Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Orwell in Eastbourne

By its very nature as an old and established seaside resort, Eastbourne can boast some high-profile cultural connections: literary giants Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll were regular visitors; the artist Eric Ravilious was a life-long resident and the biologist T.H. Huxley retired there, as did the journalist and literary critic, Cyril Connolly. But Connolly had lived in the town earlier in his life, at a residence he shared with a more renowned contemporary. If you walk along Summerdown Road, one of the well-heeled, tree-lined streets of the Old Town area, you will eventually come across a detached house with two rectangular blue plaques, one of which contains Connolly’s name and that of the writer, George Orwell.

The house, formerly the Headmaster’s lodge, is all that remains of St. Cyprian’s preparatory school. The main school building, where the two writers boarded between 1911 and 1916, stood to the rear of the house. It was destroyed by fire in 1939 and, subsequently, the school was closed and the playing fields sold to Eastbourne College. That less is made of Orwell’s connection to the town is probably due to the fact that he hated his time at St. Cyprian’s and, in a long autobiographical essay, laid his feelings bare. Such, Such Were the Joys – the ironic title coming from one of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, The Echoing Green – was published after his death to a polarised reception.

Writing over 25 years after the experience, Orwell’s detailing of a life of insanitary conditions, inhospitable dormitories and inedible food was recognised by some, but not by all. And it was his view of the violent regime of Mr and Mrs Wilkes, nicknamed Sambo and Flip, handing out humiliating punishments to some and lavish praise to others, that most divided former pupils. Accusing the Wilkes of fawning over the students from rich families, Orwell felt that as a scholarship boy he was cruelly treated. When he first arrived at the school as a seven-year-old, he was beaten with a riding crop so viciously that it broke. But it was his realisation that paranoia and fear were deliberately deployed by those supposed to be taking care of him that made Orwell understand the power of hierarchies. Friendless and spied upon, loneliness and a broken spirit were the outcomes.

Some of Orwell’s time in Eastbourne found its way into his fiction: in his ‘fairy tale’, Animal Farm, the local village is named after Willingdon, just to the north of town; its pub, The Red Lion, is where Farmer Jones gets drunk; and Manor Farm, where the revolution takes place, is based on Chalk Farm on the edge of the Downs. If Orwell used simple landmarks that he would have come across on ‘character-building’ walks for settings in Animal Farm, the area had a more profound effect on his final novel. The Last Man in Europe was Orwell’s original title for Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it perhaps gives us a further clue to how he felt about his time in Eastbourne. Exposed as a young child to an authoritarian regime that was, by turns, caring and violent, the sense of isolation and powerlessness that Winston Smith feels in Orwell’s most well-known novel can be traced back, in Such, Such Were the Joys, to his five long years at St. Cyprian’s.

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