George Orwell’s novels contain his boldest political messages: Animal Farm is a fable of revolution betrayed and 1984 a terrifying depiction of totalitarianism in general and the Soviet Union in particular. As a volunteer fighting the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell witnessed the work of Stalin’s supporters in Barcelona. But his critique, and fear, of totalitarianism developed much earlier, far from Madrid or Moscow. It owes everything to his experiences in the sedate seaside town of Eastbourne, and the formative years he spent at St Cyprian’s school which stood, until 1939, at the end of my road.
St Cyprian’s was a typical Edwardian prep school, standing in five acres at the foot of the South Downs. Its pupils included minor aristocracy, foreign princes, the sons of wealthy businessmen and boys like
eight-year-old Eric Blair: members of the upper-middle-class with breeding but not a lot of money. Alumni include the writer Cyril Connolly, the photographer Cecil Beaton and Alan Clark, the Tory MP.
The proprietors were Mr and Mrs Wilkes, called Sambo and Flip by pupils behind their backs. Orwell later called them “terrible, all-powerful monsters”. They served up a diet of poor food, cold baths, cross-country runs, harsh discipline and cramming for entrance exams to public schools such as Eton and Harrow. Orwell arrived in 1911 and left in 1916 for Eton. Just months before his death, he wrote a memoir of his five years at St Cyprian’s, ironically titled Such, Such Were The Joys. The 15,000-word essay was considered so libellous that it remained unpublished until the 1960s, when Mrs Wilkes at last died.
It begins with bed-wetting and proceeds to describe beatings, snobbery and Dickensian filth. Orwell’s biographer DJ Taylor describes “the misery and desperation in a nightmare world where one’s every action is liable to rebuke by stern, unyielding and, above all, arbitrary authority”. This is the world of Winston Smith and Big Brother. Orwell tells a story about an illicit trip to a sweet shop in Eastbourne. The boy is met by a man outside the shop who takes an interest in his cap badge. This, says Orwell, was “one of Sambo’s spies”. No privacy, no room for rebellion, no escape from continual surveillance: not Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, but a prep school in Sussex. He wrote Such, Such Were the Joys at the same time he was planning 1984. His schooldays were fresh in his mind as he constructed his dystopia, although the memory of the former might have been coloured by thoughts about the latter.
Orwell’s only enjoyment came in the spring and summer terms when he went on nature walks. One ramble took him to Willingdon and then Chalk Farm; village and farm both reappear in Animal Farm, the idea for which came to him when he saw a carthorse being whipped by a boy along a country lane. Today, you can visit Chalk Farm and call up the ghosts of Boxer, Snowball and Napoleon. There’s an Orwell Room with a green and yellow St Cyprian’s cap in a glass case and Animal Farm, published in 1945, includes references to the Red Lion pub which he used to walk past.
In 1915, an army convalescent camp opened across the road from St Cyprian’s, up the side of Paradise Hill. Summerdown included Nissen huts for 3,000 wounded soldiers, a hospital, and a cinema. Among the first arrivals were ANZAC troops from Australia and New Zealand, wounded in the Dardanelles landings. Orwell saw thousands of wounded men arrive at the camp, in their distinctive blue uniforms and red ties, fresh from the horrors of Flanders. Pupils were encouraged to visit the camp and distribute sweets and cigarettes, and soldiers were invited to the school to see amateur dramatics.
He fictionalises Summerdown in Coming Up for Air (1939) as “long rows of wooden huts like chicken-houses stuck right up on top of those beastly icy downs”. George Bowling recalls how: “A pink-faced kid of about eight would walk up to a knot of wounded men sitting on the grass, split open a packet of Woodbines and solemnly hand one fag to each man, like feeding the monkeys at the zoo.”
Orwell never returned to Eastbourne after 1916 but the terrors of St Cyprian’s stayed with him and were played out in some of the finest political works of the 20th century.