Down the Memory Hole

In which The Author shares some information

The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink.’
(Orwell, 1949: 37)
In How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up? I recalled the storyline of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. In particular, I referred to the way that one’s memories can sometimes be a little unreliable, but the fact that they exist at all proves that certain events took place. If you’ve read the book, you know that Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith worked for the Ministry of Truth (a classic example of Newspeak and doublethink.) His job involved searching out any documents which ran contrary to the Party line, altering the physical records to suit the prevailing ideology.
In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.
(Orwell, 1949:40.)
[A digression: This won’t surprise my regular readers in the slightest, but I wanted to check a reference in the book at this point. As I’m in Aberdare Library, I thought I’d nip down to the fiction section and grab their copy. They don’t have one. In fact, they don’t have anything at all by George Orwell. I’d like to think that someone saw the play at the same time as I did (or, which less likely, read my blog on the subject) and took it out some time last week. However, in the past year or so I’ve had similar results when looking for Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and a couple of other classic fiction/sf crossovers which used to live on the shelves. Rather than being on loan, I fear that it’s more likely to have been put in the Reserve Stock, to make room on the shelves for even more formulaic US crime novels, historical romances and chick lit.]
As I’m aware (and I’m sure you are too), even content posted on the Internet isn’t set in stone for ever. Servers crash, domains expire, and email accounts get deleted over time. In a sense, this blog serves a similar function to Winston’s diary keepsake album, by recording thoughts, ideas and events which might otherwise be overlooked by history.
Some years ago I came across a book called Pandæmonium by Humphrey Jennings, which was being reissued by Macmillan after spending some time out of print (which, for the majority of books published since the industry got started, in Italy during the Renaissance, was the memory hole of the Twentieth Century.) It was a compendium of diary entries, letters, news reports, and extracts from novels and poems, recording the birth and development of the Industrial Era.
I liked the book because it featured a first-hand account of the world’s first train journey. Richard Trevithick’s steam locomotive had its first outing in 1804, only a few miles from where I live, as I noted in Wet Wednesday. There was a lot of other fascinating material in the book as well, so it found its way onto my shelf at home.
I didn’t know at the time that Humphrey Jennings was one of the brains behind Mass Observation. This huge project recruited thousands of volunteers to keep diaries and submit them to an archive for use by future researchers. Mass Observation provided the raw material for Simon Garfield’s books We Are at War, Our Hidden Lives and Private Battles, as well as many of the diaries cited by David Kynaston in his book Austerity Britain, 1945-1951. I’d assumed that Mass Observation had run out of steam during the 1960s or 1970s, but I was wrong.
Yesterday, Radio 4’s PM featured an item about Mass Observation, which is alive and well and based at the University of Sussex. They still keep ‘endless rows of boxes’ of paper archives contributed by a small army of volunteers throughout the country. I wondered this morning whether they were still looking for volunteers, so I checked out their website.
The only group of people who are under-represented are men aged between 16 and 44, living outside the South-East of England. However, the site stated that they’d be hearing from anyone who fulfils two out of the three criteria. I’ll have to take a closer look at what’s required, but I might drop them a line next week.
I wonder whether Orwell had Mass Observation in mind when he came up with the idea of the memory hole. After all, if information which didn’t back up the Party line was going to be found anywhere, it would be found in the Mass Observation archives.
It must be just a coincidence, then, that only three days after I saw Headlong’s new production of 1984 at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, computerweekly.com ran an interesting story:
The Conservative Party has attempted to erase a 10-year backlog of speeches from the internet, including pledges for a new kind of transparent politics the prime minister and chancellor made when they were campaigning for election. (Ballard, 2013.)
This contemporary version of the rewriting of history raised a few eyebrows in the IT community, and then rippled out through the social media. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the mainstream media don’t seem to have mentioned this story at all. The Ministry of Truth masquerades as the BBC, News International, Associated Newspapers, Northern & Shell, and Mirror Group.
That’s why a handy at-a-glance guide to Conservative Party pre-election promises is doing the rounds online at the moment. The website might have been purged, but the Party can’t stop us from spreading this information far and wide. Here it is:

Tory pledges

Go forth and spread the word, boys and girls – they can’t close us all down…

REFERENCES

JENNINGS, H. (1985) Pandæmonium 1660-1886: the coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers. (London: Macmillan.)
ORWELL, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty Four. (Harmondsworth: Penguin.)
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