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Homage in Huesca: George Orwell's son honours writer's Spanish civil war ambition

Richard Blair and Quentin Kopp unveil the Huesca monument paying tribute to British writer George Orwell, May 19 2024.
Richard Blair and Quentin Kopp unveil the Huesca monument paying tribute to British writer George Orwell, May 19 2024. Copyright Quentin Kopp
Copyright Quentin Kopp
By Graham Keeley
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George Orwell never fulfilled his wish to visit Huesca when he fought in the Spanish Civil War but nearly 90-years on, his son Richard Blair has made the trip to unveil a statue in honour of his famous father.

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With a tender kiss, George Orwell’s son made a quiet gesture to his father: in a way, the writer had finally come home.

When Orwell fought on the Republican side in the Spanish civil war, his division was poised to take the eastern city of Huesca.

Confident of victory over the Nationalists, the generals promised the troops they would be drinking coffee in the city the next day, but it never came to pass.

Now, almost 90 years after the writer of Homage to Catalonia nearly lost his life in the 1936-1939 war, his son Richard Blair has finally realised his father’s wish to make it to Huesca – symbolically at least – when a bronze relief of Orwell was erected last month in his honour.

Blair has led a campaign with Victor Pardo, a Spanish historian, to preserve his father’s memory in the eastern Spanish city.

Campaigners in Britain and Spain mounted a campaign to raise about €25,000 to fund the memorial.   

The frieze was set in a 7.8 tonne stone and entitled Takes Coffee in Huesca
The frieze was set in a 7.8 tonne stone and entitled Takes Coffee in HuescaQuentin Kopp

After the ceremony, Blair kissed his hand and put it on his father’s face.

A band played Viva La Quinta Brigada, a Republican civil war song, but with the words changed to include the members of the Independent Labour Party contingent, of which Orwell was a member.

Music to mark the raising of a historic monument to George Orwell

“As Orwell wrote in Homage in Catalonia, the generals were saying every day ‘tomorrow we will take coffee in Huesca’ but of course it never happened. Now he finally has in very much a symbolic way,” Blair told Euronews Culture.  

“(I felt) very proud and very emotional. It has been the highlight of our visits to Spain.”  

“What it has done of course has cemented our relationship with Huesca.  I think a lot of people in Aragon recognised that Orwell was reporting in an honest way what was going on.”

Blair describes himself as “the ordinary son of an extraordinary father”.

He was adopted by Orwell and his wife Eileen in 1945 and after the writer’s death in 1950, he lived with his aunt and uncle.

On the 75th anniversary of Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 last week, Blair recalled how the book was almost never written when he and his father nearly drowned in Scotland.

Orwell took his son to live with him on the island of Jura, off the west coast, while he finished 1984.  But when they went out in a boat, it capsized and the pair nearly drowned.

“Nearly getting drowned would have been very serious. If he had got pulled away by the tide. I was sitting on his knee. The dinghy turned upside. In the end we all survived. If he had died, you would not be speaking to me now,” Blair remembered.

Blair says his father had a devilish sense of humour.

“When I was aged four, I found a broken pipe and filled it up with his cigarette ends and I asked for his lighter. Without a break in the conversation, he passes it down to me and you can guess the rest. I started to spin, and the lunch reappeared but not in its original form. I think he thought it was funny,” Blair, 80, a retired businessman, said.  

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On another occasion, when he smashed up a series of tiles, his father was amused.

Protecting the past

Today the region in eastern Spain is embroiled in modern day controversy over the conflict which tore the country apart in Orwell’s era.  

Regional governments in Aragon, Castile and Leon and Valencia, are run by a coalition of the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the far-right Vox.

Last month, these right-wing coalitions were accused by the United Nations of trying to “whitewash” the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Two years ago, Spain’s socialist-led government introduced a Democratic Memory Law designed to bring “justice, reparation and dignity” to the victims of the civil war.

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It contains dozens of measures which are intended to “settle Spanish democracy’s debt to its past”. 

Among these are setting up of a DNA bank to help locate and identify the remains of tens of thousands of people who lie in unmarked graves; a ban on people who glorify Franco and a redefinition of the Valley of the Fallen, the giant basilica and memorial where Franco lay for 44 years.

However, the PP and Vox coalition have been trying to replace this with ‘harmony laws’ in the regions where they govern.

In a letter sent to the Spanish government in April, UN experts said the information they received about the proposed laws “could affect the Spanish state’s obligations when it comes to human rights, especially its obligations to guarantee the preservation of historical memory on serious human rights violations”.

The making of a memorial

Despite however his father's involvement, Blair is rather reluctant of becoming mired in a Spanish political controversy.

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Orwell fought in the Spanish Republican POUM militia during the civil war. He was shot in the neck in 1937 on the Aragon front but survived through luck. He died in 1950 when his adopted son was five years old.

To help the campaign, Blair matched every £1 donated by giving £1 of his own money.

Eton College, Orwell’s alma mater, gave money to the project.

Pardo believes that for Orwell his time in Spain was the most important in his life.

“Orwell came to Spain in 1936 as a journalist but he changed the pen for a gun.  We celebrate a man who looked for truth and defended liberty,” Pardo told the memorial ceremony.   

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Quentin Kopp, the chair of the Orwell Society, has been a key figure in the campaign. His father Georges Kopp was Orwell’s commanding officer in the civil war.

Later, after the war, Kopp married into the Orwell family so Richard Blair and Quentin Kopp are cousins as well as firm friends.  

“It was emotional for me in a different way to Richard. It was an important project and this was a project that was more than necessary,” Quentin Kopp told Euronews Culture.

“It was very special. It is what Homage to Catalonia means to those on the Republican side during the war. Orwell spoke plainly about what he saw going on around him at the time. That is valued so much more in Spain than in anywhere else.”

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