Room 101

‘You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’

So says O’Brien to the emaciated and almost broken Winston Smith. The worst thing in the world to Winston turns out to be rats. He screams for it to be done to Julia instead, and in betraying her, he realises that he has given himself fully over to the party.

It may not be one of the greatest books, but it’s certainly one of the most iconic, and much of what it has to tell us is relevant today.

The phrase ‘room 101’ has made its way into common parlance. It was after the number of Orwell’s office at the BBC. Maybe this was his own personal hell, but for someone who spent a fair amount of time on the streets and in the muddy trenches during the Spanish civil war, there were a few contenders to choose from.

Do we all have a specific idea of our own personal hell, the recurring dream of which causes us to wake in a cold sweat; fear turns to elation as we realise the unreality of the horror?

I’ve got a few more years left on this planet, I hope, and until today I didn’t have any vision of any personal hell. I hadn’t expected to find one as I drove out to Peterborough, in the hope of buying a suit or two to replace my current crop, which are looking a little frayed around the pockets.

The next hour of my life will haunt me for some time to come, and my fingers are trembling over the computer keys as I attempt to explain the full grimness of the ordeal.

First stop: John Lewis. Hardly a gritty beginning, though this is a Peterborough John Lewis, and as such, though the store is at least sanitary, the people have a strange deathly quality to them. They peered out at me from under cromagnon brows, shuffling in anoraks through the aisles, searching for meaning in the discounted tie selection.

Having thought little of the fabric on offer, I decided to head to ‘Suits You’, home of a few labels, even though the store itself is a tad on the tacky side. They had a 75% off everything sale, which sounds good. One jacket I saw was discouted from £200 to £29, which is suggestive a company on its knees. This particular garment did seem to be big enough to clothe an entire Texan family. The racks sagged with cheap and nasty brands; I’m pretty sure that one of them was called ‘Johnny English’, which may impress the Hong Kong market, but did little to raise a smile. There were no suits on display, merely row after row of jackets up top, and the trousers beneath. None seemed to match. I was of the opinion that a suit was at least a two piece venture. The idea of a one-piece suit had me stumped; surely by then it is just a pair of trousers? I asked the manager (if such a place seemed to need one), and he seemed baffled to be asked if there were any matching jackets and trousers. ‘Just find what you can’ was his answer, which seemed to fit better as the answer of a soldier in Iraq who’s just recevied an order to clear out, and fast. The place was packed, and as I shuffled out, the second to last words I remember were from one man berating a store assistant because he couldn’t find anything for a fiver. The very last words were from a man who looked like he’d been hewn from granite (if you could tattoo granite). He looked me up and down, and asked if we sold shirts. We. Jesus.

Obviously this had exhuasted Peterborough shopping centre’s selection of suit emporia, but I had noticed River Island just around the corner. I hadn’t shopped in RI since the mid 90s, buy hey, it was cooler than Burton back then, and maybe they’d sell me a suit that came in 2 parts. They tried to. Sadly the RI suits were so shiny I could almost see my face in them. They were the sort of nasty shiny grey at which Mickey Pearce from Only Fools and Horses might have turned his nose. They did allow me to spy what was going on behind me however, and it seemed at first glance that an enormous ham in a white T shirt was singing to itself. I turned round to come face to face with the most obese child I have ever seen (most obese you’ve ever seen too). Global food shortage? of course there is; that kid’s eaten it all. Somehow in my confused state I managed to part with £165 in RI. My purchases: a purple v neck, a jacket that looks like I’m a four year old off to a wedding in 1927 dressed as a sailor and a military style jacket that makes me look that even if I was military, I’d be the first to desert, and then be shot.

Keen to finish what I came to do, I spent a hefty £564 back in John Lewis (not sure what on, as I haven’t dared open the bags yet). I think there’s a tie that makes me look like an Open University lecturer from the mid-70s, but that can’t have been more than twenty. Please?

With no word of a lie, I ran back across the bridge from the Queensgate shopping centre to the car park, stopping only to marvel at the unfathomably terrible music emanating from Heart 102.7FM’s broadcast station (it really is the sound of Peterborough). I paid at the car park machine, which someone seemed to have urinated on (this is bizarre – who urinates on these, and cashpoints, and in lifts?), and fled.

Room 101? I found it. 90 miles North of London.