Old school ties, Cambridge Apostles and the man who taught the young Eric Blair at Eton
Published: 24 February 2016
Andrew Gow by Walter Stoneman, 1945 Photograph: National Portrait Gallery, London
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.
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.
Gow was Blair’s classics tutor but they didn’t like each other
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.
Hard indeed. Orwell at high table at Trinity was very much a fish out of water. But it may, in the light of later events, be relevant that MI5 and MI6, the “SIS” (Secret Intelligence Service), routinely employed former Indian policemen. Orwell – to indulge the farthest-fetched of speculations – may have been viewed as a possible recruit. The reason that these men were desirable to the SIS was that their police work in the colonies made them expert in surveillance and espionage. The practice continued, as John le Carré recalls, well into the 1950s. Orwell might have been thought a prospect. And Gow might, subsequent evidence suggests, have been a recruiter – but for which side?
Gow, having got there, would never leave Trinity. He taught classics, published little (not imperative in those days), notably editions of Theocritus and the Greek Anthology, and held extracurricular seminars for favourite students (his rooms were now sumptuous). He was a friend of fellow-Fellows such as Housman in the 1920s and, in the 1930s, Anthony Blunt.
Gow and Blunt were members of the secretive Apostles club, as were certain of Blunt’s protégés (Guy Burgess, for example: Eton, Trinity, brilliant, flagrantly gay). Blunt and Gow shared a connoisseurial passion for art. Both collected – Blunt, Poussin; Gow, French Impressionists. When he died, despite what theODNB calls his “bare means”, Gow (without any close family) left the Fitzwilliam twenty-four works by Degas, six by Rodin and six by Forain.
Their relationship may have gone beyond friendship (a brief sexual liaison is conjectured) and shared interests in art. Blunt was later infamous as the “Fourth Man”, recruited in the 1930s into a team of Cambridge Spies centred on Trinity College: Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby were the first three to be exposed. Who the fifth man was has been the source of speculation (see Calder Walton’s review on p12). Gow has been nominated (see below). He died in 1978, aged ninety-one. Crick was able to interview him a couple of years before. He was, at this stage of life, so “curmudgeonly” that his only visitor was the ever-loyal Blunt. But in 1976 Blunt had problems of his own. The net was closing on him – he would be denounced under privilege in Parliament, in 1978, as the controller of the Cambridge spies who had done so much damage to their country in the Cold War.
When Crick questioned him in 1976 Gow was cagey, and, without offering any explanation about what had brought Blair to Cambridge in 1927, was hostile in his opinions. Blair was “always a bit of a slacker and a dodger”, he recalled, adding that he was “a very unattractive boy”. It echoed, unconsciously, Oscar Wilde’s disastrous remark in court.
Lawyer: Did you ever kiss him?
Wilde: – Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy.
When Crick showed Gow what, following the earlier interview, Stansky and Abrahams had recorded him saying, he reacted furiously. It was “rubbish”: particularly the business about inviting boys for Sunday literary meetings in his rooms. Crick didn’t get much from this “old sceptic, crippled in everything but mind and memory”.
Orwell’s life and career went their own, well-chronicled way. It is, however, speculated that David Astor, after the two men became bosom friends in the early 1940s (and neighbours forever in their adjoining graves), may have involved him in the intelligence world. Astor is known to have been deeply involved. Malcolm Muggeridge, a man up to his armpits in clandestine post-war intelligence activity, also begins to figure prominently in Orwell’s life in the 1940s and 50s.
The oddest, and perhaps most suggestive, glimpse of all that we have is that, a few days before his former pupil died, Gow visited Orwell in University College Hospital. Orwell had just confided, to the newly set up IRD (Information Research Department) via its staffer Celia Kirwan (one of the many women he hoped, against hope, to marry), his “list” of dangerous communist sympathizers for the authorities to watch: “cryptos”, “fellow travellers” and reds under the bed.
Again, Crick is highly perplexed as to why, in a bitterly cold October, a few days after Orwell had been denouncing potential traitors, Gow, in his mid-sixties, should have come to University College Hospital – a dreary, Gothic pile, the original of Gormenghast, some plausibly suggest: “One afternoon Andrew Gow came to see him, using the excuse for his visit that he was in UCH to see a Trinity man and happened to hear that Blair was there too. Years afterwards he could not remember the name of that Trinity man”.
Brian Sewell, in his memoir The Outsider (2012), divulged his firm conviction that Gow had, all along, been the “fifth man” – and even the “puppetmaster” of the other four. Personally, Sewell detested Gow and revered Blunt, whom he knew extremely well. Gow, Sewell noted, had been Blunt’s mentor for “half a century”. He was not a mentor everyone would have chosen. Gow, said Sewell, “struck me as the coldest man I had ever encountered, a man of calculated silences”. Silent about what? He does not seem a born hospital visitor.
In his last days Orwell was visited by friends who were all involved in a CIA project
In his last days Orwell was visited in hospital by a selection of friends who were all involved in a covert CIA project: CCF, the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Its aim was to provide a counterweight to Marxist intellectual and cultural supremacy in Europe. The project, in which the IRD also played a part, would lead to the setting up of Encounter magazine and the CIA’s acquisition of the film rights to Orwell’s Animal Farm. The resulting cartoon substituted, for Orwell’s porcine tyranny ending, one that prophesied the irresistible victory of the West. If the streptomycin that Astor (sidestepping import regulations) acquired for his friend had worked, would Orwell have thrown in his lot with this anti-Soviet cultural initiative? He was never a joiner, but he might well have been sympathetic.
Why, however, did Gow visit him in hospital? Was he worried that Orwell had put him on the list? And if not him, had he fingered his – and Blunt’s – protégé Guy Burgess – now a reckless drunk whose homosexuality made him, at this date, also a criminal, indiscreetly shooting his mouth off all over London? Burgess (incredibly) had been appointed to the staff of IRD, and had an office next to Celia Kirwan’s: a fox in the chicken coop.
The Cambridge spies (Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt) were, in 1950, very nervous men. A few months later Burgess and Maclean would take flight to Moscow. Philby – although suspected – stayed until 1963, when things got too hot for him and he followed the others to the Soviet Union. Blunt remained, a comfortable establishment figure, until he too was denounced. But when Gow dropped in, uninvited, on the dying Orwell it was a tense period for the Cambridge spies, and – if he was, as Sewell alleges, their “puppetmaster” – for Andrew Gow.
Sewell had been trotting out his allegations about Gow for years. In November 1982, Anthony Powell’s wife, Violet, having read Sewell on the subject in theSunday Times, asked her husband, “Didn’t you know a Cambridge don called Gow?” Powell’s memory was stirred. He’d been a contemporary of Blair’s at Eton and a lifelong acquaintance; at times a close friend.
Gow, Powell recalled in his diary, had been “a beak at Eton” who briefly taught him Greek. “When I wrote somewhere that Orwell consciously tried to avoid a ‘public school’ accent”, Powell recalled, Gow “sent a postcard to me saying Orwell ‘croaked discordantly’ when he arrived at Eton in 1917.” It’s an allusion to Aristophanes’ The Frogs, again: presumably intended to remind Powell of their Eton days. It’s also odd (why waste a penny stamp on such a footling joke?). And why did Gow, after all these years, out of the thousands of young men who had been taught by him, care about Orwell’s croaky voice? What follows from Powell is odder still: “I think Gow saw something of Orwell after he left school, possibly even helped him financially when things were difficult. It would have been almost inconceivable afterwards when George and I were seeing quite a lot of each other, and Orwell was very anti-Communist”. When he came back from Burma, and for a few years after, Orwell was certainly hard up. And Powell certainly knew Orwell well enough to have received confidences about the fact.
Finally, in winter 1949, the hospital visit and, shortly after, Orwell dies: alone. No one, apparently, witnessed the death or made any attempt to save him. “Suffocation”, the terse coroners’ report said – caused by three years of tuberculosis. No suspicious circumstances. No autopsy necessary.
One could make a cracking “good-bad book” (to adapt Orwell’s classification) out of this – a “paranoid thriller”. The plotline writes itself. Down the gloomy corridors of University College Hospital comes a white-coated “nurse”, avoiding any eye-to-eye contact. He silently enters Orwell’s private room and places a pillow over the face of the man in the bed – too weak, by now, to struggle. It’s nonsense. But what one can conclude is that networks, some of them sinister, were being woven at Eton, and the college Etonians went to; which Eric Blair – thanks to Andrew Gow – did not.
John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at University College London. His Lives of the Novelists was published in 2011 and How To Be Well Read in 2014.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."