First edition held in the British Library Collection.
Since today is Memorial Day in the US, I thought it a good time to discuss Eric Arthur Blair, nom de plume of George Orwell. His dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has shot back up the bestseller list this year. I’m a big fan of Orwell, so just a warning – this is a long one!
From India to Parisien slums
Nineteen Eighty-Four was Orwell’s final book, and he was convinced it would be a flop. Orwell had published Animal Farm seven years earlier, which for him had marked a successful blending of political thought and artistic endeavor. In fact, he won the Prometheus Award for both novels for their groundbreaking contributions to dystopian literature. But it was 1984 that has had an enduring legacy on language, media, politics and government.
Orwell had quite a disjointed life. Born in India in 1903, his childhood was spent as an impoverished member of the British Imperial establishment. When his family returned from Bengal, Orwell attended boarding school on the south coast of England. Then he went to Eton, and upon graduating returned to Burma as an assistant district superintendent in the Indian Imperial Police.
His role in the Imperial Police was integral to creating Orwell the writer – it turned him decidedly anti-Imperialist. He resigned in 1928 , eschewing the bourgeoisie lifestyle to which he was accustomed and went to live in the boarding houses of London’s East End and the slums of Paris. This is documented in the emotive Down and Out in London and Paris.
This period also led him to reevaluate his political views. He became an anarchist and then a socialist. But it was his fear of totalitarianism, in whatever political ideology it may take, that defined his later writing.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is his vision of a totalitarian future, influenced by the horrors of National Socialism in the Third Reich and the brutality of Stalinism in Russia. Orwell saw the sole goal of government as the preservation of power, and that totalitarian governments pursued this over everything else. In 1984 he makes the point that any government can, in fact, turn into Big Brother.
1984 is set in Airstrip One, which was formerly Great Britain. Airstrip One is part of a larger superstate called Oceania. There are only three superstates in the world: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. These superstates formed sometime after WWII and are perpetually at war, though the allies and enemies change regularly.
The language of Oceania is Newspeak, which was developed to counter Oldspeak (Standard English). Newspeak was developed to limit the range of thought – people can’t think, want or feel what they can’t express. Newspeak is central to 1984 as a device for control and it actually sparked a new vocabulary. Today, the terms doublespeak, groupthink, Big Brother, unperson, Thought Police and telescreen are all a regular part of the English lexicon. Even the term Orwellian has come to define the very dystopian landscape Orwell created in 1984.
But back to the story: Oceania is governed by Ingsoc, Newspeak for English Socialism. Big Brother is the head of Ingsoc and has created a state that is based on surveillance, manipulation and obedience.
There are four ministries in Ingsoc: the Ministry of Peace rages war; the Ministry of Plenty manages supplies and rationing, the Ministry of Love controls the re-education and execution of dissidents; and the Ministry of Truth pushes out propaganda and manipulates the past.
The walls have ears
Surveillance is at the core of Ingsoc. Telescreens and microphones cover walls in every room and on every street in order to monitor all actions and discussions. But the state isn’t the only one spying – colleagues, friends and family all watch each other, ready to pounce on the slightest hint of dissent.
In Oceania, there is no freedom of thought, feeling or action. Everyone exists to benefit the state, promote Big Brother’s interests and quash his enemies. If anyone shows individuality or nonconformity, they are taken by the Thought Police.
The novel’s protagonist is Winston Smith, a minor party worker at the Ministry of Truth. Day in, day out, Winston alters records from the past (distant or recent) in order to manipulate history and public knowledge to suit Big Brother’s needs.
Winston goes about his solitary life as cracks appear in his loyalty to the party. He starts to resent their rules and question their lies. He remembers things Big Brother has told him to forget. But worst of all, Winston starts to think independently, emotionally until the worst happens: he falls in love.
Winston has an affair with a colleague, Julia, until they’re both arrested by the Thought Police. They’re brought to the Ministry of Love, tortured and re-educated. They are both eventually released, but Winston is no longer himself. He’s brainwashed and waits to be killed because anyone arrested by Thought Police eventually disappears. They are ‘vaporised’ and become unpersons. Their records are erased by Winston’s colleagues at the Ministry of Truth.
At the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we see the broken Winston, loving only Big Brother, drown his misery in VICTORY GIN at the Chestnut Tree Cafe, which brings me to the point of all this…
On the surface, the Ministry of Plenty manages economic matters including food production and manufacturing. In the reality of 1984, the Ministry of Plenty exists to convince a starving and impoverished population that they are living in a period of economic growth and prosperity.
Orwell depicts a version of London similar to that of the immediate post-war period in England. The population was under rationing and food shortages were common. In 1984, food and drink are fuel only. Only the Inner Party members have luxuries such as wine, chocolate and coffee. Outer Party members and the ‘proles’ eat mainly un-nutritious synthetic food.
Due to food shortages, VICTORY GIN (capitalized like this in the book) often replaces full meals. The abundance of the harsh, strong, alcohol is just another means of control, keeping the population addicted and sedated in a drunken compliance. This becomes obvious from the first description:
‘He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rise-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine.
Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful.’
VICTORY GIN is everywhere. Winston drinks it regularly throughout the novel, and it’s even served in the Ministry of Truth’s canteen. Winston always has the same reaction to the harsh but warming liquid – indifference and detachment.
Later, towards the end of the novel and after Winston’s reconditioning in the Ministry of Love, he sits alone at the Chestnut Tree Café, subsisting solely on VICTORY GIN. However, The Chestnut Tree Café has a specialty flavour: saccharine flavored with cloves.
VICTORY GIN is a challenging drink to recreate. It’s strong, oily, medicinal, but can be flavored with various botanicals, just like the craft gin production of today. So to make things interesting, three of us are going to have a crack at this one. Next week, I’m going to have a go at making my own gin (wish me luck). The following week Eric is going to create a recipe that captures the taste of VICTORY GIN but makes it palatable. And then we’ll have a third recipe from our fantastic mixologist friend Timothy Miner, which I’m sure will be spot on in terms of flavour, smell and kick.
So on your Monday off, have a gin cocktail and toast to George Orwell!