Homage to Orwell
Sunday, July 13, 2003
2. ORWELL'S GRAVE
Some people say that Orwell didn't believe in God, but I don't believe that's true. All his life - in letters he wrote and in his books - he'd say things like "Please God..." and "Thank God..." and "God knows..." and similar words to that effect. And in letters he wrote from his hospital bed he'd start some of them off with the initials "D.V.". Those stand for "Deo Volente" in Latin (of which Orwell was a scholar) and translate into English as "God Willing". I also think that Orwell believed in an afterlife because of the book he was reading on his deathbed. It was Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy which is considered one of the finest works of world literature. It's all about Dante's spiritual development and focuses on the theme of life after death. Dante hoped for a world where people would live a better life on earth and joy in heaven, aspirations that Orwell so obviously shared. And although Orwell wasn't a religious man and didn't go to church (except for the usual occasions like marriage) he "loved the land and he loved England and he loved the language of the liturgies of the English Church."
Three days before he died - in preparation for flying to a sanatorium in Switzerland - Orwell made out a new will saying:
"...And lastly I direct that my body shall be buried (not cremated) according to the rites of the Church of England in the nearest convenient cemetary, and that there shall be placed over my grave a plain brown stone bearing the inscription, "Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, born June 25th 1903, died..."
In 1984 churches symbolize the forbidden past about which citizens of Oceania are not allowed to remember or talk about, but about which Winston longs to learn more. He loves the rhyme Mr Charrington teaches him about the bombed out building in front of the Palace of Justice that used to be a church:
"Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clement's,
You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin's!"
The rhyme gives Winston "the illusion of actually hearing bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten. From one ghostly steeple after another he seemed to hear them pealing forth. Yet so far as he could remember he had never in real life heard church bells ringing."
Upon his death Orwell's burial wishes were fulfilled. After an emotional funeral at a church in London his body was taken to the village of Sutton Courtenay near the estate of his friend David Astor. It was also close to the village of Henley-on-Thames where Eric Blair had grown up.
I'd travelled down by train to Zoe's home near London on Friday. Our plans were to go to Orwell's grave and childhood home on Sunday and to his London haunts on Monday.
Waking Sunday morning I heard church bells ringing in the distance and thought to myself how pleased Orwell would be to know they still existed. Leaving around ten we drove through parts of London and then onto the motorway toward Oxford, taking the appropriate exit leading to Sutton Courtenay. We parked in front of the church and walked to the pub next door to refresh ourselves and enjoy Sunday brunch, after which we returned to the church.
We walked down the right side of the churchyard toward the back and started counting yew trees. At the fourth tree I stopped and looked at the closest headstone. To my surprise it said "David Astor, 1912 to 2001". I'd read in the biographies that he was a friend of Orwell's since the early 40s. He owned the Observer newspaper for which Orwell wrote book reviews; he'd introduced Orwell to the island of Jura where he owned an estate; he used to help Orwell get size 12 boots; he'd used his American connections to get the newest tuberculosis drug; he'd supplied ball point pens when Orwell was too weak to type. He'd once said about Orwell, "I really adored him. He was very likeable: honest, straightforward and truthful". As I stood there lost in thought Zoe shouted out, "Here it is!" and I turned around to see that the headstone next in line to David Astor's was George Orwell's, although of course, as per his instructions, it said "Eric Arthur Blair".
In the middle of Orwell's grave was a beautiful red rose bush which had obviously been planted by someone who knew what roses meant to Orwell. In one of his "As I Please" columns that he wrote for the Tribune he described visiting the cottage where he used to live and being amazed by the splendour of the rose bushes he'd planted almost ten years previously. No doubt Orwell would be pleased with the rose bush now growing from where his body lies and with the yew trees he's surrounded by, representing as they do the redemption of "The Vicar of Bray".
Zoe and I sat beside the grave for awhile, talking about aspects of 1984, and how in our opinion Winston's soul had escaped Big Brother, as explained in the last pages of the novel. While we were there several groups of people came to the grave, one of whom had lived in Sutton Courtenay for 42 years and hadn't discovered until this very day that Orwell was buried there.
We took photos of the grave. Notice David Astor's headstone behind Orwell's, and notice the yew trees surrounding Orwell.
Notice how similar Orwell's church window is to Shakespeare's church window. UPDATE: Notice also its similarity to the church where Orwell was married which I visited in the village of Wallington the following year.
We went inside the church and talked to the lady from the parish who was just about to lock up. She told us that she'd listened to David Astor giving a talk a few years ago and he'd said that Eric Blair had chosen the name "Orwell" after an English river and that he'd chosen "George" because it was very English. We signed the guest book before leaving and then after a quick stroll to the river we got back in the car for the drive to Orwell's boyhood home in Henley-on-Thames.
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~