27 April 2013

Future Dreaming

Whether a future Utopia or Dystopia, predicting the future is fertile ground for an author. However, re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four it’s the minor details that stand out from the page, the passing references to tabloid newspapers, the lottery, manufactured music.

Overall the oppressive, paranoid society has only a shadow of recognition for us in the First World. Our language and culture is not repressed, our freedom, we are told, is assured. Our friends do not disappear in purges. I’m sure that Orwell would recognise North Korea as the latest State who seemingly is using his novel as a blueprint, but we’ve avoided the extremity of his vision.

However, as I said it’s the details. While Winston is in the room above the junk shop, waiting for Julia, he listens to ‘a monstrous woman’ singing the latest tune that ‘had been haunting London’ produced on a versificator without any human intervention. Tunes produced by The Party for the proles. Nowadays, with autotuning and Simon Cowell we’re not far off that idea.

Winston overhears an argument in the street between three men, arguing over The Lottery. The Lottery, run by The Party, has its devotees who all believe that their system is the winning strategy, however as Winston observes: ‘Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being non-existent persons’. It’s curious in this age where we are all supposed be only six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, I do not know, or know anyone who knows, or anyone who knows someone who knows, a jackpot winner. They do exist because they appear in the tabloids.

Orwell wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was using his observations from his Down and Out days or his time in Spain, or on his journey to Wigan Pier to produce a bleak reflection of post-war Britain.

What’s depressing is that things haven’t changed, or more accurately, people haven’t changed. When I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four in the 1970s, manufactured music could be represented by bands such as The Bay City Rollers, sensational tabloids by The Sun, The Daily Mirror and their Sunday equivalents and The Lottery by the football pools. Insert One Direction and the Lotto and suddenly it’s the 21st Century.

Are we destined to reappraise George Orwell every 30 years or so and give a silent nod of recognition as we read a passage that resonates with our modern life? Did Orwell use his brilliant powers of observation and was able to put down on paper the basic human traits that will survive war, famine and pestilence?

Give us something to sing-a-long to, give us a villain to fear, give us the possibility of a better life, give us some fatuous gossip and we’ll accept any number of controls. Cut the duty on beer and petrol and you can close a hospital, as long as it’s not the local one.

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