Barnhill, the remote Jura farmhouse where George Orwell battled to finish 1984 before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 46, is a key location in the life of one of the 20th century’s most influential authors.
Now Scots writer Norman Bissell has brought to life Orwell’s desperate struggle to get his masterpiece from mind to manuscript in a keenly-awaited new novel that takes its name from the Hebridean hideaway where it all came together.
Barnhill covers Orwell’s final years in London, Paris and Jura and the sacrifices he made – most tragically in terms of his health – as he created the dystopian world of Winston Smith and Julia, Big Brother and the Thought Police.
Nine years in the making, Barnhill has been a labour of love for poet and screenwriter Bissell, who will be coming to this year’s Islay Book Festival to talk about his creation.
Ahead of the 29th August–1st September festival and with the publication of Barnhill set for 23rd May (Luath Press), the Book Festival’s Angus MacKinnon caught up with Norman.
In between breaks from serving customers in the community shop he runs on the Isle of Luing, the former teacher and trade union official recounted how he went about bringing one of the great book backstories to life and the new insights it gave him into the personality and motivation of its creator…
Norman Bissell (NB): It was quite a learning experience for me. I first visited Barnhill, I think in 2007, walking the track up past Ardlussa and saw the house but only from the outside. I didn’t go in that time but I was intrigued by the idea that George Orwell wrote 1984 in such a beautiful location. It is such a dystopian vision of what might happen in the future and yet it was written in such a beautiful place. So I got the idea then of writing a feature film screenplay and a novel about Orwell’s last years and how he came to write 1984 on Jura.
[Norman won a commission to write a screenplay under Creative Scotland’s incubator scheme, which he did between 2011-14. A bursary from the arts body then allowed him to undertake the research and professional development required to adapt his screen into a novel.]
Angus MacKinnon (AM): Films are always notoriously difficult to get made, what is the situation with that now?
NB: The film producer wants to obtain the film rights again, so that is still a possibility if funding can be brought together.
AM: The story of Orwell writing 1984 on Jura is fairly well known. I wondered what the rationale was for opting for a fictional treatment of it. Was there a part of the story you thought could be better told that way?
NB: Yes, it was, I suppose, partly to get inside the mind of Orwell and to relate the work, the writing of 1984, to his life. When his wife Eileen died unexpectedly, he then had a nine-month-old baby son they had adopted and he was very lonely, grief-stricken and he wanted to find a new companion, a new wife and a mother for his son. A big part of the story is his search for love and companionship, that side of his life as well as the desperate struggle he had to finish 1984 before his health failed.
AM: So there were elements of the story not in the public domain, that you had to invent, imagine how they might have been?
NB: That’s right. A lot of the story is based on the true events of his life but some of it involves poetic licence. I have tried to imagine what was happening in his life, what was going on in his mind.
AM: You give Orwell quite a jaunty, matey voice. How did you come to that, did you have sources for making him sound that way?
NB: I think that comes across in a lot of his writing, particularly in the “As I Please” column he wrote for Tribune. He did some wonderful essays and short accounts of all kinds of things – almost like what became Cultural Studies after his death. He wrote about just about everything that came to his attention and often had this very personal and direct way of writing. He said that good prose should be like a window pane – it doesn’t get in the way of what the writer is trying to say. So I suppose I was just trying to acquire the voice I felt was his voice.
AM: One of the most interesting chapters is about the time Orwell spent in Glasgow.
NB: Yes, it was the New Year of 1946/47. He was coming up to Barnhill from London to plant some fruit trees and roses. But he missed his connection to get to Jura that day and he got stuck in Glasgow over the holiday. So I have him going on the subway, visiting the Gorbals and meeting up with worthies in the Scotia Bar. And thinking about New Year and all the members of his family who had died in the last five years.
AM: It hints at a kind of affinity between this very English man and ordinary Scots, a specific type of Scottish sensibility?
NB: Yes, I think he was rather put off the Scots and Scotland by some of the folk he met out in Burma when he was working for the Indian police. There were some whisky-soaked Scotsmen he’d come across he didn’t like very much. But I think when he got to Jura, which was in May 1946 for the first time, and subsequently, he got to appreciate the Scottish sense of humour and the Scottish way of doing things. He made friends, for example, with the Darrochs, a family from Jura whose farm he went to, to get his milk and eggs every day, up at the north end of the island. I have a scene in the book with Katie and Donald Darroch which shows how well he gets on with them.
Earlier in his life he went and lived with down and outs in London and Paris. He went tramping, staying in lodging houses. So he wanted to experience all aspects of life and feel he could get to know people better. That is what I am trying to bring out in the Glasgow chapter: that he was interested in folk who lived at the time.
AM: In the bar he meets Freddie Anderson (an Irish writer who was a well-known figure on Glasgow’s folk and radical scene over many decades).
NB: I remember Freddie from the 1990s so he was much younger then but he actually frequented the Scotia Bar a lot at the time so I have him and Orwell having a chat about [Red Clydeside leader] John Maclean. Unusually, he never wrote anything about John Maclean so I don’t know what his attitude to him would have been, so I don’t go there but I have Freddie telling him more about Maclean.
AM: It is quite a friendly image of Orwell, someone who would have been capable of going to a place like the Scotia Bar and getting on with the people he met. Did you find during your research and trying to imagine his voice that your impression of the man changed?
NB: Well, I don’t know if it answers the question, but one thing I discovered the more I read of him was what a prodigious letter writer he was. Even when he was very ill he was still writing hand-written and sometimes typed letters to all sorts of people. He kept a lot of the contacts he’d made over the years, going, people he had met in Spain during the civil war for example.
AM: Did your view of him evolve during the process of writing the book?
NB: It did, not always for the better. He seems to have had a very strong sex drive and to have been very forceful or abrupt with making his wishes and his intentions known to women. The thing to remember about that is that, at the time, in the 1940s and 1950s, a lot of people were engaged in open relationships. He had that relationship with his then wife Eileen, which nowadays tends to be frowned upon. But that was an aspect of his life I had not realised until I did the research.
Another thing that came out was that while it was sometimes suggested Orwell was paranoid, it turns out the NKVD (the Soviet Union’s secret police) did spy on him and other members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), when they were in Spain during the civil war. The spy was a man called David Crook who was spying on all the ILP contingent in Spain but particularly Orwell and his wife. And Crook was actually trained by the Spanish Stalinist Ramon Mercader, the man who worked his way into Trotsky’s household and killed him with an ice axe in 1940.
So, far from being paranoid, Orwell was justified in being concerned he might be on Stalin’s hit list, especially after the success of Animal Farm.
AM: Did that affect how Orwell was as a person, do you think?
NB: I think it did. The boyfriend of his housekeeper when he first came to Barnhill in 1946 was a member of the Communist Party and Orwell was very wary of him, which I deal with in a particular scene.
AM: It is something that is frequently said these days, that Orwell’s never been more relevant than he is today. What would your personal take on that be?
NB: I think his insights into the way the world and politics were going in the 1940s were very profound. He could see tendencies developing that other people were just not aware of. For example that post-war America would become the number one power in the world and Britain would become Airstrip One if you like, an extension of America’s power.
AM: The book is a warning to the world about totalitarianism. Do you think he succeeded in getting his message across?
NB: Absolutely. He gave his life really to get that message across. He was so determined to finish that book he neglected his health in the process. He was completely focused on finishing the book by December 1948, which he did but then his health collapsed and he never came out of hospital after he left Barnhill in January 1949.
AM: And how would you sum up what that message was - eternal vigilance being the price of democracy?
NB: Yes. That really there are lots of propaganda methods and new technologies bringing in power which, if it is in the hands of the wrong people, can drastically change people’s lives. And I think that has come to pass with what we have learned in the last few years from the whistleblower Edward Snowden and everything that has come to light about Cambridge Analytica, the funding of the Leave the EU campaign and how Trump seems to have been helped to power by dirty money if you like.
So there are very strong totalitarian tendencies at work in the world today. I don’t think it is any accident that Trump has tried to court the leader of North Korea and Putin. And with fake news it has become so difficult for people to distinguish between truth and lies. It has really become a major issue.
You can read extracts from Barnhill at: