Dystopian Fiction & The North East

Regular contributor Jack Turner seeks the connection between some of Literature's greatest authors and the North East, and how the backdrop of industry and smog built the backdrop of the well known dystopian novels we know and love.


A little-known part of the wide and varied history of the North East of England is the region’s connection to some of the most famous writers of the twentieth century. A number of figures visited, found inspiration, or - in the case of George Orwell - had a direct connection to the North East.


In March 1916 Yevgeny Zamyatin - while working as an engineer for the Imperial Russian Navy - was dispatched to the shipyards of Walker and Wallsend in order to oversee the construction of Icebreaker ships. These specially crafted ships were used to navigate through ice-covered waters. The first icebreaker constructed was named the Krassin. The ship was built by Armstrong Whitworth under Zamyatin’s supervision. It remained the most powerful icebreaker in the world until the start of the 1950s.

However, Zamyatin did not just relegate himself to his professional war-time occupation while he spent time in the North East. He was extremely productive in terms of his writing while he was in the region. Potentially this was due to the fact that Zamyatin did not appear to enjoy his stint on Tyneside. In 1916 he pleaded with his wife via letter to join him in the city, in order to alleviate his depressive state. During his time here he penned both The Islanders and its follow-up A Fisher of Men. Zamyatin spent some of his time in Jesmond, and lampooned the area in The Islanders where he writes:


‘The Sunday gentlemen were produced at one of the Jesmond factories and on Sunday mornings, thousands of them appeared on the streets with the Sunday edition of St Enoch’s parish newspaper. Sporting identical canes and identical top-hats, the Sunday gentlemen strolled in dignified fashion along the street and greeted their doubles.’


The Islanders and A Fisher of Men were not the only Zamyatin texts influenced by his short time in the North East. His magnum opus We had a seismic influence on the dystopian genre, influencing writers such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell in their watershed texts Brave New World and 1984 respectively. Noam Chomsky later called We ‘more perceptive’ than either of the aforementioned, far more famous texts.


Alan Myers in his 1993 article ‘Zamyatin in Newcastle’ references the influence of Tyneside’s shipyards on a number of plot points within We:


‘At lunchtime, each worker was issued with the appropriate numbered disc, to be handed in on retiring to the shipyard (male and female employers, however, were not distinguished by number or letter, as they are in We). It is, I think, reasonable to suppose that Zamyatin had this procedure in mind when conceiving his own system. To the best of my knowledge, We is the first novel ever written in which the characters are known solely by letters and numbers.’


The comparisons do not end there however, the spaceship Integral in We is replete with decks, gunwales and a ward-room. Myers also makes the connection between the Accumulator Tower and Grey’s Monument in the city centre of Newcastle.


As previously referenced Zamyatin had a powerful influence on the two most famous dystopian texts of the twentieth century, Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1949). What is not as well-known however is that the North East of England also inspired Huxley’s formulation of the ‘World State’ society as featured in Brave New World.


Huxley spent time at the ICI chemical plant in Billingham, then known as Brunner & Mond. Keen readers will note that within the text ‘the controller of Western Europe’ is named Mustapha Mond. Huxley was impressed by the chemical plant and termed it as:

An ordered universe in a world of unplanned incoherence.

Whether the Billingham plant itself inspired the introduction of Brave New World, which is based around the artificial genetic engineering lab of the ‘Central London Hatchery’ is unknown. However, the Brunner & Mond Plant was the largest of its kind in the Commonwealth. It was also feted by many as a marvel of modern industry; knowing this it is easy to see how the plant may have influenced Huxley to think about the distant future; a time which would far surpass the cutting-edge technology of 1920s English society.


An author who Huxley is often grouped with, both in contemporary times and during the period in which they were both writing, is George Orwell. As noted above We by Yevgeny Zamyatin inspired both men. Two years prior to the publication of 1984 Orwell in his 1946 review of We for The Tribune wrote that:


‘The first thing anyone would notice about We is the fact—never pointed out, I believe—that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partly derived from it. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence.’


Huxley and Orwell - the two giants of dystopian fiction - had crossed paths before. Huxley was Orwell’s former French tutor at Eton College. Following the publication of 1984 Huxley wrote to his former student. In his letter he simultaneously praised and criticised Orwell’s most famous novel. Huxley called it profoundly important but also stated that:


‘Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.’


Orwell himself also had connections to the North East of England. His first wife Eileen Maud Blair (Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair) was born in South Shields. Their marriage was not a particularly happy one, Eileen would type George’s manuscripts for him in a cramped cottage in Hertfordshire not long after they had wed.


In 1934, a year prior to her meeting with Orwell and fourteen years prior to the release of 1984, Eileen wrote the poem ‘End of the Century, 1984.’ The poem was written to celebrate the fifty year anniversary of Sunderland Church High School and to illustrate a potential future world when the school would celebrate its centenary in the year 1984.


Notable similarities with Orwell’s later work are the: inclusion of: an all-seeing police state, the erosion of personal freedoms and the use of mind control on the general population.

Following the 1944 bombing of their flat in Maida Vale, London the Orwell’s spent the rest of the war in Eileen’s brother’s property Greystone, near Carlton, County Durham.


Eileen Blair, wife of George Orwell from South Shields

March 29th, 1945 saw Eileen die at the age of 39. Her cause of death was cardiac failure while on the operating table in Newcastle. Orwell at the time was working as a war correspondent in Paris; he arrived at Greystone two days following Eileen’s death. She was buried at St. Andrews Cemetery in West Jesmond. Following her tragic death Orwell left Greystone and the North East and did not return, spending the rest of his life in London, Europe and Jura respectively.


Zamyatin, Orwell and Huxley were all impacted - in one way or another - by the North East of England. Zamyatin both satirised the middle-class Jesmond in The Islanders as an indictment of the English class-system and also saw the industrious nature of the region as a jumping off point to create a dystopian, bleak futuristic world. A world in which humans are not names or individuals, but numbers - cogs in a despotic machine - in We.


The Brunner & Mond works at Billingham informed Aldous Huxley’s central motif of Brave New World in which ‘the World Society’ involved the triumph of order over chaos.


Orwell’s connection differentiates from the other two. While the physical aspect of the North East isn’t used as a direct influence on his work; Eileen Blair - his first wife born in the region - certainly was a large influence on both his personal and professional spheres of life. She arguably influenced his most famous work, 1984 and he spent a considerable amount of time in the property of Greystone.


The authors of two of the most famous dystopian novels ever written both found inspiration for their respective works from the people and the places of the North East of England. What is even more astounding is that the man who influenced them both - Zamyatin - also found the North East as an avenue that helped further his creativity.


Undoubtedly the course of dystopian literature as we know it today would have been altered considerably if the three men in question did not have the connections they did to the North East.


If only we could hear these three giants of literature having a conversation about this very topic.


Jack Turner is a recent graduate of Northumbria University studying History & Politics. He writes freelance for the North East Heritage Library, UpWork & WhatCulture. He has a keen interest in the social history of the North East and how that has moulded and shaped the present. In his spare time he enjoys creative writing, making music and listening to podcasts/lectures online.