KEEP OFF THE GRASS with Orwell Society member Brian Thompson

Museum worker and book collector Brian from Kingston Park, Newcastle, first came across George OrwellWhen I read Animal Farm at Benfield Road Comprehensive school in the 1970s then in 1980 read Nineteen Eighty Four which were both great, then in 1997 I watched the film Keep the Aspidistra Flying which I loved, then I was hooked”.

“I then read all of Orwell’s novels back to back. I also had the privilege to meet briefly, the actor John Hurt at the North East premiere of the film Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984 at the Tyneside Cinema, and get his autograph which is now framed and on the wall”.

When did you first find out about The Orwell Society “Around six years ago I was reading Down & Out in Paris and London and a quick internet search took me to the Orwell Society. I liked the aims of the group so applied for membership and joined in 2017”.

George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) was married to South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy who is buried in St Andrew’s Cemetery, Jesmond. When did you first come across Eileen’s grave ?

“I was reading a local history book about Tyneside when I saw it in a Did You Know section.

(Tyneside: A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times by Alistair Moffat and George Rosie, first published 2005).

So I visited in 2017 and it was remarkable how easy I found it. It was looking a bit shabby with overgrown weeds so I went to the shops and bought some flowers. Next day I brought along some long nosed decorating scissors and give the grass a good cut”.

“Through The Orwell Society I contacted Richard Blair (George Orwell’s son) and told him what I was doing, he asked me to plant a white rose along with bedding plants”.

Eileen Blair headstone & plaque St Andrews Cemetery, Jesmond (pic Alikivi collection)

Next to the modest headstone there is a plaque, how did this come about ?

“When I visited the grave people were asking me who was buried there so I contacted Richard again and ran the idea past him about putting up a plaque. He agreed it would be a great idea”.

“I got some flat grey Lakeland stone and attached a small plaque, it came out great, really proud of it”.

The Orwell Society at St Andrews Cemetery, Jesmond, Sunday 27/3/2022 (pic Alikivi collection)

Were you at the events for the 77th anniversary of Eileen’s death ?

“Yes along with the Orwell Society we watched the film Wildflower, the author Sylvia Topp was there and walks to locations where Eileen lived plus the blue plaque at South Shields – it was fantastic”.

Have you any events planned in the future ?

“I’d love to go to Barnhill where Orwelll wrote 1984 but for now I’ll continue to tend to Eileen’s grave, it’s a pleasure – like you I think we are under her spell” (laughs).

For more information & how to join the Orwell Society contact:

http://www.orwellsociety.com

Alikivi   April 2022

UNDER HER SPELL : Eileen O’Shaughnessy (1905-45)

Memories of events years ago can sometimes be sketchy but after checking my diaries and emails it was March 2012 when I was shown a South Shields birth certificate for Eileen O’Shaughnessy by the Local History Librarian Ann Sharp.

We bumped into each other near South Shields Registry Office where I was going to collect a family research certificate. The Orwell connection peaked my interest but was more intrigued when I noticed her birth address was Park Terrace, now re-named Lawe Road – just two minutes from where I live.

I wasn’t a fan of Orwell’s writing then, I heard about him – who hasn’t? Over 20 year ago I went to see a theatre production of 1984 at Newcastle Playhouse, and have since read 1984, Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London plus selected essays and journalism but it was more from a local history angle that I first approached this story.

In May 2012, May being Local History month in South Tyneside, a display appeared in South Shields Library and an earlier blog from October 2018 mentions this –

There were three large boards. On the left was a birth certificate and census records. To the right was a photo of George Orwell and a picture of a cemetery in Newcastle. In the middle was a large black and white photograph with about a dozen men standing near sandbags and a machine gun at the front, obviously a war image. Then I noticed a dark haired woman crouching behind the machine gun. I looked closer and got goose bumps’.

Who was this woman who was born in South Shields married to one of the most controversial writers of the 20th century, buried in Newcastle and had a photo taken on the front line of a war ?

Ann mentioned that Eileen had been to the Spanish Civil War explaining the photograph, also “an American lady has been in she is researching for a book about Eileen”. That was Sylvia Topp and she left note looking for any help searching locations where Eileen lived.

Sylvia Topp outside The Customs House, South Shields 10 May 2012 (pic Alikivi collection)

We arranged to meet and I took Sylvia down to South Shields riverside and The Customs House where Eileen’s father worked as a Customs Collector, then into the town centre where he had an office then onto her childhood home in Beach Road.

Afterwards we had a meal in the Italian Restaurant on Winchester Street and left it where I would look into Eileen’s North East life. This proved difficult because there wasn’t much information out there about Eileen.

As the months passed the research grew and in the blog Oct. 2018 –

There wasn’t much information out there 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 another. It felt like being gently nudged along to find more about her. I never came across any obstacles, everybody asked wanted to be part of the documentary and were only too happy to help’.

I remember the time I was filming in Sunderland Church High School where Eileen was a pupil. I phoned reception who passed on my number to former Head of English, Sylvia Minto. Next day she rang and we arranged to meet at the school.

We filmed in the main hall where the walls were full of honours boards with names of pupils who went onto higher education. Eileen read English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and her name was on a board. That same board is now in a room in my house.

A couple of years ago the school was closing down and the receptionist remembered me and got in touch – “of course I’ll have it” not realising the sheer weight and size of the board at 5ft x 3ft !

Someone else who was also captivated by Eileen was South Shields born Professor Robert Colls who had just published his book George Orwell – English Rebel.

pic courtesy of The Shields Gazette

Then teaching cultural history at De Montfort University, Leicester, Colls featured in an article in The Shields Gazette (25 October 2013) by local journalist Terry Kelly.

Colls said “One of the pleasures of writing about Orwell was not only getting to know him, but getting to know Eileen. The evidence is sparse but I really like her and Orwell’s spirit was lifted after meeting her. Her letters show great fun and sharp wit. Getting to know Eileen was an unexpected treat”.

In the October 2018 blog I finished off with –

‘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’.

Link to a short edit of the film ‘Wildflower’  

George Orwell’s first wife, South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy (Alikivi, 11mins edit) – YouTube

To find out more information or how to join the Orwell Society check the official website:  www.orwellsociety.com

Alikivi  March 2022.

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.