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Just before I turned 30 I was homeless for a while. Homeless is the wrong word, an exagger­ation. But I was in Edinburgh with little money and nowhere to live. So I took myself off to the Scottish islands with a bike and two red panniers. The plan was to stay in bothies — stone cottages that shelter hikers and climbers, remote structures in the hills where you arrive and take your chances.

I started in Oban on the west coast, then pedalled south to one of the fingers of ocean that reach deep and diagonally into Argyll. Cold fronts broke in off the Atlantic, one after the other. I tried to cycle between showers but was soaked. I found myself unable not to take the headwind personally. I would burst into tears on the hard shoulder — homeless, jobless, indebted and drenched.

On the Isle of Islay I hiked to a remote bothy. It was full of other people’s leavings: oatcakes and freshly cut peat in a creel, shiny cutlery and coffee pots. It was just me, myself and I — pinned down by (another) frightening Atlantic storm for three days and three nights. When it subsided, I crossed to Jura: a wilder, emptier place. It is also where George Orwell lived in a remote cottage towards the end of his life, where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four and also worked on the memoir “Such, Such Were the Joys”. This triumphantly miserable piece about his schooldays is one of my favourite pieces of non-fiction. Published posthumously in 1952, this was the essay he was revising on his deathbed. He would come here to retreat from literary London, and was once almost drowned in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan off Jura’s north coast. You could hear its thunderous sound from where I camped — boulders stirred on the ocean bed, like the drawn-out roar of a passing plane.

My island journey, which eventually took me all the way through the Outer Hebrides, became a kind of fulcrum in my life because it also involved an unlikely job interview. Picking up messages on the ferry leaving Jura, I listened to several increasingly urgent voice messages from the University of Cape Town. I was asked to be ready for an interview over the phone the next day.

After making notes with the toothpick-sized pen from my penknife, I had my interview for the post of English lecturer, explaining to the panel that I was looking over towards the Isle of Jura, where Orwell had come to die, where he had spent his last days revising an essay about being a confused and humiliated boy. I got the job, and a few months later returned to South Africa for good.

Barnhill, the cottage on Jura where George Orwell lived in the 1940s
Barnhill, the cottage on Jura where George Orwell lived in the 1940s © Alamy

Why do I tell this story? Why does this lonely, difficult journey keep playing in my mind? Recently, a student told me she point-blank refused to read Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys”. I teach a course on narrative non-fiction, and this is on the syllabus under the section “Getting Personal: How to Use ‘I’ and Still Be Interesting”. But she was emphatically not interested in yet another memoir about the schooldays of a “cis-het white middle-class English male”.

I bristled, no doubt. It was quite a stack of adjectives to swallow. I wanted to argue that this piece was about power and empire and class. I wanted to quote bits of the piece, to try to win her over.

At least read the first page, which begins in shame and humiliation — always so reliable as literary subjects. Orwell remembers being hauled up by the headmistress (nicknamed Bingo) for bed-wetting, and being mocked by her in front of a mysterious woman who is visiting the school that day: “Here is a little boy”, said Bingo, indicating me to the strange lady, “who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet your bed again?” she added, turning to me. “I am going to get the Sixth Form to beat you.”

The next bit stays with me: the Sixth Form, we are told, was “a group of older boys who were selected as having ‘character’ and who were empowered to beat smaller boys”. But the young Orwell has not yet learned of their existence, and so he mishears the phrase “the Sixth Form” as “Mrs Form”: “I took it as referring to the strange lady — I thought, that is, that her name was Mrs Form.” An improbable name, “but a child has no judgement in such matters. I imagined, therefore, that it was she who was deputed to beat me”.

Mrs Form seems almost too minor, too private and strange a detail to put into a piece of writing. And yet Orwell has trusted to it, revivifying one of childhood’s “wild, almost lunatic misunderstandings” — what adjectival skills, what a mesmerising phrase — to begin a meditation on how we conduct our lives according to error piled upon error.

In launching the first Bodley Head/FT essay competition four years ago, Simon Schama wrote about his Orwell. My father also has his Orwell — an author we have coincided on, though for different reasons. He likes to quote the line about good prose being like a windowpane; at the university, the glass is forever shattered. Something in Orwell’s writing speaks to me as a white South African living through my country’s delayed, painful reckoning with its past: a sense of inescapable complicity and taintedness. Orwell the ex-colonial policeman, or rather Eric Blair, who invents the character “Orwell”, a literary creation who lets him write with the full range of his experience.

Orwell at work, also in the 1940s
Orwell at work, also in the 1940s © Getty

Some readers have quibbled about the facts of Orwell’s memoir but, as Raymond Williams writes in his 1971 essay for Fontana Modern Masters, this dichotomy between fact and fiction is beside the point. The distinction that matters “is always one of range and consciousness”. He goes on: “Written human experience of an unspecialised and primary kind must always be recognised as literature . . . Orwell began to write literature, in the full sense, when he found this ‘non-fictional’ form: that is, when he found a form capable of realising his experience directly.”

So even as I was wrong to imagine that Orwell’s schooldays could mean as much to my students as they do to me, I still want to argue for him as part of a constellation of writers who shake the essay form out of its politeness and cosiness. Writers such as James Baldwin, Jamaica Kincaid, John Berger, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Janet Malcolm, Rebecca Solnit, Teju Cole, Ta-Nehisi Coates — all are non-fictionists whose work feels essential and electrifying to me.

Such, I think, are some of the joys and tensions of the essay form: how it navigates between the private archive and full public voice, starting with an unrepeatably idiosyncratic detail and then widening this out into a whole world; and most of all how it can find a home for the undersea peace of the meditative, freethinking self, but also (I’m still thinking of Jura) the submerged roar of world historical currents: the remote cottage and the maelstrom.

Hedley Twidle was the winner of the inaugural Bodley Head/FT Essay prize in 2012

Photographs: Alamy; Getty Images

Illustration by Martin Sati

Wanted: your essays. Here’s how to enter

The Financial Times and The Bodley Head, an imprint of Penguin Random House, are proud to launch our fifth annual essay prize. The prize aims to discover young talent from around the world in long-form essay writing. The prize has led to many new and exciting opportunities for winners and runners-up. Hedley Twidle, winner of the first Bodley Head FT Essay Prize, is now a regular contributor to the FT. Edward Posnett won in 2014 for his essay ‘Eiderdown’ and has his first book, Harvest, due for publication with The Bodley Head in 2017. And last year’s winner, Laurence Blair, has also recently been signed up by The Bodley Head to write his first book, which expands on his 2015 winning essay, ‘Dreams of the Sea’.

This competition is open to anyone between 18 and 35 years old. Judges will be looking for a dynamic, authoritative and lively essay of no more than 3,500 words. It can be journalistic, a case study, wide-ranging or minutely focused. In keeping with the ethos of both sponsors, it can address any topic — from finance and current affairs to history and scientific discovery. We aren’t looking for a particular subject; we’re simply looking for quality writing.

Deadline for submissions is January 29 2017 (midnight GMT).

The winner will receive:

● £1,000 and an e-publication with The Bodley Head

● A mentoring session with The Bodley Head and Financial Times

● A subscription to FT.com, and a selection of books from The Bodley Head

Two runners up will win:

● £500 each and an e-publication with The Bodley Head

● A digital subscription to Weekend FT, and a bag of books from The Bodley Head

Visit ft.com/essayprize to submit your essay, read previous winning entries and for further information. Follow the competition on Twitter using #BHFTessaycomp

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