Friday, March 04, 2016

Was Orwell murdered?

George Orwell, 1941

From Old School Ties, the Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 26, 2016

...Andrew Gow, his longest-serving tutor, told the boy’s father, when he came to enquire what should be done with Eric, that it would be a “disgrace” to Eton even to allow him to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. Lesser institutions (say London University, or Manchester) were unthinkable. Where higher education was concerned Gow might as well have worn a black cap.

It’s preposterous on the face of it to have suggested that an Eton scholar, by no means at the bottom of the class, could not, with a month or two’s cramming, have won an Oxbridge scholarship. Eric Blair was one of the cleverest boys in England. Why did Gow deliver this death sentence? 

Gow would reappear tangentially in the known narrative of Blair/Orwell’s life---always tantalizingly, suggesting there was more to the relationship than meets the eye. One glimpses sinister networks: but, if one tries to grasp them, they melt like cobwebs before a candle.

Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow (1886–1978) was the son of a public school headmaster. He got a double first in classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, but, when Blair came his way, was having difficulty obtaining the job there which he wanted above all things in life...

What he told [Orwell biographers]Stansky and Abrahams makes all the odder the account of Richard Blair visiting Eton to be told by Gow to remove his son entirely from the British higher education system. (It could be thought Gow did not want Blair around at Cambridge, where he, Gow, was determined to return, out of pure malice. He had identified Blair as a “nuisance”...

Richard got the message, and cut off any further family monetary sacrifice for Eric: the only son, but no longer the hope of the Blairs. From now on, he would have to pay his own way. And that meant, as it had done for his father, the colonies: that finishing school for Etonian non-starters...

Five years in the Burmese imperial police service was more than enough for Eric Blair. He returned, his health damaged, with the draft of his first novel and a lifelong hatred for that despicable “racket”, the British Empire...

Gow, having got there, would never leave Trinity. He taught classics, published little (not imperative in those days), notably editions of Theocritus and the Greek Anthology, and held extracurricular seminars for favourite students (his rooms were now sumptuous). He was a friend of fellow-Fellows such as [A.E.]Housman in the 1920s and, in the 1930s, Anthony Blunt...

The [Gow/Blunt] relationship may have gone beyond friendship (a brief sexual liaison is conjectured) and shared interests in art. Blunt was later infamous as the “Fourth Man”, recruited in the 1930s into a team of Cambridge Spies centred on Trinity College: Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby were the first three to be exposed. Who the fifth man was has been the source of speculation...

He[Gow] died in 1978, aged ninety-one. Crick was able to interview him a couple of years before. He was, at this stage of life, so “curmudgeonly” that his only visitor was the ever-loyal Blunt. But in 1976 Blunt had problems of his own. The net was closing on him---he would be denounced under privilege in Parliament, in 1978, as the controller of the Cambridge spies who had done so much damage to their country in the Cold War.

When Crick questioned him in 1976 Gow was cagey, and, without offering any explanation about what had brought Blair to Cambridge in 1927, was hostile in his opinions. Blair was “always a bit of a slacker and a dodger”, he recalled, adding that he was “a very unattractive boy”...

The oddest, and perhaps most suggestive, glimpse of all that we have is that, a few days before his former pupil died, Gow visited Orwell in University College Hospital. Orwell had just confided, to the newly set up IRD (Information Research Department) via its staffer Celia Kirwan (one of the many women he hoped, against hope, to marry), his “list” of dangerous communist sympathizers for the authorities to watch: “cryptos”, “fellow travellers” and reds under the bed.

Again, Crick is highly perplexed as to why, in a bitterly cold October, a few days after Orwell had been denouncing potential traitors, Gow, in his mid-sixties, should have come to University College Hospital---a dreary, Gothic pile, the original of Gormenghast, some plausibly suggest: “One afternoon Andrew Gow came to see him, using the excuse for his visit that he was in UCH to see a Trinity man and happened to hear that Blair was there too. Years afterwards he could not remember the name of that Trinity man”.

Brian Sewell, in his memoir The Outsider (2012), divulged his firm conviction that Gow had, all along, been the “fifth man”---and even the “puppetmaster” of the other four. Personally, Sewell detested Gow and revered Blunt, whom he knew extremely well. Gow, Sewell noted, had been Blunt’s mentor for “half a century”. He was not a mentor everyone would have chosen. Gow, said Sewell, “struck me as the coldest man I had ever encountered, a man of calculated silences”. Silent about what? He does not seem a born hospital visitor...

Why, however, did Gow visit him in hospital? Was he worried that Orwell had put him on the list? And if not him, had he fingered his---and Blunt’s---protégé Guy Burgess, now a reckless drunk whose homosexuality made him, at this date, also a criminal, indiscreetly shooting his mouth off all over London? Burgess (incredibly) had been appointed to the staff of IRD, and had an office next to Celia Kirwan’s: a fox in the chicken coop.

The Cambridge spies (Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt) were, in 1950, very nervous men. A few months later Burgess and Maclean would take flight to Moscow. Philby---although suspected---stayed until 1963, when things got too hot for him and he followed the others to the Soviet Union. 

Blunt remained, a comfortable establishment figure, until he too was denounced. But when Gow dropped in, uninvited, on the dying Orwell it was a tense period for the Cambridge spies, and---if he was, as Sewell alleges, their “puppetmaster”---for Andrew Gow...

Finally, in winter 1949, the hospital visit and, shortly after, Orwell dies: alone. No one, apparently, witnessed the death or made any attempt to save him. “Suffocation”, the terse coroners’ report said---caused by three years of tuberculosis. No suspicious circumstances. No autopsy necessary.

One could make a cracking “good-bad book” (to adapt Orwell’s classification) out of this---a “paranoid thriller”. The plotline writes itself. Down the gloomy corridors of University College Hospital comes a white-coated “nurse”, avoiding any eye-to-eye contact. He silently enters Orwell’s private room and places a pillow over the face of the man in the bed---too weak, by now, to struggle. It’s nonsense. But what one can conclude is that networks, some of them sinister, were being woven at Eton, and the college Etonians went to; which Eric Blair---thanks to Andrew Gow---did not.

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