Fans of Nineteen Eighty Four will recall George Orwell’s presentation of his dystopia, Oceania, not as a razor-edged steel-and-concrete police world but as a squalid dump. Critics have observed that Orwell’s future London, with its decaying buildings, unrepaired bomb craters, and blocked drainpipes, was simply a more worn-out version of the London he lived in during the 1940s. Shortages and deterioration proved both ubiquitous and bearable during the Second World War, but Britons expected prosperity to return with peace. When postwar Britain had to tighten its collective belt*, it probably seemed to Orwell and his contemporaries that austerity would last forever. The privation suffered by Winston Smith and his fellow Oceanians bore more than a passing similarity to those witnessed by their real-world predecessors, forty years earlier.
|"One Person's Rations, 1951," via flashbak.com|
I was reminded of this while reading Victor Sebastyen’s recent chronicle 1946: The Making of the Modern World (Pantheon, 2014). Sebastyen writes that British citizens considered their wartime food rations “adequate and fair,” and above all temporary. A year after VE Day, however, rationing remained in effect. Indeed, the Food Ministry announced a large cut in rations in February 1946. Henceforth each adult would only be allowed to buy (for each member of the household) fifteen ounces of meat and cheese, a quart of milk, and a single egg each week. Two imported wartime foods, powdered eggs and rice, disappeared entirely. Worst of all, the Ministry underhandedly tried to cut bread consumption by reducing the “one-pound” and “two-pound” loaves by 2-4 ounces, while maintaining the old prices (pp. 68-69). One can see how persistent and deepening shortages of essential foods influenced 1984. Oceania’s fictional Party members subsisted on dirty gray bread and watery stew, ersatz coffee and acidic fake gin, a meager diet but one which British readers, sick of root vegetables and mock hamburger, would have found familiar. Orwell even threw in what may have been a backhanded reference to the ‘46 bread scandal. His Ministry of Plenty cut chocolate rations to twenty grams and later claimed it had actually raised the ration to twenty grams. Oceanians had to swallow the lie along with their reduced rations. Postwar Britain, at least, remained democratic: consumers saw through the bread ruse fairly easily, and Food Minister Ben Smith lost his job that May.
* Thanks to a severe shortage of foreign currency and the curtailment of American loans.