Written by Sooz Kempner


An idiot’s guide to Nineteen Eighty-Four

There’s no better time to read George Orwell’s dystopian classic, says Sooz Kempner. But if you can’t, here’s the broadstrokes.

John Hurt as Winston Smith in the 1984 (natch!) film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Hi, my name is Sooz Kempner and I have read 11 Stephen King books. But I had never read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Hey, come on, I didn’t think I had to! I’ve seen the film, I’ve seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, I think I’ve seen that 80s Apple advert… might have just heard about it.

I figured it had just passed me by but when sales rocketed after Trump’s inauguration because, apparently, we were now living in Orwell’s dystopian novel, I decided to jump on the bandwagon like a good little liberal snowflake.

But reading it took… like… two days and, since not everyone has two days, I’ve rattled through it and here’s an idiot’s guide if you have not read the book but want to appear smart and also don’t want to read the book.

OK, so a detailed plot summary can be found on the internet – probably – but here’s the important shit. If a well-read bookworm says, “Oh, this reminds me of Nineteen Eighty-Four”, never again will you have to nod, laugh and panic on the inside that your dumb-dumbness will be revealed.

The world is now simply three warring states and Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in Oceania, run by Big Brother, head of the Party. Our protagonist is Winston Smith. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth aka Minitrue (Mini true! Facts… but kind of!). He’s an editor, altering photographs and records to match the state’s version of history. Dissenters’ records are deleted, essentially deleting people from history in what’s known as “a memory hole”.

“While out in public, if you see a CCTV camera, just point at it and go, ‘Big Brother is always watching,’ then raise your eyebrows knowingly and smile wryly.”

All citizens are constantly watched by Big Brother on compulsory screens, even in their own homes. Winston’s getting frickin’ sick of it so starts writing a diary and being all ‘The Party is L.A.M.E, Big Brother is a douche’ in his apartment’s blind spot. (Right next to the screen, yowzer.)

A woman called Julia confesses her love for him in a secret note and they just immediately start bone-zoning and going to secret ‘We hate the Party’ meetings in rooms that have no Big Brother telescreen. Eventually, they are caught by the Thought Police, tortured in Room 101 and eventually betray each other.

They are returned to society, their love for each another now gone. Winston is now pretty happy in his love for Big Brother. CHILLING. This is barely scratching the surface.

Handy phrases to show how smart you are:

With the news changing at a rate where if you pick up yesterday’s newspaper it’s so out of touch it may as well say, “Guy Fawkes tries to blow up Houses of Parliament!”, it can be hard to keep up with stuff. Referencing Orwell might be a good way to appear smart if you can’t read every news item from multiple angles.

While out in public, if you see a CCTV camera, just point at it and go, “Big Brother is always watching,” then raise your eyebrows knowingly and smile wryly. This will also appeal to people who haven’t read the book as Big Brother the TV show is still fucking everywhere. Pretty cool how Orwell predicted CCTV.

Penguin edition coverThe book’s main character is named Winston (from Churchill) Smith (a very common name). Winston Smith is so named because Orwell designed him to appear as a real everyman, but also one who could rise to hero status under difficult circumstances. You can pass that opinion off as your own, I know I will, even though I got it off the internet.

When drinking cheap wine, clink glasses with friends and say, “To us proles!” The proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four represent most of Oceania’s population and are the lowest members of society. This witty phrase also works if you are eating a sandwich from Tesco or going to Wetherspoons for steak night for the fourth time that month, like I never would, apart from all the time.

If in Wetherspoons with a friend, order gin and when asked, “Which gin would you like?” say, “Victory brand please,” and wink at your friend. The barman may look confused (I recently ordered a “jacket potato” in my local and my barman didn’t know what it was) but don’t worry, once you’ve explained what you mean, he’ll laugh and won’t feel like you’ve wasted his time.

So, what can I take away from my belated speed-reading of Orwell’s most famous novel? I can’t even imagine the impact it must have had upon release, less than five years after the end of World War II. It’s infiltrated so much of our popular culture, right down to our most iconic reality TV show. Big Brother became real and it was so much more terrifying than even he could have imagined. Kinga and the champagne bottle? I don’t want to remember.

Packing a major punch almost 70 years later, now is the perfect time to dive in to this seminal work, possibly the most influential novel of the past 100 years. Or you could watch the late, great John Hurt as Winston in the movie. Or just use this guide.

And, guys, let’s never give in.


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Written by Sooz Kempner

Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.