At Last The 1984 Show



Sales of the George Orwell novel have unsurprisingly risen in the last few months, along with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and other grim dystopian novels, most of which saw the rise of totalitarian states, but in entirely the wrong way; nobody imagined that we’d reach it with our own complicity, via votes.

Growing up in sixties suburban London was rather like lying in tepid bathwater for several years. Into this pleasant, sleepy complacency fell ‘1984’, a book that entrapped me for life. I was on the cusp of adolescence, reading voraciously, gradually testing the limits of my smug world, and bought ‘1984’, but as we were still fifteen years away from the novel’s date I naively assumed it would provide futuristic rocket adventures.

Heinemann were careful not to label Orwell’s novel SF but printed it as part of ‘The Modern Novel Series’, a catch-all collection that included LP Hartley and Somerset Maughan. The blank green and white cover hid any indication of the book’s content. I skipped the deadening introduction by Stephen Spender and arrived at the first line;

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

Unable to access any notion of the concept ‘dystopia’, the blunt, angry prose hit me like a bucket of cold water in the face.

Rearrange the title date and you have the year of publication, and the key to the book’s style. There’s hardly a page of 1984 that doesn’t reflect the cadging gruesomeness of wartime life, from the ever-present smell of old mats and boiled cabbage to the cigarettes that lose their contents if held upright. Although I didn’t grow up with these deprivations, they could be sensed through my mother and father, who had been worn down by them. Pleasures were small and hard-won; pain and complaint came more easily.

My parents had lost their teenaged years in the war. They emerged in a dazed state of disillusionment, but for many the effect must have been akin to O’Brien contemptuously twisting a rotten tooth out of Winston Smith’s mouth. ‘Your kind is extinct,’ says O’Brien, ‘we are the inheritors.’


Few future visions had ever been able to build their foundations so solidly in the recent past, or been told with such fury. Orwell’s novel stands accused of being too preachy, too schematic, not a testament to the human spirit. What we tend to forget is that it is first and foremost an extraordinarily well-constructed piece of fiction, tense, terrifying and above all, visceral.

For Winston Smith, the sheer effort of breaking state laws seems so exhausting as to be hardly worth it. We know from the outset that the struggle won’t equal the prize, because there is no prize. The future has already arrived. In this sense 1984 feels shockingly modern, the ultimate slacker’s novel. No wonder it was best filmed as Terry Gilliam’s freewheeling ‘Brazil’ rather than in faithful adaptation.

Perhaps this is why I’ve always thought of it as a survival manual, in the same way that JG Ballard showed how we only find hope when we truly believe that all hope has gone. It remains on my bedroom bookshelf less as a book than a toolbox.

10 comments on “At Last The 1984 Show”

  1. Brooke says:

    Great post! Reflective with a different perspective on a great piece of writing.
    The only question in the essay section of my entrance essay for a prestigious business school: “You will begin your studies in 1984. Please comment on the significance.”

  2. Vivienne says:

    Not to mention our own complicity via social media – who has a private life now? I recall being very sceptical about cameras in trees in the novel, but no longer ….

  3. C Falconer says:

    Have you seen the film “The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer” / Peter Cook? I saw it many years ago but the slipping into dystopia seems more and more familiar…

  4. Ken Mann says:

    1984 raises a curious question about plausibility. I have read critics who say that it is not SF because the author has no interest in how the telescreen monitoring actually works (which isn’t a problem – it just isn’t what he is writing about) and indeed in 1948 it was a fantasy as the man-power needed to run such a system makes it impractical (again not a real point because the practicality is not really relevant). In the intervening period we have worked out how to do it, so it has returned to plausibility. When written it was a sort of fantastical parable. It no longer is – but does that affect the authorial intention?
    PS I disagree with the critics I mentioned. They were just hunting for a reason for it not to be SF.

  5. SteveB says:

    With the lovely Aimi Macdonald…

  6. Kevin says:

    1984 is probably my favourite book of all time, and The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer has been one of my favourite films ever since I caught it on TV, probably during a lazy Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before, given the cast list, and the fact that it was so funny left me a little unprepared for the ending. Which isn’t funny at all. Especially seen through the political lens of 2017.

  7. Vivienne says:

    Well, post Brexit and Scotland, maybe N Ireland leaving,, should we just rename ourselves Dystopia?

  8. Helen Martin says:

    My son completed high school in 1984 and the book was discussed widely in his classes. I don’t know what conclusions if any they came to but I know he is more cynical than one might otherwise have expected.

  9. admin says:

    Great comments, all. ‘The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer’ fits more with ‘O Lucky Man’ and other state-of-the-nation satires – it’s very angry.

    And leave it to SteveB to mention ‘The Lovely Aimi McDonald’…I once worked with her, and yes, she really did speak like that!

  10. SteveB says:

    Chris that’s very cool both that you worked with her and that she spoke like that!!!
    Apparently the 1948 show team went to a nightclub and she was 2nd chorus girl from the left or something – I think I got that right…

Comments are closed.