Gary Raymond tells the story of how Arthur Koestler and George Orwell almost changed the world from the cottage of Bwlch Ocyn in the Vale of Ffestiniog.
By August of 1945, Arthur Koestler had already completed many journeys; indeed, you could say he had lived many lives. His travails and explorations had taken in vast geographical extremes, from his native Hungary, to his time in the Communist Party of Germany where he was a vociferous and passionate young intellectual. He had been to the North Pole, where he tasted his first dram of fame as the sole reporter on the Graf Zeppelin Arctic expedition of 1931, and he had a stint with the French Foreign Legion in North Africa – his only route to escape inevitable execution at the hands of the Vichy. He had experienced, first hand, the most significant political and philosophical movements in Europe and its edges, from Zionism in Palestine to Stalinism in Russia. And in August 1945 his quest for Utopia brought him and his later wife, Mamaine, to Wales. Koestler and Mamain would spend three years in the cottage of Bwlch Ocyn, a secluded farmhouse that belonged to Clough Williams-Ellis, the builder of the Italianate coastal town of Portmerion, situated just a short drive from the other side of the Vale of Ffestiniog.
Koestler was already famous by this point, not only for his novel, Darkness at Noon (1940), (an epochal condemnation of Stalinism and the Left’s apologias of it), but also for his reportage, and for the intellectual rigour in his essays such as ‘The Yogi and the Commissar’. Koestler was a man who pushed himself to the centre of things, who gorged himself on argument, who enraged friend and foe alike with his caustic, uncompromising, fierce, intellectual ideas for humankind’s progress. His journeys had seen him move from Zionist to anti-Zionist, from Communist to anti-Communist, and from existentialist to mystic. His journey, in fact, was a search for a pure society, a broad democratic socialism, a civilisation built upon justice and compassion. Koestler was a significant figure in the intellectual circles of every city he inhabited, an urban, explosive presence amidst the pock-marked concrete, low ceilings and smoke-filled air of Europe’s coffee houses. He was one of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s many third wheels; he had travelled Soviet Russia with Langston Hughes, establishing writers’ forums in Hughes’ digs in Ashkhabad; he had helped Malraux refine his definition of the intellectual as ‘anti-Manichean’, ‘a man of subtleties, interested in absolute truth and in the complexity of things’. Koestler was a fundamental driving force in almost every significant intellectual political movement of the thirties and forties.
It is striking then, in his long and intriguing life story, that at his intellectual peak, in the aftermath of the sensation that was Darkness at Noon, he left the vibrant intellectual culture of 1940s London to set up home in a drastically remote cottage in North Wales. But this corner of Wales was perhaps not quite so remote as might first appear, and Koestler’s motives may not have been quite so abstruse.
This corner of Wales had its own intellectual circle, and it was most sympathetic to Koestler’s mindset at the time, or so he thought. Clough Williams-Ellis’ wife, Amabel, for instance, was Lytton Strachey’s niece, and a former communist like Koestler; and around the Williams-Ellis’ swarmed the likes of Rupert Crawshay-Williams, Michael Polanyi, English PEN president Storm Jameson and, most significantly, Bertrand Russell, who lived just a few miles up the road from the Koestler cottage.
But Koestler had another motive for the seclusion, even if the seclusion was not an honestly intellectual one. Within months of moving to Bwlch Ocyn he had lured a like-minded trail-blazer, a political intellectual democratic socialist, who was also terminally disillusioned with (and disgusted by) the institutionalised claptrap of the international comintern. George Orwell was perhaps the ally Koestler had been looking for all along.
It was in reference to Koestler that Orwell famously wrote, ‘Nowadays, over increasing areas of the earth, one is imprisoned not for what one does but for what one is, or, more exactly, for what one is suspected of being’. What Orwell had witnessed and experienced in Spain during that country’s revolution, the things that had driven him away from the established Left, Koestler had experienced at an increased intensity.
Koestler had been imprisoned many times by the time he moved to Bwlch Ocyn, and not only by the traditional enemies of the Left. Koestler was an intellectual warrior not a martial one, and he had always been petrified of physical harm. Whilst working under accreditation as a foreign journalist, trying to cover the Catholic-military uprising in Spain, he eventually found himself not only on the side getting beaten, but in the unforgiving and paranoid embrace of Franco’s forces. It was his time in the prisoner of war camp in Seville, under constant threat of execution, which sculpted his writing into the darkly powerful prose for which he is now best known. He also later spent time at the infamous French political prison camp of Le Vernet, and in 1940, being a person of note and a suspected revolutionary communist, he had been imprisoned in London’s Pentonville almost from the moment he set foot on British soil after escaping the Nazi shadow. On each occasion he had been charged with no crime. Darkness at Noon was a culmination of his own traumatic experiences in solitary confinement at the hands of Franco, and his witness to the early days of Stalin’s show trials.
Darkness at Noon is a masterpiece; George Steiner said it was one of the few books that may have ‘changed history’. Orwell reviewed it for The New Statesman in 1941:
Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.
Darkness at Noon was cannon fire when the intellectual company that Koestler had been used to keeping – Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir – were still pontificating through candlelight and smoke rings. Not only was the threat of prison and torture very real to him – (whilst in Franco’s prison in Seville his cell was in close proximity to the execution yard where he could hear the shattering volley of the firing squad blast out thirty to forty times a day for the months he was there) – but he had first-hand experience of the consequences of his beliefs. Whilst others turned a blind eye to the inherent paradoxical untruth of Stalinism, Koestler was compelled to blow the lid off it. It was everything he was about. As his biographer Michael Scammell notes, ‘Koestler’s quest for enlightenment was not some arid, abstract sort of search, but a deep instinctual urge… which started early in his life and continued to the end of his days.’ The quest, as Scammell goes on to assert convincingly, ‘was the point.’
Orwell’s lauding of Darkness at Noon in The New Statesman was to be the first public utterance of the essence of his own 1984, and the seed of Winston Smith can be seen in the broken, corrupted, ‘empty’ protagonist of Rubashov. Koestler was just thirty-six when the review was written, a life of astounding drama and variety already behind him.
In 1945, with the war at its end and Koestler now a member of the English literati, commonly terrorising Soho with his drinking partners Roy Campbell and Dylan Thomas, one may be forgiven for thinking a time of reflection might have been on his mind. But Europe had, in many ways, only been saved from the extraordinary awfulness of Hilter’s fascism at this point. Totalitarianism, the target of both Koestler and Orwell, continued to flourish in its grey solemnity, and would do so in Franco’s Spain until 1977, in Salazaar’s Portugal until 1968, and Stalin’s Russia long after the Communist despot’s death in 1953. In many ways Orwell’s concerns with totalitarianism were both spurred on by Koestler’s work, and, apart from Koestler, came from a similar place. Orwell, too, had witnessed the unpleasant reality of imperial rule, albeit as disillusioned voyeur, during his time in Burma, and like Koestler, had spent some time as a vagabond in the cities of Europe. Like Koestler, Orwell had lost his faith in communist socialism in Spain in the thirties when faced with the reality of the brutality and in-fighting in the civil war between the factions of the Left. Orwell, hypersensitive to such infractions on the clarity of his ideology, did not need imprisonment and torture to turn his stomach or his mind. Koestler might not have done either, but nonetheless Orwell saw in Koestler the grace of god. Orwell, however, was a pragmatist, unlike the quixotic Hungarian, and their personal relationship, inevitable as it was the moment Koestler settled himself in Britain, was never smooth. Koestler was notoriously difficult company, and Orwell had a reputation for cutting to the heart of the matter. But so closely linked were the two men in philosophy, and so activistic in nature, it is perhaps surprising that they did not collaborate when in such close proximity, as Koestler had done with the leading intellectuals of every city he had made a home in. But if a joining of forces had not occurred to Orwell, or if it had at least not appealed to him, it had and did to Koestler, and his move to Bwlch Ocyn was the first step in his plan to create something from these combined forces.
Just a month before Koestler and Mamaine took on the cottage, Orwell had become vice-chairman of the Freedom Defence Committee, a civil liberties group that included Bertrand Russell, Koestler’s new neighbour, and other notaries among its sponsors. The point of the committee was to oppose the increasingly Communist-dominated Leftist groups in London and on the continent. But soon into the life of the committee, Orwell, perhaps sensing the aromas he had smelled as rot in Spain, began to feel the focus of the group too narrow, and too in sway to the whims of its anarchist chairman, Herbert Read. Koestler heard word of Orwell’s disillusionment with the Committee and invited him to Bwlch Ocyn to spend Christmas. It may not have been as enticing a proposition for Orwell had Koestler not already thought ahead. Staying with Koestler and Mamaine was Mamaine’s sister, Celia, with whom Orwell had recently met in London and with whom he had fallen in love. Koestler was fully aware of this and suspected that Orwell would drop everything to come to the remote and slate-bleak setting in the hope of wooing Celia, and he did. But Koestler was only interested in a proposition of his own; the founding of a separate Leftist committee that would neither be in thrall to the cliques, skirmishes and myopia of either the Communists nor the Anarchists.
Over the Christmas of 1945, Koestler and Orwell talked at length in their armchairs, pipe smoke mingling with the open fire, their faces half lit by the orange glow, about the foundation of a successor to the League for the Rights of Man. Their vision of the future was bleak, coloured by their justified perception that totalitarianism and despotism were becoming held up by the intelligentsia, (especially in Britain, Orwell pointed out), as methodologies worthy of admiration. Orwell believed the situation called for not only political action, but a redefinition of democracy itself. Koestler knew that to establish the Committee that he wanted – and that Europe needed – he would need both the intellectual involvement of Orwell and the endorsement of Bertrand Russell, who was the figurehead and undisputed heavyweight of British progressives at that time.
Orwell and Koestler were not men easily adjusted to the intimacies of friendship; Orwell was famously stubborn and enforced a strict discipline on himself – and Koestler was equally stubborn, and his reputation for being a prickly character often undersold his pugnaciousness somewhat. But it seems the two, who had been developing a friendship-of-sorts built from mutual admiration for a few years when both in London, did become close during the few weeks in Bwlch Ocyn, taking long walks together and sharing many intimate thoughts and ambitions. But conversation, ushered by Koestler, always returned to the formation of a committee. Orwell became as equally enthusiastic as Koestler, and after many days and nights debating the state of the Left across Europe, and the poisonous influence of Stalinism in progressive democratic socialism, Orwell agreed to put his full attention into the formation and success of the committee.
Back in London, Orwell spent a week writing a fiery manifesto. He sent it back to Koestler in Bwlch Ocyn. It opened with the assertion that, ‘while liberty without social security is valueless, it has been forgotten that without liberty there can be no security.’ Orwell was concerned with the very fabric of democracy and the ties between the governing classes and the people over whom they governed. He and Koestler intended to redefine democracy, to reach downward as well as outward, and to oppose the ‘infringements against the rights and the dignity of man’. It was an attempt at a pure vision that was neither corrupted by the evils and grabbing of the Right, nor by the corruptions of the Left, but saw a better world for all through liberty. It was a new direction for politics.
Orwell has often confused commentators who would like to position him (and often claim him) as a champion of the Left or the Right. But he was never more clear than in the manifesto he wrote for Koestler. He was not only neither Left nor Right, but the mere suggestion that we should think of him (or Koestler) in these terms is wilfully missing the importance of his ideas. As global politics finds ever more grim and cynical ways to fail the populations from which it first grew, the deconstruction of left and right is the only viable progressive philosophy. Orwell and Koestler not only professed this, but they ended up prophesying the necessity of their own ideas. And it is the most ‘Orwellian’ of all his legacies. Koestler, the firebrand, urged Orwell, infested the man with enthusiasm and vigour, to create a template, a map, for the way out of the suffocating institutional corruptions of our time. The way is through liberty, not through the ‘admiration’ for ‘totalitarian methods’, as Orwell wrote.
Koestler was impressed by the verve and accuracy with which Orwell had taken up his idea. His plan to lure Orwell to Bwlch Ocyn seemed to have worked without a glitch. The next step was to recruit others to the committee, to widen support and make Orwell’s manifesto a palpable centre-point to a real movement. Unfortunately, enlistment was slow and riddled with counter-arguments. Some felt the manifesto was too anti-Russian, others felt it was too abstract in its ideals. Russell, the most important ally on the list, felt that the world was on the brink of apocalyptic war, (Truman had dropped the bomb in August 1945), and wanted to turn the committee into an opportunity for a conference to discuss avoidance of global nuclear annihilation. This was Russell’s condition, and Koestler and Orwell reluctantly agreed and began to set up the conference in the Vale of Ffestiniog.
It was to be peopled with extremely significant political philosophers, such as Victor Gollancz, Michael Foot, Edmund White, Andre Malraux, Manes Sperber, and the editors of Polemic, a leading theoretical journal of the time. The conference, the starting point for the committee, was never to proceed, however. The reasons are an exemplar of the best and the worst of Koestler. It was his energy that had brought all of these figures together, and it was his temper that pushed everything apart. He fell out, in a matter of weeks, with the editors of Polemic, whose collaboration was integral to the success of the movement (even if only from an administrative point of view), and then fell out with Russell after insulting his wife during a row over the wording of the manifesto. Russell’s wife wrote to Koestler later, saying, ‘is it really necessary, among people who have the best will in the world to like you, to be so combative?’
In truth, as Scammell points out in his essential biography of Koestler, he and Bertrand Russell were simply too alike to work together. It was the fulcrum and tragedy of the Orwell-Koestler union that it depended entirely on the endorsement of the third.
With his plans in tatters, Koestler’s life in the cottage became one of domestic drudgery, bickering with Mamaine, and generally feeling ostracised and frustrated. Both Koestler and Orwell were drawn through their lives to opportunities such as the one that Koestler manipulated during that Christmas at Bwlch Ocyn – socialism was the life-blood of both men, and was the candlelight by which they wrote books such as Scum of the Earth, Darkness at Noon, Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell, of course, died tragically young, of tuberculosis; Koestler died in 1983, in a suicide pact with his wife Cynthia, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Both men left legacies the outer reaches of which stretch so far it is almost difficult to comprehend. Their respective Great Works changed the perception of our modern world. But perhaps their greatest legacy is in the venture that never took off, the one moment when they joined forces, and through Koestler’s energy and rhetoric, and Orwell’s intellectual vigour, they drafted a manifesto that signposted a new political causeway; one that, to the detriment of the western world, has still yet to be explored.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis