George Orwell, Christopher Rush, SF 69

The Nightmare of Room 101

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It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

That first arresting sentence of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four transports us immediately into a world that is real enough (the swirl of gritty dust, the acidic sickly gin, the smell of boiled cabbage) but is also alien and fantastic. Even now, in the age of the 24-hour clock, that number thirteen startles you, for no clock ever does physically strike thirteen, and its undercurrent of unluckiness adds to the sense of unease. It’s one of the best opening sentences I’ve ever read.

I have to confess that it was not the opening sentence that first gripped me. I never actually read it – because my first encounter with Nineteen Eighty-Four occurred when I was 10, too young a reader for the book that had been published, to an eruption of critical acclaim, by Secker & Warburg five years previously, in June 1949; but not too young a viewer to watch a young Peter Cushing play Winston Smith in the BBC’s dramatization of Orwell’s novel in 1954. That was the year in which a 12-inch black-and-white Bush TV set was wheeled in all its glory into our living-room, and so it was Orwell on the box that turned out to be my first experience of a classic work of world literature.

The year of the title, especially to a 10-year-old, seemed impossibly far off. It was science fiction. But Orwell’s genius lay in making fantasy seem real, and the images haunted me from that night on, the nightmares reaching a climax in memories of Room 101 and the terrifying spectacle of a mind broken on the wheel of its own worst fear: rats. I had an equivalent worst fear: crabs, and the terror of being eaten alive by them, stemming from my deep-sea-fisherman grandfather’s stories of the crabs that dined sweetly on shipwrecked sailors. So I identified easily with Winst

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About the contributor

Christopher Rush has always had a fondness for 1984, for that was the year in which he wrote his first book, A Twelvemonth and a Day, now listed as one of the 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time.

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