Kay Ekevall remembers George Orwell

Orwell on Southwold Beach, Suffolk (early 1930s)

George Orwell in early 1930s

Kay Ekevall (b. 1911) ran a secretarial agency and lived near the bookshop on the corner of Pond Street, Hampstead, where Orwell worked part-time in 1934-5; and being of literary tastes, she got to know him by talking about books. They were friends for nearly a year. This is the time when Orwell was writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He met Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who became his wife, in Hampstead, and his affair with Kay came to an end. She refers to Rayner Heppenstall, one of their circle, and Michael Sayers, who, with George Orwell, were the three members of Mabel Fierz’s ‘Junior Republic’. She persuaded the trio to share a flat in Kentish Town.

This is taken from a transcript of the 1984 BBC Arena programme, Orwell Remembered. She is interviewed by Nigel Williams.

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Mrs Ekevall, when did you first meet George Orwell?

I believe it was the end of 1934, in the bookshop at the foot of Pond Street. I had a typing bureau up at the top of Pond Street. I used to haunt second-hand bookshops all my life. I didn’t know the Westropes personally but I knew the shop fairly well and bought a lot of stuff from it. And when I went in one day, I saw this tremendously tall man and I thought, how handy, he can reach all the books that we can’t. Most booksellers in Hampstead in those days were very interested in what you bought, you know. They weren’t indifferent like a lot of them now. And so we started dis­cussing books and it was ‘have you read this’ and ‘do you like’ so and so . . . that kind of thing. And I went in several times afterwards and we went on discussing books. Then he said would I like to come and meet some of his friends who were also interested in books. So I went up to his place at Parliament Hill. He used to live above Westropes but he’d left there by that time. And so I met Rayner Heppenstall and Mike Sayers, Mrs Fierz, several other people who were his friends. We began to meet quite regularly. Went around together and used to go for long walks over the Heath, which was great fun because he was very knowledgeable about country things. I think he’d been brought up in country areas. And then, of course, he knew all about the Far East and he was fairly colourful about the landscape there.

He talked about Burma to you didn’t he?

Oh yes, yes. He was fiercely anti-colonial of course, as most of us were then. And we discussed politics generally, but none of us were very well-versed in politics at that time, except Mike Sayers who had read a lot and wrote political articles. He was very knowledgeable but the rest of us were all for the underdog so to speak, but didn’t really know any theory or anything like that. There was an organisation, I think it was – something Common­wealth. And I think G. K. Chesterton had put the idea forward. And he was quite interested in that and we used to discuss it quite a lot among all our friends.

So he was involved with the Democratic Commonwealth?

Well, he wasn’t involved with it but he was interested in it. … And he was fairly keen to do a sort of epic on history from Chaucer -because he was very keen on Chaucer – continuing up to the present day. He did the first part of it, which he wasn’t very satisfied with – and it wasn’t particularly good – then I think he decided that poetry wasn’t in his line and gave it up.

Oh it was a poem?

Yes.

A sort of epic poem.

Yes. But I don’t think he really was cut out for poetry. Maybe I’m a bit arrogant about that, because I wrote poetry myself at the time. I mean he was a really very interesting person but he had a tremendous amount of strange prejudices, you know. One of them was against Scotsmen, which was very odd.

All Scotsmen?

Yes. Now this was what was so silly. I knew Edwin and Willa Muir, who lived just round the corner from him. And they used to invite young writers to their house every so often. And I invited our crowd, Eric and Rayner and Mike along to one of these dos. And Rayner and Mike came but Eric wouldn’t come because Edwin was Scots. And he would cross the road rather than be introduced to him. I used to fight him over this. I said, ‘Edwin’s the most mild kind person, and in any case,’ I said, ‘he’s Orcadian and they don’t call themselves Scots.’ But he just had this blind prejudice because of what he called the whisky-swilling planters in Burma that he’d met. So he lumped all Scotsmen together. Must have got over it towards the end of his life because he was in partnership with a Scots farmer up in Jura. But probably that was his sister’s doing because she married the Scots farmer.

He really hated Burma didn’t he?

Oh yes. That’s really why he opted out of it, because he just couldn’t take it any more. And of course the conditions in the colonies were pretty awful in those days.

Had he published any books when you first met him?

He’d published Down and Out. Mabel [Fierz] was responsible for getting him introduced to the publishers for that. She knew a lot of publishers, she was in that kind of field. Burmese Days had come out in America and they were considering it over here and it came out just at the end of the time when I knew him.

Did you like “Down and Out”?

Yes I did. I thought that was a very honest sort of book. Of course it had been done before by Jack London. Orwell was the sort of person who always wanted to get first-hand experience of anything that he wanted to write about. He tried to get himself imprisoned once in order to study prisons. I heard in the end that he became a prison visitor.

Was that when you knew him? How did he try and get himself into prison?

He bashed a policeman or something like that when he was drunk. But they told us to take him home and look after him. He was very honest in that respect, he always wanted to have first­hand information about everything. And that’s why I think he wrote so well about Burma and about Spain, because he was really there. But of course that didn’t work with Wigan Pier. I think probably because it was a commissioned book and he was seeing everything from the outside . .. absorbing all his preconceived prejudices into it. You see he had a sort of predilection for the sordid. He tended to gravitate towards that side of things rather than see both aspects of a place.

When you read “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” did you recognise that. . . ?

Oh yes, well I think most of the people who knew him in those days felt that there was something of themselves in that book; because a lot of the incidents were things that I recognised, like the party when he spent all the money he’d got for an article or something. There were about five or six people there and he treated us all to a great slap-up meal and then he got completely drunk – that was the time he assaulted the police­man.

In the book there is a great feeling of shame and insecurity. Was he like that as a man?

He had a phobia about money. I didn’t think he was that poor, but he thought he was terribly poor. And I used to say, ‘Look, you’ve got enough to eat and a roof over your head, what more do you want?’ But he had this sort of feeling that he wasn’t sufficiently capable. For example, this slap-up meal which he’d got some money for, he seemed to want to cut a dash a bit. Especially with women. He hated you to offer to go dutch with him. He thought this was a very unmanly sort of thing. And all his girlfriends used to argue with him about it. I mean, we were all earning about as much as he was, so why not?

In “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” that nagging sense of not having money is one of the strongest, most pervasive things in the book.

Yes, and he exaggerated it so, because he wasn’t as hard up as he made out. He lived quite comfortably.

Can I talk about his socialism now because you knew him just before he went to Spain and just before he went to Wigan Pier, is that right?

Yes. We’d always agreed that if we met anybody else we’d be open about it and our relationship would just fade out. And he told me that he was keen on Eileen and so I said OK, that’s it, cheerio. Rayner in his Four Absentees makes out that we quarrelled about it, but we didn’t actually. But Rayner’s not very reliable in that respect.

Do you think that it surprised Orwell, that you had this rational attitude towards relationships, while he was rather a romantic in some ways?

Oh yes, he was a bit old-fashioned in that respect. But most of my friends and I thought of ourselves as free women and avant-garde; at twenty-three you do. But he, I think, found it hard to take. He liked women to be interesting and intelligent, but I think he found it hard to take that they could give back as good as they got. I mean there was never any question of marriage or anything between us, we were just friends. I didn’t want to get married anyway; I wanted to knock about a bit and see more of the world. But I think he would have liked children very much. It’s sad that he didn’t have any… I once talked to him about children and he said he would like to have some but he didn’t think he could. So I said, ‘Why not?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I don’t think physically I could have children.’ So I said, ‘What makes you think that? Have you ever tried?’ So he said, ‘Well.. . I’ve never had any….” So I think that’s why he adopted Richard, because he was so keen to have children. I don’t know how Eileen felt about it. I think maybe she was a bit worried that they wouldn’t be able to cope. Because neither of them had particularly good health.

Did you know Eileen at all?

I only met her twice, at Rosalind’s [Henschel] house in Parlia­ment Hill. That’s where Eric met her, of course. She was a charming person, from what I knew of her, but you don’t know a person very well when you’ve only met her twice at tea parties.

What did you think of “The Road to Wigan Pier”?

Oh I thought it was really a terrible book. I thought it denigrated all socialists; it put the working class in a terribly sordid light. I mean, he admired the miners for their physical prowess but not for any sort of political commitment they had. And the miners were very political in those days; they were more or less the vanguard of the trade union movement. And he seems to have ignored anything that was happening on the positive side of politics and just concentrated on all the sordid aspects. And, of course, there is the second half where he rails against all the dif­ferent kinds of socialists he conjures up, which are mostly Aunt Sallies, and not like any of the socialists I ever met. . . . He was against feminists, vegetarians, pacifists, people who drink fruit juice, people who wear sandals, oh practically every Aunt Sally he could conjure up. But these groups didn’t represent socialism at all. I mean, they might have been on the fringe of it; there was one dreadful passage where he describes two old men getting on to a bus, and he assumes, of course, that they’re socialists, immediately, because they were wearing khaki shorts and khaki shirts and they’re fat and old and one of them’s bald. And he talks about him being obscenely bald. How on earth one can be obscenely bald I can’t imagine. It was a really childish, schoolboy sort of ranting against people. And he didn’t know what they were – nobody seems to have heard their conversation, so he didn’t know, but he immediately assumed they’re socialists because they’re a bit odd looking. They could have been scout masters or anything but this is the kind of thing he did, he imposed his prejudices on people without finding out what they really were.

When you read “Wigan Pier” had your own political attitudes altered?

Oh I’d got much more political by then and mixed with real socialists, real working-class socialists. Not the kind that Eric seemed to know. He doesn’t seem to have met any of the kind I knew.

He wasn’t really a political writer in the sense that he was involved in politics was he?

No. No. I think Mike Sayers was the only political person in the group that I knew. I don’t think any of the others were really dedi­cated. They were more dedicated to becoming writers.

But isn’t Orwell’s testimony as a writer who was involved in politics still valuable?

I think it has value up to a point, but I think it also has a distort­ing perspective, it’s so one-sided that it doesn’t give any value to any other reality. And people tend to have adopted it as gospel. Especially now that they use Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four in schools, and I think Wigan Pier is considered to be a picture of the thirties, which it isn’t.

One accepts that people will take a writer like Orwell and try and make him fit into their own particular cause. But in a book like “Homage to Catalonia”, surely the value of what he said about what had happened. . .

I think that is one of his better books. I don’t agree with his point of view in it, but at the same time he was writing from factual experience. And while that experience tended again to be very one-sided and knocked anybody that wasn’t in his group, at the same time it was a very valuable picture of the terrible conditions they had to fight under in Spain. But I don’t think it was all the fault of the other groups that the conditions were terrible. I think they were just terrible because of the Fascist intervention.

But one can see that because he happened to be in a POUM Unit, that was the way he felt. . . . His relationship with Communism is crucial to the way in which intellectuals interpret the whole history of the left. Don’t you think there is an element of value in his statement of the personal experience of politics, as experienced by the ordinary person rather than the practical politician?

Yes, I think a lot of his stuff is valuable but it tends to be accepted – because it happens to suit the establishment – as gospel instead of as a statement to which there is another side. This is what I became worried about after The Road to Wigan Pier. I began thinking he turned so rabid that nobody else got a look in except the people he approved of.

Did you write to him about “Wigan Pier”?

Yes. But I didn’t get a letter back. I wrote a very fierce article about it because he was slating all the people I knew as genuine good socialists, and guying them. And so I wrote him what I thought about it, and according to my folk in London – I was in Scotland by that time – he sent a letter there and my mother had opened it by mistake. She said she’d sent it on but, of course, I was moving around and I never got it. Unfortunately, as I would have liked to have read what he said about it.

Gollancz, of course, wanted him to change the second half of that book didn’t he?

I think he was only worried about the libel aspects of it. But I don’t think he really wanted him to change it. I think Gollancz was sufficiently powerful to have made him change it if he’d wanted him to.

Do you think Orwell was a reserved man?

In some respects. He would only discuss things with people that he felt he had some rapport with. I don’t think he would just expand to anybody. I mean, he talked very readily in the book­shop to people that came in. And I got talking to him because of books, I don’t think he was all that reserved. I think perhaps he was just a bit cautious about what he said to people. But lots of people say that he was very secretive but I must say I never found him so. He talked very readily about any subjects that came up. I thought he was quite open and a very honest person. I mean, he wanted to really know about things and I think this is why he did the down-and-out business. If you’ve got a background to fall back on it’s not easy to put yourself in the place of some­body who’s really experiencing difficulties. But I think that was a very good factual book and he really learned a lot about people.. ..

You think that he was a middle-class Englishman who faced up to his own prejudices?

Well I don’t think he faced up to a lot of his prejudices. I think he preserved them rather carefully. But at the same time he thought that he must know about people’s lives, that you can’t be a good writer unless you really delve into it. And this was his way of doing it.

He had this obsession about smell didn’t he?

Oh he had an absolute phobia about it. He used to talk about places that he’d lived in and they all smelt of cabbage and this kind of thing. But he kind of overdoes it all the time, I feel.

Yes, the sense of smell and the phobias about things is very strong in his work isn’t it?

Yes, it comes out very strongly in The Road to Wigan Pier, all the smells of everything. But I think he always exaggerated this kind of thing. I think he just had a sordid imagination.

Did you talk about literature at all?

Oh yes, it was literature we talked about.

Who were the writers he admired?

Dickens of course; he was crazy about Gulliver’s Travels Swift, he was very keen on him. He quite liked some of Thackeray’s work but he felt he was a bit pedantic I think. He didn’t like Scott and neither did I. We had quite a few people in common that we liked.

Do you think he really liked people?

Yes I think so. I think he had a capacity for friendship, but there again I think he was a little bit cautious. Maybe he’d had some bad experiences in Burma and … his background was a little difficult, you know. He seemed to have had bad experiences at school and at Eton. I don’t know about those, of course.

He didn’t talk about them?

He pretended to slate public schools and that kind of thing, as if they were dreadful.

And his family?

He didn’t say much about his family. He said he hadn’t got on very well with his father until the end of his life. He seemed to think of himself rather as a rebel – which he was, of course. I mean he questioned middle-class values all the time and wanted to identify himself with a more working-class background, but I don’t think he could ever quite make it. He found it very hard to talk to anybody who wasn’t on his level of education.

What do you think of “Animal Farm”?

Animal Farm, I thought, was quite amusing but, of course, it’s been done before. I mean Swift did it, Anatole France did it in Penguin Island, Aristophanes did it long ago. It’s been done quite a lot before so it wasn’t as original as people acclaimed it to be.

And I did feel that it was very slanted to what everybody thought at the time – of the Soviet Union – that it was bad propaganda.

He had a hard job getting it published because we were still allied with the Soviets at the time. You can understand people being cautious politically I suppose. But I just didn’t think it was all that clever. People think it’s very clever but it didn’t strike me as being very original. And, of course, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a ghastly book because it’s so hopeless. I mean Jack London wrote The Iron Heel, which is a very similar kind of theme. But at least he brings you up to a hopeful situation. According to Orwell we’re all damned and doomed and that’s it. What’s the good of struggling?

What’s your fondest memory of him?

I think the walks we used to have over the Heath when we used to talk about birds and animals. . . . He was a very self-sufficient person. He could cook and mend his clothes and all that kind of thing. And I admired him for that a lot. But I think I enjoyed most of all what I learned from him. Because I was only twenty-three and I hadn’t had much experience of life. And I felt that I was absorbing an awful lot of new ideas.

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Source: Coppard, Audrey, and Crick, Bernard, eds. Orwell Remembered. London: Ariel Books (BBC), 1984.

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