Introducing the Bodley Head / FT essay competition.
Just before I turned 30 I was homeless for a while. Homeless is the wrong word, an exaggeration. But I was in Edinburgh with little money and nowhere to live – and the days were getting shorter. So I took myself off to the Scottish islands with a bike and two red waterproof panniers. The plan was to stay in bothies – stone cottages that shelter hikers and climbers, remote structures in the hills where you just arrive and take your chances.
I started in Oban on the west coast, then pedalled south to the ferry port on Loch Tarbert – one of the long fingers of ocean that reach deep and diagonally into Argyll. This was a mistake, since there was too much traffic on the mainland. Massive cold fronts broke in off the Atlantic, one after the other. I tried to cycle in the lulls between showers but was soaked through my Gore-Tex by rain and truck spray. I found myself unable not to take the headwind personally. I would burst regularly into tears on the hard shoulder – homeless, jobless, indebted and drenched.
Things improved when I boarded the ferry to Islay (pronounced Eye-La). A couple bought me lunch because I fixed their punctures. All us cyclists rolled off the boat ahead of the vehicles – we would encounter each other at different jetties and pubs and bunkhouses all through the isles: instant camaraderie. I visited distilleries and hiked to a bothy in a remote cove. The cottage was full of other people’s leavings: oatcakes and freshly cut peat in a creel, shiny cutlery and coffee pots all arranged there like the Marie Celeste. I half-expected a party of spectral hill walkers to come back any minute, but no one ever did. It was just me, myself and I – pinned down by (another) frightening Atlantic storm for three days and three nights.
When it subsided, I crossed to Jura: a wilder, emptier place where you must constantly check yourself for ticks, since the island is full of deer. Jura is also (I learned) the place where George Orwell lived in a remote cottage towards the end of his life, where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four, and worked on the memoir ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. This triumphantly miserable piece about his schooldays is one of my favourite pieces of non-fictional prose – and I have always taken it as significant that this was the essay he was revising on his deathbed. Orwell would come here to retreat from literary London, and was once almost drowned in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan off Jura’s north coast. You could hear its thunderous sound from where I camped – boulders being stirred on the ocean bed, like the long, drawn-out roar of a passing plane.
There was no road to these bothies. So I would hide my bike and panniers in gorse at the roadside, then hike on through the bogs and peat, weaving between the lochans that reflected the sky like bits of grey glass. Rolling off ferries, riding until the road ended, walking onward through the tawny sponge of a landscape – this set the pattern for my island journey, which eventually took me all the way through the Outer Hebrides with the wind at my back, through North Uist and South Uist, Barra and Benbecula. Through Harris and Lewis, where the Gulf Stream throws up white beaches and turquoise waters that lap incongruously up to brown peat bogs and standing stones. Through Skye where I was drenched again; through Mull where I stayed in a Mongolian yurt and collected pebbles on the sacred isle of Iona – five small planets that are on my desk now.
The trip became a kind of fulcrum in my life because it also involved an unlikely job interview. Picking up messages on the ferry leaving Jura, I listened to several increasingly urgent voice notes from someone in Human Resources at the University of Cape Town. I was asked to be ready for a telephonic interview the next day: the last slot that could be offered. At this point I was en route to a tiny island called Colonsay. Arriving at the ferry port, I saw a red phone box and ran over – but the receiver was dead in its cradle. Someone told me that there was another at the north end of the island. I cycled there immediately – also dead.
The whole enterprise seemed about to tip into utter, unmitigated disaster. Not only was I technically homeless, I had now squandered my best chance to get home – to my real home, South Africa, which I was pining for – to close this cold northern chapter of my life and go back where I came from. The mother of all existential low-pressure systems seemed about to break on me.
But then: one of those moments (of which there were many) suggesting that Scotland may well be the finest country in the world. A roving communications hub, a government-funded initiative called the Western Isles Service Point, just happened to be in Colonsay that week. Not only could I have a telephonic interview (the amenable council worker told me), I could have a multi-channel videoconference with delegates all over the world; I could live-stream myself anywhere from this tiny speck of land in the north Atlantic.
After making notes with the toothpick-sized pen from my Swiss Army knife, and then asking the musicians in the community hall next door to please stop fiddling for half an hour (the Colonsay Folk Festival was about to start) – I had my interview for the post of English lecturer, explaining to the panel that I was looking over towards the isle of Jura, where Orwell had come to die, where he had spent his last days revising an essay about being a confused and humiliated boy. I got the job, and a few months later returned to South Africa for good.
Why do I tell this story? Why does this lonely, difficult journey keep playing in my mind? Whenever I am outdoors, and it is spitting with rain, and dusk is falling after the summer solstice – a jolt of memory: the imperative to find somewhere to sleep, to find shelter before dark. Whenever I see shiny red bike panniers, or a cloud of midges, or a slope of Table Mountain fynbos that looks like heather (or vice versa). Whenever I take a peat-smoked sip of Caol Ila, Jura or Laphroaig, those single malts filtered through the islands I sloshed across, bought for massively inflated prices in the off licence here, but never mind. Laphroaig really is the perfect whiskey, Colin McAdam writes in his memoir about Islay (and alcoholism): ‘Salt, blood, hospitals and fire, toffee-sweet comfort and undersea peace’.
Recently, a student told me that she point blank refused to read Orwell’s ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. I teach a course on narrative non-fiction, and this is on the syllabus under the section titled ‘Getting Personal: How to Use “I” and Still Be Interesting’. But she was emphatically not interested in yet another memoir about the schooldays of a ‘cis-het white middle-class English male’.
I bristled, no doubt. It was quite a stack of adjectives for me to swallow. I wanted to argue that this piece is profoundly about power and empire and money and class. I wanted to quote bits of the piece, try to win her over.
Look at how Orwell, within just a few lines, diagnoses the romanticised cult of Scotland that permeates his snobbish school of Crossgates (and lingers in my prose too, no doubt). The boastful schoolboy talk of Highland holidays, burns and braes and ‘our ghillies’ – all this ‘pretended belief in Scottish superiority’ was really ‘a cover for the bad conscience of the occupying English, who had pushed the Highland peasantry off their farms to make way for deer forests, and then compensated them by turning them into servants’. The writing’s affinity for the natural world coexists with a deep awareness of how landscape can hide its own history.
Look at the olfactory range of the piece, its disgusted fascination with the odours of the boarding school: ‘a sort of compound of sweaty stockings, dirty towels, faecal smells blowing along corridors, forks with old food between the prongs, neck-of-mutton stew, and the banging doors of the lavatories.’ At least read the first page, which begins in abject shame and humiliation – always so reliable, so delectable, as literary subjects. Orwell remembers being hauled up by the headmistress (nicknamed Bingo) for bed-wetting, and being mocked by her in front of a mysterious woman who is visiting the school that day:
‘Here is a little boy’, said Bingo, indicating me to the strange lady, ‘who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet your bed again?’ she added, turning to me. ‘I am going to get the Sixth Form to beat you.’
The fact that the young protagonist knows bed-wetting to be simultaneously a) wicked and b) entirely outside his control – this sets up the dysfunctional moral universe of the school, and the deep theme of the essay: a world in which it is near impossible to be good, or do right. But it’s the next bit that stays with me:
The strange lady put on an air of being inexpressibly shocked, and exclaimed ‘I-should-think-so!’ And here occurred one of those wild, almost lunatic misunderstandings which are part of the daily experience of childhood.
The Sixth Form, we are told, was ‘a group of older boys who were selected as having “character” and who were empowered to beat smaller boys’. But the young Orwell has not yet learned of their existence, and so he mishears the phrase ‘the Sixth Form’ as ‘Mrs. Form’: ‘I took it as referring to the strange lady – I thought, that is, that her name was Mrs. Form.’ An improbable name, ‘but a child has no judgement in such matters. I imagined, therefore, that it was she who was deputed to beat me’. The passage goes to produce a fascinating tangle of ‘I’ and ‘I’, an autobiographical dance between the older, reflecting, writing self and the younger version, still pinned so distantly and ignorantly in the past:
It did not strike me as strange that this job should be turned over to a casual visitor in no way connected with the school. I merely assumed that ‘Mrs. Form’ was a stern disciplinarian who enjoyed beating people (somehow her appearance seemed to bear this out) and I had an immediate terrifying vision of her arriving in full riding kit and armed with a hunting whip. To this day I can feel myself almost swooning with shame as I stood, a very small, round-faced boy in short corduroy knickers, before the two women. I could not speak.
Mrs. Form. It seems almost too minor, too private and strange a detail to put into a piece of writing. And yet Orwell has trusted to it, revivifying one of childhood’s ‘wild, almost lunatic misunderstandings’ – what adjectival skills, what a mesmerising phrase – to begin a meditation on how we conduct our lives according to error piled upon error, by being wrong about almost everything, then writing it down, and being wrong all over again.
Wrong to think that my students could share the same enthusiasm for this piece, or find it equally meaningful – especially as I have come to understand (as one does via essays) the deeper psychological story of how you come to know the things you know, or think the things you think, or like the things you like.
In launching the first FT essay competition five years ago, Simon Schama wrote about his Orwell. My father (who diligently posts me the paper when he is done) also has his Orwell – an author we have coincided on, though for different reasons. He likes to quote the line about good prose being like a windowpane; at the university, the glass is forever shattered. Something in Orwell’s writing speaks to me as a white South African living through my country’s delayed, painful reckoning with its past: a sense of inescapable complicity and taintedness. Orwell the ex-colonial policeman, or rather Eric Blair, who invents the character ‘Orwell’, a literary creation who is (as Raymond Williams pointed out) so much more convincing than the protagonists in his rather strained novels – a character who lets him write with the full range of his experience.
Some readers have quibbled about the facts of Orwell’s memoir, but as Williams writes (in his 1971 essay for Fontana Modern Masters, with its beautiful cover design), this dichotomy between fact and fiction is really beside the point. The distinction that matters ‘is always one of range and consciousness’. He goes on: ‘Written human experience of an unspecialized and primary kind must always be recognized as literature…Orwell began to write literature, in the full sense, when he found this “non-fictional” form: that is, when he found a form capable of realising his experience directly.’ In a sense, the Mrs. Form debacle gives form to the whole memoir, to a whole writing life – one that involves the slow and passionate correction of the errors that the self has laboured under for so long.
So even as I was wrong to imagine that Orwell’s schooldays could mean as much to my students as they do to me, I still want to argue for him as part of a constellation of writers who shake the essay form out of its politeness and coziness. Who infuse it with political energy, who are working not toward some oppressive ‘truth’ but rather towards reducing the number of errors circulating in the world. Writers like James Baldwin, Jamaica Kincaid, John Berger, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Janet Malcolm, Rebecca Solnit, Teju Cole, Ta-Nehisi Coates – all are non-fictionists whose work feels essential, electrifying, to me. A widened, international syllabus of writers who encode within their work the struggle towards a fuller articulation, who bring forth the sense that something vital is slowly working its way into being said, patiently and painfully emerging into fuller consciousness.
Such, I think, are some of the joys and tensions of the essay form: how it navigates between the private archive and full public voice, starting with an unrepeatably idiosyncratic detail and then widening this out into a whole world. How it can find a home for the undersea peace of the meditative, free-thinking self, but also (I’m still thinking of Jura) the submerged roar of world historical currents: the remote cottage and the maelstrom.