Chestnut Tree


The Chestnut Tree cafe was almost empty....
It was the lonely hour of fifteen.
A tinny music trickled from the telescreens....
Winston sat in his usual corner, gazing into an empty glass....
Something changed in the music that trickled from the telescreen.
A cracked and jeering note, a yellow note, came into it.
And then...a voice was singing:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me...

The tears welled up in Winston's eyes.
A passing waiter noticed that his glass was empty
and came back with the gin bottle.

To Orwell Today,

Hi there,

Teaching 1984 to my year 12 group in the UK. I was discussing the significance of The Chestnut Tree Cafe when I came across your website Orwell Today.

It's an excellent and insightful resource!

Thank you so much,

Greetings Mark,

Glad you found ORWELL TODAY while searching for Chestnut Tree Cafe significance -- it's a topic under much discussion over the years -- the links to articles surrounding it are listed at the bottom of the page.

Speaking of chestnut trees, I finally found the real "under the spreading chestnut tree" song that Winston hears on the telescreen while sitting in the Chestnut Tree Cafe -- the one where he changes the second line to "I sold you and you sold me".

It's long been conjectured that this was a real song but no one in Orwell officianado circles -- at least to my knowledge -- had ever actually heard it or knew any words beyond the first two lines.

So after receiving your email -- and being reminded of chestnut tree allusions -- I went looking for the song again and lo and behold -- I found it on YouTube -- I couldn't believe my eyes and ears! It's a real swinging tune and almost impossible not to sing and dance along to. It's a 1938 big-band version that played over the radio -- and in the war-time dance halls -- during Orwell's time -- so no doubt about it, this was what Orwell had in mind when he wrote that passage: "under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me".

Here are all the words (and underneath is the link to listen):

Chestnut Tree

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
I loved her and she loved me
There she used to sit upon my knee
'neath the spreading chestnut tree

There beneath the boughs we used to meet
And her kisses were so sweet
All the little birds went "tweet, tweet, tweet"
'neath the spreading chestnut tree

I said "I love you"
And there ain't no ifs or buts
She said "I love YOU"
And the blacksmith shouted "chest NUTS"

Underneath the spreading chestnut tree
There she said she'd marry me
Now you ought to see our family
'neath the spreading chestnut tree

~ listen Underneath The Spreading Chestnut Tree, by Ivor Kirchin & His Band ~

Listening to the words and music conjures up happy feelings -- it's a love song about a guy and his girlfriend who always meet under the chestnut tree where she sits on his knee and they kiss, and where he proposes marriage and where eventually they bring their children to sit happily as a family "underneath the spreading chestnut tree".

These are the sentiments Winston is remembering -- and missing -- as he sits, alone, in the Chestnut Tree Cafe. Hearing the song conjures up memories of himself and Julia rendezvousing in the room above Mr Charrington's shop where he puts his arms around her waist and they fantasize about getting married and having children of their own -- a hopeless fancy like the song the prole lady sings beneath the window -- and where they promise they'll never stop loving each other, no matter what happens -- but in the end they're wrong -- BIG BROTHER gets inside and kills the love between them.

We know this is what Winston is thinking about because earlier in the passage he describes having recently met Julia on a cold day in a park and sitting beside her on a bench beside some straggly scrawny windblown bushes -- symbolically the extreme opposite of "under the spreading chestnut tree". Holding Julia around the waist was like hugging a block of cement -- she was hard and cold as ice -- and she looked at him with hate. He noticed a scar across her forehead going into her hairline, and knew that she'd been electric-shock brainwashed -- as had he. Julia told him she'd betrayed him under torture -- told them whatever they wanted to hear -- and he said so had he. That's what Orwell means by "I sold you and you sold me".

That's why a tear rolled down Winston's cheek when he heard that old happy song -- and at least, in a way, it proves Winston wasn't totally dead inside -- he still had human feelings of love of family -- of how things used to be -- or could have been -- or should have been. This proves, to me, that Winston won the battle for his soul against BIG BROTHER.

Here's the "under the spreading chestnut tree" passage in fuller context, excerpted from the closing pages of "1984":

1984BookCovers 1984WorkingCopy 1984BookCovers

...The Chestnut Tree was almost empty. A ray of sunlight slanting through a window fell on dusty table-tops. It was the lonely hour of fifteen. A tinny music trickled from the telescreens.

Winston sat in his usual corner, gazing into an empty glass. Now and again he glanced up at a vast face which eyed him from the opposite wall. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said. Unbidden, a waiter came and filled his glass up with Victory Gin, shaking into it a few drops from another bottle with a quill through the cork. It was saccharine flavoured with cloves, the speciality of the cafe....

Winston was listening to the telescreen. At present only music was coming out of it.... He picked up his glass and drained it at a gulp. As always, it made him shudder and even retch slightly. The stuff was horrible.... He had grown fatter since they released him, and had regained his old colour -- indeed, more than regained it. His features had thickened, the skin on the nose and cheekbones was coursely red, even the bald scalp was too deep a pink...

He drew a deep breath. An extraordinary medley of feelings -- but it was not a medley, exactly; rather it was successive layers of feeling, in which one could not say which layer was undermost -- struggled inside him.... His thoughts wandered again....'They can't get inside you', she had said. But they could get inside you. 'What happens to you here is FOR EVER', O’Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover. Something was killed in your breast: burnt out, cauterized out.

He had seen her; he had even spoken to her. There was no danger in it. He knew as though instinctively that they now took almost no interest in his doings. He could have arranged to meet her a second time if either of them had wanted to. Actually it was by chance that they had met. It was in the Park, on a vile, biting day in March, when the earth was like iron and all the grass seemed dead and there was not a bud anywhere except a few crocuses which had pushed themselves up to be dismembered by the wind. He was hurrying along with frozen hands and watering eyes when he saw her not ten metres away from him. It struck him at once that she had changed in some ill-defined way. They almost passed one another without a sign, then he turned and followed her, not very eagerly. He knew that there was no danger, nobody would take any interest in him. She did not speak. She walked obliquely away across the grass as though trying to get rid of him, then seemed to resign herself to having him at her side. Presently they were in among a clump of ragged leafless shrubs, useless either for concealment or as protection from the wind. They halted. It was vilely cold. The wind whistled through the twigs and fretted the occasional, dirty-looking crocuses. He put his arm round her waist.

There was no telescreen, but there must be hidden microphones: besides, they could be seen. It did not matter, nothing mattered. They could have lain down on the ground and done THAT if they had wanted to. His flesh froze with horror at the thought of it. She made no response whatever to the clasp of his arm; she did not even try to disengage herself. He knew now what had changed in her. Her face was sallower, and there was a long scar, partly hidden by the hair, across her forehead and temple; but that was not the change. It was that her waist had grown thicker, and, in a surprising way, had stiffened. He remembered how once, after the explosion of a rocket bomb, he had helped to drag a corpse out of some ruins, and had been astonished not only by the incredible weight of the thing, but by its rigidity and awkwardness to handle, which made it seem more like stone than flesh. Her body felt like that. It occurred to him that the texture of her skin would be quite different from what it had once been.

He did not attempt to kiss her, nor did they speak. As they walked back across the grass, she looked directly at him for the first time. It was only a momentary glance, full of contempt and dislike. He wondered whether it was a dislike that came purely out of the past or whether it was inspired also by his bloated face and the water that the wind kept squeezing from his eyes. They sat down on two iron chairs, side by side but not too close together. He saw that she was about to speak. She moved her clumsy shoe a few centimetres and deliberately crushed a twig. Her feet seemed to have grown broader, he noticed.

'I betrayed you', she said baldly. 'I betrayed you', he said. She gave him another quick look of dislike. 'Sometimes', she said, 'they threaten you with something -- something you can't stand up to, can't even think about. And then you say, "Don't do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so". And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn't really mean it. But that isn't true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there's no other way of saving yourself, and you're quite ready to save yourself that way. You WANT it to happen to the other person. You don't give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself'. 'All you care about is yourself', he echoed. 'And after that, you don't feel the same towards the other person any longer'. 'No', he said, 'you don't feel the same'.

There did not seem to be anything more to say. The wind plastered their thin overalls against their bodies. Almost at once it became embarrassing to sit there in silence: besides, it was too cold to keep still. She said something about catching her Tube and stood up to go. 'We must meet again', he said. 'Yes', she said, 'we must meet again'.

He followed irresolutely for a little distance, half a pace behind her. They did not speak again. She did not actually try to shake him off, but walked at just such a speed as to prevent his keeping abreast of her. He had made up his mind that he would accompany her as far as the Tube station, but suddenly this process of trailing along in the cold seemed pointless and unbearable. He was overwhelmed by a desire not so much to get away from Julia as to get back to the Chestnut Tree Cafe, which had never seemed so attractive as at this moment. He had a nostalgic vision of his corner table, with the newspaper and the chessboard and the ever-flowing gin. Above all, it would be warm in there. The next moment, not altogether by accident, he allowed himself to become separated from her by a small knot of people. He made a half-hearted attempt to catch up, then slowed down, turned, and made off in the opposite direction. When he had gone fifty metres he looked back. The street was not crowded, but already he could not distinguish her. Any one of a dozen hurrying figures might have been hers....

~ end quoting 1984 by Orwell ~

Orwell's reason for naming the cafe the Chestnut Tree wasn't necessarily just because of the song -- it could also have been his own love of all things English -- like the huge old chestnut trees in the parks where children gather chestnut seeds and make them into conkers. Here's a description:

ChestnutConker ChestnutConkerWait ChestnutConkerShoot

What's this? Is it an alien from a distant planet coming out of its space-suit? Don't worry, it's not here to attack earth. It's the seed from a tree called the horse chesnut tree coming out of its capsule. The seed is called a conker. In autumn in the UK people use conkers to play a game called...conkers.

~ end quoting What Are Conkers? ~

Orwell would have had other chestnut tree memories too -- like the campfire song of the Prince Albert Summer Camp in Southwold, Suffolk where Orwell lived before and after going to Burma -- and while writing A CLERGYMAN'S DAUGHTER. The name of the campfire song was "under the spreading chestnut tree" and it had hand actions too.

Here's the words and actions to the CHESTNUT TREE campfire song:


"Under the spreading chestnut tree,
where I held you on my knee,
We’ll be happy as can be,
'neath the spreading chestnut tree"

The first time through, sing the words as written.
The second time, omit the word "tree" and instead imitate tree branches with upward and outward hand motions.
The next time, also omit "nut" and tap the top of the head.
Then, omit "chest" but pat the chest.
Then, omit "spreading" and instead spread hands apart, etc
Replace "happy" with a scowl and growl.
At the finish, almost half the song will be gestures.

~ end quoting Campfire Song Book ~

Orwell, the quintessential Englishman, hid many old chestnuts in amongst the pages of "1984" -- and it's always "frightfully fun" (as the English would say) coming across them all.

All the best,
Jackie Jura

PS - As pointed out in a previous essay, there are similarities between Winston Smith and John Winston Lennon (aside from sharing the name Winston). For one thing, John, in an interview, said he had a copy of Orwell's "1984" on a bookshelf in his library. And, like Winston, John loved and lost a woman named Julia. In John's case Julia was his mother and he wrote a very special song dedicated to her while he was still a Beatle. John, like Winston, lost his mother when he was young.

Recently I came across a beautiful YouTube video of John Winston Lennon singing "Julia". Overlaying his voice is an animated walk through the woods and it's reminiscent of Winston walking to his first romantic meeting with Julia.

~ watch/listen to JOHN LENNON'S JULIA on YouTube ~

Above is the music video and below is the relevant passage from 1984 (with a map showing the route Winston took through the woods to meet Julia):


...Winston was in Victory Square before the appointed time. He wandered round the base of the enormous fluted column, at the top of which Big Brother's statue gazed southward towards the skies.... At five minutes past the hour the girl had still not appeared. Again the terrible fear seized upon Winston. She was not coming, she had changed her mind! He walked slowly up to the north side of the square and got a sort of pale-coloured pleasure from identifying St Martin's Church, whose bells, when it had bells, had chimed 'You owe me three farthings'. Then he saw the girl standing at the base of the monument, reading or pretending to read a poster which ran spirally up the column.... Soon he was within arm's length of the girl, but the way was blocked by an enormous prole and an almost equally enormous woman, presumably his wife, who seemed to form an impenetrable wall of flesh. Winston wriggled himself sideways, and with a violent lunge managed to drive his shoulder between them. For a moment it felt as though his entrails were being ground to pulp between the two muscular hips, then he had broken through, sweating a little. He was next to the girl. They were shoulder to shoulder, both staring fixedly in front of them.....

The girl's shoulder, and her arm right down to the elbow, were pressed against his. Her cheek was almost near enough for him to feel its warmth. She had immediately taken charge of the situation, just as she had done in the canteen. She began speaking in the same expressionless voice as before, with lips barely moving, a mere murmur easily drowned by the din of voices and the rumbling of the trucks. 'Can you hear me?' 'Yes'. 'Can you get Sunday afternoon off'? 'Yes'. 'Then listen carefully. You'll have to remember this. Go to Paddington Station---' With a sort of military precision that astonished him, she outlined the route that he was to follow. A half-hour railway journey; turn left outside the station; two kilometres along the road; a gate with the top bar missing; a path across a field; a grass-grown lane; a track between bushes; a dead tree with moss on it. It was as though she had a map inside her head. 'Can you remember all that'? she murmured finally. 'Yes'. 'You turn left, then right, then left again. And the gate's got no top bar'. 'Yes. What time'? 'About fifteen. You may have to wait. I'll get there by another way. Are you sure you remember everything'? 'Yes'. 'Then get away from me as quick as you can'....

Winston picked his way up the lane through dappled light and shade, stepping out into pools of gold wherever the boughs parted. Under the trees to the left of him the ground was misty with bluebells. The air seemed to kiss one’s skin. It was the second of May. From somewhere deeper in the heart of the wood came the droning of ring-doves. He was a bit early. There had been no difficulties about the journey, and the girl was so evidently experienced that he was less frightened than he would normally have been. Presumably she could be trusted to find a safe place.... The lane widened, and in a minute he came to the footpath she had told him of, a mere cattle-track which plunged between the bushes. He had no watch, but it could not be fifteen yet. The bluebells were so thick underfoot that it was impossible not to tread on them. He knelt down and began picking some partly to pass the time away, but also from a vague idea that he would like to have a bunch of flowers to offer to the girl when they met. He had got together a big bunch and was smelling their faint sickly scent when a sound at his back froze him, the unmistakable crackle of a foot on twigs. He went on picking bluebells. It was the best thing to do. It might be the girl, or he might have been followed after all. To look round was to show guilt. He picked another and another. A hand fell lightly on his shoulder. He looked up. It was the girl. She shook her head, evidently as a warning that he must keep silent, then parted the bushes and quickly led the way along the narrow track into the wood. Obviously she had been that way before, for she dodged the boggy bits as though by habit. Winston followed, still clasping his bunch of flowers....

~ end quoting 1984 by Orwell ~

The end of the conker?
(Scientists say the glorious horse chestnut could disappear within 20 years)
by David Derbyshire, Daily Mail, Oct 10, 2011
...They have towered over our parks, gardens and suburban avenues for more than 500 years. With their majestic white or red flowers, graceful profiles and autumn conkers, horse chestnuts are perhaps the best known — and one of the best loved — trees of the British Isles... Despite being a traditional part of our landscape, horse chestnuts are relative newcomers. They are native to the Balkans and were imported to England in the 1600s to adorn the gardens and landscaped parkland estates of the wealthy. Horse chestnuts were so-called to distinguish them from sweet chestnuts. The origins of the name is much debated. In parts of the world, conkers may have been soaked in lime water to reduce their bitterness and then fed to horses. Others say the name may come from scars left on twigs — a horseshoe shape with 'nails' — after leaves have dropped. Most of the spectacular 100ft-plus trees of today were planted by Victorians who loved the candle flowers and shiny fruit.... The tree itself has little practical use: the wood is too soft for carpentry, and no good as firewood. But along roads, and in parks and estates, they are a thing of beauty. Each May, they erupt with flowers, while in the summer their spreading canopies provide a graceful backdrop for gardens and parks. And then conkers in their spiny cases fall in September. The first recorded game of conkers using the nut of the tree was in 1848.... Once Victorian children learnt how to drill holes through them and string them up, "conkers" became the most popular autumn pastime in playgrounds....

HOW TO PLAY CONKERS (Take your conker and carefully make a hole all the way through it using something like a little screwdriver. Then push a piece of string about 20 cm long through the hole and make a knot at one end of the string which is big enough to stop the conker falling off the string. Find a friend who has done the same thing with with their own conker and flip a coin to decide who goes on the offensive first. If your friend is on the attack you must hold the top of your string with the conker hanging below. Now your friend has three chances to swing his or her conker through the air to try to bash yours. If your conker survives it’s time for your friend to hold up his or her conker and hope for the best whilst you have three chances to smash it to bits. Keep taking turns to attack. The winner is the person whose conker does not get broken. Usually the hanging conker is the one that cracks, but sometimes when the conkers crash together the attacking conker can be destroyed. Some people try to give their conker an edge by making it tougher. Techniques include baking the conker in the oven, leaving it to soak in vinegar overnight or painting it with varnish.

watch King George VI singing Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree, 1939 (with queen and young princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, Balmoral, Scotland), YouTube

Campfire Song Book, 3rd Poole Sea Scouts

George VI (1895-1952) ...In public the Duke of York (Prince Albert) became quite a prominent philanthropist.... He developed a special interest in education and from 1921 he played the leading part in the experiment in social integration known as the Duke of York's Camps. These camps brought together boys of working-class and public-school backgrounds in games, competitions, and discussions. The camps were held annually until 1939 (except for 1930), attended in all by about 6,000 young men. The duke attended each camp (as 'Great Chief') except that of 1934, which he missed through illness. As an experiment in social integration in a period of social deprivation, high unemployment, and class tension, the camps were a bold move. It was an innovation for a royal prince to show such sustained interest in a cause of this sort. Film footage shows the duke relaxed and happy joining in the camp song, 'Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree' with its accompaniment of cumulative body gestures....

The Culture of England refers to the idiosyncratic cultural norms of England and the English people. There are some cultural practices that are associated specifically with England: Architecture and gardens, Art, Cuisine, Folklore, Law, Literature, Music, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Science, Surnames, Sport and leisure, Symbols...

The Village Blacksmith Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's classic 1800s poem begins "Under the spreading chestnut tree, The village smithy stands; The smith, a mighty man is he, With large and sinewy hands; And the muscles of his brawny arms, Are strong as iron bands....







































26.Winston & Julia Rebellion & 29.Risking Renting Room & 30.Love Instinct & Family & 31.Love Nest & 32.Enemies of Big Brother & 37.We Are The Dead & 39.Interrogation & Torture & 40.Electric Shock Brainwashing & 43.Winston Talks In Sleep & 44.Room 101 & 45.Chestnut Tree Cafe