There was a building in London which never was.
Yet it is seared on the memories of all who read about it.
It is prophetic, really, considering the Gherkin and the Shard: it is a huge white concrete pyramid. It rises 300 metres into the air; the Shard, currently awaiting its coming out party, is 308 metres tall.
The building that never was is a warren of 3,00o rooms, and that’s just above the ground. And who knows what goes on underneath? Incineration and document carnage of an undetermined scale.
It was constructed in the imagination of George Orwell, and in his novel, 1984, he dubbed it The Ministry of Truth; or Minitrue, in Newspeak.
It is the Ministry at which the book’s hero, Winston Smith, works. And its job is to reconstruct history to suit the purposes of the state, every day, day in, day out.
Apocalyptic, this vision of a ministry set in a city which bears all the marks of London. Yet London had its ministries, its central offices, which were passionately devoted to controlling information, and indeed, propaganda.
The Ministry of Information was brought into being during each of the two world wars. The day after war was declared in 1939 , the MOI’s existence was made public; soon after, the iconic poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ emerged from the towering grey-white walls of Senate House, part of the University of London.
It would be a precursor of many communications: posters, public information films, all with a message which urged the people of Britain to endure poverty, hardship and secrecy because of a greater need.
After the war the functions of the Ministry passed to the Central Office of Information.
It seems, from a snatch of a poet’s recollection, that the MOI, and later the COI, cornered the market in poets.
The poet recollecting was Natal-born Roy Campbell, a soul who failed his Oxford entrance exams, dabbled in the Bloomsbury set and ate a plate of daffodils with Dylan Thomas.
This last friendship was an enduring one, though it must be owned it was pickled.
The memory in question was included in a book which Campbell wrote about his friend: Dylan Thomas, The Legend and the Poet, (Mercury Books, 1963).
The pair were broke: Thomas had failed his medical for the army, and Campbell was earning just £3 a week as a chief air raid warden.On their uppers, a little desperate, they decided to go on a ‘borrowing raid’.
And where better to go than the Ministry. “Dylan proposed,” writes Campbell, “….to make a vast tour of all the newly-rich poets in their new offices in the Central Office of Information and the Ministry of Information.”
The poets, Campbell alleges sardonically, had plenty to spare: “As they rose from their seats, you could hear the new bank notes crinkling and crackling against their ribs as they moved!” he recalls.
But no-one would give them any money. They stood outside the Ministry, scratching their heads.
And then Campbell had a thought. “What about His Grace?” he asked.
They referred to TS Eliot, who lived in the area.
Dylan was taken aback. “You mean the Archbishop?” he gasped. “”I wouldn’t dare!”
But Campbell urged him on. “Come one: you’ll see’” he said. “He’s not only a saint in his poems; he’s a bloody saint in his life too.”
And he was. The Men from the Ministry might be an inscrutable lot, but the poet round the corner gave the two enough to last until they got their radio jobs: and were able, at last, to pay him back.
So much for those men from the Ministry.