How long does it take to read a classic 20th-century political novel? What if you read it aloud, from cover to cover over the course of one day?
On Tuesday 6 June , the answer to the first question was 10 hours and 57 minutes.
Richard Blair, George Orwell’s adopted son was three years old when his father completed the book in 1948. It was Richard who started reading ‘…the clocks were striking thirteen’. Almost 11 hours, two tides and a fleet of 50 actors, journalists and activists later, writer Bonnie Greer intoned Winston Smith’s final, anguished defeat, ‘…he loved Big Brother’.
This was 1984 Live, read and performed in our University’s Senate House. Propaganda was plastered over the darkened Chancellor’s Hall (notionally the heart of London’s federal university). The royal portraits and baroque tapestry-map were obscured by flickering slides of blitzed London and Airstrip One. Young actors, soundtrack and lighting, driven by technology Big Brother would have died for, accompanied the marathon reading.
You can see and hear the full reading of 1984 via the Orwell Foundation. Each will have their choice extracts: I’ll flag Michela Wrong on double-thinking Oceania’s international relations (at 1 hour 25 minutes), Peter Hitchens on memory and the revolution (3:19), Simon Schama on Julia’s copse (4:37), Billy Bragg on sex and totalitarianism (5:20), the pairing of Melyvn Bragg and Ken Loach (on Ingsoc and the party, 7:55). Jean Seaton (10:14, on Winston’s incarceration), herself the steely-chair of the Orwell Foundation and, I suspect, the red-sashed powerhouse behind the live reading.
Dank Senate House and its surrounding streets are central to 1984 and Orwell. The Senate inspired 1984’s Ministry of Truth and Room 101. Images of Orwell remain in the Fitzroy Tavern, Bricklayers Arms and other hostelries he frequented off Charlotte St (though not his imaginary ‘The Moon under Water’). He died of tuberculosis in University College Hospital, a few hundred yards from Birkbeck and Senate House, on 21 January 1950. In the six months between the publication and his death, 1984 was reprinted several times. In its first year it sold almost half a million copies and has been in print ever since.
Birkbeck’s Politics Department was co-founded by the scholar who more than any other shaped our understanding of George Orwell. Bernard Crick’s monumental George Orwell: A Life was published in 1980 and remains the definitive biography. Crick himself gave a series of open lectures in Senate House on Orwell in 1982, marking the publication in paperback of A Life. Royalties from the book underpinned the Orwell Foundation and the annual Orwell Lecture. Crick, who died in 2008, chaired the Orwell Prize until 2006; his death in 2008 left numerous intellectual legacies. These included Birkbeck’s archives from his work on Orwell, his editorship of Political Quarterly (currently back under a Birkbeck editor), as well as our Department and his wider writings.
David Styan is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck