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.

POSTCARDS FROM SPAIN (4) – How was a South Shields man involved in the Spanish Civil War ?

Following on from the previous posts focusing on the Spanish Civil War, in this one we find out how a South Shields man was involved.

Firstly, if relatives of Norman Leathley Ramsey can add any information to this post, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

So who was Norman ?

He was born in South Shields in 1894 and at 6 year old lived at 175 South Frederick Street in the Tyne Dock area of the town. His father Thomas was a coal trimmer, his mother Isabella, had four more children.

A few year later the family moved to 49 Eleanor Street, although Norman wasn’t registered at this address as he had started his career at sea.

After the First World War Norman was awarded a Mercantile Marine British Medal, was married to Minnie Legross and the couple were living at 51 Broughton Road, South Shields. By 1922 he was employed as a ship’s butcher at 154 Laygate Lane.

With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the local library I have been unable to search for Norman in South Shields after 1922, but his name did pop up 15 years later in a story printed in the Hartlepool Mail on April 22nd 1937 about the Spanish Civil War.

Blockade Runners Challenged: Bilbao Position:

‘General Franco has taken up the challenge of the British vessels who are awaiting opportunities to run the blockade of the insurgent warships to Bilbao and other Basque Government ports. His Government at Burgos has announced over the wireless to foreign Governments that the Nationalists in future will lay mines in front of all the ports in Government hands’, reports Reuter.

A St Jean de Lux message says that a ‘Mr Norman Leatherly Ramsey of South Shields, says he is representing the owners of a British cargo steamer, is willing to run the insurgent blockade if the Basque Government will guarantee the value of the vessel’.

This was the statement he made after he had been detained by local police yesterday on the instructions of a Belgian control officer, taken to the police station and charged with not having proper papers. On the production of his passport, which was in order, he was released.

The report went on to say…Shore batteries have shelled three insurgent trawlers which attempted to seize a number of fishing vessels anchored off Lequeitio, North East of Bilbao’.

For some background to the story, in 1936 Spain elected a government committed to change. The army under General Franco rebelled and what followed were three years of a Civil War. Franco was helped by the Italian dictator Mussolini and Hitler in Germany.

This led to a food shortage in the Republican Basque region of Northern Spain, as the Nationalists had set up a blockade and threatened to sink British food aid ships who approached ports.

George Orwell, in his book Homage to Catalonia, gave an account of his personal experiences and observations in the war. ‘Bread was scarce and the cheaper sorts were being adulterated with rice. Milk and sugar were very scarce and tobacco almost non-existent. The queues of women waiting to buy olive oil were controlled by mounted Civil Guards’.

Further research from various sources revealed that the Newcastle steamer ship, Hamsterley, was at the head of a small convoy of three British food aid ships who made a run on the blockade.

On board the Hamsterley, was our man Norman Ramsey, a Merchant Seaman from South Shields.

He gave the North Mail newspaper a dramatic account of how the British flagship Hood and destroyer Firedrake went into action to protect the convoy against the Nationalist cruiser, Almirante Cervera and the armed trawler Galerna….

The Almirante Cervera signalled to us to stop. When we failed to do so, she showed her disapproval by sending a shell across our bows. Firedrake darted in between us and the Nationalist cruiser.

We carried on again towards Bilbao and were at the head of the convoy when another shell burst in the sea. Firedrake swung out her torpedo tubes and Hood cleared her decks for action. Her mighty guns looked terrifying. Firedrake signalled to the trawler Galerna that she must not meddle with British ships.

The trawler tried to get in between us and the three-mile limit but Firedrake headed her off until we had passed inside the limit. Then the Galerna tried to reach us again, but the shore batteries at Bilbao opened fire’.

On April 23rd 1937 the three British food aid ships docked at Bilbao. 35 km’s away was the ancient city of Guernica, where late in the afternoon of the 26th April German aircraft appeared above the city. In support of the Nationalists, the Nazi’s dropped their bombs on purely a civilian target. The destruction swung British public opinion towards the Republican cause.

The authorities took the opportunity to show the British crews the devastation, this photograph (above) of refugees on the road from Guernica was taken by Norman shortly after the city was bombed.

Ramsey also photographed the ruins at the centre of the city. His pictures were published in the North Mail and Newcastle Chronicle after he returned home in May.

On it’s next voyage to Bilbao carrying coal, the Hamsterley took part in evacuating refugees to French ports, along with the Newcastle steamer Backworth. Like other North East ships trading with Bilbao, the Hamsterley brought back iron ore, arriving with its cargo at Tyne Dock.

Where did Norman go next ?

On the 1939 Second World War register Norman was employed as a Water Clerk living with his family at 118 & 120 Broughton Road, South Shields. His wife Minnie, worked in the Off Licence at 120. The family lived here until 1962 before moving to another house in the town.

After living a full life, Norman sadly passed away in 1967, but the story of his work in helping the Spanish people in 1937 and the powerful photographs he took in Guernica, will live on.

If you have any information about the North East men and women who were in any way involved in the Spanish Civil War please get in touch at garyalikivi@yahoo.com

Research: Ancestry, The Word, South Shields, Discovery Museum and 

Local Studies collection, Newcastle City Library.

 Gary Alikivi  April 2020.

POSTCARDS FROM SPAIN (2) -Eileen, Orwell & the Spanish Civil War

First came across the Spanish Civil War in 2012 when I was researching South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who was married to writer George Orwell.

The couple spent some time in Barcelona during the civil war. Orwell went ahead earlier than Eileen to write a story, but ended up joining the militia in their fight against fascism – you could say he replaced his pen for a gun.

Below is a photograph taken on the front line of the war, with Orwell the largest figure at the back and his wife Eileen crouching behind the machine gun. In an earlier post I talked about a documentary that I made (Wildflower 2014), and when I first saw this photograph how it was the catalyst in making the film.

In the documentary I wanted to include this part of their life together, so contacted Alan Warren. Alan was living in Barcelona, and with the organisation Porta de la Historia, they have researched the Spanish Civil War and Orwell.

I took a flight out to Barcelona and stayed for a few days in a hotel in the Gothic area of the city. We met up in a café on Las Ramblas and talked about how we could tell this part of Eileen’s story.

Los Carocoles restaurant.

Next day Alan guided me to the locations Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia, an account of his personal experiences during the civil war. Through research we came across letters written by Eileen when she was in Barcelona.

She mentioned going to a restaurant, Los Caracoles, just off Las Ramblas. We went there and after some negotiation in Spanish by Alan, with owner Aurora Bofarull, I filmed a short sequence to include in the documentary – we also got a free meal of eggs and peppers.

Alan told me about the group he is working with …..Porta de la Historia (PdlH) is a group of historians and enthusiasts based in Spain and Catalonia who are interested in the hidden history of the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, and the 35,000 men and women from 52 different countries who came to support the Spanish Republic, many of whom served in the International Brigades.

For over ten years PdlH has conducted extensive Field Research and study of the many first hand accounts to allow the hidden landscape, of not just the battles, but also places in the rear guard and hospitals, to come alive.

Standing at the same spot described by an International brigader over eighty years ago is an experience to be treasured. In addition, the use of cameras during the War, by the likes of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro has allowed many locations to be identified.

More importantly, local contacts and knowledge allows visitors to see parts of Spain that are rarely visited by tourists. It is, to a certain extent, the real Spain.

Apart from many bespoke tours for one to four people, larger school trips are also offered. In addition, film and documentary work is common, as well as editorial advice for historians.

The Field of Research is large. It is said that more books have been written about the Spanish Civil War than World War Two. It has been called ‘The Last Crusade’ and ‘The first Battle of World War Two’.

The passion, romanticism, beliefs and idealism of both sides is also full of violence, hate and bloody revenge. A polarising event of such tragedy that even now many families will not talk about it.

However, Porta de la Historia is slowly allowing this subject to be addressed more openly. And hopefully the distance between now and then, as well as some government support, is allowing grandchildren and great grandchildren to try and understand the conflict that tore Spain apart. A nation that forgets it’s history is condemned to repeat it.

This work is a pleasure and a responsibility. Having known many International brigaders in later life, it is important to explain and try to understand this period objectively and factually. And there is still so much more to explore and discover in some beautiful parts of Spain.

For more information contact the organisation at:  pdlhistoria@gmail.com or
www.pdlhistoria.wordpress.com

If you have any information about the North East men and women who were in any way involved in the Spanish Civil War please get in touch at garyalikivi@yahoo.com

 Gary Alikivi   April 2020.