Some time between October 1969 and June 1970 my mother threw away my copy of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, except that it didn’t happen to be my copy it happened to be my boyfriend’s and as a result I felt obliged to buy him a new copy out of my minuscule college grant.
He was a maths student, half English, half Austrian and several inches shorter. This meant I had to drop into the gutter if he decided to put his arm round my shoulders. He had thick, wavy, chestnut hair and grey, grey eyes flecked with green…and wore the same threadbare cardigan every day.
I used to darn the elbows of that cardigan. I was probably the only student at college whose Granny had taught her how to darn, just as he was probably the only one still wearing his school uniform trousers. Everyone else was a hippie, but we couldn’t afford those yellow bell-bottoms and tie-dye tops. In the refectory at lunch time we shared one plate of chips and two black coffees between us. It was romantic, but we were hungry. Neither of us were getting the ‘parental contribution’ element to our grant – he, I’m not sure why – I because my parents did not approve of my being there. I’d left school early, started work in a library and hated it. So I sent for a prospectus, filled in the college application form and rang the Local Authority to ask whether I could have a grant; I seem to have been quite resourceful in those days – I wonder where that went? I didn’t actually mention any of this to my parents until the day before I was due to start college. I thought they’d be all right with it. That was Enormous Row number one.
In the course of Enormous Row number two, the cat-fight with my mother that followed the binning of boyfriend’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it emerged that she had accidentally happened upon the book in my bedroom and it had accidentally happened to fall open at the Room 101 scene where Winston Smith is tortured by the thing that terrifies him the most – rats. Mum was so appalled by the rat scene that she hurried the book to the dustbin, presumably between thumb and forefinger, and dropped it in. She may have assumed it was some sort of pulp fiction horror thing. It was dustbin day and by the time I got home the book was already gone. If it had still been there I’m sure I would have flounced outside and executed a dramatic head-first dive into the bin to retrieve it, making it quite clear that if I got cholera, tetanus or whatever else a seventeen year old might catch from household waste it would be her fault.
The silly thing is that I hadn’t even got to the page with the rats and had no idea what could be so dreadful about it. Of course next day I went straight to the college library and borrowed one of the several copies on their shelves. I didn’t like the rat scene either – in fact, although I admired Orwell’s imagination and skillful prose I didn’t much care for the book – but I ploughed through it on principle, storing it in my college locker, well away from my mother.
As an aside – demonstrating the grave psychological damage such maternal censorship can inflict upon a sensitive teen – when recently I reorganised my books into approximate alphabetical order I discovered not one but two copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four, plus two copies of Animal Farm; yet I don’t recall reading Nineteen Eighty-Four since I was seventeen and I’m sure I never did read Animal Farm. Out of 2,000 or so paperback books these were the only two duplicates. I do believe that single thoughtless action of my mother’s warped me into a compulsive purchaser and hoarder of depressing, unreadable George Orwell novels. And I can’t even force myself to throw away the duplicate copies. Here they both sit on the desk beside me. Sneering.
But, to be fair, books can sometimes come to be more than collections of words on paper. Occasionally the physical object can take on a talismanic aspect and seem to be possessed of powerful magic. So rather than finishing with my mother as the villain of the piece I must make a confession. Some years after Nineteen Eighty-Fourgate I too began to feel a kind of horror for a particular book, and I too threw a book away.
The book in question was a collection of short stories by Ian McEwan – First Love, Last Rites and – this in a way is a huge compliment to Ian McEwan – he really creeped me out, as no doubt was his intention. I put the book down and couldn’t bring myself to pick it up again. There was something so distasteful and chilling about those stories. They are certainly pretty strong stuff as you can see from from this Wikipedia link, if you haven’t already read them:
I put First Love, Last Rites back in the bookcase but it just kept staring at me! Every time I looked in that direction there is was – staring. Just the sight of it made me uneasy. In the end I ‘did a Mum’ and threw it out, no doubt between thumb and forefinger.