From the East End to Wembley & back again
By Anna Aslanyan.
Beneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree, Pushkin Sonnets
Two London-themed books published this spring, although different in almost everything, from jacket design to word count, can be read in the same subversive spirit. 1948, a monstrous haggard face casting a sinister shadow on its cover, is easily recognised as a parody of Orwell‘s most famous work. More precisely, it is an inversion, where a dystopia becomes a utopia, heroes and villains swap places, while the 1948 Olympiad is contrasted with the forthcoming games. The dramatis personae include Winston Smith, a policeman, O’Brien, his boss, Julia, his girlfriend; there is even a fleeting appearance of one Eric Blair. The story is a political farce, a whodunnit which culminates in a massive Two Minutes Joy at Wembley.
Croft’s version of British history has several twists the plot hinges on: WWII was won by the Red Army alone, post-war Britain is on the brink of revolution, King George “buggers off to white Rodesia”, while “[i]n Washington old Churchill says/ (A borrowed but a handy phrase)/ That Channel’s now an Iron Curtain.” Other period features are summarised thus: “The growing international tension,/ The strains within the Lab-Comm pact,/ Both mean the weak pound’s getting weaker./ The outlook’s bleak, and looking bleaker,/ Though not enough to douse the flames/ Of British pride in next month’s Games”.
This is not the first work of fiction inspired by Orwell’s novel: there are quite a few of them, from Anthony Burgess’s 1985 to Vladimir Voinovich’s Moscow 2042, to last year’s much-hyped publishing event, Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84. When asked if he ever considered writing his book in Newspeak, Croft waved the suggestion away. Truth be told, his verses flow so freely, not to say glibly, that he could certainly pull this off if he wanted. The only thing he seems to find difficult is to come up with serious-sounding feminine rhymes – they are always funny, Croft insisted at a recent reading at Bookmarks, that stronghold of left-wing literature in London.
All the seven chapters of 1948 are written in the form of Pushkin sonnets, as are the introduction and the acknowledgements; each has a line from ‘Oranges and Lemons’ as an epigraph. Other quotes from Orwell complete the picture: we are reading a self-humouring pastiche intended to take 1984 down from its pedestal. These rumbustious stanzas often come hard on each other’s heels, making sly cross-references, such as “he’s now so late that at this rate/ He won’t get there till chapter 8/ (There isn’t one in case you’re worried).” Pushkin’s whimsy “I need to rest from all this rhyme:/ I’ll end my tale some other time” is taken fully on board by Croft. The opening lines, “It was a bright cold day in April. / Oh no it wasn’t – for a start/ I cannot find a rhyme for April”, replicate the beginning of 1984, while setting the tone for Eugene Onegin-style tongue-in-cheekiness. This can get tiring occasionally, but the author manages for the most part to keep your attention, now with a gag, now with a murder. There comes a point when the author stops wrapping his views in satire and lays into greedy bankers, who are “[d]evouring first the Welfare state/ And then the world upon a plate/ As Britain’s privatised to buggery” – and on it goes.
Talking about the legacy of 1984 at the reading, Croft recalled how French communists used to buy up copies of the novel to make sure none reached the wide readership. This is not the only example of Orwell’s unpopularity with the left; an attack on him published in Daily Worker in 1954 resembles a diatribe by a proponent of coercive psychiatry: “When he wrote 1984, the anti-socialist work that shocked the nation on television, George Orwell was sick in body and mind, a fast dying man.” However harsh this may sound, the author did die the year after the book’s publication. That 1948 is a negative print of 1984 is further confirmed by the fact that Andy Croft and Martin Rowson both seem to be on great form, so we should look forward to more from this duo. Once the games are over, perhaps they might perform a post-mortem?
“That Epitaph to All Our Yesterdays”
Acquired for Development by… may not be as punchy or as bitingly illustrated as 1948, its radicalism may manifest itself in different ways, but reading the two back to back is a good pre-Olympic exercise, especially if you live in London and have not yet found anyone willing to rent your house for a small fortune this summer. “The looming Olympics, the luxury flats erupting from Dalston Lane, the facelift of Gillett Square from car-park to culture park” all feature in these 25 pieces of fiction, non-fiction and poetry about Hackney from authors who know the borough’s past, live its present and care about its future.
The Olympics, although not the main theme, is mentioned by several contributors, including Nell Frizzell, who examines the community of Hackney boaters in ‘Rivers of Change’, and Brendan Pickett with his vivid ‘Neo-Noir Hackney Haikus': “’Sorry! No low rents.’/ Olympic Estate Agents/ break record profits”. Others draw on the area’s history and landscape, mostly from a left-leaning point of view. The neighbouring Stoke Newington has long been known for its radical traditions, so when Paul Case in ‘The Battle of Kingsland Road’ evokes the struggle between local revolutionary groups, one of which signs its missives “Militant regards”, it goes hand in hand with the genius loci.
The anthology’s title is inspired by a phrase from Alexander Baron‘s novel The Lowlife, “I saw on a board that epitaph to all our yesterdays, ‘Acquired for Development by…’” One of the book’s editors, Kit Caless, discussing the ideas behind it, talks about the way he and his fellow citizens oppose the influence of corporate London, concluding, “If we lose the fight we can at least record what happened.” This take on the East End, which could have come straight from Iain Sinclair, does no justice to the collection, some of whose pieces go beyond recording. Here, too, there are visions, both utopian and dystopian. In ‘2061’ Ashlee Christoffersen portrays a London where “the Real Communist Party of Britain – Seventh International” (a bit of a misnomer, seeing that it’s also “the only communist party left today”) is an heir to networks that “successfully disrupted the Olympics in 2012 by blockading the media and broadcast centres in Hackney Wick”. George Orwell himself – who used to live in the nearby Islington before it succumbed to gentrification – would have endorsed the idea with zeal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 17th, 2012.