What would it have been like to be brought up by George Orwell? Pretty grim, you might think. But you would be wrong. In June 1944, Orwell and his wife Eileen adopted a three-week-old boy whom they named Richard Horatio Blair (Eric Blair being Orwell's real name). Now a retired engineer living happily in an immaculate house in a picture-book Warwickshire village, Blair has never publicised the fact that he was related to Orwell, always preferring to remain in the background. But ahead of a talk at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival with Orwell's biographer DJ Taylor (details, below right), Richard agreed to speak to me about his memories of his childhood.
Richard was only six when Orwell died in January 1950, but he remembers him with great warmth. He had, he says, "a heart of deep paternal affection". As you might expect, Richard's recollection of their time together is patchy, and he cannot recall Eileen at all. What do remain vivid for him, however, are the years he spent with his father on the island of Jura off the west coast of Argyll.
Orwell had been drawn to Jura after the premature death of his wife in London in 1945. Eileen to my mind is the heroine of the Orwell story. She had not been keen on the idea of adoption, but agreed to it because she knew that Orwell, who believed he was sterile, was desperate for a son. Knowing she was ill with a tumour, she put off consulting a specialist, for her husband's and Richard's sake, until the adoption was finally legalised. As her letters show, she quickly came to love little Richard, but the delay in seeing a doctor cannot have helped her and she died on the operating table under anaesthetic.
Living, after Eileen's death, in a cramped, dark flat in Canonbury Square in north London, Orwell was determined that his son should grow up in the country, where he could fish and hunt and get back to nature. He had discussed the idea of moving away from London with Eileen before she died, and in 1946, at the invitation of his friend David Astor, the editor of the Observer, he spent a few weeks on the island. Captivated by the sea and air and emptiness, he decided to move up there permanently.
Barnhill, the farmhouse at the north end of the island that he rented for himself, Richard and Richard's nanny Susan (soon replaced by Orwell's bossy sister Avril), had no electricity or telephone and the mail came only twice a week. The nearest village, Ardlussa, was eight miles away along a rough track, and it was 25 miles to the nearest shop. To most settlers these might seem inconveniences, but they were positive attractions to Orwell, even though he was beginning to suffer badly from the TB that would eventually kill him.
He had always been critical of the "softness" of civilisation, and as the illness took hold the need to pit himself against physical challenges grew. Besides, Barnhill's remoteness would ensure that he was not pestered by visitors, and could settle down to a serious spell of writing. It was at Barnhill that he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Richard remembers these years on the island as a time of almost unbroken happiness. Looking back, what particularly gratifies him is the freedom he was given there. He fished from a dinghy for mackerel and coley, and wandered at will, wearing stout farm boots to protect him from adders. He remembers seeing his father stamp on an adder's head and slit its body open with a knife in an unusual fit of savagery.
Freedom, even in farm boots, had its risks. Once, when he went to check the farm's sheep with Bill Dunn, a former soldier whom Orwell hired to do the heavy work and who later married Avril, he got lost, and was recovered some hours later, frightened and crying. The plan, it seems, was to allow him to learn by making mistakes. He found an old tobacco pipe in the garden and, after lunch one day, filled it with cigarette butts retrieved from the fireplace. He was surprised that his father, far from stopping him, handed him his cigarette lighter without so much as a break in the conversation. The result was announced by Orwell in a letter to Astor: "I'm sorry to say that Richard took to smoking recently but he made himself horribly sick and that has put him off it."
There was a more serious mishap when he balanced on a chair to watch his father making a wooden toy. A cautious parent would have lifted him down, but Orwell carried on, and Richard fell, breaking a big china jug on the washstand and, as his father proudly reported, "cutting an enormous chunk out of his forehead". Even Orwell decided that this merited a trek to the doctor for a couple of stitches. His breezy confidence that it would leave no scar proved false, and Richard obligingly showed me an inch-long indentation on his right temple.
The only time he came close to death was on a boat trip in the middle of the marvellous summer of 1947. They had finished haymaking and decided to take a short holiday on the uninhabited far side of the island, where there were beautiful white sand beaches and lochs, which nobody ever fished because they were too remote, full of trout. Five of them went, in Orwell's fishing boat, powered by an outboard motor - Orwell, Richard and three cousins, the children of Orwell's elder sister, Marjorie Dakin. They slept in a deserted shepherd's hut on piles of heather, swam, and had wonderful picnics.
But on the return trip, Orwell misjudged the tides and they were caught in a whirlpool in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. The outboard was swamped, and they started to sink, but Henry Dakin, who had just finished his national service, took the oars and managed to get them to a small rocky island. There the boat overturned, and Orwell, Richard and one of the Dakin children were briefly trapped under it. The blankets and stores were lost, but they all managed to scramble ashore, and got a fire going to dry their clothes. Orwell, Richard recalls, found a potato that he tried to bake, and hoisted a shirt to attract attention.
A passing lobster boat rescued them, but Orwell, perhaps as a kind of penance, insisted on them being put ashore a mile away from Barnhill, and they all walked home barefoot as their boots had gone down with the boat. "Richard loved every moment of it except when he went into the water," Orwell assured a friend. This tallies with Richard's memory. He thought the whole thing "a big joke" and, looking back, realises he was not frightened because the others kept calm, especially Orwell. While they were struggling to escape from the whirlpool he noticed a seal watching them and remarked "Curious thing about seals, very inquisitive creatures" - which the Dakin children thought rather detached even for Uncle Eric.
Pride in Richard's toughness and usefulness is a constant theme in Orwell's letters from this period. This was partly because he was actually, like many fathers, needlessly worried about his son's slowness in starting to talk and his lack of interest, at the age of four and a half, in learning the alphabet. But it was also, perhaps, because the little boy's vitality was such a heartening contrast to his own physical decline. Richard, he boasts to friends, is "offensively well and full of violence", rolls about in the hay "stark naked", takes his turn at chopping wood and filling the oil lamps, and "even insists on pouring out my ration of gin for me every evening". This last fails to ring a bell with Richard, who recalls Orwell's tipple as rum not gin, and thinks that, given the state of his bronchial tubes, almost any alcohol would have been agony to drink.
In 1949, Orwell's condition worsened, and he spent some months in a sanatorium in Gloucestershire. Following his wishes, Richard moved south, too, and was looked after in an old anarchist colony nearby, attending the local kindergarten. "I am so afraid of him growing away from me," Orwell wrote. But he was also fearful that he might infect Richard with TB if they saw each other too often, and that his son would get to think of him as "just a person who is always lying down and can't play". Richard remembers waiting regularly with someone to catch a bus and visit his father. There were low, single-storey buildings with verandas, and Orwell, who had a room to himself, would be sitting up in bed or in a chair. He looked normal, and Richard had no idea what was wrong. He used to ask, "Where have you hurt yourself?" In January 1950 he was back on Jura with Bill and Avril when they heard of his father's death on the eight o'clock news.
Orwell had remarried shortly before he died. His new wife was Sonia Brownell, whom he had met, and perhaps had a brief affair with, when she was Cyril Connolly's assistant on the magazine Horizon. A noted beauty, she liked mixing with writers and artists, among them William Coldstream and Francis Bacon, and Orwell found her vivacity irresistible. But a stepmother's role was not one she coveted, so Richard continued to live with Avril and Bill, and scarcely saw Sonia during the 1950s. His memories of her do not seem particularly warm. She once gave him a £10 note to go and see the musical Oliver! and take his wife Eleanor out for a meal afterwards. When they got back she then asked him for the change.
Sonia was the sole beneficiary of Orwell's will, but there was money set aside for Richard's education. Orwell had put him down for Westminster, shelving his usual egalitarian principles because, he had heard, the standard of literacy in state schools was so poor. But Bill sent him to his own old school, Loretto, near Edinburgh. After that he went to agricultural college and worked on various farms. In 1964 he met and married Eleanor; when Sonia died in 1980, the income from the Orwell estate came to him.
One final, intriguing question hanging over Richard's childhood is the identity of his true parents. On his copy of the adoption certificate their names have been burnt away with a cigarette, leaving a brown-edged hole, as if Orwell wanted to destroy any evidence that his boy was not his. Despite this dissuasion, Richard decided, fairly recently, to track down his birth mother, only to find that she had died, and that his surviving halfsister had no idea her mother had ever given a child up for adoption. "She took her secret to the grave," she told Richard, and she made it clear that she wanted her mother's secret kept. So he has vowed to keep it silent.