The bolts were off. I pushed through the squeaky swing doors of The Tavern as the first customer of the day. The furniture was in its neatest configuration, chairs squared with tables and tall stools spread evenly along the bar. Smoke from last night’s lock-in lingered, wrestling stale beer and aggressive cleaning products. I walked across the floorboards as the doors closed behind me, cut off from high street – an unruly river of dangerous traffic and people. Citizens giving themselves away, shouting or mumbling their grievances – easy to empathise with, impossible to understand. We’re all a few steps away from being shoeless in the street, the creeping tide of discolouration on our teeth shows it.
Ceiling fans swirled silently as I took a seat on the most secure bar stool. This is a fine place to pass time, rather than surging about with a can of special brew. Another door creaked, this time on the useful side of the bar. A man stepped out and looked over at me. His eyes were giving nothing away other than that he thought I was early. His face was round and his beard manicured. His hair was slicked back but his style was plain. No clues.
‘What can I getcha?’ A local.
‘The blackest thing you have.’ He liked my answer, I could see it in how he seethed. He pulled a pint of stout into a thick, handled pint glass. I paid the man and that was the end of our relationship for a while. I waded into the beer and a book. Why I Write, a remix of essays by George Orwell. The world became black and white, Orwell’s voice slipping into my mind, as broadcasting live from 1944. Bombs were falling as he stated the case for socialism. Looking back over nearly a century of capitalist progress, Orwell’s cries have gone ignored.
His truths were made to seem like far-fetched fictions, sci-fi, rather than the accurate portrayals of the way things get done. Despite putting capitalism under the microscope, exposing the systems of control and victims of poverty, Orwell isn’t taken seriously politically. He’s pop culture reference point, rather than a visionary like Marx.
I broke the book’s spine over the bar, words-first into the dark wood. I ran my fingers along the black scars on the surface; decades of incident sealed in varnish. Polished, like history. The cracks are visible, but everyone’s got their story straight.
‘Fucking brilliant.’ The barman was back, craning his neck to see the book. He was louder than necessary.
‘You like it?’
‘Like it? I’m not just a lefty, it’s much worse than that. I’m a full-on, Pinko, agitprop, Dynamo Kiev supporting Commie bastard.’
This is how I like my barmen. I put an end to my beer my ally saw my situation quickly remedied.
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Someone walked into the bar. I heard the squeak of the door and the column of noise from the road. People streamed past the windows. All kinds of faces looking for something. Panhandlers posing for change. Bulging eyes surging towards a score. All kinds of traders and land pirates and housewives. It’s best to hole up in the heat of the day and stay well hydrated. Our next thirsty friend pulled up and brought a bit of the street with him. A grubby character but the pub is no judge. If you’ve got cash for a beer you’re welcome, our house is yours, only don’t put your feet on the furniture and always spit in the bucket.
‘Would you like some medicinal alcohol?’
‘Half the mild please.’ He poked a dirty fingernail around in a palm full of currency. My eyes watched the change being counted onto the bar. The barman stood waiting but turned his head away. He needed a holiday.
‘I’ve not been around here for maybe fifteen years.’ The hobo was starting a conversation with me but staring around the room. It’s almost certainly the case that the pub in particular is nothing like he remembers. ‘It’s all changed a bit.’ I shifted on my stool and sipped my beer. There was a sadness in this man that I didn’t particularly need to explore.
‘Used to live ‘round here?’
‘Yeah, yeah…’ He nodded his head and stared off. His lank greasy hair moved slowly. Maybe he didn’t want a conversation, of maybe he’s just warming up. He knew where I’d be if he wanted me. I’d have given him the full story if he needed it.
This is a nation addicted to consumption; a soma drip of self-satisfaction. But this isn’t Huxley’s dystopia, it’s Orwell’s. The popular comparison of the two doesn’t fit. Huxley was a pacifist for a start. Whilst Huxley leaned towards fantasy, Orwell was stating veiled brutal truths. He had a plan. The commodification of Orwell dilutes what can be learned. If he’s painted as fantasist we won’t act on his ideas. His fictional work will be viewed as masterpieces with coincidental similarities to reality.
The barman cut across my view with a half for the drifter. He placed the beer down, and tuned into my thoughts.
‘And don’t give me that old story about Communism as a failed ideology, they all fail; because every time you build something, those self serving, hate-filled bastards hijack it from you; they did it to Communism and they’re doing it to Capitalism, that’s what they do. They have taken the economy and turned it into a casino… a casino owned by the criminally insane and used by psychopaths to make money, who then use it as a way to express hatred and contempt for the people they gouged the cash out of in the first place. They appropriate your dream, prey on your fears and your hopes, then turn it into a totalitarian nightmare. Parasites killing the host. And you should be afraid. They prefer violence, they get off on it.’
Maybe we have to start fighting. Orwell was always up for it. It’s how change arrives when diplomacy fails. But diplomacy isn’t an option that’s on the table, because we’re not invited to the table because our opinions are cheap. Get the fuck off our land, you scum. We shout the same thing back and forth, each meaning different things. The people are put in their place and told to set about finding ways to ruin their hands by doing mad, repetitive shit. Cleaning and catering. Sratching about in the dirt of industry for treasure. The Orwellian proletariat lives, we’re just ignoring it in the name of progress. There are margins in the prole lifestyle though and some of them are wide enough that you can be drinking in them whilst the sun is still high in the sky. Strange freedoms are found here.
I faded back in on the barman’s manifesto.
‘…I’ll have those fascist shit-bags breaking rocks in a Norfolk gulag quicker than you can say “glorious five year plan” comrade.’
‘Yeah, bash the rich! If you endorse inequality you’re part of the problem. Can I get another pint and some nuts?’
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
Time rushed by and the doors creaked and creaked. The fans continued to turn. More hours passed whilst the shades of the floor lamps went unstraightened. Nothing solved, nothing changed. The stasis of a London barroom. A bunker in the stampede. It’s dangerous in there too, when endless plotting leads to great thirst and you find yourself sloping towards the taps. Stirring bursts of cackling from the back corner. Debris of consumed products littering the bar. An empty glass, again. There’d been a change of guard, someone else with a beard was pouring beers. I looked across the taps to see my old comrade moving around drinkers. He was placing his hat on his head, but he hadn’t tied the belt on his mac. I caught his eye and the replacement barkeep saw our union. We three met on the corner of the bar I was calling home by that point.
‘I’ll stay for one more.’
‘Yeah, whynot? I’ll join ya.’ The cockney barman mounts his stool, ‘Anyway, it’s a fucking farce. You can’t trust those hand-wringing liberals either. Or “small-c Conservatives”, they can’t help you and they don’t understand that you can’t see the bottom from the top, and attempt to experience “our” lives the way they are lived have a fatal flaw, “they” always have a way out, an end to the misery. A scab of mythology has grown over their minds eye as the result of a self inflicted wound. They think you can reason with the unreasonable, use pacifism against violence and that politics is something to be discussed in the abstract at a dinner party in North London.’
‘I’ve been thinking that we’re living in an Orwellian nightmare, but it’s not as crushing as all that. It’s the freedom that’s the problem. The freedom to buy. We actually live in a Barleyian nightmare, the world brought to us in satire by Chris Morris. A society in which vanity and idocy are cool, yeah? Fashion ate subculture and now everyone’s buying identity, pre-packaged in a bid to safely declare their individuality.’
‘They’ve got the option: give a shit and suffer or carry on regardless and get that nice house and curly haired kids on offer in a leafy bit south of the fucking river.’
‘Even feminism has become a consumer product!’ We both drank. We needed a pause to gather our thoughts and connect the strands. Are the ruling scum the problem or the idiots who barely notice the problems? Politics is beyond satire but so are the people. Workers would rather work hard and remain poor than engage with politics and the young and creative are happy to use their time and skills just to sell things for corporations – so long as they get some cash and seem cool.
‘The problem is, there were no good old days.’
‘Everyone’s addicted to faux-nostalgia!’
‘We’ve always been ruled by the rich, the powerful, the lizards.’
‘If everyone keeps thinking we’re in the shit, we can’t get out of it and we should just enjoy the best bits there’ll never be any progression.’
‘Unless we burn the scum.’
‘Unless everyone realises that we’re in good position, stops hiding behind haircuts and starts deciding if they want to contribute to the solution or the problem…’ My glass was empty.
‘One for the road?’
Beer is one of the great rays of hope. Good for the local economy and good for the imagination. It fuels a relationship with Orwell; that overwhelming feeling that sometimes you have to fight.
“Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.”
Cockney Barman Text from Daniel John
Photograph from Chris Chudleigh
Quotes from George Orwell