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Jura According to Modern Writers

Barnhill in the North of JuraI found an interesting article in the Times Online about the Jura Malt Whisky Writer Retreat programme and the differences between the circumstances Orwell lived and worked in and the writers that join the programme and settle in the Jura Lodge, next to the Distillery in Craighouse. It’s like Clive James wrote in his essay The All of Orwell, “To write like him, you need a life like his, but times have changed and he changed them.” The article continues: “To gauge the truth of this we need only look at the island on which the author’s work concluded. When George Orwell arrived on Jura in May 1946, he was finishing his final novel amid conditions of awesome, bleak monasticism, quarantined 30 miles from the nearest settlement, blasted by gales intended to assuage his tuberculosis.” It’s clear that conditions have changed if you consider the luxurious lodge, comfortably located in Craighouse, next to the distillery and in the heart of the Jura community, an island that is still considered to be one of the most insulated Hebridean islands. I’d like to continue this post with a couple of quotes from the article:

For two years now, the makers of the island’s single malt have run the Jura Malt Whisky Writer Retreat programme in collaboration with the Scottish Book Trust to furnish authors with a nip of what Orwell consumed so deeply during the composition of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Three writers a year are invited to work for a month at the retreat in Craighouse, with a remit that their writing should address, however tangentially, the experience of living on Jura. The fruits of the first two years’ harvests — including works by Will Self, Janice Galloway and John Burnside — are now published in Spirit of Jura: Fiction, Essays, Poems from the Jura Lodge.

Will Self,who spent much of the 1990s isolating himself on Orkney to work, says “The great thing about islands is that they are worlds entire. They’re very appealing to novelists because they’re rather like novels themselves: they’re discrete, they have their own narrative, they’re fully apprehensible by an individual in a way a country is too big to be. The communities are different from those of us who live in mass society. They get into the habit of viewing the outer world as if it were a bit like where they are. They assume you’re completely alien because you’re outside the community and that the outside world is as aware of them as they are of the outside world. They’re full of foibles. We mainlanders joke about islanders being in touch with the fairies and so on”, says Burnside, “but on Jura there’s a very real sense that they are in touch with that aspect of things, to things that are no longer listened to in the bustle of mainland life. They remember their dead on Jura.”

Janice Galloway is no ‘Orwell fetishist’, though, so she didn’t make it to Barnhill, the house in which Orwell lived during his two years on Jura, getting only as far as the rough five-mile track at whose end the house sits. The same track, impassible by motor vehicle, deterred Burnside also. Orwell, he says, was one of the reasons he started writing fiction. But he didn’t want to look inside the house. ‘I’ve done that before with other writers and it’s always an overwhelming disappointment. I’d rather continue to imagine the room than go there and notice that Orwell’s trees aren’t there any more.’

‘I’m as much of an Orwellian as most people,’ says Self. ‘I’ve read all the books, I know about the life and the Jura connection. I was fascinated to go to Barnhill and to be introduced to the family who own it. But most places have a literary connection if you scratch beneath the surface. Jura’s is perhaps one of the most celebrated, but Orwell wasn’t writing about Jura, he was imagining a dystopic version of London.

John Burnside went for cross-island hikes with David Faithfull, who illustrated Spirit of Jura; with his amateur interest in the art of butchery, Burnside spent some time with the man who processes much of Jura’s deer for export. ‘And Stephen, the man who runs the newsagents in Craighouse, turned out to be a very good literary critic,’ Burnside adds.

The full article published in the Times Online is available from this link

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