My Orwellian odyssey: a descent into the fiction of George Orwell

George_Orwell_press_photoAs it happened, I was in the midst of reading “Burmese Days”, George Orwell’s very fine first novel about imperialism and prejudice set within a rural Burmese village during British rule, when the plans for “Operation Fortitude” were made public.

The press release, issued by Australian Border Force on the morning of Friday, August 28 detailed a sinister operation planned in Melbourne over the coming weekend when ABF officers would be patrolling the streets, scrutinizing everyone coming into the city centre and targeting “everything from anti-social behaviour to outstanding warrants”.

coming up for airMost ominously and invoking the dystopian world of Orwell’s 1984 with its constant surveillance and suspicion, the press release said that “ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with.”

As the outrage at this trampling of individual rights (and suspicions of racial profiling) grew louder and louder, it seemed  everyone from Booker prize-winning novelist Richard Flanagan to protestors at hastily arranged gatherings were referencing Orwell or using the adjective ‘Orwellian’ to describe the planned paramilitary-style operation.

burmese daysGripped by it all, I finished reading Burmese Days and proceeded to re-read my tattered copy of Orwell’s Coming up for Air (1939) featuring my favourite Orwell anti-hero, the rotund, bald, bowler-hatted insurance salesman George Bowling who as the bomber planes fly overhead, casting shadows over London and bringing with them portents of the approaching descent into worldwide destruction and death, reminisces about his carefree youth and plans a return his countryside home town of Lower Binfield to seek out a legendary fishing spot.

keep the aspidstraNext up, I re-read Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – also a tattered paperback on my bookshelf – about the idealistic London poet Gordon Comstock (brilliantly played by Richard E. Grant in the film version, A Merry War), who has forsaken a promising career as a copywriter in an advertising firm in order to escape the moneying world and all its artistic-destroying influences to write something that matters. We find Comstock virtually starving in his bleak bed sit in a men’s lodging house scrawling away at an epic poem he can’t seem to finish while bemoaning his poverty, which has ironically become an even greater destructive force to his writing than a well paid job as well as to his relationships and his sanity.

animal farmAfter that, I dived straight into Animal Farm (1945), Orwell’s political fairy tale about the failings of socialism set among the world of animals who overthrow their human masters only to become slaves under the control of the intelligent, cunning pigs who are “more equal than others”.

Finally, I ended my Orwellian odyssey with 1984 (written in 1949), Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece set in a futuristic London of enormous windowless government buildings, squalid tenements, always watching’ telescreens’ and posters of ‘Big Brother’, where timid revolutionary Winston Smith, an employee in the Ministry of Truth and his lover, Julie, battle the belligerent totalitarian state, its thought police, doublespeak ideology and hunger for eternal power.

1984_by_alcook-d4z39dhSo what was my Orwellian journey like?

Melancholic and depressing give the current state of the world.

As described in 1984 and Animal Farm, the loss of individual freedoms has occurred even in democratic countries like Australia, the USA and the UK, with their gag orders against speaking out against refugee abuse, surveillance and collection of meta-data and secret actions of spy agencies like the NSA and ASIO.

Imperialism and prejudice is alive and well

As in Burmese Days, which sets its modernistic central character,  35-year-old teak merchant John Flory against the bigotry within the walls of European Club, we find ourselves in an quasi-imperialist world where the richest, most powerful countries continue to oppress minority populations, invade sovereign countries at will and turn a blind eye to the consequences: thousands of displaced refugees.

“After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people, an inferior people with black faces” – from Burmese Days

Secondly, invigorating and wondrous. Orwell’s writing sparkles, glows and comes alive as you read it and follow the adventures and exploits of his characters. His manages to address weighty and universal themes by creating engaging characters, brilliantly plotted storylines and living, breathing places. He is a master craftsman, who true to his famous rules for writing knows that a few, carefully chosen words, expertly put together, can create vivid scenes that leaps out of the page:

In the deadly glare of the neon lights the pavements were densely crowded. Gordon threaded his way, a small shabby figure, with a pale face and unkempt hair – From Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Then there are his characters. I found myself happily inside the head of all of them, even the ones that are on the surface, unlovable like fat, unhappy George Bowling whom we find on the very first page of Coming Up for Air, locked in the bathroom of his home on a dreary London housing estate, plotting his escape from his wife and kids on a “beastly January morning”. After all, who doesn’t yearn – now and then – for a return to their youth, to a time when they were carefree and without adult responsibilities?

Similarly, I identified with the idealism of malnourished and unwashed poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with his rallying against “money, money, always money” encapsulated in his distaste for the catchy slogans that hang from windswept, tattered advertising boards outside the secondhand bookshop he works in.

No doubt Gordon would find our advertising-saturated world with its sponsored content and brand placement even more nauseating as he would the greedy capitalism and worship of money that defines success today.

And then there is John Flory, the lonely, lost colonialist searching for companionship in Burmese Days who sees skin colour as a mystery to be explored and celebrated, but set against a world of cunning corruption and prejudice. One of the most tragic of Orwell’s characters, he is also one of his most loveable and most admirable.

Orwellian, as we understand it.

And then there is the sheer devastating power of 1984 and Animal Farm, whose much-discussed and debated themes of tyranny, oppression and the crushing of individualism find their reflection in the darker  actions of governments with their ‘Operation Fortitudes’, metadata laws and secrecy and in mega-corporations like Facebook and Google, now the most powerful players in the world of news, information and personal data.

Indeed, it is no surprise, that as I finished reading these five novels, I read also a review of anew theatrical version of 1984 running in Melbourne and the seemingly never ending articles about Orwell and the Orwellian – though I confess that Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying are my two favourites.

Read them all!

play about 1984

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Unhappy dick heads exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviour: a cyclist’s view of motorists

cycling“Bloody dick head”

Actually it sounded more like “Bludy deek hed” spat out from a scowling face hanging out the side of a white Camry as it hurtled past me.

The man, in a rage, was yelling at me and speeding up at the same time, admonishing me for cycling across the street in front of him, while at the same time trying his best to run me down.

In my opinion I’d judged things perfectly; I am not by any stretch of the imagination a reckless cyclist (unless being slow is considered dangerous), but the crazy, googly-eyed man in the white Camry decided I was and let me know it, shaking his fist like King Kong.

Only three time since June last year (when I began cycling again) have I nearly been run over, the other two times by motorists who didn’t see me as I sped down a hill in the dark.

This  was despite having two flashing lights attached to the front of my bike. In the one instant, having nearly driven into me, rather than apologize, the young bloke in a red Mazda started hurling insults my way: “Bloody dick head,” I yelled back, or words to that effect.

The other time, the young lady driver drove away sheepishly after I’d slammed on the breaks in the middle of the road, a hand raised meekly in front of her face, before speeding off.

But these near calamities have been rarities and I am thankful that most motorists are overly cautious around me, some to the point of driving on the wrong side of the road and straight towards oncoming traffic.

My general experience of cycling on a daily basis since June last year has been uneventful.

I’ve not yet encountered any psycho motorists who have deliberately tried to run me off the road, or over.  The most dangerous drivers appear to be the elderly, whose chief problem is seeing above the steering wheel or judging the width of the road or their car.

But riding on two wheels, propelled forward by your own sweat and toil while cars zoom past does give one an unusual perspective on those on four wheels.

If I can blunt: motorists are not a happy bunch, at least they don’t look happy when driving.

angry-motorist-wants-angry-joggerThey sit hunched over their steering wheels, they snarl and they grimace. There is a zealous, craven look in their eyes.

If Freud had ridden a bicycle, he might have gained great insights into the  passive-aggressive personality type.

It seems to defy common sense that motorists deliberately ram the bottom of their cars over speed humps, rather than slowdown.

And while they for the most part, avoid hitting me, I’ve noticed another passive-aggressive tendency: speeding up extravagantly when passing me and then looking back at me through the rear view mirror to perhaps check that a) I am still upright and b) to remind me (with a nod to George Orwell) that, four wheels are always better than two.

Of course, I probably look peculiar to motorists, a heavily bearded man in an ill-fitting helmet and business clothes peddling a noisy bike up a hill, occasionally cursing the pensioner flying past.

A little while ago, an elderly lady passed me while cycling up a hill appearing to whistle and hardly trying at all. I was infuriated and vowed to pass her.

As she disappeared further and further into the distant: a bobbing grey-haired speck in high vis yellow, I furiously pedaled cranking my way through the gears until my thighs threatened to seize up and my chest burned. She was probably sipping a cup of tea by the time I pushed my bike through gate red-faced.

And I can only wonder what another older woman hidden behind a rose-bush in her immaculate garden thought when I decided on afternoon on my way home that it was safe to raise my butt cheeks triumphantly off the saddle and  expel and noisy, violent fart.

Wearing gloves and holding a pair of pruning scissors, her head appeared from behind the tree, while her nose twitched the freshly scented air.

“Bloody dick head” perhaps she muttered under her breath.

Train, planes, buses and toilets: the global giant that covers the world

DSC_0467

Had the train station become a bank branch?

That’s sort of how it felt walking through Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station every morning on my way to work this week.

Ascending the escalator from the platform I’d see enormous Bank of Melbourne posters dangling from the steel girders high above the tracks and a Bank of Melbourne billboard on the wall as I reached the mezzanine level. All space not occupied by a retailing brand bore the bank’s purple colours, logo and name including the fencing around the tracks, the staircase, more billboards at the main entrance on the busy corner of Collins and Spencer and even a Bank of Melbourne ad just below the roof a couple of stories up.

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The only thing that was missing was the Bank of Melbourne itself. For if you were hoping to deposit a cheque, open an account of apply for a home loan at the Bank of Melbourne you’d be out of luck.

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In addition to the advertising blitz, Bank of Melbourne was giving away free coffee in Bank of Melbourne cups served by baristas in Bank of Melbourne t-shirts. The only thing that didn’t bear  its logo were the sachets of sugar and sweetener.

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I duly queued up. The coffee was crap and the bean grinder broke down – I’ll avoid the temptation to draw comparisons with bank service in this country and instead ponder what’s actually going on.

DSC_0463-1I went to the website of Southern Cross Station and clicked on the button marked “Advertising“. The page contained this message:

If you would like to advertise your business or services at Southern Cross Station, contact JC Decaux.

Just who is JCDecaux? It’s a French-based global ‘outdoor’ advertising giant specialising in selling advertising space across three divisions: transport, billboards and street furniture. In 2012 it earned nearly $3.8 billion revenue. It employs over 10,000 people and is the largest outdoor advertising agency in the world. The second biggest is a US company called Clear Channel Outdoor with revenues of $3.16 billion.

In Australia’s JCDecaux’s main local competitors are: oOh!Media, the world’s 11th biggest agency and APN (12th biggest), which has two subsidiaries – Adshel and Buspak.

advertisers

Source: JCDecaus Annual Report (US dollars)

Australians see all of these company names everyday. Guaranteed. You may not notice them – the intention is not to promote them but the ad itself – but they will be somewhere on the billboard or poster. Like this one:

DSC_0491Unlike the dominant forms of advertising – television and radio – outdoor advertising is almost subliminal, somewhat Orwellian.

Your eye registers the ad as you rush past it in the station, at the airport, while you’re waiting for a bus. Perhaps you even stop to ponder it, but more often than not you barely even notice. Next thing, you’re craving a hamburger even though you just ate or a new mobile phone, despite their being the latest model in your pocket. More than likely, you’ve been influenced by a piece of outdoor advertising you barely even noticed, but processed sub-consciously.

The JCDecaux annual report provides some fascinating insights into the ubiquitous-ness of outdoor advertising and its ‘out there, but not really there’ dichotomy.

For example, did you know that street furniture advertising products include all of these: bus shelters, public toilets (blokes, you know the ones when you’re having a slash), self-service bicycle schemes, kiosks for flowers or newspapers, public trash bins, benches, citylight panels, public information panels, streetlights, street signage, bicycle racks and shelters, recycling bins for glass, batteries or paper, electronic message boards and interactive computer terminals.

Transport advertising covers major airports, metros, trains, buses, trams and
other mass transit systems, as well as express train terminals serving international airports around the world.

Nice Airport, France

Nice Airport, France

JCDecaux’s billboard advertising includes the M4 Tower, the UK’s tallest
purpose-built advertising structure at 28.5 meters tall, as high
as a seven-storey building on the main highway to Heathrow Airport from London.

How does JCDecaux  and Clear Channel get access to these public spaces? Generally it negotiates an agreement with city authorities and either pays them a fee or a percentage of the revenue they earn from the ads they sell.

According to JCDecaux’s annual report, the outdoor advertising market is worth around $35 billion annually across the globe, about 9% of the total global advertising market, which is worth around $500 billion.

A relatively small part of the market, but highly influential, highly influencing and somewhat sly and invasive.

Something to think about the next time you get a strange craving or find yourself staring at one of these, while urinating in the airport toilet:

mtv-urinals

The pared-down writing genius of Ernest Hemingway still makes me hungry

I just finished reading “A Moveable Feast”, Ernest Hemingway’s memoirs of living  in Paris in the 1920s as little-known writer.

The book is a recollection of his time as a struggling writer, living very basically at 74 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine and then later, above a sawmill, at 113 rue Notre Dame des Champs with his wife, Hadley, and spending his day writing in cafes, and sharing ideas with the likes of Gertrude Stein, the poet Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.

Hemingway is noted for his pared-down writing style, where there is sparing use of words – only necessary ones – to describe scenes, feelings and emotions.

Other writers to embrace this idea include George Orwell with his famous rules for writing including “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” and other more recent masters of the art, Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver.

Writing simply and well may sound easy, but it’s deceptively difficult I imagine.

This point is highlighted by Hemingway himself when he writes in “A Moveable Feast” that sometimes he would spend an entire afternoon writing just one paragraph.

Every word must be carefully considered. Every word must have its place and purpose.

But done well there is an immediacy and potency that no other literary artist can capture.

Take, as an example, Hemingway’s description of a meal, eaten alone, in a Paris café:

“It was a quick walk to Lipp’s and every place I passed that my stomach noticed as quickly as my eyes or my nose made the walk an added pleasure. “There were few people in the brasserie and when I sat down on the bench against the wall with the mirror in back and a table in front and the waiter asked if I wanted a beer I asked for a distingué, the big glass mug that held a litre, and for potato salad.“The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes á l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious.
“I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil.

After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly. “When the pommes á l’huile were gone I ordered another serving and cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce.
“I mopped up all the oil and all the sauce with bread and drank the beer slowly until it began to lose its coldness and then I finished it and ordered a demi and watched it drawn.It seemed colder than the distingué and I drank half of it.(Ernst Hemingway with friends in a Paris cafe in the 1920s.)