LOOKING FOR ERIC

with Richard Blair, Patron of The Orwell Society

In March 2015 The Orwell Society visited South Shields to watch ‘Wildflower’ the documentary I made about South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s first wife. We also visited St Andrews’s Cemetery, Newcastle, to see her grave, Eileen was buried there in 1945.

In March 2020 another visit from the OS was planned but unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic. The itinerary included another screening of ‘Wildflower’ along with unveiling a blue plaque to Eileen who was born in 1905. Hopefully we can reschedule a visit later in the year.

Richard Blair is the adopted son of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and George Orwell – real name Eric Blair – who was author of many books including Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four.

In 2012 I was researching the life of Eileen in the University College London where the Orwell archive is held, and through a connection there I got in touch with Richard. He kindly invited me down to his home in Warwickshire where we filmed a piece for the documentary.

The day went well and in earlier posts (links below) I talked about the ease in which the documentary came together and how each contact led to another clue in looking for Eileen.

November 2012 I was in Barcelona Airport with a camera in my backpack thinking, what led me here ? Eileen and George where involved in the Spanish Civil War and I wanted to film a sequence of that part of their life.

I searched for a contact who could add that piece, I found Civil War historian Alan Warren who was based in Barcelona. We arranged to meet and filming took place in Los Caracoles, a restaurant just off Las Ramblas. A place that Eileen and friends often visited.

Earlier this year I was watching a travel programme about Spain when Richard popped up on screen, I asked him how did that come about ?

Richard Blair

I was asked by Michael Portillo’s TV production company if I would appear with him out in Spain on the Aragon front between Zaragoza and Huesca where both our fathers fought in the Spanish Civil War.

For Michael this was a personal pilgrimage as his father was a Republican and so was fighting on the same side as my father and in relative close proximity to each other, so Michael was very admiring of Orwell and wanted to meet me and talk about the circumstances.

We met in the trenches overlooking Huesca and he wanted to know about my father and how he sustained his injury. It was a very personal interview and he did say that it was one of his high lights of his railway programmes.

I watched ‘Nineteen Eight Four’ at Newcastle Playhouse around 2002 – do many theatre organisations request to stage a play based on Orwell writing and have any TV companies made a similar request ?

There are always requests from theatres to do one or the other of the two ‘main books’ and I daresay they will continue, except that there will be no further copyright to contend with after 31st December.

There have also been many requests to do films and for all sorts of reason they wither on the vine. There was a very successful play by Icke and MacMillan that started in Nottingham about 2014/5 and went round the country twice including the West End.

It then went abroad and also ended up on Broadway. I had the privilege to attend the opening night. Come to think of it I and many of our Orwell Society members have seen several small productions of Nineteen Eighty Four.

How is the Orwell Society set up ?

The set-up is a members society with a small group of Trustees (8) to run and oversee the day to day and long term plans. The Trustees are strictly non-political and allows members to express themselves as one would expect in a democracy.

However blatant extremism that causes offence or is illegal to the members is not tolerated and the Trustees can remove the membership from that person, should they refuse to recant.

What is the aim of The Orwell Society ?

The aim of the Orwell Society is to promote the works of George Orwell, through several ways; through the website with information; through organised events, which allows us, the members to meet up at numerous places that Orwell visited or lived (present problems not withstanding); through media channels such as Facebook and Twitter; and organised monthly ‘Orwell Talks’ via Zoom, introduced recently.

We also promote, as part of our charity obligations, contact with schools to encourage writing and hopefully (when we can start again) visits through their teachers and it is to them that we award bursaries. In other words get the word of Orwell out into the public domain.

Have you seen an uptake in the writing of George Orwell ?

There has always been an interest in Orwell and the society has been proactive in its promotion of his works. We do this in conjunction with the Orwell Foundation and Youth Prize. An organisation that has been running in its present form for some 15/20 years and was born of Bernard Cricks Orwell Awards set up in the late eighties.

It is run by Trustees, but is not a membership organisation. It oversees all the Orwell Awards for writing and journalism and it also runs the mainstream schools youth prize (there were some 1200 entries this last year).

The OS runs in parallel with the OF and the OYP, but does not overlap, but we do cooperate wherever possible. The society membership is running at about 300 members and fluctuates up and down, but mostly up.

Since the society began, have you found anything unusual, interesting or unexpected ?

I think the outstanding feature of the Orwell Society is how friendly we all are. New members are very soon sucked into the animated flow of conversations when they meet older members. I also think we do an enormous amount of activities (sadly curtailed) organised by Quentin Kopp, our organiser and acting Chairman.

Orwell lived in many places, which gives the opportunity to go and see them; from Scotland to London, to Paris, to Spain and many other places. Some still to be explored like Morocco and Burma.

Looking back on your father’s life what do you think about so much of it being documented and what do you feel about his work?

I suppose the short answer to that question is that over the decades he has become one of the more significant writers of the 20th century and yet his relevance has gained more and more traction and continues to resonate to this day.

Interview by Gary Alikivi   December 2020.

For more info about the Orwell Society go to the official website:

The Orwell Society – Promoting the understanding and appreciation of the life and works of George Orwell

Links to research & documentary:

WILDFLOWER – South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy 1905-45 timeline. | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

WILDFLOWER – documentary about George Orwell’s wife, South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)   plus DVD trailer.

WILDFLOWER – South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy 1905-45 timeline.

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In October 2018 I wrote about making a documentary on George Orwell’s first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy. The short film had a real local interest as Eileen was born just two  minutes from where I live.

Little did I know when I started the search in 2012 that the film would be shown to the Orwell Society and Richard Blair, son of George Orwell, on the Isle of Jura where Orwell wrote the dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty Four.

Timeline research 2012-13:

In a graveyard in Newcastle you will find a headstone for Eileen Maud Blair who was married to George Orwell, arguably one of the most controversial writer’s of the 20th century. Orwell wrote many books including The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Homage to Catalonia (1938), Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty Four (1949).

But who was Eileen?

Eileen’s story starts in Ireland. Her father, Laurence O’Shaughnessey was born in 1866 on the small island of Valencia and Portmagee in County Kerry. His father, Edward O’Shaughnessy was employed in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Aged 25, Laurence moved to England and boarded at 19 East India Dock Road, Limehouse in London and found work as a clerk for His Majesty Customs.

Eileen’s mother, Mary Westgate was born in 1866 in Hempnall, Norfolk. Aged 24, Mary moved south to Greenwich in London and worked as an Assistant Teacher at Lewisham Hill Road School.

Laurence and Mary met and eventually married in Holy Trinity Church, Gravesend, Kent in February 1900. The couple then travelled to the North East and made a home at 109 Cleveland Road next to the Union Workhouse in Sunderland.

Laurence continued working as a Tax Clerk for HM Customs at Custom House, based at 138 High Street, Sunderland. In 1901 they had a son Laurence, who went on to become a distinguished Surgeon.

Six years later the family moved to 3 Park Terrace, South Shields and Laurence senior was employed as Port Administrator, Collector of His Majesties Customs and had an office in Midland Bank Chambers, 65 King Street, South Shields.

Then on 25th September 1905, Eileen Maud O’Shaughnessey was born and baptised on 15th November in St Aiden’s Church. Park Terrace is now re-named Lawe Road.

After a short time the family moved to 2 and a half Wellington Terrace, now known as Beach Road. They called the house ‘Westgate House’ after her mother’s maiden name. It is still visible above the front door of 35 Beach Road.

Eileen was educated at the local Westoe School then attended Sunderland Church High School and finally in 1924 the family moved south when Eileen graduated to read English at St Hugh’s College in Oxford. Sadly, Eileen’s father Laurence died not long after. He was 62 years old.

After leaving education Eileen held various jobs including work as an English teacher and purchased a small secretarial agency. But she returned to education in 1934 for a Masters degree in Educational Psychology at the University College in London.

By 1935 Eileen was a graduate student and living with her widowed mother in Greenwich. One night she was invited to a house party at 77 Parliament Hill in Hampstead where she met the journalist and author George Orwell, real name Eric Blair.

Eric was born on 25th June 1903 in India. The Blair family had returned to the UK, settled in Oxfordshire and Eric received a scholarship to Eton College.

Over the months the couple found they had a great deal in common, a passion for poetry, literature and countryside walks. Eric was attracted to Eileen’s blue eye’s, heart shaped face and wavy dark brown hair, her Irish looking features.  They married at Wallington Parish Church in Hertfordshire on the 9th June 1936 and lived at The Stores, 2 Kits Lane, Wallington.

In Europe, a Civil war had broken out in Spain and in 1936 Eileen’s husband travelled to Barcelona and joined the militia of the Workers Party of Marxist Unification. Orwell wanted to help the revolt against Franco and the Fascists. Eileen followed in early ‘37 where she stayed in the Hotel Continental on the Ramblas in Barcelona. She worked as a secretary for the ‘New Leader’ which was a newspaper for the Independent Labour Party.

The party’s General Secretary was John McNair from Tyneside. Orwell was stationed at the front and in battle was shot through the throat. He recuperated in a sanatorium outside Barcelona.

The couple returned to the UK and by 1939 Eileen worked at the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information. For a time they lived with her brother Laurence and her sister in law Gwen, at their home in Greenwich Park.

Orwell worked at the Empire Department of the BBC as head of cultural programming for India and South East Asia. Unfortunately during the Second World War Eileen’s brother was killed at Dunkirk while serving in the Army Medical Corp, and her mother died a year later. A sad time for Eileen.

But good news was on the way as Eileen and George adopted a baby boy and named him Richard. Eileen by now had given up her job at the Ministry and taken well to motherhood. Orwell began writing ‘Animal Farm’.

Growing tired of London and feeling unwell for the last few months, Eileen travelled back to the North East with their son, Richard. They stayed with her sister-in-law Gwen at her home near Stockton and with the Second World War nearing it’s end Orwell was in Germany working as a War Correspondent.

Harvey Evers was a surgeon friend of her brother Laurence. He had a private clinic at Fernwood House in Newcastle a train ride away from where she was staying. Eileen made an appointment to see him but after the examination tumours were found on her uterus and a hysterectomy operation was arranged for 29th March 1945.

Before the operation Eileen was aware that she might not survive, and wrote long letters to Orwell. Sadly, under the anaesthetic Eileen died. Aged only 39, Eileen was buried on 3rd April in St Andrews Cemetery, Newcastle.

With Eileen’s death a deep sense of loneliness overwhelmed Orwell. He put off a return to the family home and went back to Germany to report on the end of the Second World War. Close friends looked after his son Richard at their flat in Canonbury Square, London.

His novel, ‘Animal Farm’ was published in the summer and in it he credited Eileen with helping to plan the book. In May 1946 Orwell rented Barnhill, a farmhouse on the remote island of Jura in Scotland and wrote Nineteen Eighty Four. The book was published in 1949.

Sadly on 21st January 1950 George Orwell died of tuberculosis in London aged 46. He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire.

Sources: George Orwell biographies by Gordon Bowker and Scott Lucas. Family history research on Ancestry website. Local Studies in South Shields, Newcastle and Sunderland City Libraries.

Thanks to David Harland present owner of Westgate House.

 Gary Alikivi.

WILDFLOWER – documentary about George Orwell’s wife, South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy

SEPT 25 1905 copy

First reaction when I tell people about Eileen O’Shaughnessy and George Orwell is…‘Who…Orwell the writer. THE Orwell. 1984 and all that ?….Yep, that’s him’ I reply.

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. I thought this looks interesting.

In the middle was a large black and white photograph featuring about a dozen men standing near sandbags and a machine gun at the front. It was obviously a war image. I found it was taken during the Spanish Civil War. Then I noticed a dark haired woman crouching behind the machine gun. I looked closer. Hair’s stood up on my arms. Goose bumps. I needed to know more. 

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There wasn’t much information out there about Eileen, 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, as phone numbers and emails were passed on.

It felt like being gently nudged along to find more about her. Weeks and months passed while information was gathered, I never come across any obstacles. Everybody I asked wanted to be part of the documentary and were only too happy to help.

During Summer 2013 I put the research to one side and started working on a film ‘Designs for Life’. The short film was about the growing demand for tattoo’s and that women are increasingly becoming part of the tattooed tribe. I’ve found having a couple of projects at different stages helps in the film making process. Spending time on something else gives you space away from the other project and finally return to it with fresh eyes and ears. ‘Designs for Life’ kept me busy until Autumn 2013 and further sales of previous documentaries funded my 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 I had 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, Wildflower the documentary about Eileen O’Shaughnessy in the theatre of South Shields Library where I first met Eileen. Her son Richard Blair, who is interviewed in the documentary, and friends from The Orwell Society came up North to watch the film. The Society also arranged a screening of the film on the Isle of Jura where Orwell wrote ‘1984’.

A short clip from the documentary edited this year. Why not check out other ALIKIVI films on You Tube and subscribe to the channel.

Gary Alikivi June 2018.

Recommended:

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.

ZAMYATIN -Russian Link to Tyneside. New documentary.

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The Shields Gazette Journalist Peter French wrote on 17th August 2018 ‘It’s a long way from St Petersburg to South Shields. But it was a journey once made by a young Russian, an author, who not only upset the Communist authorities back home, but whose work may have influenced the writing of one of this country’s most influential novels – ‘1984’ by George Orwell.

His name was Yevgeny Zamyatin and his story is now told in a new video produced by local film-maker Gary Alikivi (Wilkinson). The film, which can be viewed on YouTube, may be less than 10 minutes long, but like much of Gary’s work it is informative as well as thought-provoking.

Watch the full film on 7th August post or read more at: https://www.shieldsgazette.com/lifestyle/nostalgia/the-link-between-a-russian-visitor-to-south-shields-and-george-orwell-s-1984-1-9306630

Gary Alikivi  August 2018.

SECRETS & LIES – New documentary about Baron Avro Manhattan

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As the blog hits 35,000 views Journalist Peter French wrote in The Shields Gazette 7th August 2018….The life and times of Avro Manhattan, an Italian born Baron whose artwork and writing made him friends and enemies throughout the world, and who chose to spend his final years, living with his wife in South Shields are truley fascinating. But don’t take my word for it – let the man himself revael to you all about it’.

To read the story go to…www.shieldsgazette.com/lifestyle/nostalgia/hit-man-s-target-settled-in-south-shields-1-9288202

Or watch the documentary ‘SECRETS & LIES’ posted on 17th July 2018.

Gary Alikivi August 2018.

ZAMYATIN: THE RUSSIA – TYNESIDE CONNECTION. Making the video.

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Diary entry 12th December 2016: Reading a post by Leslie Hurst on the Orwell Society blog, a possible link between Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin, author George Orwell and his wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy. Zamyatin was an author, he also supervised the building of icebreakers for the Russian Navy in Tyneside shipyards in 1916. Looked into this and found Zamyatin an interesting character and worth following up. 

Monday morning jumped on a metro to Newcastle City Library to check out Zamyatins link to Tyneside. Got the lift up to the local history section on the 6th floor asked the library assistant if they had any material about him. She came back from the archive with three pieces of information, dates and index number. There was a local biography note, a page from Alan Myers book ‘Myers Literary Guide to the North East’ and a date of an article in the Journal from September 19th 1988. These were all photocopied. 

Within 20 minutes I had found what I was looking for. Normally in local history there is a bit searching, photocopy runs out of paper, the microfiche is difficult to thread and its running slow etc., but no it all went very smoothly.

Then went out into the town with grey skies and a spit of rain. Over the road I caught sight of some graffitti. I had my small Canon camera with me so nipped over and took a few pics. The slogans were on the back of a muti storey car park with small slits for windows. Brutal architecture. Very East European. Amongst the slogans was a red hammer and sickle ! Went straight to Waterstones and bought a copy of Zamyatins novel ‘We’.

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While working on this blog during 2017 I put aside the Zamyatin project until I had more time. Then in May this year started to fully research and write the script. 

Diary entry 4th June 2018: Got on the metro to Jesmond and found the address where Zamyatin was living when he worked on Tyneside. As I went to knock on the door the owner walked up the path. That was fortunate. Introduced myself and told her what I was there for. We talked for 10 minutes about Zamyatin then exchanged contacts. Took photo’s outside the house and the blue plaque on the wall. Then walked about 5 mins to St Andrews Cemetery to see the headstone of Eileen, Orwell’s wife. The grave is in good nick with flowers planted nearby. Did Eileen have any contact with Zamyatin ?

A short script was put together using A Soviet Heretic by D.J.Richards. The narration was recorded at The Customs Space  studio in South Shields. Tyneside actor’s Iain Cunningham  with Jonathan Cash adding the voice of Zamyatin. Again, as on many projects North East musician John Clavering captured the mood.

The finished story of ‘Zamyatin – The Russia-Tyneside Connection’ can be seen here. To see more documentaries you can subscribe to my channel on You Tube.

 

 

 

Gary Alikivi July 2018.