In May 2012 I was in the Local Studies library when the librarian Anne Sharp showed me a South Shields birth certificate with the name Eileen O’Shaughnessy. She wasn’t sure but thought Eileen was the wife of author George Orwell. (real name Eric Arthur Blair).
A few weeks passed and I was doing some research in the library when I saw a display at the back of the room that Anne had put together. There were three large boards.
On the left was a birth certificate and census records. To the right was a photo of George Orwell, a newspaper cutting and a picture of a cemetery in Newcastle. This looks interesting.
In the middle was a large black and white photograph from the Spanish Civil War, featuring about a dozen men standing near sandbags and a machine gun.
Then I noticed a dark-haired woman crouching behind the gun. I looked closer. Is that Eileen ? I got goose bumps looking at the photo. What was it about the image? I needed to know more.
There wasn’t much information out there about O’Shaughnessy, just a few bits and pieces that had been mentioned in Orwell books.
So, there was extensive research over the next year or so. Phone calls, letters, checking and re-checking details. Interviews on camera were arranged around the country – one led to another and to another.
It felt like being gently nudged along to find more about her. Weeks and months passed, and I never come across any obstacles. Everybody who was asked wanted to be part of the documentary and were only too happy to help.
Then I put the research to one side as I was also working on another couple of projects, this helps in the film making process. Spending time on something else gives you space away from a project and then you can return to it with fresh eyes and ears.
Autumn 2013 came, and DVD sales of previous documentaries funded more time to start piecing together the film about Eileen.
Who knew that a library visit in 2012 would take me and my camera, from South Shields to Sunderland, Newcastle, Stockton, Warwickshire, Oxford, London and finally Barcelona.
I remember with the camera in my backpack walking through Barcelona Airport thinking ‘how did I get here?’ It seemed so effortless, the whole process just fell into place.
On 26th March 2014 I screened for the first time the documentary about Eileen O’Shaughnessy in the theatre of South Shields Central Library where I first met Eileen in that photograph taken during the Spanish Civil War.
The Orwell Society, and Eileen’s son Richard Blair, who is interviewed in the documentary, came up North to South Shields to watch the film. The Society also arranged a screening of the film on the Isle of Jura where George Orwell wrote his masterpiece ‘1984’.
Gary Alikivi June 2018.
Secrets & Lies, Baron Avro Manhattan documentary, 17th July 2018.
Westoe Rose, Amy Flagg documentary, 19th July 2018.
Zamyatin, Tyneside-Russia documentary, 7th August 2018.
Why not check the ALIKIVI You Tube channel for more North East stories.