Orwell didn't watch the Arsenal play the Dynamo at the Lane that foggy day in 1945. He gets his Tribune gen from a friend or reads the papers, maybe listens on the wireless. He's told about the altercation between players by 'someone who was there'. The fog is fairly well reported and there is even a book about the Moscow Dynamos' contentious British tour if anyone would like to find out more. But otherwise, that piece was fiction, a story, or if we're being scrupulous, a lie. A pleasing confluence of the imagined and the experienced, perhaps, but nonetheless a lie.
It's conjecture, and of the spurious kind at that, but I have a feeling Orwell would have felt uncomfortable stood there puffing Victories on the terraces, surrounded by cloth caps. Crowds are funny things for writers, who are ever aiming, don't forget, for some detachment; trying not to get caught up in all the fuss. But Orwell, with appropriate contrariness, would have loved them too.
In his book, On Living in an Old Country, Patrick Wright assesses Orwell's attitude to the masses; 'the proles' as they become in 1984. They come to represent for Orwell, through his protagonist Winston Smith, 'the last of surviving humanity'. That may sound rather grand, but with their washing lines and nick-nack shops and softly sung lullabies belonging to another age, the proles have something that even the monolithic stomping jackboot of the Ingsoc party machine can't control, debase or manipulate. Somehow persisting on the periphery of the mediated and proscribed world of the party elite, 'these people for whom daily life still has a shred of cultural integrity' go about their business; hanging their washing out and singing their plaintive songs. Not much of a life, perhaps, but they do at least have access to something comforting and dangerous that is otherwise denied; the past.
Prole memory may well fall short of consciously adopted and publicly shared values, but it has recognisable character none the less. It works in the experiential terms of everyday life and this gives it a richness which is superior to anything offered by either the rigged Party histories or the abstracted historical 'truths' sought by Winston Smith.
The proles are 'not loyal to a party, or a country, or an idea, they [are] loyal to one another'. 'Prole memory'. I like the sound of that.
It's that world of the particular, the personal preference that Orwell celebrates. These unofficial activities represent a 'culture that is truly native' to Britain:
the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the 'nice cup of tea'.
Picture postcards, penny dreadfuls, clubs, societies and everyone, it seems, who has a garden tends it carefully and lovingly. Then there's our perpetual backward lookingness, our 'obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance'. These precious things may be 'mixed up with barbarities and anachronisms' but that can't disguise the essential 'gentleness of English civilization'. It may only be 'half a loaf', Orwell concludes in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, but that's better than 'no bread at all'.
It's a quaint view, perhaps. There's also a rather dated tendency in a lot of the writing of that time to confuse Britain and England; something you'd find a lot harder to do now. But regardless of precisely which part of the British Isles he was referring to, there's something ever less recognisable about the place Orwell wrote about. Strange then, that he can still induce a shudder when he says something like; 'the English are in the process of being numbered, labelled, conscripted, co-ordinated'. We were. Perhaps we still are. Then he'll say something timeless in a voice older and steadier than Watt Tyler's or John Lydon's that makes the perversity contained in the description of him as a Tory anarchist sound truly radical and challenging:
the common people must live to some extent against the existing order.
And you wish that they did, you wish that they would. He's criticised by modern Marxists for not having been a proper socialist, someone who never quite escaped the ideological entrapments of his privileged upbringing. But how much better than this can the fundamental realities of inequality be expressed?:
England is a country in which property and financial power are concentrated in very few hands. Few people in England own anything at all, except clothes, furniture and possibly a house.
Add to that a handful of mobile phones and a widescreen TV and ask yourself, has that underlying situation really changed all that much? Indeed, it's been the dubious achievement of English socialism - the Ingsoc that we actually arrived at here - to have increased rather than reduced the gulf between those 'very few hands' in whom financial power rests and the rest of us. Things have changed alright, but has it really been for the better?
But then, unless you had something to contrast your own experience with, you wouldn't really know, would you? 'The past is subversive', says Anthony Burgess, 'in the sense that it opposes pragmatic values to doctrinaire ones. The human and not the abstract'. So 1979 was better than 2007, perhaps, because you had the Boomtown Rats instead of Westlife; or because you could go to see a game of football and stand on terracing if you wanted to; or you could glide into a public space without the need for somebody to rummage through your hand baggage. With time, the personal does indeed become political, just as surely as youth is wasted on the young.
I had my yo-yo
That glowed in the dark
What made it special
Made it dangerous
What made it special, made it dangerous. One of the tropes of the mechanized age is that repetition reduces meaning; just look at the effect of Warhol's franking machine technique on the grinning masks of all those Jackies and Marilyns and you soon get the idea. Specialness begins to reside less in the artifact - the prized 78 or 45, the vintage programme, all of which were churned out in their tens of thousands - and more, as David Bowie has described it, in the space between the viewer and the viewed. This process metastasizes when we reach the digital realm. Where you once had shelves of books, stacks of LPs to tell you who you are or those you'll leave behind who you were, now all you need is your little black box. Your own personal flight recorder, its blue lights flicker as it quietly hums and chomps away at bits and gigabytes; this whirring, ventilating life support machine the only proof that you're alive or that you ever lived. We are fast becoming proles, if there was ever a time we weren't. Technocratic prole, the boot that comes to smash your face will need only stomp the memories of your hard disc, not those cushioned in the casing of your skull.
Episodes 5 and 6 of The Road to Moscow now available to listen to...
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