by JOHN SUTHERLAND
Old school ties, Cambridge Apostles and the man who taught the young Eric Blair at Eton
Every belated release of official documentation about the “Cambridge Spies” throws up more fog than illumination. The latest batch, in October 2015, was no exception. But, tantalizingly glimpsable in the murk may be the wholly unexpected figure of George Orwell. If one wants to follow the trail one has – as Julian Mitchell does inAnother Country, his play about the Cambridge Spies – to return to their schooldays.
The five years, 1917–22, he spent at Eton are one of the mysteries of Eric Blair / George Orwell’s life. A “Colleger” (his family could not otherwise have paid for his education there), he was primed to fly high at the school. He flew just about as low as an Etonian scholar could. He resolutely “slacked”. It was the first of his many non serviams, and one of the stranger. In the final school examinations for his year, Eric Blair came 137th out of 168. The shame was such that Andrew Gow, his longest-serving tutor, told the boy’s father, when he came to enquire what should be done with Eric, that it would be a “disgrace” to Eton even to allow him to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. Lesser institutions (say London University, or Manchester) were unthinkable. Where higher education was concerned Gow might as well have worn a black cap.
It’s preposterous on the face of it to have suggested that an Eton scholar, by no means at the bottom of the class, could not, with a month or two’s cramming, have won an Oxbridge scholarship. Eric Blair was one of the cleverest boys in England. Why did Gow deliver this death sentence? Gow would reappear tangentially in the known narrative of Blair / Orwell’s life – always tantalizingly, suggesting there was more to the relationship than meets the eye. One glimpses sinister networks: but, if one tries to grasp them, they melt like cobwebs before a candle.