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The house where Big Brother was born

A pilgrimage to Jura reveals the distant and untouched glory of Orwell's cottage at Barnhill

Much has been written about George Orwell’s time on Jura, the remote Hebridean island to which he retreated after the Second World War to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, far from the distractions of London and his work as a journalist. But few chroniclers of this remarkable period have actually visited the place where his great last book took shape and where he finally succumbed to the tuberculosis that he first contracted in 1938. It’s understandable. Jura is a difficult place to reach, and Barnhill – Orwell’s cottage, secreted in the far north of this wild, whale-shaped outpost – is even harder to get to. Sixty years ago it was astonishingly inaccessible – “completely un-getable”, as Orwell had it, and as he took typically perverse pride in recounting to friends. It would be brought home to him time and again during a series of wonderfully botched journeys north from the capital.

I made the pilgrimage to Barnhill this year with a friend. It was an exhilarating trip into the heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The story of how Orwell came to live on Jura, accompanied by his sister Avril and adopted son, Richard, is well covered in the biographies. But the sheer bloody-mindedness of his decision to move there with failing health only really becomes apparent once you set foot there. To do this, you must first go to Islay, the relatively well-populated island famous for its fabulous, phenolic whiskies, which lies across the Sound from Jura. In Orwell’s day, it was possible to take a ferry to Craighouse on Jura directly from Tarbet on the mainland. Today, the short hop from Port Askaig to Feolin marks the start of the journey. From here, it’s a twisting, 21-mile drive on a single-track road to reach a point two miles beyond Ardlussa where the road runs out. The drive itself is mesmeric – a nature-watchers’ paradise. Pairs of golden eagles and peregrine falcons soar across the enormous skies, while majestic stags strut this way and that across the rusty-hued landscape. All the while the island’s resplendent paps (mountains) rise and fall between ancient lochs and churning seas. The real sense of walking in the steps of the writer, however, arrives only once the car is ditched and hiking boots are donned for the five-mile trek to Barnhill. Distractions along the way are firmly of the non-human variety – more deer, a wild horse, a stubby stone tor jutting from the summit of a bleak hill, another warming slug of whisky from the pewter hip flask. My friend and I trade Orwell anecdotes, recalling the one guest who left Barnhill in the dead of night in winter following an argument, weighed down with luggage, to trudge the long miles back to Craighouse alone. We imagine other scenes, many of them comical (Orwell was famously clumsy, a kind of literary Mr Bean): the author swearing under his breath and kicking the wheel of his ancient motorbike as it once again fails him and he is left fumbling with oily tools on this filthy path; or the author suddenly appearing through the rain, a gaunt figure in oilskins, carrying furniture on his back or else, more sinisterly, a scythe to clear the reeds from the potholed track.

There are only a few tantalising clues left along the way and around the house itself, which finally comes into view as a white speck in a valley: a rusting roller; the swollen earth mounds of Orwell’s beloved vegetable patches; and the remains of an iron gate leading to the front door. It’s easy enough, however, to picture him pottering in the garden with Richard, stumbling over an adder, laying lobster pots by the sea, planning a boat trip to the churning Corryvreckan whirlpool, or else peering expressionless from the small room above the kitchen as his fingers work the typewriter and his guests talk and wait in the kitchen below.

The huge effort Orwell invested in finishing Nineteen Eighty-Four at Barnhill killed him, but his death failed to turn the island or the house into a shrine. Thankfully, there is no Orwell industry on Jura – no blue plaques, no signposts, no Big Brother ballpoint pens on sale in the island’s one shop; nothing, in fact, to remind you that the writer lived and worked here. This is perfectly apposite. And you sense that George – whom the islanders knew only as Eric Blair, a “peculiar, kindly gentleman” – would approve.

Gordon Thomson is the New Statesman’s consultant editor

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times