There comes a time in any young life where the senses are suddenly open and art of any genus strikes like a stab in the solar plexus. It can be a song about a loved one – unrequited or otherwise – a painting, a poem or a book. One day, they can wash over you without making a single impression and the next it will seem that they have been created with you in mind and no one else. Once it was a collection of words, notes or brushstrokes and now it’s like a personal letter from God. Sometimes things just hit home.
This happened to me in 1983.
Was it one of Keats’ Odes that hit me like a thunderbolt? The brooding skies of a Turner painting? The resonating angst that consumed Hamlet? No. It was the tale of a dystopian state ran by the ultimate totalitarian regime which controlled everything, even thought.
Different strokes and all that.
Back then I was a skinny schoolboy in Liverpool. I was left wing as were many of us at that time. Two years earlier the Toxteth riots lit up the Liverpool streets and I went from the last year of primary school where break was called ‘playtime’ to seeing burnt out cars on my way to school. Talk about growing up quickly. My school, the Liverpool Institute, which was nowhere near as grand as it sounded, sat only a street away from the L8 postcode, in the shadow of the enormous Anglican cathedral. It would be impossible to live through those weeks and not be curious as to why it happened.
At the age of 14 I wanted to know everything and was open to every idea of everything. Well, anything that didn’t come under the name of ‘schoolwork’ anyway. I was reading everything I could get my hands on and listening to every band the radio would yield, but was strangely reluctant to pore over whatever set text I was given. I wanted to learn things I wasn’t allowed to learn. Not anarchic or rebellious as such – more that I knew there would things out there which were not covered in any syllabus. I was walking around with my solar plexus puffed out, ready to be punched.
This is not to say I was particularly wise or precocious. Far from it. I was in the bottom set for both English and Maths and left school without a single qualification. Oh, I could tell you who wrote what or who recorded what in which year, but formal education was lost to me. I’d like to tell you that I didn’t believe in such things and that I took all my knowledge from nature and experience or some such guff, but that would be bunkum. The truth is that I did try to improve myself. It’s just that the inner me wasn’t concentrating properly.
My English teacher that year was a balding thin man called Mr Mason. He was also my Latin teacher too (I failed that too, but liked the literature aspect. There’s a theme here) and despite the fact that I was a frustrating pupil, he saw something behind my eyes and encouraged me the best he could. I liked him enormously. One day in an English class he played us ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ from Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album and asked us to write down what we thought it was about. This was a long way away from stuttering recitations of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy novels that we were used to with other teachers so I liked him as of that moment. Not only did he create an interesting and unusual English lesson, but he’d made it known to us – or to me at least – that he liked music and collected vinyl.
It was hard to imagine any other teacher doing that. Our male teachers were either dressed like TV weathermen or TV detectives. Long macs or leather jackets. David Mason dressed like he was in a New Wave band – all pencil thin tie and dark jackets. Suddenly he wasn’t a teacher. To me he was one of the lads. The sort of bloke who could recommend albums to you. He’d obviously been smacked in the solar plexus a few times too in his youth.
If any of my old schoolmates are reading this they might be surprised to hear this as he had the reputation of a being a hard man rather than a bringer of cultural light. He wasn’t slow to rap his student’s head with the downward swipe of his knuckles – something which became known as ‘a nut.’ His nickname was ‘Peanut’ though only the very stupid would call him that to his face.
His classroom, Room 43, was a cramped, dusty affair at the top of the building sat in an off-corridor of three rooms. Room 44 was inhabited by another Latin teacher, the ever avuncular Frank Eastham, while Room 45 – the highest room number in the school – saw a collection of English teachers in my five years there. This was obviously where the language kids hung out.
Anyway, Mr Mason had a small shelf of untroubled books from the 1960s on one wall. I honestly think they hadn’t been disturbed since that decade. One of the titles stood out for me. Here’s why.
By 1983 I was a Paul Weller bore. His band, The Jam, had split up the year before and I was late to the party so invested heavily in his lesser spin off project The Style Council. Please blame this on the follies of youth. Weller fascinated me though and was exactly the sort of man I needed at that age. Left wing, snappily dressed, a guitarist, a reader and, most important of all, angry. His default position seemed to be ‘furious.’ He would snarl at interviewers, pick fights with other bands and never miss an opportunity to castigate the enemy – Thatcher. All of this was delivered in a sharp staccato Cockney accent (he’s from Woking, but that was only a detail at the time) which was both coarse and sharp. I loved him unreservedly.
In one interview he mentioned the importance of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in his political awakening. I love a recommendation – still do – so I was pleased to see it gathering dust on the Room 43 bookcase. I picked it up and wandered over to Mr Mason.
I hadn’t read it nor even seen a copy, but I knew it was on the list of ‘Important Books That Must Be Read’ that I’d concocted in my mind. I’ll admit that I probably wanted to show off a bit too in a ‘Yeah, I’ve read that’ sort of way too. I was 14 after all so that was perfectly allowed. In any case I stutteringly asked if I could borrow it. He agreed, frowning slightly as my English syllabus was all Charles Causley and Shakespeare and he was probably keen for me to get on with them rather than taking on, literally, extra curricula work. Still, he’d started it by bringing Dylan albums to school so I don’t suppose he could really argue.
I read it in two days that week and then again in four the following week. I was expecting it to have an effect on me and I knew it was dark, but it knocked me sideways. I was wide open for it and that sensation of being completely engulfed into a world created by another, even one as evil and despicable as Oceania, has never left me. I can remember exactly where I was when I read the last line. I can even remember that I’d finished it on a Sunday having borrowed it on the Friday.
The word ‘masterpiece’ is used too easily now, but Nineteen Eighty-Four is in a category of its own. Sure, there are other novels with a similar theme – Huxley, Koestler, Burgess – but Nineteen Eighty-Four is the blueprint.
And yet, had I read it five years later or a year earlier I doubt it would have had the same impact. It would have been too difficult or naïve even. I would have ticked it off the list and walked away, unaware of its head-swimming, rank beauty.
I was surprised recently when I read that many consider J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to be an overrated piece of pretentious twaddle. Again, I read that as a teenager and though it never reached the heights of Orwell’s work, that too had an effect on me, probably because it deals with a teenager trying to make sense of his changing world. I don’t want to read it again in case that feeling dissipates.
So what is Nineteen Eighty Four about? For those who don’t know the basic plot. I’ll try to pass on the general themes. May contain spoilers.
In 1984 the world is split between four different areas and three superpowers – Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. A fourth district goes under the name of ‘disputed territories’ though we never visit them in the book. Britain has undergone a civil war thirty or so years earlier and capitalism has been overthrown. Since then the revolutionary leaders have been executed in ‘the great purges of the 50s and 60s’ and ‘The Party’ now have complete control over Oceania. The country has been renamed ‘Airstrip One’ and is controlled by the ‘Inner Party’ who take their orders from the head, Big Brother. Big Brother’s face is seen on every poster and TV screen though he does not appear in the book. Indeed, there is even a question about whether he is alive, or has ever existed.
There is a perpetual war with two of the states aligning to fight the third. At the beginning of the book Oceania and Eastasia are at war with Eurasia, but that changes without comment during ‘Hate Week’ when Oceania and Eurasia join forces against Eastasia. The war is endless. It has to be.
Amidst this world lives Winston Smith, a 39-year-old member of the Outer Party and employee of the Ministry of Truth – a government building dealing with the falsification of the past through a state controlled media. Winston’s job is to edit previous newspapers to fit in with the current view of the Party. For example, at some point it is reported in The Times that Big Brother had considered a war in Africa to be unlikely, but the reverse comes to pass. Big Brother can never be wrong or even seen to be so it has to be edited. Winston is given the offending article with instructions to make it appear that Big Brother was confident that war in Africa would take place. He is always right, prophetic and can never be questioned.
A lot of Winston’s work is simple enough, but every now and then he has to change production figures and statistics which require research. One other occasions he is tasked with removing references to ‘unpersons’ – that is, people who have been vaporised by the state and of whom every record of their life removed. If a photograph is published with an unperson mentioned in the caption, then that caption must be edited. It is not that the person is dead. It is that the person has never existed.
Winston is more than aware of the hypocrisy and cruelty of all this. At one point it is recorded that the chocolate ration is to be reduced to 25 grams per week. It is reported that it has actually been increased to that amount and there are excited conversations between members of the Outer Party about the new plentiful figure. They too know it is a lie but fear the consequences of pointing it out.
The Outer Party is controlled by two terrifying elements of society – the Thought Police and the telescreens that are in every house and on every street corner. In theory, the purpose of the screens is to trot out hours upon hours of propaganda of Oceania’s success in the war against the Eurasia as well as the most recent production figures, but in reality they do more than broadcast – they are spyholes into every room of Airstrip One. It is here that the Inner Party can monitor every word, every action and every nuance of everyone. A smile, a frown, a tut or an exaggerated celebration can give away a supposed treachery against Big Brother. Every citizen of Oceania, apart from the proles who are considered animals, must be inscrutable and never betray the slightest ‘Thought Crime.’ Oceania is a ruled on a tyrannical understanding that vaporisations are common.
As Winston records:
Thought Crime does not entail death. Thought Crime IS death.
Airstrip One is run by four different ministries. The Ministry of Truth (propaganda and records), of Love (public order and torture), of Plenty (starvation) and Peace (war). The contradictory choice of title is quite deliberate and an example of the official language ‘Newspeak.’ Symes, a colleague of Winston’s and a little too intelligent for his own safety, is an expert in the new language and explains that his job is to eradicate words from the new Newspeak dictionary. If the word ‘starvation’ is removed from the common lexicon, so does its concept. Starvation becomes ‘plentiful’ or at least the norm and therefore tolerable. Social control by language control.
It is a rare language inasmuch as it grows smaller every day rather than expanding as others would. In the postscript, Orwell gives the example of the words ‘freedom,’ ‘sexuality’ and ‘liberty.’ Under Newspeak there is no use for them as they are superfluous. Those concepts do not exist in Ingsoc (‘English Socialism – the political ideology of the Party) so the words are not needed. Instead they can be replaced by the term ‘Thought Crime.’ Hence, Newspeak is constantly edited rather than growing. Symes tells Winston that the destruction of words is a beautiful thing.
The novel is not written in Newspeak. The Party’s aim is to have the population (save for the proles) to be spoken by 2050. The Times, however, is published daily in Newspeak though Oldspeak is still the common language.
The centrepiece of the working day is the ‘Two Minutes Hate.’ At around 11am every Outer Party member congregates in front of a large telescreen and is confronted with pictures of war atrocities and speeches from Emmanuel Goldstein, the founder and chairman of the ‘Brotherhood’ – a rival and enemy to Big Brother and, by extension, the realm of Oceania. The workers stand and shout at the screen, even going so far to throw objects at his face. It is done to allow people to vent their frustrations and is scrutinised by the Thought Police looking for the tiniest piece of dissension. At the end of the performance, the screen dissolves into the face of Big Brother and calmness descends. Smiles and even tears are produced at the mere sight of the leader. He is their father and saviour.
Like Big Brother, there is doubt that Goldstein physically exists and that he is just a figurehead used as a mechanism of control. The Party state that he is in hiding and recruiting members to overthrow the kind and loving government offered by ‘BB’.
One day, Winston, who is plagued by questions that he dare not utter, commits Thought Crime by buying and keeping a diary. He is aware that he is a Thought Criminal even before he writes a single word as even the idea of buying a book on the black market is, in itself, unorthodox and punishable by time in a forced labour camp at the very least.
There is a tiny alcove in his dilapidated flat that his home telescreen cannot see so he considers himself safe. He begins the diary on 4th April 1984.
That is the background to the novel and I won’t go any further in case you haven’t read it. However, I will say that as the tale develops we learn more about ‘Ingsoc’. Winston says at one point:
I understand how. I do not understand why.
Without giving too much away I can tell you that he discovers the answer. He learns that there is no pretence about the totalitarianism of Big Brother and that the strata and scrutiny of its society is not due to the bettering of society or some pie in the sky utopia. An Inner Party member tells him:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
He explains how this is achieved and states the most important and damning phrase in the entire book:
If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.
I’m coming ever so close to spoilers so I’ll leave it there.
But just why did this cynical and horrifying work capture my imagination over 30 years ago? It’s hardly the tale of a misunderstood teenager (is there any other type?)
Obviously the politics of the time had an effect. During my final year of school the Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council, Derek Hatton, battled with the Thatcher government through his Trotskyite ‘Militant tendency’. There was no blurring of the lines here. It was a case of the hard left with a Scouse accent standing in opposition to the hard right. Again, this was happening outside my very front door, so much so that it was not unusual to see Hatton out and about in the Liverpool streets.
Hatton too had been a pupil at the Institute and ended up being one of the people who closed it in 1985, just over twenty years after he left. Talk about schoolboy revenge.
So I believed I was living in a politically charged environment and though I was never a Hatton disciple, I would always stand against his enemy.
Then there was the element of prediction. Orwell had already been dead for nearly forty years when I first read the book, but there were warnings for all. In the 1980s Liverpool was a city considered outside England. To this day many of my city will give their nationality as ‘Scouse’ rather than British and that, for me at least, stem from those times. England was something else – a separate body of people who loved the royal family and voted Conservative. Liverpool was a vision of Big Brother’s proles – large in number and utterly irrelevant to everything else. ‘Animals’ as Symes calls them in the canteen of the Ministry of Truth.
This isn’t as farfetched as you’d suppose. It was revealed many years later that the Conservative government had considered cutting Liverpool off and leaving it in a ‘state of managed decline’ following the riots of 1981, much in the same way as Orwell’s ‘proles’ were allowed to fend for themselves with minimal intervention.
What’s more we were lambasted by all and sundry. The stereotype of thievery and criminal mentality was rolled out time and again so much so that it was adopted by a truism by The S*n after the Hillsborough disaster. Let’s be clear here. Kelvin McKenzie didn’t choose to blame the fans of the disaster under the headline of ‘The Truth’ because it was controversial. He did so because he knew he could sell it. It was deemed believable. Even good old left wing comics like Harry Enfield made hay from it with cartoonesque characters in shell suits and a combative, thieving nature.
Then came the miner’s strike of 1984. That was the first time I became aware of press demonisation. Oh, I can recall The S*n asking ‘Would you vote for this man?’ with a picture of a dishevelled Michael Foot on the day of the 1983 General Election, but the miner’s strike was something else. Pickets were called traitors to their families while those who broke them were heroes. Arthur Scargill, the President of the National Union of Mineworkers, was depicted as a mad despot and a face of evil -like a more benevolent Emmanuel Goldstein. I can still recall a morning TV interview with him where the interviewer screwed up her face in disgust at his every answer, at one point even whining,
Why are you bothering? You know you’re going to lose.
So I was aware of ‘them and us’ even at that young age, or maybe because of it. I was aware too that even my schoolmates, who never mentioned politics, were automatically left wing or, at least, distrustful of authority. I don’t know if teenagers are politically rebellious these days but, and this will seem shocking, I’ll never forget the morning after the Brighton bombing when my class cheered the news from our coach as we headed out on a school trip. Yes, people cheered. Them and us or our own version of the Two Minute Hate? I’m not sure.
Of course, I didn’t want people to die, but anything that hurt the government was fine.
So when I read O’Brien’s speeches in the Ministry of Truth and saw the raw openness of them it really struck a chord. There was never any pretence from the Party. There was no fake concern about the citizens of Airstrip One. It was evil and when you’re a teenager and open to those ideas, things are that stark, that black and white.
When I read the book a decade or so later I noticed something else about it that hadn’t struck me at first. The language.
Orwell didn’t waste a single word. Every piece of work he wrote, including his diaries, look like they’ve been edited and edited down to perfection. Nineteen Eighty-Four is boiled down to the story without the unnecessary addition of flowery prose. Winston is above average intelligence and recognises the sort of government he’s living under, but he’s portrayed as an ‘everyman’ character rather than a hero. He defeats no one by superiority or superhuman acts of bravery. He is just a man who has to hide his thoughts. It would be easy to make Winston a man of the people by giving him episode after episode of glory, but the stark language makes him the opposite. He is a unit, a cell, a man. O’Brien calls him ‘the last man’ –nothing special.
Likewise, he paints Julia –Winston’s accomplice – almost like an impulsive teenager rather than a heroine. She admits that she is ‘rather good at staying alive’ but takes risks, notably in contacting Winston in the first place. This is not to say that she is shallow or scatty. If anything she is less idealistic than Winston who dreams of a revolution led by the proles. Julia knows she is a Thought Criminal, embraces it and knows that it shall eventually be the death of her. She hates the Inner Party and Big Brother and wants to make it corrupt, but she is under no illusion about her chances of success. Amongst her final words to Winston are:
We are the dead.
The book is cynical in the extreme and ends without joy or hope. Society does not change and the main characters are expendable. Ingsoc, The Party and Oceania end the book in exactly how they started. Winston and Julia don’t change a thing. No happy endings here.
And it’s not as if things will change with the next generation. The children of Oceania are Party zealots. At an early age they are recruited into ‘the Spies’ and encouraged to check on everyone, including their own parents. Winston’s neighbours – a sweaty man called Parsons and his downtrodden wife have two children who are furious that they have missed the executions in Victory Square. The eldest roars ‘Thought Criminal’ at Winston and ‘You’re an agent of Goldstein!’ when he is asked in to fix a blocked sink. As he leaves he is struck with a pellet from a catapult. We later learn that the seven-year-old daughter has reported Parsons to the Thought Police, claiming that she heard her father mutter ‘Down with Big Brother’ in his sleep. He is captured and eventually ‘vaporised.’
Of course, the themes of the book are well-known. The term ‘Orwellian’ to describe a paranoid or over-policed society has long since passed into common parlance. Likewise, Room 101 and Big Brother are familiar concepts and are now the titles of TV programmes – albeit much more benevolent versions than those in the novel!
But has any of it come true?
Well, not in its strictest sense. I’m allowed to criticise the government and choose whom I speak to. I am not being watched by a government agency (that I know of) and I’m allowed to have this published without it being passed through a committee to check for its orthodoxy.
However, there are some similarities though they are more suggested than indoctrinated. For example, we may not have a Two Minute Hate but there are newspapers that repeatedly encourage hate groups against perceived enemies. We are not expected to gather together in audience to shout at a flag, but that level of published hatred is relentless. Look at the way the word ‘Migrant’ is used in the press these days.
There has also been talk of restricting civil liberties and rights. In October the Daily Mail’s ran the front page headline was ‘End of Human Rights Farce.’ It’s difficult to see how the words ‘human rights’ and ‘farce’ can appear in the same sentence in a modern Western society but here we are. Charlotte Meredith of the Huffington Post said of it:
Whereas it is often recognised that human rights are intrinsic in the preservation of equal rights and are the very foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, The Daily Mail and The Express have dismissed them as a “farce” and “madness” – focusing instead on cases where “criminals have made a mockery of justice.”
In other words, if there are people misusing the Human Rights Act it is best that we do away with it altogether regardless of those millions protected by them.
Charlotte also mentions that Belarus have forsaken similar laws and, according to Human Rights Watch,
…suppresses virtually all forms of dissent and uses restrictive legislation and abusive practices to impede freedoms of association and assembly.
Orwellian, you might say.
Then there’s the current concept of ‘fake news.’ This has become an issue in 2017 due to Donald Trump’s constant barking, but it’s been around for decades. Otherwise known as ‘yellow journalism’ it originally referred to hoaxes and misinterpretations occasionally written to gain a political end. Elsewhere it was used a character assassination. As referenced earlier in 1983 The S*n ran a front page picture of Michael Foot, asking ‘Do You Really Want This Old Fool to Run Britain’? If that seems like fair comment it’s worth remembering that not long after they urged Americans to vote for Ronald Reagan as he sought a second term. Foot was nearly 70, Reagan 74.
This, of itself, was not a political news story – merely a hatchet job – yet it became just that.
Perhaps the closest we can come to a Big Brother ‘Ministry of Truth’ style press came on 19th April this year when the Daily Mail covered the announcement of the General Election in an accusatory fashion:
In a stunning move, Mrs May calls bluff of the ‘game-playing’ Remoaners (including ‘unelected’ Lords) with a snap election and vows to … CRUSH THE SABOTEURS. This was in reference to the Brexit vote having to be ratified by Parliament, but the language is interesting. This was not about a democratic process in their eyes, but about a disloyalty to the country. Not a political opinion even, more of a jingoistic one. The Prime Minister distanced herself from the tone of headline citing that Parliament exists to hear debates.
The parallels with Nineteen Eighty-Four are clear. Orwell writes:
All their ferocity was turned outwards, against enemies of the State, foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals.
The Mail headline was not a simple ‘May calls General Election’. It was an incendiary attack on those who disagree with them and, by extension, the government. Sabotage is a term more in use by dictatorships than democracies. However, we can go further. The Mail also ran pictures of the three judges who had ruled that the government must gain the consent of Parliament before Brexit with the headlines ‘Enemies of the People.’ Its website even described one of the judges as ‘openly gay’- as if that were a crime somehow or a demonstration of the weak-minded. Unpatriotic even. It’s an interesting headline. Emmanuel Goldstein too is an ‘enemy of the state’ – a necessary scapegoat in the pursuit of eroding a democratic process and securing political ends through hatred.
Back to 1983 then. By the end of the following year I’d read every word Orwell published. The novels, the political essays and literary criticism. I used him as a stepping stone to other writers – mostly Oscar Wilde and PG Wodehouse. What attracted me most was that he never appeared to raise his voice. He was a polemical writer but always with a sense of control and calmness. Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t a rant nor is it a heroic novel. It is merely a simple story told without fierce accusatory rhetoric. It makes it far more powerful.
If you haven’t read it I urge you to do so and if you happen to be fourteen, I absolutely implore you.
George Orwell’s press pass photo via Branch of the National Union of Journalists (BNUJ) [Public domain]
Big Brother is Watching You by Frederic Guimont ;ChemicalBit at it.wikipedia [FAL]