Down and out with poets in London: book review / Keep The Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell


(c) Penguin Books


Lately I’ve read a few novels in which aspiring writers struggle against poverty, hunger, the incomprehension of their peers and the scorn of their social betters while they try to make a name for themselves – most notably, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place and Jack London’s Martin Eden.  I’ve just finished reading George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published in 1936, which was before Orwell became known as 20th-century British literature’s political novelist par excellence.  I had no idea of what it was about when I started reading it, but it proved to be another example of this ‘struggling writer’ sub-genre.  It recounts the fortunes, or misfortunes, of a young man called Gordon Comstock who, fancying himself as a poet, packs in a well-paid job in an advertising agency in favour of working in a series of impoverished and progressively seedier bookshops so that he’s free to ‘follow his muse’.


Orwell’s pre-World War II attempts at writing fiction have been neglected in favour of the socially-aware non-fiction he wrote, from first-hand experience, during the same period: Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and so on.  People have told me that this fiction is rather dull and not particularly good, but I found Keep the Aspidistra Flying to be, mostly, a pleasant surprise.  It’s far from uplifting, and for most of the time its hero is a Grade-A plonker, but if you like atmosphere – atmosphere that really gets under your skin, so that you can feel and taste the grey fustiness of the setting – this book is actually quite decent.


Gordon is already on the slide professionally when the novel opens.  He’s working in McKechie’s Bookshop, where “(e)ight hundred strong, the novels lined the room on three sides and ceiling-high, row upon row of gaudy oblong backs, as though the walls had been built of many-coloured bricks laid upright.  They were arranged alphabetically.  Arlen, Burroughs, Deeping, Dell, Frankau, Galworthy, Gibbs, Priestly, Sapper, Walpole… all that soggy, half-baked trash massed together in one place.  Pudding, suet pudding.  Eight hundred slabs of pudding, walling him in – a vault of puddingstone.”  He’s already quit the advertising agency and his only link with his former workplace is an ex-colleague called Rosemary, with whom he is enjoying a rather fragile and tense romance.


For accommodation, he’s ensconced in the house of Mrs Wisbeach, who specialises in ‘single gentlemen’ and offers “(b)ed-sitting rooms, with gaslight laid on… baths extra… and meals in the tomb-dark dining room with the phalanx of clotted sauce-bottles in the middle of the table.”  Everywhere in the establishment are the aspidistras of the book’s title: “on the sideboard, on the floor, on ‘occasional’ tables: in the window there was a sort of florist’s stand of them, blocking out the light.  In the half-darkness, with aspidistras all around you, you had the feeling of being in some sunless aquarium amid the dreary foliage of water-flowers.”  The neighbourhood contrives “to keep up a kind of mingy, lower-middle-class decency”, but it’s plain that the frustrated and temperamental Gordon is struggling to maintain his grip on even this rung of the social ladder.


Orwell’s physical descriptions of Gordon – “aged twenty-nine and already rather moth-eaten… a small frail figure, with delicate bones and fretful movements.  His coat was out at elbow in the right sleeve and its middle button was missing; his ready-made flannel trousers were stained and shapeless… his shoes needed re-soling…” – make him reminiscent of a more famous character whom Orwell would invent a decade later, the gaunt, ravaged Winston Smith of 1984.  Indeed, there are moments when Orwell describes Gordon longing for the advent of cataclysmic war – “(t)he humming of the aeroplanes and the crash of the bombs” – that, according to 1984’s mythology, will lead to the creation of its totalitarian, dystopian hellhole of a society.  For Gordon, such a war will at least wipe away the seedy, humdrum and maddeningly prissy world he currently inhabits.


Mentally, meanwhile, he’s a cauldron of bitterness.  As well as raging against the banality of the era’s popular literature, written by the likes of Hugh Walpole and J.B. Priestly, he’s tortured by the knowledge that, as an aspiring poet, he faces a massive handicap – he doesn’t have money.  Indeed, the necessity of being wealthy in order to lead an artistic lifestyle is a theme that runs through the book.  In the very first chapter Gordon laments to himself, “It was the lack of money, simply the lack of money, that robbed him of the power to ‘write’.  He clung to that as an article of faith.  Money, money, all is money!  Could you write even a penny novelette without money to put heart in you?  Invention, energy, wit, style, charm – they’ve all got to be paid for in hard cash.”


Later, Orwell describes Gordon’s reaction to a rejection letter from a magazine called the Primrose: “He thought of the people who wrote for the Primrose; a coterie of moneyed highbrows – those sleek young animals who suck in money and culture with their mother’s milk…  Why be so bloody mealy-mouthed about it?  Why not say outright, ‘We don’t want your bloody poems.  We only take poems from chaps we were at Cambridge with.  You proletarians keep your distance’?”


And later again he complains to his friend Ravelston, who is a well-off fellow for whom “(e)ight hundred pounds a year was a minimum living wage” and who can afford to run a literary magazine called Antichrist, which is “Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way” – about his lot: “It’s the bloody, sneaking, squalid business of it.  Living alone for weeks on end because when you’ve no money you’ve no friends.  Calling yourself a writer and never even producing anything because you’re always too washed out to write.  It’s a sort of filthy sub-world one lives in.  A sort of spiritual sewer.”


These observations about money and art are undoubtedly true, but having Gordon continually obsess about them doesn’t make him a sympathetic character.  Indeed, he’s so antagonistic to his friends and disdainful of their advice and offers of assistance that it’s difficult to understand why the harassed Rosemary and the good-natured Ravelston – who, thanks to his own moneyed circumstances, can’t really understand Gordon but who certainly wishes to help him – can bear to put up with him.


What distinguishes the book, though, is Orwell’s descriptions – his eye for sordid detail honed, of course, by his work on the likes of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier – of the damp, draughty, dusty and decrepit world that Gordon inhabits.  The descriptions become more grimly vivid as the book progresses and Gordon loses his job at McKechie’s and his room at Mrs Wisbeach’s.  He ends up working at a two-penny library, “one of those cheap and evil little libraries (‘mushroom libraries’, they are called) which are springing up all over London and are deliberately aimed at the uneducated… The shelves were already marked off into sections – ‘Sex’, ‘Crime’, ‘Wild West’, and so forth.”  Gordon fares no better on the accommodation front.  His new lodgings are “a filthy kip… eight shillings a week and just under the roof…  There was a film of dust on everything.  In the fender there was always a greasy frying-pan and a couple of plates with the remnants of fried eggs.  One night the bugs came out of one of the cracks and marched across the ceiling two by two.”


Unlike The Dear Green Place and Martin Eden, however, Gordon isn’t simply a member of the labouring classes who has the temerity to try to break into the rich man’s world of literature.  He wasn’t quite born into poverty.  “The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the middle-middle class, the landless gentry.  In their miserable poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding themselves as an ‘old’ family fallen on evil days, for they were not an ‘old’ family at all, merely one of those families that rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself.”


What little money remained in the family was blown on Gordon as a boy: “Since the Comstocks were genteel as well as shabby, it was considered necessary to waste huge sums on Gordon’s ‘education’” – and after Gordon walks out of his advertising job to work on his poetry, he has to rely on his sister Julia, his one surviving close relative, for loans of money.  Overworked, thin, already grey and doomed to spinsterhood, Julia has seen her family sacrifice her own life-chances in order to pay for Gordon’s schooling: “With the strange idealistic snobbishness of the middle classes, they were willing to go to the workhouse sooner than let Gordon leave school before the statutory age of eighteen.”


As Keep the Aspidistra Flying nears its conclusion, we find ourselves wondering which of three possible outcomes will take place.  Will Gordon get his breakthrough and find some sort of fame and fortune as a poet?  Or will Rosemary persuade him to return to the advertising agency, where he can have financial security, if not spiritual fulfilment, as a writer of slogans like ‘QT Sauce Keeps Hubby Smiling’ and ‘Are you a Highbrow?  Dandruff is the Reason’?  Or the squalor of his situation finally kill him?  Depending on your point of view, the ending that Orwell finally opts for is either happy or tragic.




Interestingly – and sadly – Gordon’s sour musings about the necessity of wealth for artistic endeavour still seem pertinent today, probably more pertinent than they’ve been for a number of decades.  We’re living, after all, in an era where young people, if they want to make a career out of doing something artistic or creative, need to have parents who know the right people and have plenty of money in their bank accounts.  This is especially true of our modern intern culture, where youngsters are forced to work long-term, unpaid, in the hope of eventually getting a ‘foot in the door’ of a desirable (often creative) profession.  If their families can’t afford to support them while they work as interns, well, they’re screwed.  By a coincidence, I was halfway through Keep the Aspidistra Flying when I happened across this feature, about the same topic, in the Observer:


Incidentally, I’d heard that Orwell had disliked the Scots – though hopefully his dislike softened towards the end of his life, when he found himself living on the island of Jura and working on 1984 – but I was surprised by the animosity towards them that’s displayed in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.  Orwell writes about his hero’s name thus: “The ‘Gordon’ part of it was Scotch, of course.  The prevalence of such names nowadays is merely a part of the Scotchification of England that has been going on these last fifty years.”  The tone is reminiscent of a modern-day Daily Telegraph columnist grousing about how ‘Mohamed’ has become the most popular name for British boys, which of course is symptomatic of the ‘Islamification’ of Britain.


The owner of the first bookshop Gordon works in, Mr McKechie, “wasn’t a bad old stick.  He was a Scotchman, of course, but Scottish is as Scottish does.”  In that bookshop, Gordon notices the Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson lying on the floor, and he kicks “Stevenson’s buckram backside.  Art there, old false-penny.  You’re cold meat, if ever Scotchman was.”  And on board a tram he finds himself “wedged against a small dirty Scotchman who read the football finals and oozed beer.”


Given his prejudice against all thing Scottish, or ‘Scotch’, I wonder how Orwell would have felt about the Scottish Book Trust’s list of 100 best Scottish Books of all time, which it announced on World Book Day in 2005.  1984 was included on that list, its Scottishness justified by the fact that it’d been written in Scotland.  Its inclusion must have sent poor Orwell spinning in his grave.


Then again, maybe that was the intention.


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