Back in the late ’90s, the Secker & Warburg publishing house released an 11-volume edition of George Orwell’s correspondence, newspaper and magazine articles, and literary notes, all of this being presumably intended for those among the book-buying public who just really, really love George Orwell and want to have all of his intellectually honest babies. Apparently I’m among these people, as after receiving one of the volumes a couple of months ago from a kind supporter and finding it rather fascinating, I’ve since obtained and compulsively re-read five more of them.
One of these, covering the bulk of 1947 and 1948, includes Orwell’s “domestic diary” in which he records his experiences at a small Scottish farm he’d purchased of late and where he spent a good portion of this period, his time split between doing chores and composing the draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four. One might expect this to make for some pretty dull reading, but one would be wrong.
One would be dead wrong.
Things begin prosaically enough, with Orwell jotting down repairs he intends to make and noting the state of the produce since his last visit. “Onions etc. that I sowed & which were well up in January have practically all disappeared in the frost.” Well, farming entails certain mishaps here and there. “Went over to Ardlussa with the idea of bringing the boat back, but the sea seemed too rough.” One can hardly expect the elements to be entirely cooperative at all times, after all. Still, on the whole, it seems like a reasonably pleasant little farm.
And then the birds arrive.
“The chaffinches have pulled up, I think, all the lettuce seedlings.”
But this does not satisfy their rapaciousness. If anything, it merely spurs them on to even greater acts of banditry the following week:
“The chaffinches have evidently destroyed all the turnips.”
A few days later:
“Chaffinches still going for the turnip seed.”
Notice how Orwell has now dispensed with all the charming little qualifiers (“I think,” “evidently”) by which well-bred Englishmen like him normally evoke nonchalance in the face of disaster. One senses a weariness, a diminishing of vitality. It is as if Orwell is beginning to have an inkling of what we are soon to discover in horrifying fullness — that this farm is a farm of evil, its only crop despair.
But Orwell, though so widely hailed as the man who fearlessly spoke out against his fellow socialists when the Soviet Union merited criticism, who risked arrest in the Spanish Civil War by Franco’s fascists on the one hand and the Stalinist militias on the other, in this case simply refuses to face this particular truth, even as he himself compiles the grim evidence:
“A few parsnips showing, but not very good.”
“Violent gale last night & still more so his morning, at times so strong that one could hardly stay on one’s feet.”
“Impossible to sow seeds.”
“Spread lime (not very well-slaked).”
“Think hens have lice, applied DDT.”
“Most of the strawberries seem to have survived, but they are very tiny.”
“Still no eggs.”
And then, perhaps most ominously of all:
“Lobster box is unsatisfactory.”
Then events begin to take such a turn that they can no longer be written off as the result of poor soil or insufficient DDT use and instead become explainable only as the unhinged manifestations of some demonic local deity, perhaps rendered insane by its own immortality — and presently it becomes clear that we are no longer dealing with the mundane results of cause and effect, but with actual omens:
“Slugs are eating marigolds.”
“A small patch of the garden appears to have been struck by lightning in the storm on Monday.”
“A dead deer down by the bay. Rather unpleasant as it is too heavy to drag away.”
Indeed, there are few places in the world where it is worse to be an animal than on George Orwell’s nightmare farm:
“Cow bogged last night. When dragged out, she was too weak to stand, and had to be given gruel.”
Incidentally I have no idea what it means to be “bogged,” although I gather that it is something terrible that happens to you in Scotland and which can only be cured by having George Orwell feed you gruel, no doubt laced with DDT. Things are even worse for the sheep:
“They are lambing in such a state of weakness that they have no milk, sometimes actually refuse to take their lambs and even now that the grass is coming on, some of them are too weak to graze.” Allow me to just cut in here and ensure that we’re all clear on the fact that THE SHEEP ARE TOO WEAK TO LOWER THEIR HEADS AND EAT GRASS. And that’s not even the kicker: “[The neighbors] say the gulls and hoodies attack weak sheep and yesterday took the eye out of one of them.” Well, why not? This is Scotland, after all.
But Orwell remains unaware that anything is amiss, perhaps because he himself has now succumbed to the evil spirits that roam the Scottish countryside:
“While digging the ploughed patch, dug up nest of three young rabbits — about ten days old, I should say. One appeared to be dead already, the other two I killed.”
Orwell’s rabbit purge goes on for days. He proves to be altogether chaffinch-like in the extent of his rapacity, indeed of his contempt for life itself:
“Last night shot a very young rabbit in the garden. Threw the corpse into the trench.”
Nor is his revolutionary justice meted out only to the petit bourgeois rabbits:
“Killed a mouse in the larder. [Orwell’s sister Avril] came out to tell me there was one there behaving in a very bold way. Went in and found it eating something on the floor and paying no attention to either of us.” And so Orwell and his no doubt evil sister find the reactionary mouse guilty of undue boldness — a very serious thought-crime, mind you — and, satisfied with the results of their hastily arranged show trial, this so-called anti-Stalinist pronounces the sentence, to which there can be no appeal. “Hit it with a barrel stave and killed it.”
Of course, the wildlife manages to give as good as it gets here in the Dark Realm of Scotland:
“I hear that recently two children at [a neighboring village] were bitten by rats (in the face, as usual).”
At least these sorts of incidents are not so common as to go unremarked upon. I suppose a child in Scotland can go weeks and weeks without getting his face eaten off by rats.
One day, having exhausted the various sorts of supernatural malevolence to be encountered in the countryside, Orwell takes his guests on a motorboat trip across what I assume to be the sea of human blood that surrounds the Scottish mainland. And what do you suppose happens on this little sea jaunt? I hesitate to even report it lest the reader suspect that I’m now just making things up in support of my mounting case against Scotland, Most Beloved of Satan. But this is actually what happens:
“On return journey today ran into the whirlpool and were all nearly drowned. Engine sucked off by the sea and went to the bottom.”
Getting sucked into a whirlpool is literally something that only happens to you in (a) old cartoons and (b) Scotland. I didn’t even realize that a whirlpool was a real thing until I read this passage. What other menacing Scottish legends are going to turn out to really exist, I wonder? The three witches from Macbeth? Hume?
Arriving back at the farm, Orwell quickly gets back into the swing of things:
“Slowly disemboweled myself with a straight razor today and then licked the blade clean. No eggs.”
Well, that one I actually did make up. But notice how terrible it had to be to surpass all the slightly less terrible things that have already happened. Plus the part about the eggs is true.
At some point Orwell tries to trick his girlfriend Sonia Brownell into leaving the relative safety of London and joining him in The Shadow Lands That Lie to the North. The directions are suitably foreboding, comprised as they are of a Byzantine jumble of post-war train schedules that are clearly more theoretical than otherwise, and then a couple of ferry rides that no doubt expose the traveler to a charming array of whirlpools and sea monsters. Alternatively, he writes, she can take a plane; I do not care to even guess at what such an undertaking would entail. What’s really striking about all of this is that Scotland can apparently be reached by conventional means, whereas I would have more readily believed such a journey to involve passing through a swirling, blood-red portal, or perhaps stepping into the gaping jaws of an immense and lascivious cacodemon. And so you, too, can venture into this black magical world of violent gales, milkless mammals, bird attacks, rotting dear, and poisoned, lice-ridden hens, where the great secular saint of the 20th century stalks the landscape in search of bunnies to execute and where the very seas conspire to drown those who manage to survive the boggings — this bone-sceptered isle, this eggless land of unsatisfactory lobster boxes and very tiny strawberries, this Scotland.
Incidentally, I hear that the Scots are seeking their independence, presumably because British law currently prevents them from conducting human sacrifices to The Elder Gods and employing their children in the rat mines. I predict that upon achieving sovereignty, the nation will promptly seal its borders and change its name to something vaguely distressing, like the Concordate of Gargoyles; every now and then we will manage to take a satellite image indicating the construction of obsidian ziggurats, there will be garbled reports of some new priestly caste, and that will be the last we hear from the Scotsmen.
… at least, until The Reckoning.
For the record, I feel terrible about most of the things I just wrote.
Bible Verse of the Day: Leviticus 2:4 – 2:6
“When you bring a grain offering baked in the oven as an offering, it shall be unleavened loaves of fine flour mixed with oil or unleavened wafers smeared with oil. And if your offering is a grain offering baked on a griddle, it shall be of fine flour unleavened, mixed with oil. You shall break it in pieces and pour oil on it; it is a grain offering.”
[Editor’s note: Barrett Brown has been incarcerated for more than a year. He is being held in a federal detention facility in Seagoville, Texas, awaiting trial. This is the fifth installment of The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail. Go here if you’d like to send him a book to read or put some money in his commissary account. He is inmate 45047-177. Go here to contribute to his legal defense fund and learn more about the charges against him.]