Excerpt from George Orwell: A Life

George Orwell
George Orwell Wikimedia Commons

In 1947, Eric Arthur Blair took a short break from writing his novel, 1984, which he would publish two years later under his pseudonym, George Orwell. His novel, a profound attack against totalitarianism, would send waves across the world, introducing such terms as "Big Brother is watching you" into the popular lexicon.

His experiences during this short break nearly prevented him from writing again. To complete the book, Blair had taken a home on the Inner Hebridean island of Jura. That summer, he invited his young nieces and nephews, including 3-year-old Ricky, out for a boating expedition. Unexpectedly, they came upon the Corryvreckan whirlpool and disaster soon struck. Of the incident, his biographer Bernard Click writes, "Orwell's bravery, stoicism and eccentricity come across, but also his lack of common prudence, indeed excessive self-confidence or recklessness in practical matters . . . . to take children in an open boat across such a famous tidal race—legendary in the Western Isles—without being sure of the tides, could appear almost crazily irresponsible." The following account appeared in a local newspaper and was based on an interview with Orwell's nephew Henry Dakin. Eds.

 [W]hen we turned round the point there was already a fair swell, the boat was rising and falling a lot, but we were not worried because Eric seemed to know what he was doing and he did spend a lot of time mending and caulking the boat, and we had an outboard motor. But as we came round the point obviously the whirlpool had not receded. The Corryvreckan is not just the famous one big whirlpool, but a lot of smaller whirlpools around the edges. Before we had a chance to turn, we went straight into the minor whirlpools and lost control. Eric was at the tiller, the boat went all over the place, pitching and tossing, very frightening being thrown from one small whirlpool to another, pitching and tossing so much that the outboard motor jerked right off from its fixing. Eric said, "the motor's gone, better get the oars out, Hen. Can't help much, I'm afraid". So I unshipped the oars and partly with the current and partly with the oars, but mostly with the current, tried to steady her and we made our way to a little island. Even though that bit of it was very frightening, nobody panicked. Eric didn't panic, but nobody else did either. Indeed, when he said he couldn't help you very much, he said it very calmly and flatly. He was sitting at the back of the boat, he wasn't particularly strong, I was younger and stronger and sitting near the oars.

 We got close to a little rock island and as the boat rose we saw that it was rising and falling about twelve feet. I had taken my boots off in case I had to swim for it, but as the boat rose level with the island, I jumped round with the painter in my hand all right, though sharp rocks painful on the feet, turned but saw the boat had fallen down. I still had my hand on the painter but the boat had turned upside down. First Lucy appeared, Eric appeared next and cried out, "I've got Ricky all right". Eric had grabbed him as the boat turned and pulled him out from under the boat. He had to swim from the end of the boat to the side of the island, still hanging on to Ricky. He seemed to keep his normal "Uncle Eric" face the whole time, no panic from him or from anyone. And they were all able to clamber up on to the island. . . . So we were left on this island about a hundred yards long and I could not see all of it because the rocks rose in folds—we were left with the boat, one oar, a fishing rod and our clothes. Eric got his cigarette lighter out, never went anywhere without it, and put it out on a rock to dry. We had not been there three minutes when he said he would go off and find some food. A slightly ridiculous thing, it struck me afterwards, because we had had breakfast only two hours before and the last thing that any of us was thinking of was eating or of hunger. When he came back, the first thing he said was, "Puffins are curious birds, they live in burrows. I saw some baby seagulls, but I haven't the heart to kill them."

"I thought we were goners", he concluded. He almost seemed to enjoy it. We waved a shirt on the fishing rod about, and after about one and a half hours a lobster boat spotted us and picked us up. Picked us up with some difficulty, because he could not come up close to the island because of the swell and had to throw a rope across and we clambered along the rope one by one, Eric taking Ricky on his back.

The lobsterman landed us at the north of the island and we just walked about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes and came across Avril and Jane working hard hoeing in a field. They said to us, "What took you so long?"

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