The Man who Wasn’t There

“Winston Smith works as a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite historical documents so they match the constantly changing current party line. This involves revising newspaper articles and doctoring photographs – mostly to remove ‘unpersons’, people who have fallen foul of the party.” (Taken from the Wikipedia entry for Winston Smith.)

I was reminded of Orwell’s amazing prophecy when I called into the library at Leeds to browse through some of the books and magazines in the Art department. The corridor leading to the art section was decorated with some community project pieces, including an embroidered panel called ‘Local Heroes’. This showed an assortment of the great and good from Leeds and the surrounding area, including Diana Rigg, Joseph Priestley, Jeremy Paxman, Alan Bennett and Peter O’Toole. However, the figure marked ‘No 67’ had been unpicked from the panel, although the original photograph of the artwork clearly showed him to be a blond-haired figure wearing a tracksuit. Sir Jimmy Savile had been issued with knighthoods from the British Establishment and the Church of Rome, and was admired and respected for the vast amounts of money raised for good causes, notable the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. After his death, stories began to circulate about his habit of sexually abusing young girls in hospital and backstage at the Top of the Pops studios. No evidence was ever brought forward to support these allegations; but in just a few weeks his name had been ruined, and the splendid black marble headstone above his grave had been crushed and buried.

And, having deleted his figure from the embroidered picture of Local Heroes, what further steps could people take to erase the memory of Savile? Would it be considered appropriate to amend the various online biographies so that his connections with Leeds became more tenuous and accidental? After all, when anybody want to find an item of information, they usually turn straight away to Wikipedia. Suppose the Wikipedia entry for JS was altered to give his place of birth as being Bristol, or Tamworth, or anywhere outside Yorkshire?

A few years ago there was an exchange between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron, in which Brown alluded to the painter Titian, who declared at the age of ninety that he was finally beginning to understand the art of painting. In an attempt to ridicule his opponent, Cameron shot back that the painter had actually died at the age of eighty-six. This was a false announcement; and yet, in order to spare their leader any blushes, the conservative party set about altering the Wikipedia entry for Titian so that his age was indeed eighty-six at the time of his death. When this bizarre action was uncovered, the Tory party cheerfully said that one of their officers had simply been trying to amend an incorrect entry.
Like most people, Titan was born an unknown; but at the end of his life, he was a celebrity, and the date of his death was accurately recorded. Unless, of course, you think that ‘correct’ means ‘in accordance with the aims and objectives of the Conservative party’.

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