Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Brazilian Stoats

A few times a year for as long as I care to remember, I think about stoats. If you're American you may not know what a stoat is...maybe a kind of cigar, like a stogie or a cheroot? Good guess, but no: a stoat is a short-tailed weasel. In winter, the stoat's fur becomes white, and is called ermine. It's still associated with European royalty.

That's a good-looking Queen. By the way, the black bits are the tails- they don't change color.

So yesterday during a discussion of playing trivia in pubs, an English friend said he clinched a recent round "through identifying a weasel, stoat, otter and ferret." That being the first time I've ever heard stoats mentioned in conversation, I said I think about them regularly. To which he replied "...what?" I explained that decades ago I read a story based on Orwell's 1984. Couldn't remember its name, but in the story the political apparatus was so dilapidated that there were no rats available for Room 101. The interrogators asked Winston if he might be afraid of stoats, they had one of those. He said he didn't much like them, so they brought in the stoat. But it was an old stoat and not very scary.

A few minutes' online searching turned it up. Was it 1985 by Gyorgy Dalos? No! Was it 1985 by Anthony Burgess? No! It was "Owing to Circumstances Beyond Our Control 1984 Has Been Unavoidably Detained" by Alan Coren. Here's the critical bit:


 "Ah, Smith, Winston," cried the white-coated man at the door of Room 101. "Won't you come in? Rats, I believe, are what you, ha-ha-ha, fear most of all. Big brown rats. Big brown pink-eyed rats..."

"NO," screamed Smith, "NOT RATS, ANYTHING BUT RATS, NO, NO, NO."

"...rats with long slithery tails, Smith, fat, hungry rats, rats with sharp little..."

"Oh, do shut up, Esmond," interrupted his assistant wearily. "You know we haven't got any rats. We haven't seen a rat since last December's delivery."

"No rats?" gasped Smith.

Esmond sighed, and shook his head. Then he suddenly brightened.

"We've got mice though," he cried. "Big, fat, hungry, pink-eyed..."

"I don't mind mice," said Smith.

They looked at him.

"You're not making our job any easier, you know," muttered Esmond.

"Try him on toads," said Esmond's assistant. "Can't move in the stockroom for toads."

"That's it!" exclaimed Esmond. "Toads, big, fat, slimy..."

"I quite like toads," said Smith.

There was a long pause.


"Lovely little things," said Smith. "If it's any help, I can't stand moths."

"Moths," cried Esmond. "Where do you think you are, bloody Harrod's? We can't get moths for love nor money."

"Comes in here, big as you please, asking for moths," said Esmond's assistant.

Smith thought for a while.

"I'm not all that keen on stoats," he said at last.

"At last," said Esmond. "I thought we'd be here all night. Give him a stoat, Dennis."

So they put Winston Smith in Room 101 with a stoat. It was an old stoat, and it just sat on the floor, wheezing, and as far as Smith was concerned, things could have been, all things considered, a lot worse.

But that's not why I think of stoats. I think of stoats because I think of Brazil:

No, not Brazil; Brazil:

You know, the movie:

Brazil (1985) is a satirical take on George Orwell's 1984. Being the brainchild of Terry Gilliam, who did all the whimsical graphics on Monty Python's Flying Circus, it's a visual spectacle. And there are no stoats in Brazil in case you were wondering. But it still reminds of stoats, because in Brazil, the government is buffoonish, bumbling, intrusive, and incompetent. For all that silliness though, it's no less dangerous to its citizens than 1984's Big Brother. So Brazil has always reminded me of Alan Coren's shortstory, and by extension, stoats. I've always assumed that the story was the inspiration for the movie. That would make sense beyond the similar concepts: "Owing to Circumstances Beyond Our Control 1984 Has Been Unavoidably Detained" was first published in Punch magazine in 1974. It's no stretch to imagine Terry Gilliam reading Punch.

But I haven't been able to find any connection between the story and the movie.