Advance snippet from “Operation Flash, Episode 4: Hungarian Rhapsody”

I’ve been preoccupied with COVID-blogging after work, as well as with an unrelated writing project, but Episode 4 (or Book Two, if you like) is coming. Here is a taste.

Bush House
Kingsway
London, England
June 1943 [timeline Valkyrie 1943]
— Diana Slater —

After Broadcasting House had been damaged during the Blitz in late 1940, most of the BBC had moved into Bush House. On account of the great weather, I make a nice brisk walk out of my visit — up Whitehall, then at Trafalgar Square right on the Strand. The imposing neoclassical complex, originally meant to be a trade center, had been billed as the most expensive building in the world when it was completed in 1935. It took up a commanding position at the intersection of the Strand, Kingsway, and Fleet Street — where most of our press had their offices then.
I passed the building’s ornate portico with its inscription “To the friendship of English speaking peoples” and the two statues symbolizing the British and American peoples holding a torch together. It was good I’d come early, as I spent several minutes getting lost in the sprawling complex before I located the wing that held the Eastern Service.
There I walked up to the receptionist.
***
“Good afternoon, I am looking for Mr. Blair.”
“Who’s asking?”
As I showed her my ID card, she did a double-take.
“Personal Secretary to the Prime Minister? Golly.”
She picked up a phone. “Mr. Blair? Somebody from Number Ten to see you.”
Speech from the other side.
“Sure. Bye.” She turned to me. “You can go in now. Down the hall, second door to the left.”
***
I knocked.
“Come in, please.”
I had no trouble recognizing the tall, wiry man in front of me.
“Diana Slater, personal secretary to the Prime Minister. A great honor, Mr. Orwell.”
He frowned at me. “Why do you think I’m this Orwell chap?”
“Because I saw your picture hanging on the wall at my stepdad’s bookstore. Slater’s, on Charing Cross Road.”
“Blimey! You’re Augie Slater’s stepdaughter? Hail lady well met!”
He shook my hand with obvious enthusiasm. And yes, he clearly liked my looks.
Please sit down. Can I offer you a cup of tea?”
“Thank you, and yes, thank you.”
“There is nothing more important than how to brew a proper cup of tea. I wrote an essay about it.”
He went about and insisted on preparing it himself.
“Are you bringing notes from Winston?”
“Yes, I am.”
“A bloody Tory he is, and a sodden imperialist. But a great man.”
He puttered about making tea. “Did you read the books your father sold?”
I was somewhat taken aback. “Of course. Including yours. I particularly liked A Homage To Catalonia.”
(Slater’s had sold maybe half a dozen copies, all told. Augie used to shake his head at that. “The Tories won’t buy Orwell because he’s a Socialist. The Reds won’t buy them because he writes the truth as he sees it — ‘not harming the cause’ be damned.” )
***

“Hmm. What else have you read about the Spanish Civil War,” asked Blair/Orwell.
For Whom The Bell Tolls, of course.”
“Hemingway’s a great writer. He strips the language to its bare essence. Your boss— he can write flowery High Victorian prose, and when it suits him he can write like Hemingway.”
“He reminds me of a church organist, pulling out and pushing in stops as he needs them.”
“Hm… very perceptive of you. Do you go to church much?”
“Not really. My mother is Catholic, my stepfather Methodist. So we generally attend neither.”
“Good choice. One cannot be a Catholic and truly grown up,” he said firmly.
I hid my shock at this statement as best as I could.
“How long have you been working for Winston?”
“Since mid-1940. I was working for Air Raid Defense, then got offered the job. I was planning to read History at Somerville, but figured I could always do that later—I’d only get one chance to watch history.”
“Very wise of you. About A Homage To Catalonia—“ we embarked on a discussion of the book. Perhaps because I was upset at his bigoted quip about Catholics, I spoke frankly as a reader rather than an adoring fan—which he seemed to appreciate very much.
The phone rang. He picked it up. “Yes. Right, quite. Thank you for the reminder.” As he hung up, he turned to me.
“You will have to excuse me, Di—Mrs. Slater, but I have to go on the air in half an hour and want to revise my notes from what you brought.”
“That’s alright, Mr. Orw—Blair.”
“Winston needs those papers back?”
“If at all possible, yes.”
“Then I will give you something to read while you wait. This is something I’ve been working on lately. I would like to hear your frank opinion —“
“I’m not a writer or a literary critic.”
“Just so. You are like the people who would be shopping for a book. It may be too hard to read, especially if you like pleasant falsehoods.”
“I’d be honored, Mr. Orwell.”
“Well, here goes, then.” He handed me a bundle of typescript, with some revision markings. “It’s just a draft, mind you.”
“Thank you very much.” I curtsied and made for the door.
“You can sit outside in the hall, then come inside here when I have to go on the air.”
***

The title page said:
THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him….

I started reading, and soon found myself swept away to a dreary version of an England in the near future. Airstrip One, as it was now called, was ruled by a dictator named Big Brother. His “Thought Police” spied on every house by some sort of televisor technology — I’d heard the BBC was actually experimenting with such broadcasts, but this version allowed them to see inside everywhere as well.
The protagonist, one Winston Smith, worked at a so-called “Ministry of Truth”, that actually was rewriting history to fit the current needs and doctrine of “Ingsoc”, the illegitimate child of Bolshevism and National Socialism that seemed to be the party ideology. One phrase really gave me an uppercut, so to speak. “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
The manuscript broke off around the point where a young woman indicates to Winston she loves him. The Party frowned on romantic love — believing only in reproduction for the sake of the Party.
***
I continued, then found a second fragment.
THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF OLIGARCHICAL COLLECTIVISM
By Emmanuel Goldstein

This was clearly a book within a book, that explained how Ingsoc came about, and how the world — aside from a contested zone — ended up being divided between three competing yet very similar systems: Ingsoc in “Oceania”, which included Western Europe, England, and North America; “Neo-Bolshevism” in “Eurasia”; and “Death Worship” in “Eastasia”. How every society ever known to mankind knew three broad social strata, “high”, “middle”, and “low” — in Oceania, the “low” were called proles, the “middle” the Outer Party, and the “high” the Inner Party. How the system was set up by the Inner Party for no apparent reason, other than securing its own position at the top.

A third fragment. Here Winston Smith had been taken prisoner, and was being interrogated by an Inner Party member named O’Brien, his quondam supervisor and friend.

And this was the truly despair-inducing part of the book. I imagined I was Winston Smith, clinging for dear life onto my sanity, onto the notion that there is an objective truth outside the “world as will and representation” of the party, and being subjected to vile tortures until I’d agree that two plus two could make five if the party required it.
Eventually O’Brien reveals to him the true purpose of Ingsoc. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. […] We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’[…] Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? […]
If you want a picture of the future, imaging a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
I was shaking all over by the time I reached that sentence.
***
The door opened. Blair/Orwell stepped in. “Right, I am done for the day. Are you OK, Miss Slater?”
“Y-Yes.”
“I see you are shivering.”
“Your book.” “Tell me, honestly.”
I brought myself back to the past. “I have never read anything like it, and I’ve read a lot. So dark, so frightening—and so utterly vivid.”
He nodded. “Thank you. I hit a snag and wondered whether it was worth continuing.”
“You must finish this! It was so real I could taste it—a metallic taste, if you pardon the metaphor.”
“I see what is being done in the name of propaganda every day. And we are still on the side of light. I’ve seen it done on the other side. The Communists in Spain more interested in torturing and killing their own ‘deviationists’ than in fighting the Fascists. And of course what the Fascists and Nazis are doing now.”
“They killed my father, you know.”
“Was he an opponent of the regime?”
“Worse. Mistaken identity. He had nearly the same name as the man they really wanted dead. It was in 1934.”
“And their Ministry of Truth probably painted it as if he was a regrettable broken egg in making the omelette of Hitlerism.” “Something like that, yes.”
He nodded in “Miss Slater, is there anything I can do for you?”
“Finish this book, Mr. Orwell, and publish it. The world must hear this story. Of a world that could be ours unless we stop it.”
He nodded. “Then I shall finish it. You have my word.”
He took a deep breath, then looked me in the eye and spoke. “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”
What does one say in response to such words?
“What I just read was a windowpane. I saw a near future, clearer than I see the day today.”
“Thank you for the compliment.”
“The only part I don’t care for is the title.”
“The Last Man In Europe.”
“Right. It doesn’t evoke what the book is about. It is set in a near future, but the reader isn’t expecting that. How about a title that signals this?”
He mused for a moment, sunk in deep thought, then snapped out of it. “Right. How about Nineteen Eighty-Four?”
“Perfect! Marvelous!”
“Then that’s what I’ll go with when I finally am finish—.” He burst out in a fit of coughing.
“Are you alright?” “
Yes, don’t mind me. Happens all the time.” His breath steadied now.
I rose. “Perhaps I should take my leave now.”
“Please tell Winston something.”
“Certainly.”
“That as much as I dislike capitalists and Prussian Junkers, even they would be an improvement over the alternatives. I just hope that’s all they are, and not a different gang of Nazis.”
“I can tell you I have met Chancellor Goerdeler. He seems like the very opposite of your — O’Brien in the book.”
He nodded. “Very well. Let us hope you are right.”

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