(stories told by Laird of Barnhill*)

To Orwell Today:

What is the original meaning of Room 101?

-David Barnett

Greetings David,

Jeffrey Meyers in ORWELL, WINTRY CONSCIENCE OF A GENERATION says that while working for the BBC in 1941 through 1943 Orwell had to attend extremely boring committee meetings. These meetings took place at 55 Portland Place in Room 101.

One can thereby conclude that Orwell chose Room 101 as Winston's torture chamber as a way of getting back at the BBC department heads for running those boring meetings! That's the funny part.

And where, a person wonders, did Orwell get the ideas for the torture that Winston experiences in Room 101? That's the double-plus-unfunny part.

The biographer W. J. West thinks Orwell's conversations with his landlord on Jura was partially the influence for Room 101.

Here's how West explains it in THE LARGER EVILS: NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, THE TRUTH BEHIND THE SATIRE, pages 155 - 158:

"Robin Fletcher had been a school master at Eton before the war and had only just come to Jura after being in a Japanese concentration camp and working on the Burma Road. The Jura estate was actually his wife's which she had inherited when her last brother had been killed. After time recuperating he began creating a small commmunity on the estate that was not unlike the kind of community Orwell himself had originally envisaged...

"Orwell began to have lengthy talks with Robin Fletcher, all the more because they shared as well a common experience of the Far East, Orwell in Burma as an administrator and Fletcher as a prisoner of war, virtually a slave, working on the Burma Road. The connection is of direct importance for Nineteen Eighty-Four and helps explain the excessive violence of the scenes in 'Room 101'.

"The ravages that work on the Burma Road wrought on those put to work on it are now almost accepted in an age of endless starvation brought into our living rooms by television nightly. At the end of the war the newsreels showing Englishmen and people from the colonies as they were released from the Japanese camps created a profound sense of horror. In those days there were no 'after care' facilities and when the men came home they were simply taken to their families, as Robin Fletcher was. Orwell's descriptions of Winston being reduced to a near-skeletal form were a reality for the Fletchers and many families like them, not just footage on newsreels seen in crowded cinemas...

"A detail in Nineteen Eighty-Four which seems to have come from the Fletcher source is Victory Gin, the drink all party members consume. Orwell describes Winston drinking it, bracing himself for the impact as he drank it at one gulp. Orwell describes its odour: 'It gave off a sickly, oily smell as of Chinese rice-spirit.' This drink would have been well known to Orwell and to Fletcher -- it was the cheaply produced native drink which performed the same function as cheap gin anywhere. No doubt the guards on the Burma Road drank it, and perhaps their captives if they were lucky.

"Another detail was more serious, the final torture in Room 101. Winston Smith is told that he will have a cage fitted over his head which has in it two starving rats. When a door inside the cage is opened they will fly straight at his face and eat into it. The cage is brought close enough for him to smell the animals, when O'Brien remarks: 'It was a common punishment in Imperial China'. Nineteen Eighty-Four features prisoners from Eastasia, and there is a passage in the original draft manuscript referring to crimes committed by the Eastasians. China may have appeared in these two trivial details through Orwell's memory of them from his days in Burma, and, perhaps, from talking with Robin Fletcher about what life was like out there with the Japanese effectively taking over from China..." [end quoting from The Larger Evils by West]

All the best,
Jackie Jura

PS - Rent the movie THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Listen to the soundtrack of the Colonel Bogey March

PPS - Also see THE BURMA FRONT (... FDR supported a Burma theater with limited supplies, and by Sept. 1943 Stilwell was able to start his GALAHAD offensive with the help of the Kachin guerillas trained by DETACHMENT 101 of the OSS, aimed at taking the airfield at Myitkyina, the largest city in Kachin province. The British finally agreed to help and created the South East Asia Command Nov. 15, 1943, under Lord Mountbatten to protect India ("Save England's Asian Colonies") and to begin an offensive in Burma. Gen. Lewis Pick led construction battalions and the African American 858th Aviation Engineers to build the Ledo Road in Nov. and Dec. 1943 into Burma for Stilwell's X-Force that led the GALAHAD offensive...)

China building oil pipelines in Burma. Telegraph, Jan 16, 2008
...A 900-mile pipeline is to be built - possibly this year - to take gas from the coast of Burma to China after Beijing won contracts to explore three large offshore areas for gas...The waters covering this treasure have been closed to local fishermen and it is impossible to witness the work going on there....At the centre of this bonanza is the sleepy island of Rambree. Rambree was once the scene of bitter fighting between the British and Japanese in the Second World War...



*VISITING ORWELL'S BARNHILL (...Jamie has a bit of an Orwell look about him in his features and his height. He's the son of Robin Fletcher who was the laird of the Ardlussa estate when Orwell lived here. I'd written a story about Robin Fletcher on the website and I told him about it. He agreed that it is possible that Orwell could have put aspects of what he learned from his father into 1984. I also told him that I'd read his mother's REMINISCES OF GEORGE ORWELL on the ferry and found it very interesting. It rounded out the rough edges of my understanding of Orwell's life at Barnhill. Jamie was alive when Orwell used to visit them at Ardlussa but he was too young to remember him....

Go to 44.Room 101 and ORWELL'S BURMESE DAYS

Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~