On the Auction Block with George Orwell

George Orwell
George Orwell

We knew he could write. We knew he could make us think. We knew that could frighten or upset us with a vision of the future that keeps coming to pass every day of our lives.

Big Brother is on his way.

Big Brother is out there.

Big Brother is watching.

Good morning NSA. I hope I write something worth your stealing today.

What we didn’t know, however, was just how valuable the scarves were that George Orwell wore, particularly when he hunkered down at the front during the Spanish American War.

The year was 1937.

Orwell, much like the soldiers around him, was dug into the trenches near Barcelona.

But Orwell, unfortunately, had a problem.

The battle was raging.

The bullets were flying.

And, alas, George Orwell was the tallest soldier in the trench.

His head stuck out over the edge of his hiding place inside an earthen ditch.

The bullets were looking for somebody.

One of them found George Orwell.

The shot tore into his throat and he recalled:. The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting…Suddenly, in the very middle of saying something, I felt–it is very hard to describe what I felt, though I remember it with the utmost vividness. Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the center of an explosion… 

Webb, our stretcher-bearer, had brought a bandage and one of the little bottles of alcohol they gave us for field-dressings. The doctor re-bandaged the wound, gave me a shot of morphine, and sent me off to Sietamo.

Rare First Edition
Rare First Edition

The scarves he wore around his neck were saturated by blood. They were removed and saved by Hugh Patrick O’Hare, who treated Orwell’s battlefield wound. Both were members of the Independent Labour Party.

Why were they saved?

I’m not for sure that even O’Hare knew. He just stuck them in his pocket and never bothered to throw them away. Orwell was a writer, but he had not yet gained international fame.

Animal Farm was percolating in his brain, 1984 would not be written for another decade or so. His nightmare vision of totalitarianism would be defined and shaped by the days he experienced in the fight against fascists. Words would come later. Staying alive came first.

The four scarves and a single handkerchief – complete with bloodstains and a bullet hole – were brought to auction in London this fall  Max Hasler of auctioneers Bloomsbury told the Voice of Russia in an interview:  “It’s the scarf that’s the most interesting by far. It has a small bullet hole and a patch of blood which we believe was worn by him when he was shot in the neck in 1937.”

And that’s an incident which he mentions in one of his books?

“Exactly, yes. In Homage to Catalonia he talks about the experience of being shot as you’d expect was a really significant moment of his life and the one he recorded.”

How did you get hold of these scarves?

“They came to a man called Patrick O’Hara who treated Orwell and removed the bullet when he came into surgery.”

So we have a scarf with his blood on it and also a bullet. Is this something quite rare to go to auction?

“I’d say exceptionally rare. Obviously this is entirely unique, but anything relating to Orwell personally is pretty scarce. He was a notoriously private man. Famously his dying wish was for there never to be a biography written about him – something that held true until the 80s, about thirty or so years after his death. And there is a very small number of known photographs of the man. So any chance to have anything that directly relates to him would be a unique thing indeed.”

You say it’s quite rare, but the guide price for this auction seems to be quite low.

“As at auction, you always want to set an estimate that’s interesting. Yeah, it’s a unique and interesting thing. We’d rather that people decided how interesting it is for themselves and also we wanted to make it available for anyone who might be interested.”

You mentioned that O’Hara, the English comrade of George Orwell who removed the scarf while treating him and who kept it – you presume that’s where his scarves have come from. How sure are you that that is how he managed to get hold of them?

“From O’Hara the scarves then passed to Mr. Wigham who was serving out with O’Hara. And from there they passed after his death to Mr. Bateman. Now Mr. Bateman when he received them, had a letter from Kathleen Wigham in which he tells the whole story of them coming from O’Hara to Wihgam. And we’d count that as good enough evidence. It holds together.”

At auction, the scarves were purchased for a princely sum of £ 722.

I thought maybe I should go out of the book business and begin work on peddling bloodstained scarves. Then I read where a signed first edition of Orwell’s first full-length work had been sold at auction as well.

It was an immaculate copy of Down And Out In Paris And London and was expected t reap two to three thousand dollars. The estimate was just a little low.

Inside the book, Orwell had written to his agent: “With the author’s kind regards, to Mr. LP Moore without whose kind assistance this book would never have been published. Eric Blair, 24.12.32.

The writer was born Eric Blair.

He had changed his name to George Orwell. As he wrote his publisher, Victor Gollancz: “I would prefer the book to be published pseudonymously. I have no reputation that is lost by doing this and if the book has any kind of success I can always use this pseudonym again.”

Then he was shot.

Then he battled totalitarianism with words instead of bullets.

And a decade later, he was regarded as Great Britain’s pre-eminent political writer of the twentieth century.

Aaron Dean, a book specialist at the auction house, which purchased the book said, “No first editions of this book with dust jackets have been seen for 27 years.

“To put the significance of that in perspective, last year a copy which was not in great condition and didn’t have a dust jacket sold for £13,200.

“This one was an absolutely brilliant copy. The dust jacket had a little bit of wear and tear but, when you took it off, the book was in mint condition.”

Dean said bidding began at £5,000 and “someone immediately jumped in to take it to £15,000 and from there it bounced up to £86,000. I knew it would do well, I had a lot people who were hugely interested in it, and the consensus was that it would reach somewhere between £30,000 and £40,000.

“But I wasn’t expecting that price.”

The final tally was £ 86,000.

“I was absolutely stunned,” said Dean. “The room was absolutely stunned and the vendors, who were in the room, were thoroughly happy.”

Down And Out In Paris And London was an autobiographical work by Orwell, and it centered on the theme of poverty in the two capital cities.

Two publishers had an opportunity to produce the book.

Two publishers rejected it.

Who’s George Orwell, they said.

Nobody, they decided.

A third finally gave it a chance, and the book was released in January of 1933. No one remembers the book. No one will ever forget the author, even working under an assumed name, and its auction price.

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  • I liked “Down And Out In Paris And London.” I don’t remember why I read it, at home when I was a kid? Or later, as an adult? But it was in my parents’ house, and so my Dad must have had the copy. I vaguely remember discussing it with him.

    I also remember hoping things were no longer as bad – because it was horrific. When people are not skilled, and can be easily replaced by more compliant people who will do the same shitty job and NOT complain, the people in that position have NO bargaining power – and they are taken advantage of.

    It reminds me of the fast food – and other – jobs which offer workers fewer hours than the minimum required to get benefits, so that you have the same harried person working 3 20-hour/week jobs – none of which provide benefits – just for the money. Obviously, these people are not working full time because they are not allowed to, not because ‘they only want to work parttime,’ the defense offered by the employers. Again, no power on the workers’ side, because they can easily be replaced.

    I am always so grateful that, when I became disabled, as a professional I had all kinds of support in place – SSDI (eventually – rejected twice) + private disability (which kicked in immediately, but also kept insisting I reapply for SSDI – a standard cost-cutting measure, as the private company then only has to pay the amount they owe OVER what SS is giving you). I don’t think of myself as ‘better,’ or even ‘better prepared,’ just lucky. Very, very lucky that my employer had automatic disability income provided.

    Down and Out is a good piece of writing. Most people in the position of taking utterly menial jobs in the kitchens of restaurants have not written about it. The exposé means that it is much harder to pretend the situation doesn’t exist.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I’m finding that I appreciate George Orwell’s books more now than when I read them years ago. I always knew he was a great visionary. But now I find I like his writing and his stories as well.

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