Magazine article The Spectator

Proles Apart

Magazine article The Spectator

Proles Apart

Article excerpt

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 Paneras 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 Paneras - '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 ratholes' - 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 snowed 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. …

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