George Orwell’s master – and spymaster?

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 in Another 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.

Andrew Sydenham Farrar Gow (1886–1978) was the son of a public school headmaster. He got a double first in classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, but, when Blair came his way, was having difficulty obtaining the job there which he wanted above all things in life. As his tight-lipped entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records:

He applied four times for permanent posts in Cambridge, but was each time unsuccessful; it was feared that he would alarm and discourage his pupils, particularly the weaker sort. Indeed Gow’s appearance was formidable, an uncompromisingly Scottish kind of countenance being set off by bushy eyebrows and side-whiskers, and anything like conceit or pretentiousness on the part of a pupil might provoke a wounding sarcasm.

The rejection letters from Cambridge cannot have softened his schoolroom sarcasm. A “bachelor and a half” (as Paul Johnson archly called him), he liked the friendly company of favourite pupils, out of school hours. Barely thirty, he was nicknamed “Granny Gow” – for effeminacy and his solicitude towards these favourites.

Gow was Blair’s classics tutor. They were necessarily close but they didn’t, it would seem, like each other. “Granny Gow” could not have been unaware of homophobic sneers against him by the “manlier” boys. Orwell was not tolerant – at any period of his life – of “nancies”. Blair penned a scurrilously homophobic poem printed in one of the school’s papers. It opens: “Then up waddled Wog [Gow spelt backwards] and he squeaked in Greek / ‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek’”.

No need to ask which cheek is alluded to. Gow was a hairy man. The lines are an allusion to the outrageously homosexual Cleisthenes tearing the hair out of his rump in Aristophanes’ The Frogs. The verse in the school magazine was anonymous, but Gow – who probably dreamed in Greek – would have had no difficulty in uncovering the rascal who wrote it and what it implied. But he could not rush off to the Provost, M. R. James, and demand condign retribution without the career-endangering query: “Do all the boys know, Andrew?” James, of course, was himself discreetly homosexual.

One can speculate that Gow used certain texts (such as The Frogs) in his small classics translation tutorial group to observe how receptive boys were to various Hellenic and Roman improprieties. Orwell’s early biographers Peter Stansky and William Abrahams interviewed Gow, and recorded him recalling a warm relationship with Blair, perceiving “under the shyness and surliness . . . an authentic intelligence”. As with other pupils, Gow said, they had private tutorials in Gow’s room, where groups of four or five boys would read aloud their personal writings. A fondness for Eric Blair is implied. Did Gow, in this relaxed atmosphere, venture some kind of pass?

What he told Stansky and Abrahams makes all the odder the account of Richard Blair visiting Eton to be told by Gow to remove his son entirely from the British higher education system. (It could be thought Gow did not want Blair around at Cambridge, where he, Gow, was determined to return, out of pure malice. He had identified Blair as a “nuisance”. Or it could have been payback for the “Wog” doggerel: Granny’s revenge.) Richard got the message, and cut off any further family monetary sacrifice, for Eric: the only son, but no longer the hope of the Blairs. From now on, he would have to pay his own way. And that meant, as it had done for his father, the colonies: that finishing school for Etonian non-starters.

Richard Blair would, of course, have relayed to his son Gow’s devastating report. It cannot have been a pleasant conversation. According to Jacintha Buddicom – Eric’s sweetheart – her family put pressure on Richard to get Eric to university, whatever the cost. He wanted “so much” to go. “But Mr Blair was adamant.” Five years in the Burmese imperial police service was more than enough for Eric Blair. He returned, his health damaged, with the draft of his first novel and a lifelong hatred for that despicable “racket”, the British Empire.

There occurred on his return a very strange event. Blair visited the man who had, effectively, dished his prospects at Eton, to get “advice” on what he should do next. And Gow was, apparently, pleased for Orwell to come and stay a day or two with him. After years of trying, the unhappy schoolteacher had finally got his Trinity job. Competition had been thinned out by the war. (A heart murmur had excused him service, and he is reputed to have replied, when someone asked why he was in civilian clothes, that he was the civilization others were dying for.)

Bernard Crick, Orwell’s first authorized biographer, is at a loss to explain this “somewhat surprising” reunion. Gow’s advice on Blair’s career prospects had not, hitherto, been helpful. Nor, as far as one knows, had Blair corresponded with Gow, since leaving Eton (his letters from Burma are almost all lost). And why should he have done? According to Crick’s account of his interview with the retired don (still resident at Trinity), in 1976,

Gow remembered little about the visit, except that Blair came to tell him that he had resigned from the Burma Police, was thinking of pursuing a literary career, but wanted to take advice first. “I seem to remember”, Gow said, “that as he seemed fairly determined and had nothing else in mind, I said, in a rather non-committal way that he might as well have a try.” He stayed the night in college [at Gow’s expense, presumably] and Gow remembers that he set him next to A. E. Housman at High Table, “who asked him about Burma”. It is hard to interpret this incident.

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