I have found it – the land that Nineteen Eighty-Four forgot. When the book’s hero, Winston Smith, flees Big Brother and the party operatives, it is to ‘the vague, brown-coloured slums to the north and east of what had once been St Pancras Station’ that he runs. On the eve of the centenary of Orwell’s birth, which falls next Wednesday, I have identified those slums; they have been right under my nose for years.
Tracing Smith’s well-detailed route from St Pancras – ‘up a cobbled street of little two-storey houses with battered doorways which gave straight on the pavement and which were somehow curiously suggestive of rat-holes’ – I ended up at my own front door in Kentish Town. A triangle of genteel Victorian villas nestling next to postwar council blocks, wedged between its more prosperous neighbours, Islington and Hampstead, Kentish Town is where Orwell lived in the mid-1930s, working in a nearby bookshop while preparing for the journey north that would become The Road to Wigan Pier.
Because, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Kentish Town slums are out of the way and the inhabitants so unimportant, they avoid the attentions of the authorities. Among the working classes, or the ‘proles’ as Orwell calls them, a nostalgia for the pre-totalitarian, pre-classless world pervades. And because they hold on to the past and are independent of the state, Winston Smith is sure that ‘if there was hope, it lay in the proles’.
The proles gather in ‘the drinking-shop’, or the pub, as they insist on continuing to call it in their old-fashioned way. And the views they exchange are also old-fashioned, patriotic and distinctly Eurosceptic.
An old man at the bar tells Winston how outraged he is at the new metric measures. ”E could ‘a drawed me off a pint. A ‘alf-litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.’
This dislike for the new and love of the old – ‘”The ‘Ouse of Lords,” put in the old man reminiscently, “they liked you to touch your cap to ’em. It showed respect like”‘ – is a blissful respite for Winston Smith from the horrors of Big Brother. A cheerful optimism pervades the pub. ‘There’s great advantages in being a old man. You ain’t got the same worries. No truck with women and that’s a great thing. I ain’t ‘ad a woman for near on 30 year, if you’d credit it. Not wanted to, what’s more.’
But, miserable as it is for a resident to say, today’s visitor to north London will not find this cheery outpost against an interfering state intact. Big Brother has arrived in Kentish Town.
In the Assembly House, the Victorian pub closest to where Orwell lived and worked, the decor – all stencilled glass, mock-Tudor plasterwork, faded gilt lettering marking the door to the old dining-room – hasn’t changed since Orwell’s time. And the drinks haven’t changed much since Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘Beer was the only drink you could get in prole pubs,’ wrote Orwell.
‘It’s mostly lager we sell,’ says the landlord of the Assembly House, who prefers not to be named. ‘Stella, Carlsberg, Foster’s – every pub’s the same now. Not much bitter. Wine’s up.’
But, oh how the inhabitants have changed. Gone is the optimism of Orwell’s proles, agreeably isolated, as they then were, from Big Brother, Room 101 and the ubiquitous telescreens.
‘I couldn’t care less about pints and litres,’ says Chris Nineham, 40, who works for the Stop the War Coalition, and is bucking the lager-drinking trend in the Assembly House with a half-pint of cider. ‘But everything else Orwell said is coming true. The last 50 years have been a mixture – there were some great things done in the Sixties and Seventies. But now it’s getting even worse – CCTV cameras everywhere. On the second antiwar march my friend was tailed by somebody we knew was from the secret service. And I’ll bet the security services fabricated the Galloway files. He was a big threat to the state, so they had to take care of him.’
And, as for the House of Lords that the old man in the Nineteen Eighty-Four pub was so keen on, Mr Nineham is livid. ‘You’ve got to get rid of them. I’m a democrat and you need as much democracy as possible. You should elect police chiefs, judges, anyone in authority. Keep the Commons as they are – at least it’s elected.’
The great pleasure for the proles in the pub in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the Lottery, which Orwell predicted to the letter, 45 years before the first real draw took place. ‘The Lottery was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention …the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant.’
Not so any more. ‘The Lottery is a tax on stupidity,’ says Mr Nineham. ‘You won’t find the rich playing it.’
His friend, Daniella Obono, 22, a political sciences student at the Sorbonne, who is also avoiding beer and sticking to a gin-and-tonic, agrees. ‘I wouldn’t play the Lottery here or in France. It’s pointless.’
I tried to find the old free spirit of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s proles down the road from the Assembly House. After leaving the pub, Winston Smith goes into a pawnbroker’s shop where, to his delight, he finds piles of antiques, which are banned in the places where Big Brother holds sway (‘Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect’). Smith ends up buying a coral paperweight for four dollars – the single currency had been introduced long ago in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
‘”It’s a beautiful thing,” said Winston.
“It is a beautiful thing,” said the other appreciatively.’
Not the sort of conversation you could now have in Dawson and Briant, the jeweller and pawnbroker that was at the bottom of Orwell’s road in Kentish Town and is still going.
‘People don’t go for the old-fashioned things nowadays,’ says Michael, 50, the owner of Dawson and Briant, who refused to give his surname for security reasons. ‘They like old-fashioned service, but they don’t really go for antiques here.’
The same attitude to the past prevails just down the road from the pawnbroker, in the Owl Bookshop, the closest bookshop to the site of the now defunct Booklover’s Corner, the shop where Orwell worked when he was living in Kentish Town.
‘Yes, people are buying quite a few history books,’ says Adam MacPherson, 32, working behind the counter. ‘But they’re not what proper historians would call history. They’re written with an eye on the market. Populist.’
I creep away past Orwell’s old home and back to my own, not daring to turn round for fear of catching a glimpse of a beaming Big Brother, delighted at claiming the last free bit of Britain for himself.