Sunday, June 2, 2019

George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR: a book for our time

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

I’m a sucker for a really good opening line. And the first sentence of George Orwell’s iconic novel has what it takes, in spades. They tell you never to open with the weather (‘It was a dark and stormy night’ etc) but Orwell nailed it. Right from the start, you know this is a story about a world where the normal order of things has been overturned.

The reason this book has come to mind is that it is now thirty-five years after 1984. Orwell wrote the book in 1948, thirty-five years before the date he chose, possibly for no more reason than it was a reversal of the last two digits of that year. Another title Orwell considered was THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE, although his publisher apparently felt that NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR was more commercial.

Although I’m familiar with the book itself, until recently I was unaware of the story behind it. George Orwell, the pen name of Eric Blair, was already gravely ill when he began work on what would become his final work. Plus he'd suffered the dual traumas of having his home bombed during the War and then in 1945, while Orwell was working in Europe for The Observer, his wife, Eileen, died during a routine operation. This left Orwell as the sole parent to their adopted son, Richard.

Orwell worked for David Astor at The Observer, and it is thought that the darker aspects of his journalism and his war experiences combined to produce the downbeat tone of the novel he was about to write. It was Astor who suggested that Orwell borrow a house on his family’s estate on Jura in the Scottish islands to work on the book. Orwell travelled to Barnhill in May 1946.

George Orwell with his adopted son, Richard, at Barnhill on Jura.
The winter that year was fierce. Orwell’s long-term chest problems were not helped by almost drowning in the Corryvreckan whirlpool with Richard. The success of his previous book, ANIMAL FARM, had his publisher chasing him for delivery of a follow-up. Orwell neglected his health in order to struggle on with his work. At the end of 1947, he was hospitalised in East Kilbride and diagnosed with tuberculosis. Recent scientific studies suggest that he contracted a fatal strain of the disease while fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Astor arranged for streptomycin, an experimental drug at the time, to be shipped in from the States. This improved Orwell’s lung problems, but had horrific side-effects. As Orwell commented to his publisher, “It’s rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.”

As he convalesced, he battled on with the book. The book grew to over 120,000 words, all done on a manual typewriter, through another terrible winter at Barnhill. There was no electricity and only paraffin heaters for warmth. Orwell often worked in bed, finally delivering the manuscript in mid-December 1948.

As soon as he’d done so, Orwell check into a TB sanatorium in the Cotswolds, but by this time the damage to his health was beyond repair. He lived to see the book published, in June 1949. It caused an immediate stir and has since been called ‘the definitive novel of the twentieth century.’ Six months later, in January 1950, Orwell was dead at the age of 46.

Since then, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR has sold millions of copies, been translated into more than 65 languages, and been filmed several times, including a version shown in 1984, starring John Hurt as Winston Smith and Richard Burton as O’Brien.

John Hurt as Winston Smith in '1984'
I can’t remember exactly at what age I first read NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, but it was definitely some years before the eponymous date. He painted a bleak and yet utterly believable vision of a dystopian future (one that didn’t involve nuclear annihilation or deadly pandemic).

It’s a highly political novel, written after Orwell experienced the extreme governments of Russia and Spain of the 1940s and Britain was suffering under post-War austerity. He aimed to warn readers in the West of the dangers of slipping into a totalitarian state. When you examine all the words and concepts that Orwell introduced into the lexicon, you realise just how relevant the story is today. In some cases, even more so.

He showed a country under constant scrutiny and psychological manipulation. Propaganda was broadcast into every citizen’s home via a telescreen that operated twenty-four hours a day. Signs everywhere warned that ‘Big Brother Is Watching You’. Children were encouraged to inform on their parents, conversations were listened-in on, sex was discouraged and pent-up rage and frustration were directed at enemies of the ruling party. Often these were entirely arbitrary or even invented.

The people were kept physically exhausted from a mandatory exercise regime and long working hours. They were given small false hopes in the form of a bogus national lottery—the winners were always invented.

Particularly, Orwell focused on the use of technology and media in order to monitor and control the people. The telescreen in Winston Smith’s home worked both ways and he was galvanised to greater effort when a voice from the screen abruptly reprimanded him for slacking off during his daily exercise.

Newspeak was a version of the language developed by the Party to prevent anyone from being able to express an idea that questioned their ideology. I see echoes of this everywhere at the moment, as political correctness makes us terrified to speak our minds for fear of instant vilification. Even failing to present the correct facial expression in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR was dubbed facecrime, and as for holding unpatriotic ideas—even unvoiced—then you were guilty of thoughtcrime.

Winston Smith worked at the Ministry of Truth, which dealt in lies—just as the Ministry of Peace dealt in War. His job as a records editor was to rewrite old newspaper articles so they corresponded with the current Party’s view of the ‘facts’.

Fake news, anyone? Cynically constructed and targeted cyber campaigns? Lies repeated with utter conviction until people accept them at face value and it’s impossible to tell what is actually true and what is designed to mislead and misinform?

It may be 2019 but, in many ways, we’re living in 1984 right now.

This week’s Word of the Week is Orwellian, meaning a situation, idea or condition of society that is destructive to freedom and openness, as described by Orwell in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.

June 7
Meet the Author—Thornton Library, Victoria Road East, Thornton Cleveleys, Lancashire FY5 3SZ
Friday, June 07, 10:30-11:30


  1. great blog, a bit scary! And there's a few images online that show the view from his window where he wrote 1984. And, just as a fun fact; my dad's uncle lost his fishing boat down the Corrievechan. I once told an editor that and she said ( in very clipped English) 'Oh my brother owns that'. How can anybody own a whirlpool....??

    1. It scared me writing it, Caro. Yet another reason why I don't want an Alexa lurking in the corner of my living room, recording my every conversation and marking me down for seditious thoughts!

    2. Just a final thought, Caro. When your editor said, "Oh, my brother owns that." Did you ask her, "Well, can you ask him if we can have our boat back, please?" ...?

    3. I think it's safe to say that she wasn't known for her puckish sense of humour!

  2. I've been thinking of 1984 a lot these days, and wondering if there's still a chance of coming to a time when the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars....

    1. Ah, Jeff, at that point, peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars.

    2. That's a comment rarely levelled in my direction, Stan!

  3. Z, my precious copy in the one on the bottom left of the next to the last photo. THANK YOU for reminding me. I remark often about the similarities, but I need to reread to see them all. 1984 used to seem like science fiction. Now it seems like a presentiment of terrifying reality. OY!!!

  4. Other articles immediately jumped on the Trump administration. I think those people have not a clue what the book is about.Don't worry about the government taking over your mind. Social media has already done that. No one has a thought of their own anymore.