George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
George Orwell wrote 1984 on the Isle of Jura, having moved there to escape the sudden, blistering fame that followed the publication of Animal Farm. This, somehow, makes it a Scottish book. No more tenuous a claim, I suppose, than lines scribbled on maps by toffs defining a nation. 1984 isn't about a totalitarian future; the title came from reversing two of the digits in 1948 when he wrote it. The book was, and is, about the present and universal dangers inherent in authority. He outlines a society dominated by television screens, the death of privacy, and greasy gin.
The government prohibition on sex seems odd now. Perhaps if Orwell had written it after the sexual revolution the characters would have been subjected to incessant compulsory clumsy sex with a sweaty holiday rep. Winston and Julia would have snuck off to the woods for a bit of celibacy or hand holding. Still, Room 101, now the stuff of parlour games, is a terror as relevant now as then. The concept of tailoring torture by using psychological profiles later became a prototype for the bushtucker trials in I'm a Celebrity …
Orwell crammed so many elements into the book that every age picks out something else he got right. Of particular relevance now is the social value of a common enemy and governments defending breaches of civil liberties by instilling fear of attack by a foreign enemy. Substitute the rebel leader Goldberg with bin Laden (or before him Saddam and Gaddafi), and you'd have an analogy bigger than Michael Moore's trousers. Having failed as a literary writer, Orwell turned his hand to social and political comment. He's sometimes looked down on for using cheap tricks (such as interesting the reader or being shocking to get attention), but important stuff can't always be whispered with a small mouth.
When I was young and bad, I stole this book. It was such a good read I stole Keep the Aspidistra Flying, too. I can think of no higher accolade. Orwell made me think fiction could be about something other than how awful things are in Hampstead. In Why I Write, he said: 'It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.' He's the literary equivalent of the Clash.
Further reading: Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) shockingly exposes Orwell’s years as a struggling writer; Animal Farm (1945) is the world-famous allegorical ‘fairy story’ attacking Soviet-style communism.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.