How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up?

In which The Author goes to the theatre

1984 was a significant year for me in a few ways. I turned eighteen in March of that year and went to university for the first time in October. Just about at the midpoint between those two life changes, I saw the anarcho-punk band Crass at Trecynon Coliseum, just outside Aberdare. This gig – their last – happened just around the corner from where I lived at the time, and about two minutes’ walk from where I live now.
I’ve related my first encounter with Crass a few times already, but I want to mention something about the band themselves which you might not know. They released their first record in 1978, and its catalogue number was 621984. The label’s subsequent releases counted down (so the catalogue numbers in 1979 were 521984/1, 521984/2, and so forth) until the year 1984 itself. It was a clever idea, in line with the band’s original aim. In his autobiography Shibboleth, Crass founder and drummer Penny Rimbaud tells how they’d originally decided ‘to stick together until 1984, and that’s what we’d done.’ (Rimbaud, 1988: 277.)
As good anarchists, they were heavily influenced by George Orwell’s hard-hitting novel about the dangers of totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Crass had decided from the outset to call it a day in that ominous year, and after playing the gig for the striking miners in my home town, that’s exactly what they did.
Here’s another interesting thing: Even though I’d kept the original cutting from Sounds which first alerted people to the gig, I was convinced for years that it had taken place on 7 July. When I eventually dug out the article, a few years ago, I was surprised to learn that it had actually taken place on 11 July. I knew it had been a Wednesday evening, but for some reason my memory had gone awry during the intervening years. I mention that because, elsewhere in his book, Rimbaud says this:
In August ’84, we played our last gig, a riotous benefit for the striking South Wales miners, many of whom, sad-faced and grey, bemused and distant, stood watching our performance. For all the fist-waving, defiant solidarity expressed that evening, I was beset by a sense of hollowness. Outside, beyond the wet, slate, silent streets, the misty, dripping valleys mirrored the despair of a people in the process of being crushed. Nowhere did Thatcher’s systematic destruction of working-class values seem both so poignant and so cruel.
(Rimbaud, 1996: 273-4.)
By way of contrast, I seem to remember that it was a rather sunny day. Maybe we can attribute Rimbaud’s harsh description of the local scenery to poetic licence, but note that he’s also got the date wrong – not by a few days, but by an entire month!
Let’s move forward in time a little bit. One of my favourite haunts when I was a student was the Rough Trade record shop in Talbot Road, just around the corner from the world-famous Portobello Road Market. To get to Ladbroke Grove, I used to catch the tube on the Metropolitan Line from Uxbridge to Baker Street, then travel out on the Hammersmith & City branch. This stretch of ‘underground’ is actually overground, running through a deep cutting from Paddington Station and then on an elevated section through West London. On the north face of the cutting, near Royal Oak Station, there was a great graffito spray-painted for several yards, a long portentous phrase which baffled me at the time. North Kensington had yet to be ‘gentrified’ and ‘yuppified’, and the area centred on Ladbroke Grove and Elgin Crescent was awash with squatters, bikers, old hippies, punks, Rastas…
The hip-hop style of street art was only beginning to make its mark (geddit?) on this side of the pond, and the graffiti was largely political in nature. I hadn’t read Orwell’s book at this point, so I didn’t understand what the daredevil artist in the Royal Oak cutting had been getting at. Even so, it was disturbing and worthy of further investigation.
I’ll come back to the text itself, but here’s the strange thing: neither Matt L. nor Martin H. (both of whom were living in London at about the same time) remember seeing it. (Okay, Martin was driving at that time, so he probably didn’t use the tube that much. Matt might not have bothered making that journey either.) However, I’m fairly sure that someone must have photographed it at some time. I’ve hunted the Internet in vain, and I’ve looked through books on street art to try and see whether a picture of it exists anywhere. I keep kicking myself for not taking a photograph of it. When we took the train to London Martin and I looked for it in the spot where it had been. The whole area has been redeveloped. It’s long gone.
The question of reliable memories lies at the heart of George Orwell’s novel. It raised its head again last night, when I saw Headlong’s new production of 1984 at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre. It would have easy to make a straight retelling of Winston Smith’s story, drawing on the previous films, TV and radio adaptations. Instead, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan took an innovative approach, with a group of unnamed ‘readers’ discovering Smith’s diary in the future, and wondering whether the events he described had actually taken place. This puts the question of authenticity at the forefront of the story, and adds a harsh psychological edge to an already tense political thriller.
The world of Winston Smith is one of extreme paranoia, where neighbours spy on one another for signs of ‘thoughtcrime’, and language is manipulated to make the expression of dissent impossible. Even the idea that the events take place in the year 1984 is debatable, as history is rewritten to erase the past. Slaving away in the Ministry of Truth, Winston is Everyman, doing whatever he has to in order to earn his small rations and stay under the radar of the omniscient and omnipotent Big Brother.
Winston is part of a small army of petty bureaucrats who track down references to ‘ungood’ people and events, and remove them from the official record. Those whom the Party wishes to remove from history become ‘unpersons’, with all evidence of their lives eradicated forever. However, the knowledge which vanishes remains alive in Winston’s own mind. This, for me, is the real message of Orwell’s book.
The importance of the real archives cannot be overestimated in this age of the Internet. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me, ‘You can find out everything on the Internet.’
Wrong! Incredibly wrong!
Only last week a chap came into Aberdare Library, wanting to find a list of the old pubs in the town. Apparently he’d found such a list online once, but now it’s gone. Maybe the domain had expired. Maybe the server had crashed. Either way, it wasn’t there. Steven was on his break, but fortunately I happen to know that it’s in Old Aberdare Volume 2; it was compiled by former district librarian Richard Arnold, and I photocopied it myself a few years ago. So much for data retrieval.
[A digression: Talking of old pubs: there used to be a pub called the Waynes Arms halfway between Trecynon and Aberdare. Ask most older people in Aberdare (those who remember it all), and you’ll learn that it was pulled down some time during the early 1980s.
Wrong!
During the Miners’ Strike there was a chap from Aberdare named Paul Watson, who broke the strike at the Phurnacite Plant. To mark this event, somebody had painted a message on the side of the pub, facing the main road: REMEMBER 1984, THE YEAR OF THE SCAB. Some time later, the word ‘scab’ was effaced and replaced by the word ‘miner.’ Once you remind people of that, they all see it in their mind’s eye.
Even better, I was in there in the summer of 1987, when a guitarist and singer named Pete Morley played the entire Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band set to mark the twentieth anniversary of the LP’s release. Defcon also played a gig there. That means the pub must still have been standing in 1988. So much for the common memory of events. It’s the exact situation that Orwell predicted, where popular mythology overwrites the facts.]
Orwell’s message was brought to vivid and powerful life on the stage last night: the real threat to the Party does not arise from the never-ending war against Eastasia (or was it Eurasia? Nobody can remember, because the news changes with every passing day.) Instead, it arises inside Winston’s mind, and the minds of people like him.
The society which Orwell described (foresaw?) is reminiscent of life in East Germany, as Henry Porter described in the afterword to his novel Brandenburg:
Besides its fanatical pursuit of sporting glory, the obsessive militarism and religious belief in science and technology, the GDR possessed the most formidable intelligence services the world has ever seen. A population of just over 17,000,000 was served – if that’s the right word – by 81,000 intelligence officers belonging to the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit – or Stasi for short. There was very little in a person’s life that the Stasi could not reach. Some estimates put the number of informers at 1,500,000, which meant that every sixth or seventh adult was working for the Stasi by making regular reports on colleagues, friends and sometimes even lovers and relations. (Porter, 2005: 433.)
In this innovative stage production, the audience are subjected to Winston’s own disorientation. People come and go, talking about him as though he isn’t there. Events are repeated, casual conversations recur, news stories are changed, and conventional history is erased to suit the Party’s whim. His clandestine liaisons with the beautiful and libidinous Julia take place offstage, in a series of films projected on the backdrop.
Winston’s fateful decision to start a diary, a method of recording history which is forbidden by the all-powerful Party, sets in motion a train of events which leads him inexorably to the Ministry of Love, and the terrifying Room 101. Tortured to the point of madness, Winston eventually breaks – and from that point, he is no longer free. When the psychopathic interrogator O’Brien asks if anyone will intervene to save Winston from his fate, we remain silent. O’Brien’s message is clear – we are all guilty, unwilling to speak out for fear of our own fate within the Ministry of Love.
Employing minimal staging, and with ingenious use of lighting to signal the passage of events, Headlong’s production is stark, terrifying and – in spite of the title – extremely relevant in 2013. In Network News I told you about a story which had remained unreported by the mass media, simply because it was sailing against the prevailing wind from Washington D.C and Westminster. The Ministry of Truth is alive and well. Orwell worked for the BBC. He knew what he was talking about. (Ironically, not one single recording of his voice exists in the BBC archives. As far as the corporation is concerned, he’s become an ‘unperson.’)
I remember the morning of the 2005 London bombings well. I was working in the office in Waterstone’s, doing the cash with the radio on in the background. Initially, the disruption to the London Underground was reported as a ‘power surge.’ In the next travel bulletin, it was a ‘power blackout.’ Finally, a bus exploded in Tavistock Square and the news management process broke down entirely. The truth was out there.
But did anyone really care? Until the news went viral on the Internet, millions of people in the UK wouldn’t have known a thing about it.
You might think this is fiction, but it isn’t. I know a number of young people whose TV viewing consists entirely of back-to-back pop videos, soap operas, and so-called ‘reality’ shows. They never pick up a newspaper or look at anything online other than Facebook and YouTube. We live in an age when newspaper circulations are in steady decline. It’s an era when 24-hour news channels simply reiterate the headlines in an endless cycle (until something catastrophic, like an exploding bus, thrusts its way to centre stage.) Instead of looking at serious content, the people of the Twenty-First Century are content to watch the pap and crap churned out by the hundreds of TV channels on offer.
In writing this blog over the past six years or so, I’ve attempted to check facts, verify dates and back up my assertions wherever I’ve felt that it was needed. Like Winston’s diary, much of what it contains is deeply personal, but a lot of it refers to events in the wider world. If it ever vanishes, I’ll still have that knowledge in my head. But when I die, that knowledge will be lost forever. That’s why it’s important to try and record events as and when they happen.
That’s partly the reason why I decided to reproduce the Time Out interview with Phil Woolas (also dating from 1984) (see Marxist Economics) when he was just a student activist with ambitions. A quarter of a century later, when he was a Labour Member of Parliament fighting for his political career, I doubt that even he remembered giving that interview. He probably had a copy in his scrapbook at home, but you’d never have found it online unless I’d put it there. It was a good opportunity to show him up as the hypocrite he’d become once he found himself in the Inner Party. Even though not everything can be found on the Internet (and one question often leads you to a thousand contradictory answers), the Truth is contained online as well. You just need to know where to look for it.
Here’s another example of the Ministry of Truth at work. There were demonstrations of varying sizes across the UK on November the Fifth, protesting against the government’s continued attacks on the working class, the poor, the elderly and the sick. By a supreme irony, which Orwell himself would have found beyond satire, the only national broadcaster which decided to report those events was Russian state television. Ignorance is Strength.
Headlong are taking their production of 1984 to London’s Almeida Theatre in the new year, and I can thoroughly recommend it if it comes to a theatre near you. It doesn’t make for easy viewing, and I certainly wouldn’t take young children to see it, but it’s an experience that will stay with you for a long time.
All of which brings me back to the graffito in the railway cutting in North Kensington, back in the real 1984. Now that I’ve read Orwell’s book for myself, I know where the unusual words the anonymous spray-painter had used came from. And now I know that he wasn’t sending a message to the present; instead, he was predicting the future. It said:
ARISE YE UNGOOD PROLES FROM THY TV SETS,
YOU ARE WATCHING BIG BROTHER

REFERENCES

PORTER, H. (2005) Brandenburg. (London: Orion.)
RIMBAUD, P. (1998) Shibboleth: My Revolting Life. (Edinburgh: AK Press.)
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