George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four, BBC TV, 12 December 1954

Winston sat back against the window-sill. It was no use going on. He was about to buy some more beer when the old man suddenly got up and shuffled rapidly into the stinking urinal at the side of the room. The extra half-litre was already working on him. Winston sat for a minute or two gazing at his empty glass, and hardly noticed when his feet carried him out into the street again. Within twenty years at the most, he reflected, the huge and simple question, ‘Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?’ would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones. And when memory failed and written records were falsified — when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested. 

At this moment his train of thought stopped abruptly. He halted and looked up. He was in a narrow street, with a few dark little shops, interspersed among dwelling-houses. Immediately above his head there hung three discoloured metal balls which looked as if they had once been gilded. He seemed to know the place. Of course! He was standing outside the junk-shop where he had bought the diary. 

A twinge of fear went through him. It had been a sufficiently rash act to buy the book in the beginning, and he had sworn never to come near the place again. And yet the instant that he allowed his thoughts to wander, his feet had brought him back here of their own accord. It was precisely against suicidal impulses of this kind that he had hoped to guard himself by opening the diary. At the same time he noticed that although it was nearly twenty-one hours the shop was still open. With the feeling that he would be less conspicuous inside than hanging about on the pavement, he stepped through the doorway. If questioned, he could plausibly say that he was trying to buy razor blades. 

The proprietor had just lighted a hanging oil lamp which gave off an unclean but friendly smell. He was a man of perhaps sixty, frail and bowed, with a long, benevolent nose, and mild eyes distorted by thick spectacles. His hair was almost white, but his eyebrows were bushy and still black. His spectacles, his gentle, fussy movements, and the fact that he was wearing an aged jacket of black velvet, gave him a vague air of intellectuality, as though he had been some kind of literary man, or perhaps a musician. His voice was soft, as though faded, and his accent less debased than that of the majority of proles. 

‘I recognized you on the pavement,’ he said immediately. ‘You’re the gentleman that bought the young lady’s keepsake album. That was a beautiful bit of paper, that was. Cream-laid, it used to be called. There’s been no paper like that made for — oh, I dare say fifty years.’ He peered at Winston over the top of his spectacles. ‘Is there anything special I can do for you? Or did you just want to look round?’ 

‘I was passing,’ said Winston vaguely. ‘I just looked in. I don’t want anything in particular.’ 

‘It’s just as well,’ said the other, ‘because I don’t suppose I could have satisfied you.’ He made an apologetic gesture with his softpalmed hand. ‘You see how it is; an empty shop, you might say. Between you and me, the antique trade’s just about finished. No demand any longer, and no stock either. Furniture, china, glass it’s all been broken up by degrees. And of course the metal stuff’s mostly been melted down. I haven’t seen a brass candlestick in years.’ 

The tiny interior of the shop was in fact uncomfortably full, but there was almost nothing in it of the slightest value. The floorspace was very restricted, because all round the walls were stacked innumerable dusty picture-frames. In the window there were trays of nuts and bolts, worn-out chisels, penknives with broken blades, tarnished watches that did not even pretend to be in going order, and other miscellaneous rubbish. Only on a small table in the corner was there a litter of odds and ends — lacquered snuffboxes, agate brooches, and the like — which looked as though they might include something interesting. As Winston wandered towards the table his eye was caught by a round, smooth thing that gleamed softly in the lamplight, and he picked it up. 

It was a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other, making almost a hemisphere. There was a peculiar softness, as of rainwater, in both the colour and the texture of the glass. At the heart of it, magnified by the curved surface, there was a strange, pink, convoluted object that recalled a rose or a sea anemone. 

‘What is it?’ said Winston, fascinated. 

‘That’s coral, that is,’ said the old man. ‘It must have come from the Indian Ocean. They used to kind of embed it in the glass. That wasn’t made less than a hundred years ago. More, by the look of it.’ 

‘It’s a beautiful thing,’ said Winston. 

‘It is a beautiful thing,’ said the other appreciatively. 

‘But there’s not many that’d say so nowadays.’ He coughed. ‘Now, if it so happened that you wanted to buy it, that’d cost you four dollars. I can remember when a thing like that would have fetched eight pounds, and eight pounds was — well, I can’t work it out, but it was a lot of money. But who cares about genuine antiques nowadays even the few that’s left?’ 

Winston immediately paid over the four dollars and slid the coveted thing into his pocket. What appealed to him about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one. The soft, rainwatery glass was not like any glass that he had ever seen. The thing was doubly attractive because of its apparent uselessness, though he could guess that it must once have been intended as a paperweight. It was very heavy in his pocket, but fortunately it did not make much of a bulge. It was a queer thing, even a compromising thing, for a Party member to have in his possession. Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect. The old man had grown noticeably more cheerful after receiving the four dollars. Winston realized that he would have accepted three or even two. 

‘There’s another room upstairs that you might care to take a look at,’ he said. ‘There’s not much in it. Just a few pieces. We’ll do with a light if we’re going upstairs.’ 

He lit another lamp, and, with bowed back, led the way slowly up the steep and worn stairs and along a tiny passage, into a room which did not give on the street but looked out on a cobbled yard and a forest of chimney-pots. Winston noticed that the furniture was still arranged as though the room were meant to be lived in. There was a strip of carpet on the floor, a picture or two on the walls, and a deep, slatternly arm-chair drawn up to the fireplace. An old-fashioned glass clock with a twelve-hour face was ticking away on the mantelpiece. Under the window, and occupying nearly a quarter of the room, was an enormous bed with the mattress still on it. 

‘We lived here till my wife died,’ said the old man half apologetically. ‘I’m selling the furniture off by little and little. Now that’s a beautiful mahogany bed, or at least it would be if you could get the bugs out of it. But I dare say you’d find it a little bit cumbersome.’ 

He was holdlng the lamp high up, so as to illuminate the whole room, and in the warm dim light the place looked curiously inviting. The thought flitted through Winston’s mind that it would probably be quite easy to rent the room for a few dollars a week, if he dared to take the risk. It was a wild, impossible notion, to be abandoned as soon as thought of; but the room had awakened in him a sort of nostalgia, a sort of ancestral memory. It seemed to him that he knew exactly what it felt like to sit in a room like this, in an arm-chair beside an open fire with your feet in the fender and a kettle on the hob; utterly alone, utterly secure, with nobody watching you, no voice pursuing you, no sound except the singing of the kettle and the friendly ticking of the clock. 

‘There’s no telescreen!’ he could not help murmuring. 

‘Ah,’ said the old man, ‘I never had one of those things. Too expensive. And I never seemed to feel the need of it, somehow. Now that’s a nice gateleg table in the corner there. Though of course you’d have to put new hinges on it if you wanted to use the flaps.’ 

There was a small bookcase in the other corner, and Winston had already gravitated towards it. It contained nothing but rubbish. The hunting-down and destruction of books had been done with the same thoroughness in the prole quarters as everywhere else. It was very unlikely that there existed anywhere in Oceania a copy of a book printed earlier than 1960. The old man, still carrying the lamp, was standing in front of a picture in a rosewood frame which hung on the other side of the fireplace, opposite the bed. 

‘Now, if you happen to be interested in old prints at all-‘ he began delicately. 

Winston came across to examine the picture. It was a steel engraving of an oval building with rectangular windows, and a small tower in front. There was a railing running round the building, and at the rear end there was what appeared to be a statue. Winston gazed at it for some moments. It seemed vaguely familiar, though he did not remember the statue. 

‘The frame’s fixed to the wall,’ said the old man, ‘but I could unscrew it for you, I dare say.’ 

‘I know that building,’ said Winston finally. ‘It’s a ruin now. It’s in the middle of the street outside the Palace of Justice.’ 

‘That’s right. Outside the Law Courts. It was bombed in — oh, many years ago. It was a church at one time, St Clement Danes, its name was.’ He smiled apologetically, as though conscious of saying something slightly ridiculous, and added: ‘Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s!’ 

‘What’s that?’ said Winston. 

‘Oh- “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s.” That was a rhyme we had when I was a little boy. How it goes on I don’t remember, but I do know it ended up, “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” It was a kind of a dance. They held out their arms for you to pass under, and when they came to “Here comes a chopper to chop off your head” they brought their arms down and caught you. It was just names of churches. All the London churches were in it — all the principal ones, that is.’ 

Winston wondered vaguely to what century the church belonged. It was always difficult to determine the age of a London building. Anything large and impressive, if it was reasonably new in appearance, was automatically claimed as having been built since the Revolution, while anything that was obviously of earlier date was ascribed to some dim period called the Middle Ages. The centuries of capitalism were held to have produced nothing of any value. One could not learn history from architecture any more than one could learn it from books. Statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets — anything that might throw light upon the past had been systematically altered. 

‘I never knew it had been a church,’ he said. 

‘There’s a lot of them left, really,’ said the old man, ‘though they’ve been put to other uses. Now, how did that rhyme go? Ah! I’ve got it! 

“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s, 

You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin’s — ” 

there, now, that’s as far as I can get. A farthing, that was a small copper coin, looked something like a cent.’ 

‘Where was St Martin’s?’ said Winston. 

‘St Martin’s? That’s still standing. It’s in Victory Square, alongside the picture gallery. A building with a kind of a triangular porch and pillars in front, and a big flight of steps.’ 

Winston knew the place well. It was a museum used for propaganda displays of various kinds — scale models of rocket bombs and Floating Fortresses, wax-work tableaux illustrating enemy atrocities, and the like. 

‘St Martin’s-in-the-Fields it used to be called,’ supplemented the old man, ‘though I don’t recollect any fields anywhere in those parts.’ 

Winston did not buy the picture. It would have been an even more incongruous possession than the glass paperweight, and impossible to carry home, unless it were taken out of its frame. But he lingered for some minutes more, talking to the old man, whose name, he discovered, was not Weeks — as one might have gathered from the inscription over the shop-front — but Charrington. Mr Charrington, it seemed, was a widower aged sixty-three and had inhabited this shop for thirty years. Throughout that time he had been intending to alter the name over the window, but had never quite got to the point of doing it. All the while that they were talking the half-remembered rhyme kept running through Winston’s head. Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clement’s, You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin’s! It was curious, but when you said it to yourself you had the illusion of actually hearing bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten. From one ghostly steeple after another he seemed to hear them pealing forth. Yet so far as he could remember he had never in real life heard church bells ringing. 

He got away from Mr Charrington and went down the stairs alone, so as not to let the old man see him reconnoitring the street before stepping out of the door. He had already made up his mind that after a suitable interval — a month, say — he would take the risk of visiting the shop again. It was perhaps not more dangerous than shirking an evening at the Centre. The serious piece of folly had been to come back here in the first place, after buying the diary and without knowing whether the proprietor of the shop could be trusted. However-! 

Yes, he thought again, he would come back. He would buy further scraps of beautiful rubbish. He would buy the engraving of St Clement Danes, take it out of its frame, and carry it home concealed under the jacket of his overalls. He would drag the rest of that poem out of Mr Charrington’s memory. Even the lunatic project of renting the room upstairs flashed momentarily through his mind again. For perhaps five seconds exaltation made him careless, and he stepped out on to the pavement without so much as a preliminary glance through the window. He had even started humming to an improvised tune — 

Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s, 

You owe me three farthings, say the — 

—–

George Orwell, 1903-1950: Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949. Part 1, Chapter 8. Published by Secker & Warburg, London 1949.

Winston Smith is venturing around an insalubrious ‘prole’ neighbourhood of London where people are described as squabbling and pugnacious. Wandering “into a sunken alley where a few stallholders were selling tired-looking vegetables” he recognises a junk-shop where he had bought a blank book with paper of rare quality, a penholder and a bottle of ink. He finds himself outside a dingy, unnamed pub and clandestinely hurries inside into a “hideous cheesy smell of sour beer” and “stinking urinal”. He engages in conversation with an old man, asking about the idea of freedom and the quality of life in an earlier age. The man reflects disconnectedly on the Revolution of 1925 and describes the inequalities between the capitalists (and a few lawyers and priests) and workers. Winston reflected that people “were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision.” The squalid street-life and mundane conversations of the proletarian city are contrasted with pleasure and purposeless of fragments of art, antiques and bric-a-brac decoration leftover from an earlier time as Winston steps inside the old junk-shop where he had bought the book which used as his diary. The appearance of the proprietor, a Mr Charrington, suggest a cultured intellectual man, maybe a literary type or musician. Winston is attracted by the remnants of beauty and impulsively buys a piece of coral in a glass paperweight. The conversation with the shop-owner arouses feelings in Winston of “a sort of nostalgia, a sort of ancestral memory.” A print of a building is identified as what once had been the church of St Clement Danes. “The centuries of capitalism were held to have produced nothing of any value. One could not learn history from architecture any more than one could learn it from books. Statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets — anything that might throw light upon the past had been systematically altered.”  Mr Charrington mused about churches in London that had been destroyed or turned into museums and mentioned St Martins in Victory Square, which Winston knew “as a museum used for propaganda displays of various kinds — scale models of rocket bombs and Floating Fortresses, wax-work tableaux illustrating enemy atrocities, and the like.” Winston leaves the shop without buying the picture while resolving to return to buy the engraving of St Clement Danes and “further scraps of beautiful rubbish.”

Images: George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949. Published by Secker & Warburg, London 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four, BBC TV, 12 December 1954. Adapted by Nigel Kneale; Directed by Rudolph Cartier; Starring: Peter Cushing, André Morrell, Yvonne Mitchell, Donald Pleasance

George Orwell – Burmese Days, 1934

georges-bouche-1874-1941-nature-morte-aux-oranges-46x55cm

Elizabeth was just turned twenty-two, and was an orphan. Her father had been less of a drunkard than his brother Tom, but he was a man of similar stamp. He was a tea-broker, and his fortunes fluctuated greatly, but he was by nature too optimistic to put money aside in prosperous phases. Elizabeth’s mother had been an incapable, half-baked, vapouring, self-pitying woman who shirked all the normal duties of life on the strength of sensibilities which she did not possess. After messing about for years with such things as Women’s Suffrage and Higher Thought, and making many abortive attempts at literature, she had finally taken up with painting. Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work. Mrs Lackersteen’s pose was that of an artist exiled among ‘the Philistines’ — these, needless to say, included her husband — and it was a pose that gave her almost unlimited scope for making a nuisance of herself.

.

The inevitable crash came late in 1919. Elizabeth was taken away from school, to continue her education at a succession of cheap, beastly schools, with gaps of a term or two when her father could not pay the fees. He died when she was twenty, of influenza. Mrs Lackersteen was left with an income of £150 a year, which was to die with her. The two women could not, under Mrs Lackersteen’s management, live on three pounds a week in England. They moved to Paris, where life was cheaper and where Mrs Lackersteen intended to dedicate herself wholly to Art.

Paris! Living in Paris! Flory had been a little wide of the mark when he pictured those interminable conversations with bearded artists under the green plane trees. Elizabeth’s life in Paris had not been quite like that.

Her mother had taken a studio in the Montparnasse quarter, and relapsed at once into a state of squalid, muddling idleness. She was so foolish with money that her income would not come near covering expenses, and for several months Elizabeth did not even have enough to eat.

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It was a mean, beastly existence. In fact, it reached levels of ‘beastliness’ which Elizabeth had not previously known to exist. But the thing that most depressed her, most filled her with the sense of sinking into some horrible lower world, was her mother’s studio. Mrs Lackersteen was one of those people who go utterly to pieces when they are deprived of servants. She lived in a restless nightmare between painting and housekeeping, and never worked at either. At irregular intervals she went to a ‘school’ where she produced greyish still-lifes under the guidance of a master whose technique was founded on dirty brushes; for the rest, she messed about miserably at home with teapots and frying-pans. The state of her studio was more than depressing to Elizabeth; it was evil, Satanic. It was a cold, dusty pigsty, with piles of books and papers littered all over the floor, generations of saucepans slumbering in their grease on the rusty gas-stove, the bed never made till afternoon, and everywhere — in every possible place where they could be stepped on or knocked over — tins of paint-fouled turpentine and pots half full of cold black tea. You would lift a cushion from a chair and find a plate holding the remains of a poached egg underneath it. As soon as Elizabeth entered the door she would burst out:

Oh, Mother, Mother dearest, how can you? Look at the state of this room! It is so terrible to live like this!’

The room, dearest? What’s the matter? Is it untidy?’

Untidy! Mother, need you leave that plate of porridge in the middle of your bed? And those saucepans! It does look so dreadful. Suppose anyone came in!’

The rapt, other-worldly look which Mrs Lackersteen assumed when anything like work presented itself, would come into her eyes.

None of my friends would mind, dear. We are such Bohemians, we artists. You don’t understand how utterly wrapped up we all are in our painting. You haven’t the artistic temperament, you see, dear.’

I must try and clean some of those saucepans. I just can’t bear to think of you living like this. What have you done with the scrubbing-brush?’

The scrubbing-brush? Now, let me think, I know I saw it somewhere. Ah yes! I used it yesterday to clean my palette. But it’ll be all right if you give it a good wash in turpentine.’

Mrs Lackersteen would sit down and continue smudging a sheet of sketching paper with a Conté crayon while Elizabeth worked.

How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can’t think whom you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply everything. I seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my lunch off Nash’s Magazine to save wasting time washing plates. Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a sheet,’ etc., etc., etc.

Elizabeth had no friends in Paris. Her mother’s friends were women of the same stamp as herself, or elderly ineffectual bachelors living on small incomes and practising contemptible half-arts such as wood-engraving or painting on porcelain. For the rest, Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners. She had one great solace at this time. It was to go to the American library in the rue de l’Elysée and look at the illustrated papers. Sometimes on a Sunday or her free afternoon she would sit there for hours at the big shiny table, dreaming, over the Sketch, the Tatler, the Graphic, the Sporting and Dramatic.

Ah, what joys were pictured there! ‘Hounds meeting on the lawn of Charlton Hall, the lovely Warwickshire seat of Lord Burrowdean.’ ‘The Hon. Mrs Tyke-Bowlby in the Park with her splendid Alsatian, Kublai Khan, which took second prize at Cruft’s this summer.’ ‘Sunbathing at Cannes. Left to right: Miss Barbara Pilbrick, Sir Edward Tuke, Lady Pamela Westrope, Captain “Tuppy” Benacre.’

Lovely, lovely, golden world! On two occasions the face of an old schoolfellow looked at Elizabeth from the page. It hurt her in her breast to see it. There they all were, her old schoolfellows, with their horses and their cars and their husbands in the cavalry; and here she, tied to that dreadful job, that dreadful pension, her dreadful mother! Was it possible that there was no escape? Could she be doomed forever to this sordid meanness, with no hope of ever getting back to the decent world again?

It was not unnatural, with the example of her mother before her eyes, that Elizabeth should have a healthy loathing of Art. In fact, any excess of intellect — ‘braininess’ was her word for it — tended to belong, in her eyes, to the ‘beastly’. Real people, she felt, decent people — people who shot grouse, went to Ascot, yachted at Cowes — were not brainy. They didn’t go in for this nonsense of writing books and fooling with paintbrushes; and all these Highbrow ideas — Socialism and all that. ‘Highbrow’ was a bitter word in her vocabulary. And when it happened, as it did once or twice, that she met a veritable artist who was willing to work penniless all his life, rather than sell himself to a bank or an insurance company, she despised him far more than she despised the dabblers of her mother’s circle. That a man should turn deliberately away from all that was good and decent, sacrifice himself for a futility that led nowhere, was shameful, degrading, evil. She dreaded spinsterhood, but she would have endured it a thousand lifetimes through rather than marry such a man.

When Elizabeth had been nearly two years in Paris her mother died abruptly of ptomaine poisoning. The wonder was that she had not died of it sooner. Elizabeth was left with rather less than a hundred pounds in the world. Her uncle and aunt cabled at once from Burma, asking her to come out and stay with them, and saying that a letter would follow.

George Orwell, 1903-1950. Burmese Days, 1934, Chapter 7

Published by Harper & Brothers, USA, 1934; Victor Gollanz, GB, 1935

image 1: Georges Bouche, 1874-1941. Nature morte aux oranges, 46 x 55 cm

image 2: Louis Thevenet, 1874-1930. Nature morte, 1914. Oil on canvas, 38,5 x 46 cm

George Orwell’s novel, Burmese Days, describes the lives of the colonial civil servants and officials of the British Empire, based on Orwell’s observations while working in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s. Elizabeth Lackersteen epitomises the idle and under-educated ex-pat, with assumptions of superiority in her status due to her class and race, who yearns for the superficialities of English country life and sporting pastimes. A short episode in the novel describes the otiose life of Mrs Lackersteen, her mother and the indolent milieu of the cultivated bohemian artist. Elizabeth despises the dirt and poverty of the artistic dabblers and dilettantes, and it is her mother’s fate to die as a result of food poisoning associated with her socially corrupt lifestyle. The text suggests a beatific vision of Paris in the 1930s, conjured up by John Flory, an English civil servant in Burma: I’ve never even seen it. But, good Lord, how I’ve imagined it! Paris — it’s all a kind of jumble of pictures in my mind; cafes and boulevards and artists’ studios and Villon and Baudelaire and Maupassant all mixed up together. You don’t know how the names of those European towns sound to us, out here. And did you really live in Paris? Sitting in cafes with foreign art students, drinking white wine and talking about Marcel Proust?’ Burmese Days, Chapter 6.