by Will Self
Sunday Herald, 6 January 2007
Some time in 2003 - and it's a measure of the haziness of my memory that I cannot remember exactly when - I was on a book tour in Scotland. It was certainly either early or late in the year, because there was snow on the Trossachs when I drove north from Edinburgh, intending to scale a modest peak, before driving down Loch Lomondside to Glasgow. In the event, it wasn't a great day for walking, the weather closed in on me, and floundering on the snow without crampons, I gave up.
That evening I gave a reading in Glasgow (it could have been at Waterstone's, or Borders, they're so hard to distinguish), ate a meal in a cavernous Chinese restaurant, and retreated to the "designer" hotel room my publisher had booked for me.
I place that "designer" in parentheses, for, so far as I can recall, it was a bleak, upended shoebox of a room, ill-graced with various stylistic flourishes: a wooden lozenge of a desk; bold, primary paint-job, etc. I took to the bed and zapped the wall-mounted television into being. Strangely familiar features filled the screen: a long, creased, dark-complexioned face, horizontally bisected by the smear of a toothbrush moustache. The hair sat on top of this head like a coping of brownish masonry. The deep-set eyes twinkled, and a thick, roll-up cigarette stabbed at the air for emphasis. The voice was clipped, pre-war, unmistakably patrician. Then the camera swivelled to confront the eggy head of John Freeman, the celebrated television interviewer, and it became clear what I was witnessing: a face-to-face interview with George Orwell.
In the back of my mind I knew that this had to be a contrivance of some kind, and yet, as the film progressed, and I saw footage of Orwell on his smallholding at Wallington; Orwell caught on cine-film in the trenches of the Spanish civil war, describing how to make tea; Orwell - now in colour - typing Nineteen Eighty-Four in the bedroom of his rented farmhouse on the Hebridean island of Jura ... I allowed myself to be carried away. This, I felt, was almost certainly what the man himself had been like: dry, self-deprecating, diffident, ironic, and yet deeply passionate about politics, the fate of humankind, the conditions of the working-class poor. A man at once eccentrically disconnected from the commonplaces of life - such as personal appearance - and yet oddly immersed in its quotidian practicalities. This was Orwell, a lonely goatherd in strangulating, brown knitted tie.
It wasn't until the credits rolled, and I was apprised of the fact that this had been a documentary made by Chris Durlacher for the BBC, with the express intention of remedying the strange lack of any sound or visual archive material of the great writer whatsoever, that I fully accepted that the man I had seen on screen was the comic actor Chris Langham, rather than Orwell himself. George Orwell: A Life In Pictures had a strange effect on me. I lay awake long into the night, listening to the desultory noises of weekday revellers being expelled from pubs and bars, and thinking over my relationship - such as it was - with the long-dead writer.
As for so many British readers, Orwell and his work occupy a uniquely privileged position in my psyche. I read the novels, many of the essays, and the three, great works of reportage (Down And Out In Paris And London, The Road To Wigan Pier and Homage To Catalonia), during my teens. Orwell's notable feat as a stylist, seems - to me - to be his ability to convince us that he is fearlessly rational and objective; and that, moreover, we are exactly the kind of fearlessly rational and objective readers who can fully appreciate it.
His is a prose that almost palpably exudes probity and decency (a very Orwellian word, that), while his political trajectory - from disaffected Etonian schoolboy, to disaffected imperial policeman, to disaffected dallier in the pays-bas of the Depression, to convinced socialist warrior, to disaffected socialist and anti-communist whistle-blower - also speaks to us of a probity and decency, which all too often seems absent from our mercenary, venal and debauched age.
Orwell's final year of active life was spent on Jura. It was there, in 1947-8 that he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, his most enduring legacy. His removal to Jura - a destination suggested by his friend, The Observer proprietor, David Astor, whose family had extensive estates there - was based on his desire to write the book freed from the distractions of London; yet more than this, the portrait we have of his life on the island is of a man who thrived in the adversity of its remote and primitive conditions. Orwell was a compulsive chronicler of nature, and his diaries from 1947 record his observations of green plovers, the ritual of spring ploughing, the killing of a mouse that had got into the barn. Barnhill, the farmhouse Orwell rented, was seven miles from the nearest hamlet, and - perhaps crucial for a man who was, it transpired, dying of TB - 30 from the nearest doctor, on Islay.
The most emblematic tale we have of Orwell on Jura, records his unworldly venture into the notorious Corryvreckan whirlpool, off the island's north coast. In the August of 1947 Orwell took his infant son Richard, his sister Avril, two nephews and a niece on a trip along the west of the island by boat, stopping to swim and fish in its isolated inlets. Heading back to Barnhill, Orwell miscalculated the tides and entered the Gulf of Corryvreckan just as the whirlpool was gathering its remorseless speed. The outboard engine was torn off the boat, and they were only saved by the strong rowing of Humphrey Dakin, Orwell's nephew.
This seems like an allegory for Orwell's writing life: a frail man in a frail boat, nonetheless determined to enter the most notorious whirlpools of the world, whether they be the dosshouses of London's east end, or the internecine street fighting of Barcelona in 1937. Yet the Corryvreckan has lured more than one writer towards its foamy, lethal vortex. I had been aware - since reading Bernard Crick's biography of him - that Orwell had stayed on Jura. But a few years before my rendezvous with Orwell's televisual revenant in the Glasgow hotel room, a friend recommended Roger Deakin's superb Waterlog, and this confirmed my own attraction to the island and its wild delights.
Deakin, a film-maker and writer with a particular interest in the environment, died last year. But Waterlog, a record of his strange odyssey, swimming in rivers, lakes and the sea the length and breadth of Britain, remains as his masterpiece. In it, Deakin gives a superb account of the natural delights of Jura: its strange western coast of raised beaches, its multitudinous red deer, its internal "desert" of peat bog, its peculiar trio of mountains, the famous Paps with their striated, quartzite flanks, the highest of which is permanently capped by its own weather system. Deakin aimed to swim across the Corryvreckan, but in the end, very wisely, demurred. Still, his description of Jura fired my imagination and I determined that if the opportunity arose I would like to spend some time there, even though this would be an act of infidelity to Orkney, my preferred far northern base, and specifically the Orcadian island of Rousay, where I have worked on every one of my five published novels.
I first went to Orkney in 1991, to stay at the house owned by a London friend - the architect, Christopher Bowerbank - who had a long association with the islands. His house, Viera Lodge, was a beautiful if austere Victorian dower house, set on the southern shore of Rousay, facing across the sound to the mainland of Orkney. At first exposure I can't say that I found Orkney very congenial. It was Easter time, the wind - never altogether quiet in those parts - was roaring, the treeless landscape seemed bleak, the house was bitterly cold. And yet I began my first novel, My Idea Of Fun, during the week I stayed there; and it was in acknowledging this stimulus which the islands had given to my imagination, that I realised the Orkneys had chosen me - rather than me them.
Two years later, when my first marriage had hit the buffers and the debaucheries of London were proving even more deleterious to my health than usual, Rousay seemed the logical place to which to decamp. Christopher very kindly gave me the lodge for a peppercorn rent over the winter of 1993-4, and it was here that I wrote my collection, Grey Area. I don't think that George Orwell had anything approaching a mystical bent, and although I find my own tendency in this direction quite as strongly opposed by an empiricism which he certainly would endorse, I nonetheless cannot deny that I found the atmosphere of Viera Lodge, in the dead of winter, to be verging on the transcendent.
Rousay is known as Little Egypt by archaeologists, on account of its great density of neolithic ruins. The lodge itself is flanked by the remains of a Pictish broch, and I think it more than likely that the site has been inhabited for several millennia. Spending long periods alone, in the darkness, and working on distinctly surreal stories, I became suggestible and prey to notions of full temporal simultaneity, expecting the neolithic tomb-builders to come strolling through the wainscoting at any moment. It was not a sensation that I found disquieting; on the contrary, the great rushing of the wind, the permanent agitation of the waters in the sound - these too added into the creative ferment. Moreover, there was the seclusion of the island, and the sense - from this almost hyperborean perspective - of Edinburgh and London being distant, southern cities, veritable tropical hotbeds of steamy licentiousness.
I returned to Rousay every year to write, until 2002, when Christopher very suddenly - and sadly - died, and the lodge was sold. I may have been deprived of a northern writing fastness, but serendipitously, one of the projects I had conceived of while staying at the lodge, now moved on to my creative front-burner. It was a novel that led me - perhaps providentially - towards the Hebrides, and creatively in the footsteps of George Orwell.
One of the books I had read on Rousay was Charles Maclean's St Kilda: Island On The Edge Of The World, a detailed account of this celebrated micro-society, which existed in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world for almost a millennium, until the island's evacuation in the 1930s.
Musing on the fate of St Kilda, and the pernicious impact on its indigenous culture of the Free Presbyterian church, I began to descry the lineaments of a novel that would deal with the rise of the new, political fundamentalism in our own era, and the looming apocalypse implied by catastrophic, environmental change. The novel that emerged, The Book Of Dave, was published last year, and owes a substantial debt to Maclean's account of Hebridean St Kilda. However, it also owes a debt to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its vision of a future dystopia. Suitably enough, 2006 ended with an approach from the Scottish Book Trust: would I be interested in taking up the first of a series of writers' residencies that they were organising? The residence in question was the Distillery House owned by the eponymous whisky distillers of the island of Jura.
Ordinarily, despite the generous terms of the residency, I would have turned this down. I have refused several such offers in the past. I am fortunate enough to have the funds, the taste for isolation, and an understanding partner, to take myself off if the work requires it. Moreover, out of necessity, I have grown increasingly able to combine the two careers of jobbing journalist and novelist (something at which Orwell himself was also adept), and while complete seclusion is undoubtedly a creative stimulus, I also savour the hubbub of the metropolis. Yet this offer from the Scottish Book Trust seemed to gather together so many of the threads attached to my psyche - the Hebrides, Orwell, Jura, dystopias - that I could feel a powerful yank, and so accepted.
What will I hope to find on Jura? Well, for a start, it's necessary to stress that my initial sojourn will be a brief one - a mere three weeks. Certainly, I will work on a short story, the production of which is part of the - very generous - terms of the residency. I will also walk a lot - one of my preferred methods of engagement with my muse. And naturally, I will go in search of Orwell's shade. When I went north to Orkney in 1993 I was reading Richard Holmes's superb biography of Coleridge, the first volume of which ends with a speculative flight, imagining what the perception of the poet would have been, had he died - as he thought he very likely would - on his voyage to Malta in 1804. At that time, Coleridge was the radical begetter of the Lyrical Ballads; and had he expired, he would, Holmes suggested, have been recalled as a meteoric talent, that - like that of Keats or Shelley - had burned all the brighter for its very brevity.
While not wishing to in any way compare myself with "the last man in England who had read everything" (as well as writing a great deal), I was shocked to realise that Coleridge - like me, at that time, an opiate addict - was the same age as me, 32, when he embarked on his island exile. Now, 13 years later, I find myself heading for another island, in the footsteps of another writer I greatly admire. I am also conscious that I am now the same age that Orwell was when he left Jura to die in a hospital room, in London.
If this is slightly creepy, it's also providential. There are other threads that connect me to the pseudonymous Orwell (people often assume my own name is a nom de plume - but it's not). My own godfather, the late Professor Richard Peters, was tutored by Eric Blair Orwell in the late 1920s, when the Blair family lived in Southwold, a Suffolk town I have a close acquaintance with. The friend who recommended Roger Deakin's book to me was the writer Cressida Connolly, whose father, the critic Cyril Connolly, was Orwell's close friend for over 30 years. And then there is my own father, who died in 1999.
While 15 years younger than Orwell, my father came from a not dissimilar background. He too was forged by the inter-war period, and became a Fabian socialist. He too - like Orwell until he had a damascene conversion - was a conscientious objector to the second world war. Watching Chris Langham's impersonation of Orwell in that Glasgow hotel room, I was struck by certain characteristics the writer shared with my father: his formidable dishabille, his air of well-bred otherworldliness. After my father died I discovered his enduring presence in my own involuntary actions: my yawns and stretches, my walk and my laugh. I'm sure it's the same for many of us with our same-sex parent. But my father lived until he was nearly 80, while one of the reasons Orwell seems so etched for us as a personality is that he died, comparatively young, at 46.
Is it fanciful to imagine that I will in some way encounter Orwell on Jura? That in walking the deer paths he followed, and staring out over the same lonely vistas, I will find myself similarly conscious of an enduring presence? I have no desire to appropriate Orwell's muse; I have my own. Yet it's humbling to consider that in taking up this residency, at the same age he was when he died, I present an image of what an English writer - preoccupied by politics, interested in the absurd and the fantastical, in love with the further reaches of Scotland - might be like as he grows older.
· Will Self's most recent novel,The Book Of Dave, is published by Viking, £17.99.
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