The Year of the Rat


“Even when you are not paralyzed by fright or screaming with pain, life is a moment-to-moment struggle against hunger or cold or sleeplessness, against a sour stomach or an aching tooth.”

– George Orwell

I rode a crowded bus the other day (there is no other type of bus in Beijing, that is literally the only appropriate adjective in this case) and there was a video monitor displaying footage of car crashes here in the capital, appealing for witnesses.

I took two things away from the blurry, cctv footage of people being knocked off motorcycles and being dragged from wreckage, one being that most drivers here really are dopey as fuck. The second was this: I couldn’t see a bloody thing. No faces, no distinguishing features, no articles of clothing. Nothing that would have reminded me,  had I previously seen the original flesh and blood incident, that I was actually there that day.

It made me think: if all of these cameras are here to keep people safe, why are the police appealing for witnesses and showing us blurry footage of people we’d never recognize in real life even if they lived next door (unless their face actually looked like pixels. That would, admittedly, be suspicious as all hell).

Urban explorer Bradley Garrett points out in his indispensable TED talk The Value of Trespass, “If you want to control people’s behaviour, the most effective way to do that is to make them think they are being watched all the time. People will monitor their own behavior if they think they’re being watched. This has always been the dark secret of installing CCTV cameras in cities. The cameras don’t even need to work.”

This week, I jumped on the American bandwagon and read George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time. I had often meant to. It’s exactly the sort of thing that I should have read as a student when I was into Kafka stories and Berkoff plays. I tried it once but, like Naked Lunch, gave up a few chapters in. On that occasion, I had written it off because it was making me feel depressed, but I did pretty much live in Victory Mansions at the time. This time I finally won the victory over myself and made it all the way through.

Another reason it has taken me so long to read 1984 is that it casts a very big shadow. It’s one of those stories that has bled so violently into western pop culture that I always felt I knew it before ever cracking the spine on my ¥20 paperback version. Other novels, TV shows, movies and adverts have paid lip service to its ideas, some have actually gone pretty much as far as full-on fellatio.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a firm favourite of mine, was originally to be titled 1984 and 1/2 (an allusion not only to Orwell but also to Federico Fellini’s brilliant movie 8 1/2). Even in the 21st Century, Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem basically just promoted Big Brother to Management, giving him a social media account and a VR helmet. Management watches one rogue employee in a ruined chapel through ‘ManCams’, including one not so subtly mounted on a decapitated crucifix.*

I was born in 1984. I also, like everyone from England, pretty much lived in 1984! When I returned to England from Beijing (a place that most British people who’ve never been here refer to as ‘oppressive’) the first time, I was absolutely horrified to pass through a huge Orwellian machine that scanned my passport and face before I was set loose in London, home of half a million CCTV cameras. In the Jing they just stare at me with a wooden face and then give me a little red stamp.


1984 is, obviously,  a warning. It’s what can happen if people are apathetic. I remember when New Labour planned to bring ID cards to the UK, something they had previously dismissed out of hand as ‘fascist’ when first proposed by the Tories. I was amazed that a ‘first world’ government would do something so invasive to its citizens, but I was even more amazed to discover that I was one of only a handful of people who was actually angered by the idea. I remember one conversation with a family member who said they didn’t remotely object to ID cards because they had ‘nothing to hide’ (which, as Edward Snowden tells us, is “like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say”).

I lost a lot of faith in the soon-to-be Airstrip One that day, gesticulating wildly and shouting “I’ve got nothing to hide either, that’s why I don’t need a fucking ID card!”**

I am not, despite what some people think, a fan of ‘political correctness’. I object to most derogatory phrases and to military video games and to ultra violent horror movies, but I object far more to anyone thinking they have the right to tell me what words I can use, what games I can play and what movies I can watch. I have every right to refer to someone who insists on running a low watt bulb as a ‘twat spastic’, just as you have every right to be offended by that.

And I do not, by any means, think that the word ‘blackboard’ is racist, or that ‘brainstorm’ is derogatory towards retards.

There’s a nineties movie that only a handful of people have ever seen called EdTv, an MTV generation glimpse into the very near future of our own oppressive, mediocrity-obsessed present, where the value of anyone’s story is its potential to be branded, franchised and sold to the baying masses. With superb timing, the film came out the same year as the original series of ‘reality’ surveillance show Big Brother.

EdTv is essentially a less clever, less subtle version of The Truman Show. The plot is this (yes, genius, there are spoilers coming): An ailing network hits on the idea of taking reality TV to its logical extreme, following around the ultimate Gen X archetype, a schlubby video store clerk, and broadcasting his boring-ass, beer-swilling, blue collar existence 24 hours a day. For the first 48 hours, everyone hates the show but even so nobody can stop watching. By day 3 everyone’s heart has melted and the programme becomes a massive hit, reversing the network’s fortunes and making a big star of its working class hero. But in a desperate bid to secure ratings, the network executives start interfering with Ed’s life, forcing him to split up with his girlfriend and engineering ‘chance’ encounters with English supermodels as well as digging up embarrassing moments from his family’s past. Ed realizes that fame and fortune has come at a terrible price, and threatens to quit the show. But he has signed a contract, and his friends and family have all signed release forms, allowing the network to follow Ed and everyone he cares about with a video camera 24/7. It’s only when he turns the tables on the oppressive executives by digging up anecdotes about their own past and broadcasting their secrets on live TV that the plug is finally pulled.

That’s one thing that’s wrong with the Big Brothers of the world: they aren’t interested in transparency, they’re interested in control. They want to know everything about you, but they don’t want you to know anything about them.

I’ll tell you some things that offend me. I do not expect you to take note.

I’m offended by people who think that because they have a strong opinion, that it deserves to be respected or at least listened to by everyone (I can understand the Buddhist principle that ‘the opposite of what you know is also true’ but I don’t, for example, give a shit what either Gallagher brother thinks about other people’s music, or believe that Nick Griffin was ever a serious politician).

I’m deeply offended by the word ‘landlord’.

I find using internet comments to ‘stir debate’ an offense that should be punishable by death.

I’m offended by the term ‘twat spastic’.

And I find it offensive that so many people are totally blasé at the thought of their every move being scrutinized by someone.***  I even find the term ‘under surveillance’ pretty offensive, not least because I for one am so fucking over it!

It was said by whoever I’m about to paraphrase that those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. It would be sad if Orwell just got the date wrong. I  hope that enough people are paying attention, and that those who are willing to learn won’t end up standing idly by and watching some absolute Big Wanker fuck everything up anyway.

*The Zero Theorem brilliantly pokes fun at the dotcom ‘bubblegum dystopia’ worlds of most modern tech companies: the kind of migraine-inducing offices that look more like a playground, as if riding down a big yellow slide or playing in a psychedelic ball pit will increase an employee’s productivity in some way. One journalist memorably pointed out after a trip to Pixar studios that it feels like an animator couldn’t even nip to the toilets for a quick wank without it being encouraged as part of their creative process.

**My faith never really returned, especially after a conversation with someone else who smacked my gob with “yeah, but some people are just smarter than us, aren’t they? They’re the ones that should be making the decisions, not us”.

***(and, therefore, by anyone. There’s no surveillance equipment that can be used only by ‘the good guys’).