Speaking Personally: Orwell, Jura and 1984

  18 Jan '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

As Polygon publishes a new edition of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984, Managing Director Hugh Andrew speculates on the connections between author, work and place.

Photo credit: Alex Massie

I have only visited Barnhill once. With a group of friends I stayed on Islay in the late 1980s and part of our holiday was to walk to the north end of Jura and overlook the Gulf of Corryvreckan. I had not then read 1984 but, as so many are, I was struck by the extraordinary isolation of Barnhill. Even by Hebridean standards it is a big ask to get to – a tiny ferry to Jura, a twenty-odd mile trip on a road best described as a ‘picturesque’ and best driven at some 15-20 miles an hour, and then another four miles or so on an even worse road. One house – the small farm of Kinuachdrachd – lay beyond it.

I have always been fascinated by the influence of place on writer, its impact on the creative imagination. Jura and the world of 1984 seem totally disconnected. The epic sense of space, the vast country around, the complete isolation versus the claustrophobia of an oppressive, war-damaged, failing city with bombs raining down and an omnipresent state watching and controlling everything. We often forget in our views of 1984 as a polemic against totalitarianism of left and right that the city in which it is set is the war-blackened London of the late 1940s, bedevilled with shortages, seemingly doomed to endless decay and with society and economy seemingly on the edge of collapse.

While in no sense would Orwell have described the Attlee government of the period as bearing any resemblance to the vile regime he describes, nevertheless it inhabited a world in which that potentiality stalked all around. In one poignant scene in the novel our narrator and his lover escape into a part of the country where there are as yet no listening devices, where they can speak freely. To me Orwell was liberated to write 1984 precisely because Jura was the antithesis of everything in it. He truly could step outside the world he lived in with the power of an omniscient observer, a power which only Barnhill could give him. Perhaps this gives some sense of the true power of the book – that Orwell understood the potentialities for evil, even if unrealised, in the world he lived in, that it was not simply the obvious totalitarian regimes that articulated 1984 but the nascent possibilities that technology, mass media, industry and the heady power of control give to all governments however well meaning and well intentioned. Perhaps Barnhill’s relevance to 1984 is simply that what it was and what it represented enabled him to see further and deeper into the world we were creating than is usually realised. Perhaps to Orwell what we think of as his obvious targets of Stalinism and Fascism were not his real targets at all but the world that we chose to build, of which they are symptoms but not a cause.

1984 is one of the greatest novels ever written. It is not just a novel but a warning for all times. Perhaps in that warning Jura played a far more central role than we have yet acknowledged.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is now available in the Jura Edition, with an introduction by Alex Massie

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