20 October 2007

Farewell, Alan Coren

The death of one of my favourite writers was announced yesterday, and I've been thinking about what to say about him. I've decided to quote from one of his pieces that I absolutely love reading, "Owing to Circumstances Beyond Our Control 1984 Has Been Unavoidably Detained...", in which he tries "to prove that totalitarianism in Britain could never work. How could it, when nothing else does?"

In it, he offers his take on the Orwellian nightware vision of Oceania and Airstrip One, and foresees a society made dysfuntional not through terror and dictatorship but through incompetence and, well, actually, most of the things that make modern life so frustrating. I'm going to take the last part, when Coren's Winston Smith finds himself in Room 101:

"Ah, Smith, Winston," cried the white-coated man at the door of Room 101. "Won't you come in? Rats, I believe, are what you, ha-ha-ha, fear most of all. Bif brown rats. Big brown pink-eyed rats..."

"NO," screamed Smith, "NOT RATS, ANYTHING BUT RATS, NO, NO, NO."

"...rats with long slithery tails, Smith, fat, hungry rats, rats with sharp little..."

"Oh, do shut up, Esmond," interrupted his assistant wearily. "You know we haven't got any rats. We haven't seen a rat since last December's delivery."

"No rats?" gasped Smith.

Esmond sighed, and shook his head. Then he suddenly brightened.

"We've got mice though," he cried. "Big, fat, hungry, pink-eyed..."

"I don't mind mice," said Smith.

They looked at him.

"You're not making our job any easier, you know," muttered Esmond.

"Try him on toads," said Esmond's assistant. "Can't move in the stockroom for toads."

"That's it!" exclaimed Esmond. "Toads, big, fat, slimy..."

"I quite like toads," said Smith.

There was a long pause.


"Lovely little things," said Smith. "If it's any help, I can't stand moths."

"Moths," cried Esmond. "Where do you think you are, bloody Harrod's? We can't get moths for love nor money."

"Comes in here, big as you please, asking for moths," said Esmond's assistant.

Smith thought for a while.

"I'm not all that keen on stoats," he said at last.

"At last," said Esmond. "I thought we'd be here all night. Give him a stoat, Dennis."

So they put Winston Smith in Room 101 with a stoat. It was an old stoat, and it just sat on the floor, wheezing, and as far as Smith was concerned, things could have been, all things considered, a lot worse.

You'll find the rest of the piece, and a whole bunch of others, in the Alan Coren Omnibus, published in 1996 by Robson Books. If you can find a copy, buy it, please. You won't regret it.

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