George Orwell was one of my first literary heroes. I got hooked by Nineteen Eighty-four, and went on to read everything he wrote. I don’t recommend this. His best work stands up: brave, clear sighted, a voice raised against tyranny. But don’t seek out the B-sides and rarities.
Having once been an uber-fan, though, I know his lesser works, and was reminded of one just now.
In 1941, as the world careened into the darkest years in human history, His Master’s Voice released a recording of the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing Carl Maria von Weber’s delightful Invitation to The Dance (the record label calls it “Invitation to The Waltz” – it’s the same thing). The disc is a bit scratchy. That happens when a record gets played on a portable gramophone in an air raid shelter. But through the crackle we hear what must, in 1941, have seemed like paradise lost: the glittering ballrooms of privileged Europe, before the world knew of the machine gun.
Only months earlier, George Orwell wrote a poem about the factory where this disc was made. It channels the same tension. On a Ruined Farm Near the ‘His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ contrasts the rural idyll of pre-industrial England – which the writer yearns for but knows is lost to him – with the intimidating power of modern industry.
The factory is:
where steel and concrete soar
In dizzy, geometric towers —
There, where the tapering cranes sweep round,
And great wheels turn, and trains roar by
Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel
There was a time when making 78 rpm records out of cardboard and shellac was new, the cutting edge – terrifying even.
These same records now seem quaint, archaic, objects of nostalgia.
But imagine a young person in China, uneasy about the country’s breakneck modernisation and pursuit of wealth, looking at a Foxconn factory. Imagine the same young person writing a poem, while listening to lovely classical Chinese music on an iPhone. A lifetime ago, that was the experience of listening to this record, .
- Artist: BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini
- A side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Part 1 (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
- B side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Conclusion (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
- Format: 12”, 78 rpm, shellac
- Label: His Master’s Voice
- Made in: England
- Catalogue: DB 3542
- Year: 1941
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