My Sunday Guardian column
The new Penguin edition of George Orwell’s 1984 has a terrific cover that features the author’s name and title masked with black foil. Another reminder of how much Big Brother, Doublespeak and the Thought Police are a part of our lives nowadays. The novel, first published in 1948, was itself inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fantasy, We, with its brainwashed citizens of a totalitarian One State. Years later, Anthony Burgess riffed on Orwell’s book to come up with 1985, the first part of which was a critique of 1984, with the second part being a rather lacklustre novella that imagined a Britain of the future dominated by militant trade unions and large-scale immigration from the Middle East. (Thus, Burgess’s book, written in the 1970s, was more a reflection of its time than of the future.)
Now, there’s another take on 1984, this time titled 1948. This one doesn’t invent an imagined future; it creates an imaginary past. Its purpose isn’t to alarm or warn, but to entertain. And, unusually, it’s written in verse. In Pushkin sonnets, to be exact – and yes, there’s a sly reference made to a certain Vikram Seth who has done the same thing earlier.
Poet Andy Croft’s 1948 is set in an alternative Britain of, well, 1948. There’s a Labour-Communist alliance in power, Winston Churchill is fulminating from his hideout in Washington and as for the royal family, they’re in exile in Rhodesia along, one supposes, with their corgis. Against this background, on a bright, cold day in April, policeman Winston Smith (that name should sound familiar) comes across a body in a dockyard, and then finds his superior, O’Brien, behaving suspiciously. Dreaming of Julia, his ex-girlfriend, he bumps into an alluring Russian operative called Tamara Zaleshoff (named after an Eric Ambler character) and with a little help from her, manages to untangle the mystery, the climax of which occurs at the opening of London’s Olympic Games.
The fun of reading Croft’s book isn’t in keeping track of events – truth to tell, the plot is thin and underdeveloped, even for such a slim volume – but in the sheer joie de vivre of the verses. Keeping to the strictures of line and length for an extended period isn’t easy (as he writes, it is “in short a verse form that’s designed/for distance runners of the mind”) but Croft pulls it off with panache.
The illustrations by Martin Rowson emphasise the comic-noir feel, along with lines such as: “It doesn’t come cheap, this kind of writing/The dockland scene, the low key lighting/The morally ambiguous tone/That late night, smoky saxophone”. As for Croft’s tonal inspiration: “The shadows on my flickering screen/are shot in black and white and Greene; /Here, every mood’s subdued, crepuscular/Like Hammett, Cain and Hemingway/The only ink I’ve used is grey”. That’s a shade of grey one can approve of. At one point, Winston Smith even picks up a book by Eric Blair, an alternative version of Orwell, a volume that’s “weighed down by overweight prediction/And not buoyed-up by common sense/ It looks too much like heavy going/To get Smith’s mental juices flowing”.
Along the way, there are endless digressions, but after a short while these cease to be departures and add instead to the fun of the reading. Croft is constantly self-reflective: “Though you may say that I’m a dreamer/It seems to me that on the whole/This idiotic rhyming schema/Requires some quality control”.
Dreamer/schema isn’t the only amusingly inventive rhyme here; there’s also tea/ennui as well as this one which deserves to be quoted in full: “Though Pushkin stanzas tend to shuttle/Between High Tragedy and Farce/(It doesn’t do to be too subtle/Or you will end up on your arse)”. Croft certainly doesn’t end up on his arse or on any other part of his anatomy. After a diet of Serious Novels all aspiring to be The Next Big Thing, his little 1948 comes as a breath of fresh air. Orwell that ends well.