This Folio Life: George Orwell, Farmer
In one of George Orwell’s diaries, opposite the entry for 3 October 1946, there’s a rough sketch, instantly recognisable to any allotment holder or gardener as a planting scheme for a fruit and vegetable garden. The plan was for developing the land attached to Barnhill, the remote house on the island of Jura in the Hebrides where Orwell lived from 1946 to 1948, and where he had escaped from London to write Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell’s ultimate aim was to set up a small farm.
As well as the diaries recording literary and political events, Orwell kept these ‘domestic’ diaries, and they are full of daily records and observations on growing produce and keeping animals. This was a consistent feature of Orwell’s life – a love of the natural world and his occasional forays into what writer and Orwell biographer John Sutherland calls a ‘stripped-down Tolstoyan peasant life’.
In the Folio edition of Orwell’s letters and diaries, as well as the Jura planting scheme there’s a photograph – quite a surprise – of the great man crouching down to feed a goat. This was Muriel, his favourite goat and part of the menagerie kept at another of his homes, ‘The Stores’ in the village of Wallington in Hertfordshire. Here, from 1936 to 1940, Orwell and his brand-new wife Eileen kept the village stores. The stock was mainly vegetables, harvested seasonally from the back garden; chickens provided eggs and milk came from the goats; other wares he sourced locally. And when Orwell signed up for the POUM in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, it was as ‘Eric Blair, Grocer’.
This other side of Orwell, the countryman and smallholder farmer, ran alongside Orwell the writer all his life, frequently seeping into his novels. Coming Up for Air is practically a paean to the countryside and to fishing in particular. His protagonist George Bowling remembers snatching opportunities to fish during his time in the army: ‘The pool was swarming with fish…Meanwhile we’d no fishing tackle of any kind, not even a pin or a bit of string. You can’t know how wild we were to catch those fish. Or perhaps you can, if you’ve ever been at war. To be sitting under the poplar trees, fishing for perch, away from the Company, away from the noise and the stink and the sergeant’s voice! Fishing is the opposite of war.’
Orwell was a true angler and his love of fishing is well known, as a craze in his youth and, in later life, something he indulged in whenever the chance arose. In his Wigan Pier diary, February 1936, a disappointed Orwell records a fishing lake just outside Burslem in the Midlands: ‘Notices relating to fishing, but I examined the water and it did not look to me as though it had any fish in it. Not a soul anywhere and a bitter wind blowing.’
The prospect of a spot of fishing acted as an encouragement for Orwell during his bouts of illness. From a sanatorium in April 1949, Orwell wrote to his friend Richard Rees: ‘When I’ll get to the point of putting some clothes on, lord knows. However, I’ve ordered myself a few new clothes, just to keep my morale up. I have discovered that there is a stream just near here with trout in it, so when I am somewhere near the point of getting up I’ll ask Avril to send me my fishing things.’ In the last hospital stay before he died, visitors noticed his beloved fishing rod standing in the corner of the room.