George Orwell: Books, Berks and Boaters

Eric Blair at Eton, c.1918.

28 October 2020

By Greg Denieffe

In this article in The Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series, Greg Denieffe takes a look at Eric Blair and Henley-on-Thames.

The writer George Orwell was born (1903) and died (1950) as Eric Blair. He never legally changed his name, eventually signing his will three days before he died using his birth name. He chose George Orwell as a nom de plume because it was ‘a good sound English name’ and to avoid any embarrassment to his family that his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), may cause them.

Born in India, Blair moved to England when he was 1 year old and from then until he took up a position with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, he lived – when not at boarding school – in and around Henley-on-Thames. Jackie Jura’s website Orwell Today has a detailed account of the various houses occupied by the Blair family around the town. She writes about her 2003 visit to Henley and Shiplake:

We wondered if there was a Regatta going on, having read in the biographies that one was held every year in July and that Eric and the Buddicoms [friends from Shiplake] sometimes attended.

As her visit was on Sunday 13 July, she missed the Royal Regatta by a week, but it is still interesting to read the Eric Blair attended the regatta; perhaps pre-war but certainly that of 1920 as noted in George Orwell: A Life  (1982) by Bernard Crick:

And he had watched the Henley Regatta in June from the Buddicoms’ punt, enjoying a general Regatta exeat, on the passing excuse of watching the Eton Eight all swing, swing together.

Lower Binfield from the air in May 1920. Binfield Working Men’s Regatta takes place above the bridge with the stations from the left called ‘Books’ and ‘Burkes’. Picture: Britain from above & Historic England.
Henley-on-Thames during its Royal Regatta on 6 July 2013. Confusingly, the stations are called ‘Bucks’ and ‘Berks’. Picture: Chiltern Airsports Centre who offer 30-minute flights over the town for £95.

Orwell’s’ Coming Up for Air was published in 1939 and is set in the last few months leading up the Second World War. The book is primarily a nostalgic attempt by the main character, George Bowling, to recapture his childhood innocence via his secret visit to Lower Binfield, a town in the Thames Valley where he grew up. It is abundantly clear from the text that Lower Binfield is actually Henley and despite the age difference between Bowling who was 45 in the book and Orwell who was just 36 when it was published, it is Orwell’s boyhood recollections of Henley that are described.

Crick makes the same observation:

The nostalgia of George Bowling for a happy Edwardian childhood in the opening pages of Part II of ‘Coming Up for Air’ can be seen as very much George Orwell’s own. ‘Lower Binfield’ is recognizably Henley. ‘If I shut my eyes and think of Lower Binfield any time before I was, say, eight, it’s always in summer weather that I remember it… Most sweets were four ounces a penny, and there was even some stuff called Paradise Mixture, mostly broken sweets from other bottles, which was six. There were Farthing Everlastings, which were a yard long and couldn’t be finished inside half an hour. Sugar mice and sugar pigs were eight a penny… A whole lot of the kinds of sweets we had in those days have gone out.

Later in the book, Orwell has Bowling describe his approach to the town:

I came towards Lower Binfield over Chamford Hill. There are four roads into Lower Binfield, and it would have been more direct to go through Walton. But I’d wanted to come over Chamford Hill, the way we used to go when we biked home from fishing in the Thames. When you get just past the crown of the hill, the trees open out and you can see Lower Binfield lying in the valley below you.

Over the years there have been several proposals to open an Orwell Museum or Vising Centre in Henley. Despite locations being identified, the proposals fell through, and to date, the town has no visible memorial, like a blue plaque, to the acclaimed essayist and novelist.

Eric Blair (top left) pictured in 1921 before taking part in an Eton wall game. Picture: ab3orwell.

Blair won a scholarship to Eton College and spent just over four-and-a-half years there before leaving in December 1921. I do not know if he ever rowed from the college boathouses at The Brocas, but a couple of weeks before his 15th birthday, he wrote a short essay which appeared in the college’s student-run literary magazine The Election Times.

The magazine ‘published’ on 3 June 1918 names “Mr. Blair.” as their Business Manager and handwritten on pages 41 to 45, Mr Blair gives us the moralistic tale of The Slack-bob. Only a single copy of each issue of The Election Times was produced and it was then circulated among the students.

UCL Library holds the original document and briefly sums up the narrative:

… a boy studying at Eton who is not keen on sports, but who pretends to be in the ‘Rowing Eight’ to impress his female cousins. When his cousins – described as ‘all big fat noisy girls with red hair, seven in number’ – come to visit him at Eton expecting to see him participate in a rowing competition, he is forced to pretend that he has suffered an injury.

Having given us: Wet-bob, The Eight, Lower Boats, Upper Boats and Junior Sculling, the penultimate sentence ticks another box in the game of Eton College Bingo – The Rowing Edition:

“Never mind”, said Agatha “We’ll all come & have tea in your room now, & next year we’ll come and watch you in the Procession of Boats.” 

An antique wall tile illustrating the ‘standing oar toss’ by the crew of ‘Britannia’ during an Eton College ‘Procession of Boats’, which takes place on the College’s open day, known as The Fourth of June. There is a distinct lack of foliage in the boys’ boaters.

In 1946, the editors of Gangrel, a short-lived literary magazine, asked Orwell, and others, to write essays for them explaining why they wrote. Orwell’s essay, Why I Write, includes some interesting references to his early work:

At eleven, when the war of 1914-18 broke out, I wrote a patriotic poem which was printed in the local newspaper, as was another, two years later, on the death of Kitchener. 

… From time to time, when I was a bit older, I wrote bad and usually unfinished ‘nature poems’ in the Georgian style. I also, about twice, attempted a short story which was a ghastly failure.

… at fourteen I wrote a whole rhyming play, in imitation of Aristophanes, in about a week – and helped to edit school magazines, both printed and in manuscript. These magazines were the most pitiful burlesque stuff that you could imagine, and I took far less trouble with them than I now would with the cheapest journalism.

Both poems were printed in The Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard, now known as the Henley Standard and his mention of school magazines ‘in manuscript’ when aged 14 is a reference to The Election Times. 

Illustration by Ralph Steadman Published in the print edition of  “The New Yorker” on 13 April 2009 with the headline “A Fine Rage.”

In the above image, Napoleon – for surely it is he – wears a ‘St George’ straw boater similar to those worn by one of the junior crews in the boat procession. Napoleon, the main protagonist in Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) is introduced as: “… a large, rather fierce-looking Berkshire boar, the only Berkshire on the farm, not much of a talker but with a reputation for getting his own way.” This begs the question of whether Orwell would dare include a subliminal message in his selection of pig breed as Eton sits just inside the county boundary of the historic, and since 1957, the Royal County of Berkshire or Berks for short.

On a slightly critical note, I think that Coming Up for Air has an anti-climatic ending. It’s mundanity reflecting the return by the two Georges to their dull existences – Bowling back to his suburban life in London and Orwell back to his from Marrakech where he wrote the book.

If mundane endings are good enough for Orwell, they are good enough for me;  you can read the original handwritten The Slack-bob here.

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