George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four might be the most influential novel of the twentieth century. Hands up everyone who’s read it? Quite a lot of you, I see. And if you haven’t read it, the chances are that, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re familiar with at least some of the concepts. You might have watched Room 101 or Big Brother. You might have heard terms like “thought police,” “newspeak,” “thoughtcrime.” Think of the number of films and television programmes featuring a room numbered “101” – indeed, Eric Mielke, head of the East German secret police, had his office renumbered 101. Way to miss the satire, Eric. Any article about government surveillance will invariably allude to the novel.
It’s even overshadowed Orwell’s other works. The word “Orwellian” is always used to describe anything reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s not, for instance, used in reference to uppity pigs or people fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
So, safe to say it’s been pretty influential. It’s long been debated what Orwell was satirising in his novel – Communism? Fascism? Contemporary Britain? The BBC? Public schools? Orwell himself always said it was a satire on totalitarianism in general, and that the lies, paranoia and intimidation in his novel could be equally found in Communist and Fascist states.
Of course, there was a certain personal element to the novel. You may recall a while back that I mentioned Shakespeare creating a character specifically as a dig at his landlord? If not, see https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/04/08/nice-one-shakespeare/ and then act like you read it ages ago. Similarly, Orwell was not above airing his own personal experiences. So over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been strolling around, looking for some of the locations described in the novel.
This here is the largest and most obvious – Senate House in Bloomsbury, now UCL Administrative HQ. During the Second World War, it was the home of the Ministry of Information, basically Britain’s propaganda department. Orwell worked here during the war, as did several other writers. It was therefore the obvious inspiration for the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith’s workplace and the propaganda wing of the Ingsoc government. The Ministries are described thus in the book:
They were enormous pyramidical structures of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously… The Ministry of Truth, Winston’s place of work, contained, it was said, three thousand rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below.”
Senate House was, during the Second World War, the second-tallest building in London (the tallest being St Paul’s Cathedral).
The other Ministries are less obvious in their inspiration. However, Room 101, deep within the Ministry of Love, is easy to find. It was a room at BBC Headquarters.
Room 101 in the novel contained “the worst thing in the world,” the one nightmarish realisation of your deepest fears that would break you. In real life, it was a meeting room. Sadly, the original Room 101 was lost when the part of BBC HQ it was in was demolished for redevelopment. Fortunately, Rachel Whiteread took a cast of the room. Seriously, does that woman do anything other than casts? “Oh, hello Rachel Whiteread, here’s a commission, what are you going to do?” “I’m going to make a cast!”
Anyway. A couple of other locations may be found in Fitzrovia, a short walk away, where you may recall Orwell used to drink in the Fitzroy Tavern.
The alley on the right plays a brief role in the novel – it is the location of the antique shop where Winston Smith buys a diary in an act of furtive rebellion.
The pub you will see here to your left is the Newman Arms. This is just a street over from the Fitzroy, but is also at the end of the alley you see above. The pub features in the novel as the Prole drinking establishment where Winston encounters a senile old man who doesn’t know that a pint and half a litre actually aren’t that different in an effort to find out the truth of Big Brother’s version of history. Inside, it’s a small, wee place, but disappointingly does not feature a urinal in the corner.
Here’s Trafalgar Square, which by the time of the events of Nineteen Eighty-Four has been renamed Victory Square, and the statue on the column is of the Stalin-resembling and possibly propaganda-created Big Brother. Sorry the picture isn’t better, by the way, but the Square was closed off for some sort of sporting event.
Livening things up outside of the barriers was the protest seen on the left, by a gentleman who probably thought Nineteen Eighty-Four was a documentary. The Freemasons should totally get their act together, this guy’s been protesting for ages and they still haven’t silenced him.
Left: St Martin-In-The-Fields. Mentioned in a conversation between Winston Smith and Mr Charrington, the antique dealer.
“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.”
Right: St Martin-In-The-Fields from the front. “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head…”