bitter turnips 'had no taste in food'. His housekeeper filled in the gory details: 'He liked northern English cooking. Kippers were a prime favorite or black pudding boiled first, then fried with onions and served on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes. Then there would be Gentleman's Relish on toast, or brown bread and butter or home-made scones with jam'. His niece added a vivid observation: he would 'make a highly satisfied sort of squeaky whine, rather like a puppy, if he was eating pudding that he really enjoyed!' His pleasures were simple: long walks on Hampstead Heath, and lively talks with writer-friends at home, in pubs like the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, or the Bodega, Akropolis, Czardas and Elysee restaurants in Soho."
Meyer, in Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation also offers insights from Susan, the housekeeper:
"Susan thought Orwell was slightly Victorian and moralistic, domineering and sometimes repressive. He liked to be the head of the household and was rigid about routine domestic life. He worked from nine to one, went out for lunch, returned for dinner at six and often typed until three in the morning. Susan got so used to the sound of his typing that she'd wake up when he stopped. He'd sometimes take a break to do some carpentry, with Richard, his 'mate', handing him the nails. Whenever they had a disagreement in the evening, he'd tell Susan: 'I think it's time you went to bed.' She found him 'a conflicting mixture of emotional inhibition and intellectual expansiveness.' He behaved very properly, if rather stiffly, towards her, as if unsure about 'whether to treat her as a trusty old housekeeper-nurse or as a young daughter.'"
"...Susan recalled that Orwell still had terrifying dreams from the Spanish Civil War. His diary described a nightmare in which he was exposed under fire: 'I had a very disagreeable dream of a bomb dropping near me and frightening me out of my wits. Cf. the dream I used to have towards the end of our time in Spain, of being on a grass bank with no cover and mortar shells dropping round me.' A more serious incident occurred in February 1946 when he suddenly began to hemorrhage from his lung. He remained calm, however, and merely told Susan to bring an ice pack to put on his head. This traditional remedy, according to one of his doctors, did no good at all, except to comfort the patient, but at least did no harm. Orwell refused to call a physician, but had to spend two weeks in bed."
Meyer describes how the days in Canonbury Square came to an end:
"...Most writers, after struggling for fifteen years to achieve literary success, would have remained in London to be lionized and enjoy their celebrity. But Orwell, immune to the effects of wealth and fame, couldn't endure his success: it didn't match his idea of himself. Desperately tired and jaded in the spring of 1946, he complained to Koestler that 'everyone keeps coming at me wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc. - you don't know how I pine to get free of all and have time to think again'. Nineteen Eighty-Four was beginning to take shape in his mind, and he wanted to rest for two months and allow the idea to germinate. Quite unexpectedly, the man who hated Scotland took off for the remote island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides."
Due to the generosity of spirit of the present occupant of Orwell's flat, we were invited to view 27B Canonbury Square as it is today, and to take and share photos with the readers of Orwell Today. To say this was the climax of my Homage to Orwell is an understatement. Words do not describe how honoured I felt to be able to pay homage to Orwell in his own home. I will be eternally grateful.
go next to 12.CANONBURY SQUARE PHOTOS or back to HOMAGE INDEX
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