It was in this beautiful but sometimes bleak Hebridean setting that an ailing George Orwell struggled to transform the masterpiece he had in his mind into a manuscript he was to see published just months before he succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 46.
The human story of those dramatic final years is reimagined in Norman Bissell’s novel Barnhill, which we showcased at the 2019 Islay Book Festival, and has just been released in paperback by Luath Press.
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.
The novel was nine years in the making for Bissell, a former teacher and trade union official turned poet, screen writer and … shopkeeper: Norman and his partner Birgit run a post office and community shop on Luing, a small island just a short boat ride from Jura.
To mark the publication of the paperback, I chatted to Norman about how he went about bringing those final years to life, his insights into the writer’s personality and the abiding relevance of Orwell’s ideas in the era of Trump and Boris Johnson.
You can order a copy of Barnhill direct from the publishers here or from Islay’s independent bookstore The Celtic House
Norman Bissell (NB): “I first visited Barnhill, I think in 2007. I walked the track up past Ardlussa and saw the house but only from the outside.
I was intrigued by the idea that George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four 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 about Orwell’s last years and how he came to write Nineteen Eighty-Four on Jura.
Angus MacKinnon (AM): Orwell’s Jura connection is well known – what was the rationale 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 Nineteen Eighty-Four, to his life. I wanted not just to explain the facts of how the book came to be written but to enable readers to understand the man who wrote it. 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 the book before his health failed.
AM: So there were elements of the story not in the public domain, that you had to imagine?
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 for example, the conversations he had in a pub and in the jail in Port Ellen where he spent the night in July 1946 because the hotels were full.
We know he spent two nights in Glasgow at New Year 1946-1947 but not what he did, so I invented his exploration of the city and the kinds of places he might go and the people he might meet, based on my knowledge of my home city.
AM: You give Orwell quite a matey voice. How did you come to that?
NB: I think that comes across in a lot of his writing, particularly in the “As I Please” column he wrote for Tribune.
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.
Talking John Maclean in the Scotia Bar
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 an affinity between this very English man and ordinary Scots?
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. He may also have been ashamed of his Scottish Blair ancestors who were slaveowners in the West Indies.
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 brother and sister 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. That is what I am trying to bring out in the Glasgow chapter: that he was interested in the lives of working class folk who lived in the city at the time.
AM: In the bar he meets Freddy Anderson (an Irish writer who was a well known figure on Glasgow’s folk and radical scene over many decades).
NB: I remember Freddy from the 1990s so he was much younger then but he actually frequented the Scotia Bar a lot at the time and came to Glasgow from Ireland in 1945, so I have him and Orwell having a chat about (Red Clydeside leader) John Maclean.
Unusually Orwell 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 Freddy telling him more about Maclean.
(You can read an excerpt from the Glasgow chapter of Barnhill here.)
AM: Did you find during your research and trying to find Orwell’s 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, people he had met in Spain during the civil war for example.
Also, I wasn’t aware until my research that he had so many affairs and was secretive about his life. A recent biography of his first wife Eileen by Sylvia Kopp brings out that side of his life and her influence on his writing, especially Animal Farm.
30 million copies sold …
AM: It is something that is frequently said, that Orwell’s never been more relevant than he is today.
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. 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. His book has sold some 30 million copies since 1949 because its message remains so powerful and relevant.
AM: And how would you sum up what that message was – eternal vigilance being the price of democracy?
NB: Yes. That this is what could happen unless we stand up and prevent it. And really there are lots of propaganda methods and new technologies which, if 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 seemed 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 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.
George Orwell enables us to see the world more clearly through his love of the natural world and his searing insights into the world of politics. Fearless in his pursuit of truth and in his denunciation of dictatorial regimes and their lies, he would have had much to say about the Trump and Johnson Governments. It is ironic that Trump’s son said his Dad should wage “total war” in his futile attempt to overturn the democratic decisions of the American people, since not only was that phrase used by Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in 1943 but it was mentioned by Orwell in an article in 1941 and put on posters by Churchill during the War against the Nazis.
Orwell would have been appalled at the prevalence of lies, corruption and nepotism during Trump’s Presidency and also in the first year of Johnson’s Government. It’s no accident that Nineteen Eighty-Four again became a no.1 American bestseller when Trump was elected in 2016 and his spokesperson said his lies about the size of the crowds at his inauguration were “alternative facts” since the novel famously described a world of Newspeak.
And it has that line: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Orwell would hardly have recognised his beloved England where the handing of NHS contracts to Tory party donors and daily lies by Tory Ministers are accepted as a matter of course by the mainstream media.
From Fact to Fiction
You can hear more from Norman about basing a novel on real life events at his upcoming event with Mandy Haggith:
You can also read an additional excerpt from Barnhill on the Orwell Society’s website.