The great test of prose is to read it out loud. If it works, well and good. If not, it will be leaden on the page and in the mind. This is why Dickens still has such power to move, long after other 19th-century writers have become monuments or subjects for academic study. It is also why his amazingly long sentences work, even though they look as if they won’t. It is why the King James Bible continues to haunt written and spoken English long after it was madly abandoned by the Church of England.
So I was filled with curiosity to see how things would work out when the Orwell Prize committee announced its plan to read the whole of Nineteen Eighty-Four from a public stage in one day. As it happened, it sent me into a reverie from which I have yet to recover.
The event took place, wittily, in the University of London’s Senate House, which was the model for the Ministry of Truth in the novel. I was keen to take part (my contribution, and the whole thing, can be found on YouTube). But I was choosy. Orwell’s writing is famously supposed to be like a windowpane. But his great dystopia is not really a novel. It is an essay on totalitarianism dressed up as an adventure. It is full of long slabs of thought, about Newspeak, the failings of the proles, and Emmanuel Goldstein’s annoying book.
So, given the chance to say which bit I would like to read, I picked a passage which had lodged in my mind when I first read the book 50 years ago, and has grown in importance since. I know that I read it this long ago because I still possess my 1967 Penguin edition (not yet a “modern classic”) with its dated futuristic cover, purchased for three shillings and sixpence at Blackwell’s “Paperback Shop”, when that august institution still regarded soft-covered books as unfit for display in its main establishment.
You will know the scene. Winston goes into a pub, and tries to ask an old prole about the past. This was very accessible to my 1960s self. I used to frequent a raffish dive in Oxford’s Cowley Road which was genuinely called “The Rat Hole”, with a painted sign showing a rodent hurrying into his home. At that time, a few pubs also still served mild ale, or “wallop”. I also used to try to engage modern proles in earnest conversation about politics and the revolution, often with unintentionally hilarious results. I even toiled for a while in a brewery, which still sent out beer in small firkin casks to colleges and clubs. Those familiar with the King James version of the miracle of water into wine will know that the six stone waterpots at the Galilee wedding feast contained “two or three firkins apiece”. A firkin (which, by the way, is half of a kilderkin) amounts to nine gallons, or 72 pints.
Winston pursues the aged man into a 1984 Rat Hole (the doorways in the area were, Orwell wrote, “curiously suggestive of rat holes”). The filthy, smelly place is in a back street somewhere near St Pancras station. A parable at the beginning, when the barman denies all knowledge of pints and quarts, and jeers at the old man for wanting a pint (“Litres and half-litres, that’s all we serve!”), illustrates the way in which the past can be first abolished and then eradicated.
I am surrounded by people who don’t know and don’t care what yards, pounds and quarts are, and happily accept their cold metric substitutes, like Orwell’s barman.
Winston hopes to find out whether the official version of the past is true or a lie. The conversation is comically useless, as the man recalls only futile,disconnected scraps of life, seen from beneath rather than above.
There are some lovely passages. One is about the small, sad things people remember: “a quarrel with a work-mate, 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”. The other is Winston Smith’s terrible resigned acceptance that the Party version of history must be accepted “because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested”.
And now I am becoming the baffled old man. I remember small, disconnected useless things: firkins, a fight with the brewery foreman (well, being flattened by him), shillings and sixpences, mild ale, telegrams, bus conductors, steam trains, trunks, the sound of yelling at a demonstration in Grosvenor Square, the sight of a thousand men pouring out of Rowntree’s chocolate factory on bikes at lunchtime, grocers’ shops, and the Home Service on the radio.
But do I really know what it was like before the revolution? I’m not sure. Could someone fetch me a pint of wallop?
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday