Nineteen Eighty-Four isn't just still relevant, it still exists. Photo: Dylan Evans Photography
In a low-ceilinged cafe deep underground, the lunchtime food queue jerked slowly forward. The room was already very full and deafeningly noisy to the ringing and pinging of smart phones. From the chilled drinks counter came the metallic smell of canned soft drink, which did not quite overcome the fumes of frothing milk and roasting coffee.
Seventy years ago, the socialist and novelist George Orwell regularly ate his lunch in this exact spot, in what is now an "Eat" franchise tucked away in the corner of the women's clothing store Topshop, two basement floors beneath 200 Oxford Street in London. It was then the canteen of the BBC Overseas Service, where he worked from 1941 to 1943 producing wartime propaganda for broadcast to the Indian subcontinent.
But to those familiar with the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four it is the canteen of the Ministry of Truth: "In the low-ceilinged canteen deep under ground, the lunch queue jerked slowly forward. The room was already very full and deafeningly noisy. From the grille at the counter the steam of stew came pouring forth, with a sour metallic smell which did not quite overcome the fumes of Victory Gin."
Author George Orwell.
It's the place where the central character Winston Smith meets the soon-to-be-vaporised Syme to discuss progress on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, under the gaze of the Thought Police's telescreens. It's also where he makes eye contact with his doomed lover, Julia.
The BBC-Ministry of Truth canteen is one of those literary settings that remain unforgettable, like Miss Havisham's House in Great Expectations (it's in Rochester in Kent) and the moor where Cathy and Heathcliff meet in Wuthering Heights (around Haworth in Yorkshire).
Until now, I doubt anyone has realised that it's still a canteen. The most extraordinary thing is how little it has changed.
John Hurt as Winston Smith in the film of 1984, written by George Orwell.
Sitting there, eating your cardboard pot of microwaved stew under the ceiling – still lowered to cover airconditioning ducts – you notice flatscreens exactly where the telescreens would have been, pumping out retail propaganda (the "battle for production" is still being won), and customers happily sharing their most intimate thoughts with today's Thought Police – Google and the CIA. You can even try to estimate the floor location of Orwell's and Winston Smith's office cubicle.
And if you really know your history, you can guess the site of the "memory hole" – where Winston deposited the incriminating photograph of Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford.
In 1944 the memory hole was an actual manhole under the floor of recording studio 1, which led down to the river Fleet. BBC employees were instructed to throw documents down it in the event of a German invasion. (My reckoning is that it lies somewhere under Topshop's women's changing rooms.)
200 Oxford Street, London: The Ministry of Truth. George Orwell regularly ate his lunch here, in what is now an 'Eat' franchise beneath women's clothing store Topshop. It was then the canteen of the BBC Overseas Service: 'In the low-ceilinged canteen deep under ground...'
All this invites an interesting thought: How much of the actual world of Nineteen Eighty-Four still exists? Is Orwell's world still our world?
To understand the significance of these physical origins of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we need to go back a little further, to two places in the English countryside.
The first is the village of Shiplake in the Thames Valley near Henley, site of Orwell's happy childhood, when he was known as Eric Blair. As he recounted in his 1939 novel Coming Up For Air, his summers were spent playing and fishing in the pools and inlets along the Thames. In Nineteen Eighty-Four this playground is "the Golden Country" of Winston Smith's dreams, where elms sway in the breeze and dace swim in green pools dappled in sunlight. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Julia gives Winston instructions on how to get there: "Go to Paddington Station . . . a half-hour railway journey; turn left outside the station; two kilometres along the road; a gate with the top bar missing; a path across a field; a grass-grown lane; a track between bushes; a dead tree with moss on it . . ."
Wallington House, UK. Orwell kept this shop after escaping from almost certain torture and execution at the hands of Stalin's agents in Spain. Known as 'The Stores', it is still there, restored and renovated. Orwell wrote here within sight of 'Manor farm'.
Today if you catch the train (43 minutes at its fastest) from Paddington to Shiplake, turn left outside the station, walk about two kilometres along Mill Road and Mill Lane, go through a gate, cross a path across a field and go down a laneway to the lock, you can stroll along the river bank to the front of Shiplake College, the very place where Orwell fished as a child.
The Golden Country exists still. (The house in which Orwell grew up is just 100 metres or so from the station.)
The second is the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, where Orwell kept a shop after escaping from almost certain torture and execution at the hands of Stalin's agents in Spain. Known as "The Stores", it was draughty, damp, barely heated and without running hot water – the last place a consumptive should have been living. It's still there, lovingly restored and renovated. The neighbours of his quiet village recalled Orwell typing away in one of the front upstairs rooms, and if you stand outside that room today it's obvious that from his desk Orwell would have been able to see a farm not 50 metres away – the name of which is still fixed to the wall of its great old timbered barn: "Manor Farm".
Canonbury Place, Islington, London. Orwell and wife Eileen lived at 27b Canonbury Square. Orwell found a new name for it in 1984: 'Victory Mansions'. Now a byword for gentrification, Islington was then working class.
And as he typed away at his open window on warm summer evenings, he would have heard the clucking of Manor Farm's chickens, the neighing of its great cart horse, and the squealing of its many pigs. To Orwell – whose own pets included a cockerel named Henry Ford and a poodle called Marx – the idea of a Marxist revolution from the animals' point of view came easily for the very simple reason that its subject matter lay right under his nose. It tells you something about how his mind worked and about his habit of working his immediate surroundings into everything he wrote.
With Animal Farm completed in early 1944, its author began reworking its central theme – the revolution betrayed – into one of his favourite literary forms, the dystopia. But before doing so, he had to change jobs and move house – two things that were to have a major influence on the setting of the novel.
Orwell resigned his BBC position in late 1943. His head was buzzing with creativity but, after two years, the BBC under the ultimate control of minister for information Brendan Bracken (known to all as "B.B.") had become a place of sheer torture for him, in a literary if not literal sense.
He detested its endless paperwork and tedious committee work, especially the frequent editorial conferences held in Meeting Room 101 at the BBC's Portland Place headquarters not far from his Oxford Street cubicle and canteen. Today the innards of Portland Place have been remodelled, and the space once taken up by that Room 101 now forms part of the entrance to a lift well. (It has a sign coincidentally or perhaps cheekily pointing to rooms "1001 to 1099".)
But that isn't the only inspiration for Room 101. We know from an early and subsequently discarded draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four that Orwell turned one of the Overseas Service's recording studios, a few steps from today's Eat canteen, into Winston Smith's torture room, with instrument dials, shelves stacked with recording sound tracks and tables covered in the green baize that the BBC's sound engineers used to deaden incidental noise – which means that thousands of shoppers pass through the location of Room 101 every day.
Not long after leaving his job, Orwell's street in Kilburn was hit by a "rocket bomb", or V1 missile.
Suddenly homeless, he and his wife Eileen found a flat in the slummy suburb of Islington. 27b Canonbury Square, just off Upper Street, still looks dark and forbidding, despite the money obviously sloshing around it. Orwell found a new name for it: "Victory Mansions". One can easily imagine the seriously ill Orwell, like Winston Smith, struggling slowly up its five flights of stone stairs, resting several times on the way, to a cold top corridor that reeked of boiled cabbage, had broken plumbing and leaked whenever it rained.
Now a byword for gentrification, Islington was then working class and smashed up by the Blitz. At least four V1s fell within two kilometres of where the Orwell's lived, and some of the deadlier V2s not much further away. Here is "the prole quarter", "the vague brown-coloured slums to the north and east of what had once been St Pancras Station", where the rocket bombs rained down and much of the story is set.
A stroll around the byways of Islington – now famously the dormitory of New Labour's inner party – confirms the descriptions in the novel, with their cobbled streets of little two-storey houses, whose doorways give straight onto the pavement in a way "curiously suggestive of rat holes".
One of Orwell's favourite recreations (and necessities in wartime and post-war austerity London) was visiting Islington's second-hand furniture and collectables shops. These were places where you could procure all sorts of rare and interesting objects, including pieces of South Sea Island coral encased in glass, of the sort Winston buys.
Here then is the inspiration for Mr Charrington's junk shop, where Winston and Julia were entrapped by the Thought Police. In a deleted section of the manuscript, Orwell describes Mr Charrington's as "a frowsy little junk shop off the Clerkenwell Road", and in a whimsical essay written at the time he was sketching out Nineteen Eighty-Four, he writes of a first-rate junk shop "in Islington near the Angel".
Here's how he describes the location of Mr Charrington's shop in the novel: "The street into which he had turned ran downhill. He had a feeling that he had been in this neighbourhood before, and that there was a main thoroughfare not far away . . . The street took a sharp turn and then ended in a flight of steps which led down into a sunken alley where a few stall-keepers were selling tired-looking vegetables. At this moment Winston remembered where he was. The alley led out into the main street, and down the next turning, not five minutes away, was the junk-shop."
Given we're in the prole quarter, this description suggests very much the area around Camden Passage and Chapel Market, close to Orwell's Canonbury Square flat.
At the end of the war, Camden Passage boasted no fewer than three junk shops – at numbers 31 (now The Breakfast Club Cafe), 51 (Raft Furniture) and 76 (demolished).
(Incidentally, in his essay on junk shops Orwell says the difference between a junk shop and an antique shop is that the objects in the latter are usually priced at twice their actual value and you seldom are allowed to leave without being bullied into buying something – something visitors to Camden Passage may recognise today.)
Given that Mr Charrington's Junk Shop was a former pawnbrokers (with its "three discoloured metal balls which looked as if they had once been gilded"), it's interesting to note that at the end of World War II there was a pawnbroker's shop at 19 Chapel Market (not far from the present day Cashier Pawnbrokers at number 32) and, in a proletarian area like that, there were bound to be many more. With its antique stores, cheap market-stalls and working-class credit providers, here's another part of Airstrip One that doesn't seem to have changed that much at all.
Orwell's junk shop essay was written when he was literary editor of Tribune, the left-wing Labour newspaper that is still produced today. From its editorial headquarters in The Outer Temple on the Strand, he would watch more rocket bombs arrive, stroll past the Royal Courts of Justice ("the Palace of Justice" where show trials of thought criminals were held) and the church of St Clement's Dane ("oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clement's") to Trafalgar Square ("Victory Square").
He would lunch and drink in the restaurants and pubs of Soho and Fitzrovia where he became part of a literary set that included Graham Greene, Anthony Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge. One of their regular drinking places was the Newman Arms, which, with its then beer-only licence, cobbled laneway and frosted glass windows, suggests the "prole pub" of the novel.
They also drank at a former chess house called the Mandrake Club at 4 Meard Street (today a noisy Honest Burgers restaurant), which opened at 3pm and could easily be mistaken for "the Chestnut Tree Cafe", where the broken-nosed dissidents drank gin and cloves and played chess at "the lonely hour of fifteen" whilst awaiting the inevitable bullet in the back of the neck.
One of the people Orwell met in this bohemia was a secretary, some 15 years younger than him, who helped produce Cyril Connolly's literary magazine Horizon. Her name was Sonia Brownell – in the novel Julia, the girl from the Fiction Department.
Orwell had a love affair with her soon after the death of his wife Eileen in 1945 (and possibly earlier), and her flat above a store at 18 Percy Street (now the Soho Wine Supply) was a likely model for the trysting room above Mr Charrington's junk shop. They subsequently married and her dutiful job as defender of her dead husband's legacy has played a large part in his standing today as one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
All this is by way of saying that Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been dystopian, but it was not science fiction. It was a contemporary story, and that's how we should read it today.
Orwell was writing about the actual world around him, which is still in large part the world around us. The technological and psychological instruments of oppression he warned us about – the telescreens, the snooping helicopters, the hidden cameras and microphones, the rocket bombs, the doublethink and doublespeak and so on – weren't wild flights of his imagination but educated guesses about the future, based on his experiences.
Just like the Ministry of Truth, Room 101, the prole quarter and the Golden Country, these tools of oppression existed in proto form in his own day. It was also a world in which persecuted rebels like Winston Smith and the Brotherhood anticipated people and organisations like Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks. Orwell was sending us a warning to be on our guard about the latent potential of our technologies and our masters to enslave us.
And this suggests to us perhaps two urgent responses to the novel today. The first is to emulate Orwell and warn the young about how easy it is to let ourselves be oppressed, not just by letting technologies be abused by the state but also by failing to control new forms of economic, social and political organisation – like the out-of-control, statistics-generating managerialism that he parodies in Emmanuel Goldstein's samizdat book The theory and practise of oligarchical collectivism, and the propagandist media he portrays in the predictable, machine-written prole-feed the Party pumps out.
The second response follows logically from the first: keep the novel on our school curriculums so that every young person is encouraged to read it. Nineteen Eighty-Four isn't just still relevant, it still exists. Just look around.
Dennis Glover is a Melbourne speechwriter and freelance author.