George Orwell is a writer who has had a big influence on my writing, politics, and even my choice of residence at one time. I’m currently preparing a book proposal about 1984 and the dystopian imagination. So on Saturday I took advantage of a trip to the West Country to visit his grave in the Oxfordshire village of Sutton Courtenay.
The village was located about ten miles from Oxford, nor far from the Didcot nuclear power station. It was one of many similar villages in the area, a mixture of mock-Tudor mansions and large 50s houses with expensive cars parked outside them. There had been a heavy downpour shortly before our arrival, and some of the houses had sandbags and large pools of water outside them – a reminder of the wettest winter since records had began.
All Saints Church is located on the edge of the village green, next to a pub. It was here that Orwell was buried, in a perfect vision of rural England that could not have been more far removed from the stony hillsides of Huesca where he was shot during the Spanish Civil War, or the nuclear war-ravaged urbanscapes of Airstrip One.
This was a churchyard out of Gray’s Elegy, where ‘Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest/Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood’, or Orwell’s patriotic wartime essay The Lion and the Unicorn, from the immaculate little 12th century stone church with its three mighty lime trees standing in front of the main gate, to the yew-trees dotted amongst the mixture of corroded and more recent gravestones.
We found the grave without difficulty at the rear of the cemetery, where a simple headstone announced ‘Here lies ERIC ARTHUR BLAIR. Born June 25, 1903. Died January 21, 1950.’
There were no flowers on the grave, but someone had left a little card, showing what looked like a Soviet-era heroic sculpture of a Goddess of Victory, holding up a sword with an inscription in Russian that a friend later translated as ‘Happy Victory Day May 9! – a commemoration of the Nazi surrender to the Soviet Union that seemed an unusual tribute given Orwell’s antipathy to Soviet communism.
I wondered who had left it and why. It might have been the visitor who had written in the visitor’s book: ‘Eric Blair a great advocate for justice. A beautiful place to be buried. The choir was beautiful when practising. If only this world could also be in harmony.’ Another message declared ‘ Once again I pay my respects to E.A. Blair. Always an inspiration.’
The visitors’ book was new, churchwarden Pat Napper told us, and the older book contained many more messages from visitors who had made the pilgrimage to Sutton Courtenay to pay their respects to the most famous fictional chronicler of 20th century tyranny. On a wall by the doorway a plaque commemorated ‘the writer George Orwell’ as well as the man Eric Blair.
John Napper, the ‘Captain of the Bells’ told us that visitors often made this pilgrimage, and that the Orwell Society held a special commemoration each June on the anniversary of his birthday. It was, at first sight, an unusual and incongruous final resting place for a ‘democratic socialist’ and atheist who had fought against the Catholic Church in the Spanish Civil War, but there certain curious synchronicities that made it more appropriate than it seemed.
Directly in front of Orwell’s grave was a headstone marking the remains of his great friend David Astor, another ex-Etonian and the former editor of The Observer who had died in 2002.
The great liberal crusading editor was a very good friend of Orwell’s. Not only had Orwell worked for The Observer for seven years, but Astor also provided the house in Jura where he wrote 1984. It was thanks to Astor’s intervention that Orwell was buried in All Saints. Shortly before his death Orwell had expressed a wish to be buried in a country cemetery according to the rites of the Church of England, rather than cremation. But this proved to be more difficult than expected. The London church cemeteries were full, and two churches refused to bury an unbeliever who had fought on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War.
Astor worshipped at All Saints and approached the vicar, who managed to persuade his churchwardens to agree for his great friend to be buried there, in one case by producing a copy of Animal Farm. Astor was present at his funeral and planted some of the yew trees in the cemetery to mark the event, and I found it touching that he should have chosen to be buried next to his great friend so many years later.
Their friendship was clearly forged in very similar intellectual and political concerns. In April 1962 Astor made a speech commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in which he argued that most Nazi leaders and supporters were ‘not mad in a medical sense’, and that it was therefore necessary to confront something ‘deeply alarming and disturbing’ about human nature, which he called ‘the pathological possibilities of the normal mind.’
To further these efforts Astor called for the establishment of a centre to study ‘ the political and psychological processes which caused this terrible manifestation.’ Shortly afterwards he was approached by the like-minded historian and former army intelligence officer Norman Cohn, and their discussions led to the creation of the Columbus Centre at Sussex University, which funded a number of ground-breaking research projects on the Nazi genocide and its pre-modern antecedents, including Cohn’s own books Warrant for Genocide, Europe’s Inner Demons and the magnificent The Pursuit of the Millennium.
Orwell in his own way, was also a chronicler of 20th century political ‘madness’. All Saints Church was also the burial ground of Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister who had presided over Orwell’s lost Edwardian Golden Age, and who had taken Britain into World War I.
The Asquiths had a riverside country house called The Wharf in Sutton Courtenay, where they retreated to play bridge and tennis, and where Asquith signed the declaration of war with Germany in August 1914. Orwell often hearkened back nostalgically to his pre-World War I Thames Valley childhood in his essays and also in 1984 itself, and the war opened the cascade of disasters that Orwell feared in his last years was leading the world towards self-destruction.
So it was entirely fitting that the bones of these three quintessential 20th century English figures, the politician, the writer, and the editor should be mouldering in the same dripping English churchyard.
And having contemplated this almost novelistic coincidence, we headed back to the car in search of the M4, to the sound of spring birdsong, with the usual vague intimations of mortality that visits to cemeteries always produce coupled with memories of E.A. Blair and the mid-twentieth century nightmare that he brought into the world, to resume our daily lives and our journey through our own troubled times