Heritage: Author George Orwell was down but not out in Hampstead

George Orwell

George Orwell - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

In the latest of our series turning the spotlight on the lives and times of those who have been commemorated with blue plaques, Adam Sonin explores the life of novelist George Orwell.

The George Orwell plaque at 77 Parliament Hill

The George Orwell plaque at 77 Parliament Hill - Credit: Archant

The average Briton is caught on camera hundreds of times a day yet no colour photographs, voice recordings or moving images exist of George Orwell.

The writer produced almost two million published words over the course of a two decade career.

His most popular novels - Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) - have been translated into 60 languages and sold more than 30 million copies while the words he coined have found a place within everyday vernacular.

If all his works were to be printed off and laid out page by page they would occupy a space of 15 square miles, approximately the size of Norwich.

During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency financed an adaptation of his allegory, Animal Farm. But for all his warnings concerning the importance of privacy, we live in a society where many actively encourage intrusion, using Facebook, Twitter and Skype. There are 32 CCTV cameras within 20 yards of the rooms he wrote 1984 in.

Born in Bengal in India, christened Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), he took his pen name from the king of the time, George V and the River Orwell in East Anglia.

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Aged three he came to England with his mother and sister, leaving his civil servant father in India.

As a schoolboy, he was twice published. First for the patriotic poem Awake! Young Men of England, a response to the recent army recruiting campaigns and a second piece commemorating the death of Lord Kitchener, the field marshal who had played a central role in the First World War.

Educated at St Cyprian’s in East Sussex, Orwell excelled in Latin and Greek, won the English prize and eventually attained a scholarship to Eton College where he was briefly taught French by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).

His contemporaries included the novelist Anthony Powell (1905-2000), who once spent an uncomfortable night on a makeshift camp bed in Orwell’s Kilburn basement, and the critic and writer Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) who joked that Orwell was a revolutionary in love with 1910.

On completing his schooling and opting to serve his country rather than further his education, Orwell was sent to a “crammer college” to prepare for the Indian Civil Service.

Scraping through with just enough marks to allow him to join the Indian Imperial Police he was assigned to a force in Burma in 1922.

He was one of 90 officers in charge of 13,000 native police who were responsible for law and order over a population of 13 million.

The result, best captured in the novel Burmese Days (1934), shows contempt for imperial rule and the effect power had on his fellow British colleagues.

Returning to London on leave in 1927, Orwell decided to pursue a career as a writer and spent time with the poor of the city by dressing as a tramp.

He often used a friend’s house at 1B Oakwood Road in Hampstead Garden Suburb to change into his tramping attire and was particularly interested to see firsthand how the poor of England were treated.

Years later he commented: “I sometimes lived for months on end among the poor and half-criminal elements … who take to the streets, begging and stealing.”

During the days Orwell would read Balzac in French and then bed down by Trafalgar Square, using the fountains to wash his face.

He continues describing the poor: “At that time I associated with them through lack of money, but later their way of life interested me very much for its own sake.”

In 1928 Orwell headed to France where he lived for about a year-and-a-half in Paris, writing novels and short stories which no one would publish.

“After my money came to an end I had several years of fairly severe poverty during which I was, among other things, a dishwasher, a private tutor and a teacher in cheap private schools,” he said.

These experiences formed his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) which was drafted at the Oakwood Road address under his pen name for the first time.

In the mid 1930s Orwell found himself working part-time in a bookshop in Hampstead, called Booklover’s Corner, situated where Pond Street and South End Road meet.

The shop was run by a relaxed couple, the Westropes, who gave him accommodation at their home in Warwick Mansions, Pond Street.

Orwell shared the job with the journalist Jon Kimche (1909-1994), who also lodged with the Westropes, and was only required to work in the afternoons, leaving the mornings free for writing and the evenings for social activity.

It was during this period that he met his wife to be, Eileen, and wrote his third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).

Many local spots are referenced in the book, including the Prince of Wales and King of Bohemia pubs. Keats Grove is even unimaginatively renamed ‘Coleridge Grove’.

Orwell later moved to a dingy flat at 77 Parliament Hill and equipped with a “Bachelor Griller” he would cook simple food for guests but he was far from domesticated.

Years later when he was married to Eileen she once left him dinner in the oven only to return and discover he had eaten the jellied eels she had left out on a tray on the floor for the cat.