GEORGE Orwell is the most influential writer of all time. That was the view expressed by John Rodden, a renowned author on the subject of Orwell and the post-Orwell world, at a recent two-day international conference which I attended at University College London.

He cited two famous sentences from Orwell’s novels in support of his contention: “Big Brother is watching you” from Nineteen Eighty-Four and “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” from Animal Farm. He invited us to suggest other more famous sentences in literature and the best we could come up with was Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be, that is the question”.

Whether one agrees with Rodden or not, there is no question that George Orwell’s insightful political analysis and writings have become more and more relevant with time.

There is hardly a day goes by without him being quoted in the press for his prescience in foreseeing our surveillance society (the telescreen), the misuse of language by politicians, advertisers and warmongers (Newspeak) and claims of “alternative facts” (lies and propaganda).

When whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed all in 2013, and every time Trump came up with yet another big lie, Nineteen Eighty-Four sales went through the roof. In the 70 years since it was first published, it has sold many millions of copies throughout the world and been widely translated.

I wasn’t aware of much of this when I first walked along the seven-mile track that leads to a remote farmhouse called Barnhill on the north-east coast of the Isle of Jura in September 2006. I knew that George Orwell’s

real name was Eric Blair and he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four there, but what intrigued me was the contrast be-tween that dark, political satire and this beautiful location on the island.

I could see a little of Jura behind Scarba from my cottage in Cullipool village on the Isle of Luing, where I came to live in 2007, and I couldn’t get the idea out of my head of Orwell writing his novel there. That was why I began to research his life and work and read as many biographies and memoirs of him as I could get my hands on, as well as his novels, essays, diaries and letters.

Everything I came across fascinated me, from his essay Some Thoughts On The Common Toad to his book Down And Out In Paris And London. I became as obsessed with Orwell as he was with warning the world of the dangers of totalitarian dictatorship.

The more I read about his life and his desperate struggle to finish writing Nineteen Eighty-Four before his health failed, the more I realised that this could make a great feature film and novel.

As it happened, in April 2011 I came across an open call for proposals for screenplays to be developed by the incubator scheme being funded by Creative Scotland under the auspices of Scottish film production company DigiCult Ltd. I submitted a pitch, a 10-page outline and a vision for a feature film about Orwell’s last years, and it was selected for development – along with five other proposals – by DigiCult’s film producer, Paul Welsh.

Early in 2012 I was one of three writers who were commissioned to develop the screen story and script. He and I worked on it over the next two years and he is continuing to take it forward. In 2014 I applied for and was awarded a Creative Scotland artist’s bursary to undertake research and professional development to write my first novel, about Orwell’s final years, partly based on the screenplay.

IT seemed to me that a feature film and, even more, a novel, would be the best way to try to get inside Orwell’s head at the time when he was writing his most famous book. I carried out research in the Orwell Archive at University College London, and in October 2014 I visited Orwell’s former flat at Canonbury Square in Islington. It was smaller than I had imagined and Orwell’s writing and carpentry workroom was a lot narrower, but I had a much better picture of where he, his wife Eileen and baby son Richard lived at the end of the war.

The National: Eileen Blair, George Orwell's wife, died before the author went to JuraEileen Blair, George Orwell's wife, died before the author went to Jura

It turned out that the new owner of the flat was also writing a screenplay — for a horror film.

Back on Luing, I also discovered that Donald Mackay, the creel fisherman who rescued Orwell, his son, nephew and niece in the Gulf of Corryvreckan after they almost drowned in 1947, came from the village of Toberonochy on Luing and that some Luineachs still remember him, Orwell’s sister Avril and her husband Bill Dunn.

In June 2018 I went back to Barnhill with Richard Blair, his wife Eleanor and a large group of other members of The Orwell Society. At last I was actually inside the house I had imagined and written about for many years — standing in Orwell’s kitchen with its Aga stove, admiring his large free-standing bath upstairs and being in the bedroom where he wrote most of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

When I enquired about what had happened to the motorbike he drove to go up and down the long track to Ardlussa and Craighouse on various errands (when it didn’t break down), I was amazed to be told that some parts of what is thought to have been it were in the large barn. I helped carry them out and assemble them ... no wonder I felt that there was still a strong sense of Orwell about the place.

The National:  Norman Bissell with surviving parts of Orwell’s motorbike at Barnhill Norman Bissell with surviving parts of Orwell’s motorbike at Barnhill

It’s worth remembering that Barnhill is a private residence and should only be visited by arrangement with the owners. Orwell went there in May 1946 in order to write the novel he had been planning since November 1943 and to bring up his three-year-old son on Jura instead of in grimy, bombed-out London.

However, in his first few months there, he created a vegetable garden, cut lots of peat, went fishing in his small boat and generally tried to become as self-sufficient as possible. The only writing he did was recording his activities in his diary and sending some letters.

He was far from being alone in that big house. Within a week he was joined by his sister Avril, then his penniless poet friend Paul Potts came, and in July he brought his housekeeper Susan Watson, her daughter Katie and his son Richard. Other friends soon followed.

It was no wonder he only wrote about 50 pages that year of what he then called The Last Man In Europe.

When Susan’s boyfriend David Holbrook came that summer, Orwell suspected he was there to spy on him and perhaps assassinate him because he learned he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

He knew that Leon Trotsky’s assassin Ramon Mercader had gained access to his fortified house in Mexico in 1940 by becoming the boyfriend of one of his close female supporters. He was also aware of how much the Stalinists hated Animal Farm, which became a worldwide bestseller when it came out in August 1945.

So he went about with a Luger pistol under his belt and kept it under his pillow at night. David Holbrook later admitted that he secretly read some of the manuscript of The Last Man In Europe when he was staying at Barnhill. My novel, Barnhill, tells the full story.

BARNHILL also focuses on what happened after his wife Eileen died suddenly when she was undergoing an operation in a Newcastle hospital. Orwell was grief-stricken but was determined to bring up his then nine-month-old adopted son Richard. He was so lonely and desperate for another wife and mother for his son that he proposed to several beautiful young women before he went to Jura.

The first of these was Sonia Brownell, an editorial assistant at the literary magazine Horizon, but she turned him down. I tell their story from her point of view as well as his.

Then there was Celia Paget, a former debutante who first met Orwell and his son on their way to spend Christmas with her twin sister and Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler. She and his Islington neighbour Anne Popham also turned down his offer of marriage. Orwell wasn’t the most subtle of suitors and, while they liked him, they didn’t find that attractive his offer of becoming the rich widow of a famous author. One of the most interesting things I discovered in my research was about Sonia’s affair with the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was a friend and rival of Jean-Paul Sartre.

The National: George OrwellGeorge Orwell

The character of Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four was at least partly based on her. The reasons why Sonia decided to accept Orwell’s later marriage proposal when he was in a Gloucestershire sanatorium are explained in my novel, and they got married in University College Hospital, London, in October 1949.

My book also portrays some of Orwell’s close friends such as Sir Richard Rees, Paul Potts and the MI6 agent Malcolm Muggeridge.

Rees was Orwell’s closest friend, a writ-er and painter who lived at Barnhill for a time and helped finance his plans for improving the farm there. There is no record of how Orwell spent two days in Glasgow over the New Year of 1946–1947 after he missed his connection to Jura, but, being a Glaswegian, I enjoyed visualising what he might have done and some of the people he could have met.

However, the seven months he spent being treated for tuberculosis at Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride are well documented, and the horrific side-effects of his treatment may well have influenced his descriptions in his novel of the effects of Winston Smith’s torture.

There is some mystery surrounding the untypical visit by Andrew Gow, Orwell’s tutor in Greek at Eton, to see Orwell at UCH just days before his death. The art critic Brian Sewell, who in 1979 hid Anthony Blunt in his flat after Blunt was exposed as the fourth Soviet agent in the Cambridge Spy Ring, was convinced that Andrew Gow was also a Soviet spy. When Sewell asked Blunt directly if this was the case he did not deny it. In my story, I have Sonia speculating about that visit based on Sewell’s evidence.

As a long-time adherent of geopoetics — the creative expression of the Earth in a fusion of arts, sciences and thinking — I was delighted to learn that Orwell had a great love and knowledge of nature. His diaries contain details of Jura’s birds and other wildlife, and he had a longing for what he called The Golden Country, which originally was where he grew up in the Upper Thames area.

Winston Smith talks about it to Julia when they escape to make love in woods carpeted in bluebells and are entranced by the song of a thrush. I have Orwell telling Sonia about that in my novel, and I think it’s one of the most important aspects of his view of the world which is often overlooked. Once he had found it, Jura became his new Golden Country, and that was why he went back there after he was released from Hairmyres Hospital instead of going south to London or to live in the English countryside.

He had a crucial choice to make about whether to recuperate down south or to try to finish his book on Jura.

He loved living on the island and gave up his London flat because he intended to stay there. His young son and his sister were there, and he knew he could finish his novel on Jura without the distractions of the city — and he did.

His true-life, tragic love story deserves to be better known — whether or not he was the most influential writer of all time.

Barnhill by Norman Bissell is available now, published by Luath Press. The book’s Luing launch will be on Friday July 5 at the Atlantic Islands Centre, the Oban launch at Waterstones on Thursday July 18 and the Edinburgh launch at Blackwell’s on Wednesday July 24. Norman Bissell will also be appearing at Edinburgh’s Scotlandsfest on August 23, the Islay Book Festival on August 29 and Lismore’s Taproot Arts Festival on September 20