George Orwell: Great, but a bit smelly and spiteful about Southwold

George Orwell and ever-present cigarette. Photo: The Orwell Archive, UCL Library Special Collections

George Orwell and ever-present cigarette. Photo: The Orwell Archive, UCL Library Special Collections - Credit: Archant

There’s no doubt about it: George Orwell, famous for novels such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, pretty much despised Southwold. Mind you, he smelled badly – of BO and shag tobacco...

A picture of George Orwell on Southwold beach in 1934, taken by friend Dennis Collings

A picture of George Orwell on Southwold beach in 1934, taken by friend Dennis Collings

A few years ago, at the height of the hay fever season, university professor John Sutherland lost his sense of smell. It hasn’t come back – and specialists reckon it never will. Being more or less in the same boat myself – my sense of smell and its twin sister, taste, are often working only at 10% efficiency, the lazy pair – I sympathise. Though if you have to make sacrifices, best to say goodbye to olfactory sensory neurons rather than your eyesight, hearing or ability to feel a warm breeze on your cheek.

Enough about me. This is about George Orwell, whose family lived in Southwold. His father became captain of the golf club. Orwell had many spells in Southwold – mainly when he was on his uppers. Which was often. That didn’t stop him biting the hand that fed him, with some of his barely-disguised fiction taking a swipe at small-town attitudes.

When his nasal membranes waved the white flag, John Sutherland decided to reread Orwell’s novels – “just to relax”. He found the writing different. “Not quite as comforting,” he says in his new book. “Imagine, for example, a person born with no sense of smell. Would Animal Farm ‘read’ the same way as for someone with functioning nostrils and long familiarity with the richly mixed but detectably different aromas of a farmyard?”

Orwell’s prose, he tells us, reeks. Norman Mailer’s and Jane Austen’s are antiseptic in comparison. “The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats,” for instance, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, while main character Winston Smith’s Victory gin gives off “a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit”.


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John’s quirky book Orwell’s Nose looks at the author’s life and work, and explores the “scent narratives” woven into his paragraphs.

“Who but Orwell would diagnose the malaise of socialism in 1936 nose-first, as a malodor?” asks the professor of modern English literature at University College, London. To be fair, Orwell also reaches for the aromas when having a pop at pseudo-Marxists.

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John cites Gordon Comstock, the unappealing would-be writer trapped by poverty and lack of talent in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He forces his friend and patron, the rich Philip Ravelston, to visit a working-class pub.

“Ravelston is an ungrateful caricature of Richard Rees, the ‘socialist baronet’ and proprietor of the Adelphi magazine,” explains John. “It was ‘Dickie’ who assisted Orwell into authorship, publishing the nucleus of articles that became his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.”

“A sour cloud of beer” hung about the spit-and-sawdust pub. Ravelston found it revolting. The air was “thick with gunpowdery tobacco smoke”.

George Orwell was a lover of goats. Honestly. Photo: The Orwell Archive, UCL Library Special Collect

George Orwell was a lover of goats. Honestly. Photo: The Orwell Archive, UCL Library Special Collections - Credit: Archant

Outside, the ranting Comstock tells his friend the better-off hate the poor, because of their bad smell. “Poverty is spiritual halitosis.”

Ravelston thinks of his lover Hermione, as appealing as a “wheatfield in the sun”. Whenever he raises the subject of socialism, she tells him not to talk about the lower classes. “I hate them. They smell.”

Later that evening, Ravelston and Hermione eat at a top restaurant. Outside, a beggar with bad teeth and bad breath asks for money.

“Hermione forbids Ravelston to give him a single penny,” writes John. “Ravelston obeys. His socialism is a paper and print thing. He loves the people – but not their smell. He and Hermione dine, expensively, on rump steak and half a bottle of Beaujolais. A feast to the nose and the palate.”

He adds: “Rees/Ravelston’s kind of socialism, well meant as it might be, smelled wrong to Orwell because it had the aroma of expensively scented sex, French cuisine and newly washed underwear.”

While Orwell’s obsession with smells is fascinating, the most intriguing parts of John Sutherland’s book concern the relationship with Southwold.

The Blairs (Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair) moved to the coast at about the time their son was leaving Eton in 1921. Next step? How about the Imperial Police in India? Mind you, there was an entrance exam.

“Eric was duly enrolled with a ‘crammer’ in Southwold. There was an Anglo-Indian retiree colony in the town and a small establishment for their offspring taking the India Office exams.

“Orwell doubtless relished Southwold’s briny air and green spaces. He hated its character, however, as an Anglo-Indian graveyard whose occupants wouldn’t have the decency actually to die (his own father would live there until the age of 82). It is described, venomously (with location replacement)” in Burmese Days: “Those tomb-like boarding-houses with Anglo-Indians littered about in all stages of decomposition, all talking and talking about what happened in Boggleywalah in ’88!”

George Orwell and the Blair family dog, Hector, and cat, in Southwold. Photo: The Orwell Archive, UC

George Orwell and the Blair family dog, Hector, and cat, in Southwold. Photo: The Orwell Archive, UCL Library Special Collections - Credit: Archant

Eric was expelled from his crammer “for a childish prank – posting a dead rat as a birthday present to a local town official whom he and another wayward pupil had, for no particular reason, taken against”.

Still, he passed the entrance exam and in late 1922 was off to Burma.

He came back to Suffolk in 1927, no fan of British colonialism. Again: what next? The question, writes John, would hang over the cramped Southwold household like a black cloud, for seven lean years. “Once the hope of the family, Eric was now a double-dyed failure – at Eton and in the Indian Police Service. Orwell intended, without consulting his family... to resign his five-year commission prematurely on the pretext (fabricated) of illness – a touch of dengue fever, which he could easily have shaken off with some rest and recuperation in Rangoon.” The returnee had a notion of a literary career, though it would take a while to get going.

In commemorating the centenary of his birth in 1903, we – the East Anglian Daily Times – pointed out he was “remembered as a rather dishevelled unshaven figure, dressed in suits handmade by a local tailor that needed a good iron, a long scarf, and no hat – which in the 1930s was considered under-dressed… people felt rather sorry for his parents”.

He had relationships with women, including vicar’s daughter Brenda Salkeld, a gym teacher at St Felix School. “He proposed to her twice; the surmise is that she never slept with him, despite his urgent requests.”

“Blair was generally regarded by the young men of the town, and some husbands he is alleged to have cuckolded, as a sexual raider,” writes John. “On one occasion, as DJ Taylor discovered from interviews with aged residents, he was chased across the Southwold commons by a rival on motorbike with homicidal intent, for unwelcome attentions to his fiancée.” Then there was Eleanor Jaques, who became engaged to the son of the Blair family doctor.

Eleanor’s boyfriend “apparently did not know what Eric, his supposed best friend, was up to when he was out of town”. A young poet friend called Ruth Pitter helped Blair find lodgings in London and he wrote obsessively. It would be a very bumpy road to “success”, but at least he had started his journey.

That change of name to George Orwell, John reminds us, was down to a woman called Mabel Fierz he met while he was painting – or, specifically, her husband Francis.

Blair first came across her in the summer of 1930, on Southwold beach. “She was married to a rich executive in the steel business, and was of a certain age, cosmopolitan, ‘mystically’ socialist (a ‘crank’, Orwell would have said) and sexually libertine (something that mitigated any off-putting crankiness)”.

John Sutherland's book

John Sutherland's book - Credit: Archant

Eric and Mabel would have an affair. “Wandering along the river it was Francis, apparently, who suggested the pen name ‘Orwell’.”

John writes: “To shield his family from possible embarrassment, and to keep his own identity, Eric Blair at this point became ‘George Orwell’ – a ‘round English name’, and a memorial to some good fishing he had had in its waters.” Orwell would have more spells in Southwold, as his fitful career progressed.

The Blairs used a legacy to buy Montague House, in the High Street, for £100. His sister Avril and mother Ida “had sufficient start-up money left over for their longed-for Copper Kettle/bridge club venture in the centre of town”. That was in 1933.

“The Blairs’ Southwold tea room is scornfully rubbished in (Orwell’s) A Clergyman’s Daughter. In fact Avril did very well out of the Copper Kettle and her locally famed cakes. She even bought herself a new car with the profits. Orwell himself could not, for most of his life, afford motorized transport better than second-hand motorbikes.”

John points out how the family had made sacrifices to send Eric to Eton and help him in other ways. So, when A Clergyman’s Daughter came out – its Knype Hill transparently Southwold – one wonders what they thought about Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.

Orwell wrote: “Not to be present at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe between ten and eleven every morning, to drink your ‘morning coffee’ and spend your halfhour or so in that agreeable twitter of upper-middle-class voices…” John Sutherland says the scorn of this “bitter book” shocks.

“When he wrote this, Orwell, a thirty-year-old layabout, was out of work in his parents’ house, convalescing from pneumonia, at the very period the women were setting up their brave venture.”

It also seems likely Avril would have noticed parallels between her and a character stuck in the family home. “Was this how her brother saw her? As a no-longer nubile chattel caught for ever in the Southwold glue-pot?” And would father Richard have wondered if snobbish patriarch the Rev Hare was based on him? “He was, like Hare, boastful about his remotely aristocratic family… Eric, he might have observed, had always been put off by his removing his false teeth for breakfast.” Perhaps worse, “Brenda – the clergyman’s daughter – would have felt the narrative extremely painfully. For years Eric Blair had been pestering her for sex. He was aggressive in his demands. The novel alleges neurotic ‘frigidity’ on her part. Brenda would have thought it payback for not succumbing to Eric.”

There is so much spite in the novel that Orwell was right to suppress it after its first publication. “As he told his agent Leonard Moore in 1944, ‘I oughtn’t to have published it’,” John says. “In a sense, he threw it over his shoulder to settle some scores with Southwold, and made off to London…”

Montague House in Southwold, where the Blair family once lived

Montague House in Southwold, where the Blair family once lived

Probably for the best.

Mind you, time has since shone a more positive light on the author.

John tells me: “Orwell is now administered like a vaccine to the school and higher education systems. It’s remarkable. It would, I think, have amazed him. Although there were inklings, as he was dying, that his writing would live on.

“When one recalls he died, mid 40s, one gets the same feeling as with Shakespeare ? who retired in his mid 40s, and died in his early 50s. If only they’d had as many years as me...”

n Orwell’s Nose is published by Reaktion at £15. John Sutherland gives a talk at Southwold on Friday, November 11 on George Orwell and smell. It’s part of The Way with Words literary festival. For information on ticket availability: www.wayswithwords.co.uk

John Sutherland. Photo: Random House

John Sutherland. Photo: Random House - Credit: Archant

John Sutherland on the spot

Steven Russell poses the questions:

How have people reacted to the book, as smell (and the loss of that sense) is an unusual angle to take when discussing an author’s life and work?

“It’s an interesting question, Steve. Anosmia (it should be the name of a flower, don’t you think) is invisible. I’ve noticed over the years that another disability ? deafness ? is now invisible as well. (Hearing) Aids (God bless them) are tiny. I think back to the talks I’d give 30 (and more, alas) years ago, when the start of events would sound like the air-warnings from my childhood, as the battery-operated ear trumpets warmed up for the hour ahead.

“My point, when I get to it, is that there’s a lot of anosmia, and loss of taste (they’re connected) around. If it does come up, in my cohort, I’m surprised at how many fellow sufferers there are. Three causes, usually: a bang on the head, sinusitis, and another thing you don’t want to think about.

“I’d like to get a blue disability parking plaque. No chance.

“Seriously, people are usually interested. It makes them think about smell. Without smell, it’s been said, things aren’t real. It’s like a musical score without sound. On websites for those afflicted, there is much discussion of melancholy and depression.

“Unfortunately, unlike the failing of the ear, there is no such thing as a nostril aid. Mr Dyson, where are you?”

I must admit I’ve overlooked the potency of aromatic descriptions in setting tone, atmosphere and meaning in writing. As you say, if one had to sacrifice a sense, that’s probably the least-damaging one to ditch. Do you think most of us fail to recognise the importance of smell in our lives – both in what we read and, actually, living life? Perhaps we take it for granted, because of familiarity…

“We, unlike the French (think Chanel No5 and garlic) our puritan heritage wages constant war on smell ? we, the Anglo Saxons, invented the deodorant. I’m very old. I can remember, in the fleapit cinemas of my youth, usherettes parading up and down the aisles, in intervals between the double-feature flicks, with flit-guns, spraying away the smell of me and others.

“One point I should make here ? often forgotten. Orwell (Eric Blair as he was born) was half French. It sharpened, I like to think, his sensitivity to smell, which lifts off, like fog off the North Sea, from his writing. A dimension lost to me, I’m afraid.”

Are you tempted to write the same kind of book for any other authors?

“Could you appreciate Proust if you could smell tisane (a herb tea) and madeleine (a rich cake)? (I’m interested ? as a connoisseur of literary curiosities ? that people have tried to reconstruct that Proustian cake, and have failed utterly). Other authors? I think not. It’s pretty much a one-shot kind of literary criticism. Some would say not even that.”

Can I ask more about your loss of smell? I’m interested, since mine is also shot. I’ve had polyps removed. Sitting in a ward, with what appeared to be metal sparklers lodged in my nostrils like cats’ whiskers, was interesting. The cocaine-based pre-op anaesthetic on the end of each sparkler was nice; having metres of bloody gauze pulled out of my nose the following day was not. Did you go through that? Of course, it didn’t really work.

“I’ve spoken to many with your experience. I hope it comes back. The ability to smell, that is. Mine was caused, initially, by hay fever (I suspect California broom) which plugged my nose with what felt like super-glue. And killed the sensors, after a few years. Steroids, not available then, would have helped (the Pirinase inhaler on the Boots open shelf, for example).

“A question I’d like to ask you. Do you find that imperfect smelling ability affects memory? Mine does, I find. I hadn’t realized how dependent memory (the smell of every house I’ve lived in) is dependent on associated smell. Strange. It’s clearer with dogs ? whose power of smell, Paul O’Grady tells me, is 400 times better than ours, even when working 100%. My miniature schnauzer knows the world through its little snout.”

And Mr Orwell… When you are in Aldeburgh, do you usually make a nostalgic visit to the site of the Copper Kettle and muse?

“Of course I made a pilgrimage there ? it’s still working. And the museum, which has forgiven George for his malice.”

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