Orwell’s magnum opus 1984 is as close as one can get to a masterpiece. It is perfectly structured, has a gripping story, a perfect lead character, and just enough ideas to make one question what may have been a previously held notion. Of course, its genius does not make a wholly correct book. A satire of its time, it suffers a fault of being seen as a work of sci-fi when it is more akin to Swift’s Gulliver Travels than Huxley’s Brave New World.
This leads to the fault that Orwell seemed to have suffered. His bleak vision is hardly the world we live in today or in any day. It was mockery of post-war society. Similarities exist, by natural cultural impact but we aren’t Airstrip One and most of us aren’t sent to Room 101. I’m not the first (nor last) to think this as the writer and undervalued thinker, Anthony Burgess seemed to have set it out many years before me in his 1978 work and 1985.
This book isn’t an unofficial sequel to the year prior but a reassessment of Orwell’s vision and how Burgess perceives the future to be from that period. Separated into two parts; the first a discussion of 1984 as a work, mostly an interview with Burgess questioning himself, and the second half being the short novella. I’ll shall be discussing mostly the novella since the first half only informs the second half rendering the former needless.
The plot of the novella is very much the same structure of 1984. Bev Jones, a former teacher now chocolate factory worker, grief stricken from his wife’s death caused by striking firemen decides to destroy his union card and rebel against the system. That fails and he is left on the outskirts of society.
As you can guess, Burgess main target is overzealous unions. Constantly striking, the House of Lords is filled to the brim with Trade Union officials, and if you aren’t a member of the unions, you may as well be classified insane. The protégé of “Tucland” (the new name of Britain), a Mr Pettigrew, the O’Brien character, is a Tony Blair type. Charismatic, friendly, but nothing short of a buffoon. Bev, a simple agitator renders him to a childlike rage and Pettigrew’s predictions are nothing short of Utopian.
This all dates the book considerably. Trade unions aren’t really a problem nowadays, but for 1978, still reeling from the winter of discontent the problem was a lot more profound. Remarkable how much that changed when Thatcher came along. Though the legalization had existed since the 60s, successive governments pushed curbing the unions until Thatcher came along. Unions were weakened, and no one lived in fear of them, my Father for instance, quite happily walked the picket line in the 80s, he wanted to get paid after all and unions couldn’t do anything about it bar pouring scorn.
This dated quality could make 1985 only a minimal relic of our past fears. A discussion point for historical context. However, like many of the predicative fiction genre, it seems to be that the lesser elements are the most interesting and closer to current reality.
His discussion on our dumbed down language, though not as profound as Newspeak, is a lot more intellectually forthright. A dumbed down language, where we can’t even name different types of trees has become the norm in much of the population, unlike Winston Smith who even under Big Brother, could tell the difference between an Oak and a Thrush tree.
Though not predicting the importance of the internet, Burgess had cracked the causal openness of sex that had been growing in the media and infecting many children, not so much like internet porn or the vast sex shows on TV. Bev’s daughter, a 13-year-old later sold off to Islamic royalty, does nothing but masturbate over television shows that are nothing more than glorified porn. She can barely hold a sentence and writing seems to be beyond her capabilities. She is a zombie much like the current younger generation (and certain sections of the older), addicted to binge-watching streaming shows and watching porn on a tablet.
Burgess, unlike most of his time, always knew the ever-looming presence of Islam on Western society. Burgess lived in Malaya among Moslems for some time, even considering at one point of converting to Islam. He knew that an ever weakening Christian and Catholic faith (“turning into Protestantism), one so important to the structure and moral fabric of Europe, would lose out to a faith that had faith in itself, never losing its rigour.
Moslems mock Christmas loudly in the streets, they buy wives from poor men, Jesus is taught at schools to be a prophet of Mohammed rather than the Son of God, they take over French islands without so much a whisper from the media. At times, it seems strikingly similar to what we are facing today. Burgess understood the cultural force of Islam would be a lot stronger than Communism (the USSR isn’t mentioned in the book) on greater Europe in the long run. The most powerful portion of the book being when Bev joins up with “Free Briton” an Islamic organisation who are at odds with the unions, after an argument he asks a rep if he wants A free Britain or an Islamic Britain? The rep responds rather than an Islamic revolution, he’d like a slow Islamic conversion with the help of Islamic wealth and moral influence. It feels chilling at times.
Wrapped in with a discussion of the power of trade unions can exert when not faced with a checks & balance, dating the novel, it remains for its time an illumining insight that is well worth a read if you are willing to find a copy. Burgess remains a striking author of his time and his underrated talents make reading his works a pleasant surprise.