“Boiled cabbage and old rag mats”

Orwell’s 1984 begins comically:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

“Oh the horror of the continental (Papist) 24-hour clock! Anything but that!” sneered John Dolan.

An old belfry clock in Split, Croatia. Photo by Gaius Cornelius. Copied from Wikimedia.

Good enough, but there’s also the obvious similarity with The Devil in the Belfry by Edgar Allan Poe:

“Thirteen!” said he [the clock tower bell].

“Der Teufel!” gasped the little old gentlemen, turning pale, dropping their pipes, and putting down all their right legs from over their left knees.

“Der Teufel!” groaned they, “Dirteen! Dirteen!!- Mein Gott, it is Dirteen o’clock!!”

Why attempt to describe the terrible scene which ensued? All Vondervotteimittiss flew at once into a lamentable state of uproar.

And that was the end of Good Old England the Dutch borough of Vondervotteimittiss (“Wonder What Time It Is”), once the “the finest place in the world.” (I’ve discovered, to my great amusement, that the Belgian artist James Ensor illustrated Poe’s tale.) The denizens of Vondervotteimitiss were also cabbage aficionados, even cabbage worshipers, which makes for a second, completely whimsical connection between The Devil in the Belfry and 1984.

For the second paragraph of 1984 begins with a stroke of genius. How in the world did Orwell get it right, this smell? Only by prophetic olfaction:

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.

For this is a typical late-Soviet ambience, one from the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Lots of places smelled like that in the USSR in 1984. The typical white-collar workplace – a research center, a design bureau, an accounting office, a “planning department,” a college – would smell of bad food that fit under the general rubric of overcooked cabbage. And old rag mats just seemed to be everywhere in Soviet public buildings.

I’m convinced both odors had traveled from St. Cyprian’s, 1914, to London, 1984

This is what I wrote in November 2017, having read this American Interest piece by Ben Judah. I also left a comment on the site but I can’t see it anymore, so here’s an extract from it from my Evernote scratchbook:

Yes, Winston’s torturer is Irish and the 24-hour clocks are continental, but the cruelty and filth of Ingsoc originated at an English boarding school. (Compare 1984 with Such, Such Were the Joys.)

Some people would say that 1984 is, in essence, Such, Such Were the Joys. Not I. However, St. Cyprian’s, Orwell’s prep school, instilled in him certain disturbing truths about humanity, and – probably – planted the cabbages-and-rags miasma in his memory.

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