The first time I read Nineteen-Eighty-Four (the novel) was in 1971 (the year).
I had just turned fourteen.
It was unusual for me, at that age, to read anything of my own volition. My interest in literature, art or politics was close to zero. The motivation for picking up this particular volume was purely down to curiosity about its title. How could a mere number provide the basis for 40,000 words of narrative text?
From this perspective, and coupled with the fact that the calendar year of the title was still over a decade away, the storyline had the flavour of a sinister prophecy. So much so, that even the number “1984” appeared to possess an air of menace. Its closest neighbours, 1983 and 1985, presented themselves in agreeable, 12 point Arial font, whereas the digits 1,9,8 and 4 were carved from monolithic slabs of granite. They stood with their summits in the clouds, and cast long, black shadows across a grim, grey, imaginary urban landscape.
The most unsettling feature of the book was the premise that some malevolent power might be able to rewrite an individual’s personal history. This idea, that reality could be bent and disfigured, was terrifying. It was the kind of terror that made me feel as if I was struggling to gasp for breath. After all, if it were really possible to erase someone’s thoughts, feelings and experiences, then that person would effectively cease to exist.
The principal horror was set out in Part 3 of the book. The central character, Winston Smith, is ruthlessly and systematically coerced into believing whatever he is told to believe. He is relentlessly interrogated and psychologically tortured so as to clinically dismantle his grip on reality.
Even though the author, George Orwell, was imagining the devices of an extreme totalitarian state, I guess many of his ideas could equally apply to smaller hierarchical organisations such as companies, societies, or local councils.
Take my family for instance. So many of Orwell’s ideas – doublethink, unperson, two minutes hate, thought police, thoughtcrime, crimestop – are cheerfully embraced by my parents. Back in 1970, when mum and dad took ownership of New College School, I wouldn’t have imagined how closely our family’s development would parallel these concepts. Even though the transformation was incremental and geologically slow, New College gradually remoulded itself into The Ministry of Truth.
Doublethink was the first to make an appearance.
In Nineteen-Eighty-Four, this word is used to describe the ability to hold a pair of contradictory opinions, and believe both of them to be simultaneously true. Even though this appears to be a logical impossibility, the inhabitants of Orwell’s fictional world are forced to adopt this mental facility. In fact the ruling elite, The Inner Party, regard this indoctrination as being essential to the maintenance of their power.
It was dad who provided the introductory example of the dubious art of doublethink.
Shortly after we had moved into New College, dad took over the role of school bursar. His previous accountancy training enabled him to handle various aspects of the business such as double entry bookkeeping and so on. He quickly discovered that this position afforded him the opportunity to practice a low-level form of tax evasion.
Here’s how it worked:
Like any other small business, New College held a petty cash float. This is principally for making those small, miscellaneous, day-to-day payments which are too trivial to warrant payment by cheque. Every week or so, dad pretended to have “bought” certain, disposable items (his favourite fabrication was that he had purchased 200 plastic cups). Instead of actually buying these items, he put the money into the safe in his office. He carried out this procedure religiously, every week, year in year out. Even though they were relatively small sums of money, his safe gradually filled with illicit cash.
Mum would frequently gush with admiration over dad’s ingenuity for cheating the taxman.
“Your father is so-o-o-o clever,” she oozed as dad squirrelled away the profit from the purchase of yet another 200 fictional plastic cups.
There was one occasion (and only one) where I had the temerity to question the morality of dad’s tax evasion. I was going through that irritating phase which sometimes afflicts teenagers, the phase where we naively believe that the world should operate on sound ethical principles. I had learned that tax wasn’t just a device for royalty to steal from peasants in order to finance wars and the building of castles. I now knew that it was to pay for The Health Service, for libraries, for Social Security, for … well … for a civilised society.
Armed with this knowledge, and knowing that I had Right On My Side, I dared to suggest that evading tax was immoral.
“I EARNED THAT MONEY!” dad bellowed at me.
There was to be no discussion, no debate about the matter. There was to be no conversation about moral flexibility. Dad had earned the money, and that was sufficient justification for keeping it. He knew this. He also knew that there was such a thing as The Law which applied to everyone, but the inconsistency didn’t trouble him.
The fault was entirely mine for failing to concurrently accommodate this pair of mutually exclusive intellectual positions.