Big brother snubs '1984' 50-year party

Click to follow
The Independent Online
GALA celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four have collapsed amid bitter recriminations following his publishers' refusal to support the event.

Devotees had hoped to host a grand reception this Tuesday to mark the half-century of one of the 20th century's most influential literary classics and toast its author.

But they have been forced to abandon the idea after failing to raise the necessary funds for the event. They accuse Orwell's publishers of putting profit before art. Bernard Crick, Orwell's biographer, has described the publishers as "money-making Philistines who have no care or thought for the great titles they own".

Professor Crick was to have joined Orwell's son Richard, film director Michael Radford and other writers, academics and privacy campaigners for a reception at Senate House, University College London. The building was used as the location of the Ministry of Truth in Radford's film version of the book, which starred John Hurt and Richard Burton in his final screen appearance.

But the plans collapsed after Secker & Warburg and Penguin, Orwell's publishers in hardback and paperback, refused to support the celebrations. Neither were major bookstores nor the Observer newspaper, for which Orwell once wrote, willing to help. The supporters will now raise a glass privately in a pub.

Simon Davies, a computer security expert at the London School of Economics who organised the abortive event, said: "It's one of the great literary anniversaries of our time.

"We've been chortling over the irony. George Orwell said self-interest would destroy the meaning of history. The publishers must have made a fortune out of the book, but the slick marketing people say, Where's the bottom line? Will it reflect in next week's figures?"

In the years since Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, the story of Winston Smith in the world of Big Brother has become synonymous with fears about the abuse of power by the state. Recognised as a modern classic and a standard text for literature students, references to the work still abound in films and books.

In the new sci-fi thriller The Matrix, which has taken America by storm, Keanu Reeves lives in Room 101, the scene of unspeakable fear in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the Icons of Pop exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which opened last week, Paul Weller of The Jam is photographed reading a copy of the book.

Mr Davies said: "What the book did was create a cultural shorthand to allow the expression of fear of authority and the power of the state."

Its relevance today stemmed from the growth in CCTV "spy cameras" and other invasions of privacy through developments in technology such as the internet, he added. Mr Davies, who also runs Privacy International, which campaigns on "big brother" issues, said: "If you put a society under surveillance, people become very self-conscious and you destroy natural human inter-action."

A spokesman for Penguin said the book remained popular and sold 60,000 copies last year. The company has its own commemoration plans for the 50th anniversary of Orwell's death next year when it will re-release many works in new volumes.

"We're doing lots on Orwell, but we're not paying for other people's parties," the spokesman said. "Just because some people wanted to have a party, it doesn't mean we should have to pay for the crisps."

A Secker & Warburg spokeswoman said the firm had brought out a new hardback edition for the anniversary but would not comment on why it would not support the reception.

Professor Crick, who made a special study of Nineteen Eighty-Four, said the novel was often misread and warned against treating it as a prophecy. "He was saying something like this might happen if we didn't attend to our liberties," he commented.

Yet some parts of the novel have been prophetic. Helicopters had already been used in war but their value for surveillance was unknown in 1948, when Nineteen Eighty-Four was written. Orwell saw television, too, as a means of surveillance, long before CCTV systems were developed.

But Professor Crick said some of the most savage criticism in the book was against the media. The use of pornography to placate the masses in Nineteen Eighty-Four stemmed from Orwell's dislike of the popular press. "It was the idea that the main instrument of control in modern society is not terror but the debasement of literacy and learning," Professor Crick said. "The Sun is quite Orwellian."

Professor Crick believes Orwell's lasting reputation will be as an essayist, but still intends to celebrate on Tuesday.