Unlike the others Orwell did not haunt the Cafe Royal in Regent Street.
Sir Osbert Lancaster, who portrayed the world of "Horizon"
in his cartoon 'Figures in a Landscape',
is certain that he never saw Orwell there.
Mulk Raj Anand recalls that
Orwell regularly referred to the group as 'that Cafe Royal set',
and that on one of the few occasions when he was lured there
his plain-speaking in discussions caused a row.

To Orwell Today,
re: Spreading Chestnut Tree


First off, I love your site. Amazing. I just finished 1984 about 10 minutes ago and was blown away. Could you help me understand the line: Under the spreading chestnut tree, i sold you and you sold me. I found it amazing but i'm not quite sure what to make of it. Is it involved with a betrayal theme? Any response would be wonderful.

Thank you.
Kamran Rouzpay

Greetings Kamran,

The "Chestnut Tree Cafe", like most everything else in Orwell's books, is based on a real place, in this case a London restaurant named the "Cafe Royal". Here's some basic background to the Cafe Royal time period:

Prior to WWII Orwell was an isolationist (labelled pacifist) who believed that England should not get involved in another capitalist/fascist/communist/imperialist war. In his novel Coming Up For Air - which was published in 1939 just before England declared war - Orwell warned people about what was coming and that the only winners would be "the streamlined men from Eastern Europe who think in slogans and talk in bullets".

But once the war started Orwell stopped being a pacifist and joined the war effort full throttle. All his so-called "socialist" friends (really communists) stayed isolationist until Germany invaded Russia and then they shouted louder than anyone else that England had to go help Stalin. Orwell was eating in a restaurant with some of them when the news of Germany attacking Russia came over the radio and they immediately turned from pacifist talk to war-mongering talk, literally in mid-sentence. That's where Orwell got the idea for the scene in "1984" where Winston's drinking gin in the Chestnut Tree Cafe when Big Brother announces another victory over the enemy -- whose name has been changed from Eastasia to Eurasia -- and everyone cheers as though nothing is any different.

Orwell and his wife Eileen moved from the village of Wallington to London where Eileen got a job with the Ministry of Information and Orwell -- who was rejected for active service due to his wretched lungs -- volunteered in the Home Guard and worked as a book reviewer and contributor to literary magazines, then for BBC as a talks-host and announcer, and then as editor and columnist in a literary magazine, while all the while writing Animal Farm which he finished in 1943, but which no one would publish because it was anti-Communist and described Stalin as a pig.

During these war years Orwell met regularly with fellow-journalists and writers at restaurants and pubs. I visited some of those places in my Homage to Orwell in July 2003. You can see see the photos and read about it at:


But Orwell wasn't like most of the Fleet Street/Bloomsbury crowd (so called because the newspaper, magazine and publishing offices were located in those streets of London) who drank too much and got too little done. He would stay for his designated amount of time (usually mid-day) and then go home to his writing routine which was from after supper until the wee hours of the morning.

He seldom joined the "established" journalists who frequented a restaurant called the Cafe Royal. Those people were what we refer to today as "politically correct" or "mainstream" journalists and who Winston described as "orthodox". Orwell didn't have a politically correct or orthodox bone in his body and didn't enjoy the company of people like that. He preferred to hang out with struggling writers, poets and journalists even though he was no longer struggling himself, being a published author and a friend of some wealthy fellow-Etonians.

Here's an excerpt from the THE LARGER EVILS, 1984, TRUTH BEHIND THE SATIRE, by W J West, page 33-34:

...Orwell and Eileen also sometimes went to the Cafe Royal, another centre of literary life, dominated by Cyril Connolly, Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, and others including Stephen Spender. Orwell couldn't stand what he called 'that Cafe Royal set' and, if the Chestnut Tree Cafe in Nineteen Eighty-Four is modelled on it, as it seems to be, then Winston's recollection of being there without any clear memory of how he happened to find himself there would be about right. Inez Holden once took the Orwells to it to meet Anthony Powell; on another occasion there was a fierce argument between Orwell and Stephen Spender on the reason for Spender's going to Spain and his role there, when Orwell had fought and only escaped death by a hair's breadth."

The reason for attending the 'salon' at the Cafe Royal for many people was to keep in the swim, and, in real terms, ensure a steady flow of commissions for articles in the magazines run by Connolly, Martin and others. In Orwell's case he was only partially dependent on them since he had previously ensured his position through Warburg. But he did write pieces, one for the New Statesman, an essay on Jack London's The Iron Heel, which had been recently republished. It seems definitely to have influenced Orwell and the background thoughts about his next book...."

Another thing that made Orwell different from the intellectual types who frequented the Cafe Royal was his life style. He and Eileen lived in working class neighbourhoods of London in rented apartments and stuck strictly to the war-time rationings, even when he was making above-average money at the BBC.

Here's another excerpt from THE LARGER EVIL, by W. J. West, page 188:

...The difference between the canteen [at the Ministry of Truth] and the Chestnut Tree Cafe is, in social terms, exactly that between Winston's worn out mansion block with its view of the Ministry of Truth, and the luxury blocks that looked out on to the park where O'Brien and the other inner party members lived. And in reality, Orwell's flat was exactly that degree away socially from those blocks more recently built that looked out on Regent's Park in St John's Wood. The proles lived in slums everywhere. Winston explores those near Kings Cross in the original manuscript, although they are less precisely defined in the final version. They remained untouched, with the bombed sites and shored up buildings, for decades afterwards. In some streets the ambience survives up to the present day as anyone walking around the backstreets as both Winston and Orwell used to do will soon discover...."

Orwell's (Winston's) flat at 111 Langford Court (Victory Gardens)

Ministry of Information during WWII (Ministry of Truth in 1984)

29.Risking Renting Room

Many of the people who frequented the Cafe Royal actually hated Orwell and would never publish his writings. Some of them, who had originally thought Orwell was a Communist (they used the word "socialist") like themselves, had been horrified to realize that Orwell was actually the ENEMY of Communism and he was looked upon as a traitor to "the cause". Some of them actually worked for Secret Intelligence (KGB/MI6/CIA) and pretended to be anti-Capitalist and anti-Communist to stay in Orwell's circle. They betrayed Orwell's cause (socialism) by refusing to publish Homage to Catalonia and slowing down the publication of Animal Farm. Also, the Communists despised Orwell when they heard that he'd submitted a list of their names to the post-war government when asked who should and shouldn't be given jobs in writing in support of democracy and against communism, now that the Cold War was on and England and Russia were enemies again. To this day they call him a traitor for exposing them as "crypto commies", believing, as they do, that they should be protected by a veil of silence. To them, Orwell is another Joseph McCarthy.


Here again is W. J. West from THE LARGER EVILS, page 39-40:

...What Orwell could not have imagined is that...he would find his books being censored completely - not just the odd phrase - and find himself a subject of interest to the security services."

Within a very short space of time Orwell had settled into wartime London life, 'landing on his feet' as all Etonians are said to do no matter what the circumstances. But he cannot have been happy with the fact that there was an unmistakable air of corruption around most of the people he found himself working with. Although he stuck by Cyril Connolly he came to hate Kingsley Martin, and the fellow-travellers who he so brilliantly satirises in Nineteen Eighty-Four as the failed revolutionaries brought back briefly from the dead in the Chestnut Tree Cafe. As an intellectual he would have been almost friendless had it not been for the circle around Warburg, Tosco Fyvel, Inez Holden and others he met less regularly. And he was clear also in writing a regular column from London for New York that he was not simply someone who was about to get on a ship and go there, as so many intellectuals did. Orwell could see the way things were and wanted to stay and fight to protect what he believed in.

...There were strong links with the harsher reality of political fighting in 1940 and 1941. These happenings affected Orwell's life profoundly, for he did not simply reject brotherhood, pacifism and fellow-travelling: he fought a war against it and was never forgiven for doing so. Having looked briefly at the cosy world of the Cafe Royal and the von viveur socialists, the 'Bollinger Bolsheviks' as they were later called. ....Orwell was on the side of the oppressors not the oppressed as far as his erstwhile friends were concerned, just as O'Brien, at first Winston's friend, becomes his persecutor...."

Orwell probably chose the name "Chestnut Tree" Cafe because it was an English rhyme that he would have been familiar with from his childhood. I think I recall having heard it myself and it went like this:

"Under the spreading chestnut tree,
I kissed you and you kissed me..."

But that's all I remember of it.

In a previous email exchange entitled JULIA AND WINSTON I discuss how Winston hears the song "under the spreading chestnut tree" while he's drinking gin in the Chestnut Tree Cafe and it reminds him of Julia and how she betrayed him and how he betrayed her. He changes the true words to:

"I sold you and you sold me".

And finally, another reason Orwell probably chose the name Chestnut Tree Cafe is because he was thinking of the war-time song THE CHESTNUT TREE which had as its first line:

"Neath the spreading chestnut tree"

This was apparently a popular song during the war years, and was continually played on the radio along with other songs like PRAISE THE LORD AND PASS THE AMMUNITION; DON'T SIT UNDER THE APPLE TREE (With Anyone Else But Me); YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE; THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER; DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS; OVER THE RAINBOW; I'LL BE WITH YOU IN APPLE BLOSSOM TIME etc etc.

Orwell's books are full of snippets of English culture and descriptions of real people and places that would have been recognizable at the time to those who knew him and also to Orwell scholars who get to know him posthumously through biographies and studying his time period.

I hope that helps you in your understanding of Orwell's meaning behind the lines: "Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me".

All the best,
Jackie Jura

PS - In subsequent reading I came across a sketch of the CAFE ROYAL in another book by W J West, GEORGE ORWELL: THE LOST WRITINGS:


"....Work on [The Lion and the Unicorn] started in 1940 during the Battle of Britain and kept Orwell occupied for most of the later part of the year, but he kept up connections with the wartime literary scene, especially with the group that gathered around Cyril Connnolly, fellow-Etonian and a life-long acquaintance, and his monthly magazine "Horizon". Orwell was a signatory of the 'War Writers Manifesto' which appeared in "Horizon", but was not totally committed to the group or its attitudes. Unlike the others, for instance, he did not haunt the Cafe Royal in Regent Street. Sir Osbert Lancaster, who portrayed the world of "Horizon" in his cartoon 'Figures in a Landscape', is certain that he never saw Orwell there. Mulk Raj Anand recalls that Orwell regularly referred to the group as 'that Cafe Royal set', and that on one of the few occasions when he was lured there his plain-speaking in a discussion with Stephen Spender and others caused a row....

There were also other sides to life in wartime London. Although he avoided the Cafe Royal whenever possible, Orwell did go to the well-known haunt of veterans of the Spanish Civil War, the Barcelona Restaurant in Beak Street, Soho. It is still there today, just round the corner from the Cafe Royal and still selling the paella and Rioja that Orwell liked. Sir Stephen Spender, who had been in Spain, and also signed the 'War Writers Manifesto', recalls that it was one of the few places where you could go in wartime London to get good Spanish food and wine. Douglas Cleverdon remembers that, because of the strange hours that Indian programmes went out over the air, it was normal for scripts and talks to be discussed in the evening in one of the hostelries such as 'The George' that the BBC effectively made its own. Tosco Fyvel, who recounts seeing Orwell in pubs in Fitzrovia, also remembers taking him to a cafe known as 'The Cafe of Social Significance'. At first Orwell declined to go to a cafe with such a name or reputation, but he was eventually persuaded. When he got there he discovered to his amusement that it was simply a restaurant in Covent Garden patronised by Market porters at all hours of the day and night. The memoirs of literary figures of the time contain many echoes of Orwell and his writings, but very few reveial the use Orwell made of the powers of patronage which he found in his hands at a time when creative work was virtually unobtainable...

ORWELL'S INEZ SPOKE NEWSPEAK (reader asks about Orwell's friend Inez Holden). Nov 19, 2004


Jackie Jura
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