Big bumbler is watching you


© Jersey Evening Post


Last week I was doing a job in southern Colombo, which entailed making a journey by taxi for 45 minutes either way in the city’s dense, slow-moving morning and evening traffic.  Having to spend an hour and a half in the back of a taxi each day meant I had time to do some reading.  I finished reading one book on Thursday and on Friday morning I started a new one, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1936).  It began:


It was a cold grey day in late November.  The weather had changed overnight, when a hacking wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.  It would be dark by four.”


If you changed ‘late November’ to ‘mid-December’, the above paragraph would serve as a good metaphor for the state of my soul that Friday morning.  It too was cold, grey, hacking, mizzling, pallid, wintry and dark.  For I had peeked at the BBC’s news website just before leaving my apartment and seen that the exit polls for the British general election, held the day before, were predicting a massive victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party,


However, as the final results came through and confirmed the predictions of the polls, I found myself thinking not of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn but of a novel published 13 years later: George Orwell’s 1984.


I recalled the lies, lies and more lies that’d poured, lyingly, from the lying mouth of lying liar Boris Johnson – lies about ‘getting Brexit done’ in a matter of weeks when the negotiations were likely to last for years, lies about his Brexit deal not necessitating a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom when it very obviously would, lies about providing 50,000 more nurses, 6000 more doctors and 20,000 more police officers without raising any taxes.  And yet a great swathe of the British voting public had swallowed his baloney.  I was reminded of the line in 1984 that went: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four?  Or that the force of gravity works?  Or that the past is unchangeable?  If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?


Then there’s the whole contradiction of having a creature like Johnson as prime minister – an office you’d think would require some minimum thresholds of wisdom, gravitas and decency.  There’s nothing in Johnson’s life story that suggests he crosses any of those thresholds.  Not his Droog-like behaviour with the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford University.  Not his promise to supply his old school chum (and future convict) Darius Guppy with the home address of journalist Stuart Collier so that Guppy could have Collier beaten up.  Not his journalistic career at the Times, which ended when he was discovered to have fabricated a quote.  Not the abuse he’s heaped on blacks, Muslims, homosexuals and unmarried mothers in the opinion pieces he’s written for the Spectator and Daily Telegraph – insulting single mothers is a bit rich of him, considering he may have left a few single mums behind in his own gallivanting, shag-happy wake.  Not his uselessness as Foreign Secretary, which resulted in the continued incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff in Iran.  Not his chumminess with the far-right American master-strategist and horror-show Steve Bannon.


Yet despite the mass of evidence to the contrary, Johnson managed to convince a sufficient number of British people that he was prime ministerial material.  As 1984 muses:  “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting them.”  Or more bluntly: “Ignorance is strength.”


Needless to say, it did Johnson’s cause no harm that his main opponent in this election was the somnolent Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.  I didn’t have any beef with Corbyn’s social policies but he promoted them with as much passion and charisma as a plank of wood.  He also came hideously unstuck with the main issue of the election, Brexit.  His party’s Brexit policies were nebulous and obviously designed to let Labour fence-sit and avoid tough questions, so that they wouldn’t alienate potential voters on either side of the argument.  As it turned out, Brexiteers voted for the Tories and Remainers voted for the Liberal Democrats (who were then crucified by Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system), leaving Labour with the worst of both worlds.  Corbyn’s crapness at addressing serious charges of antisemitism made against members and sections of his party worsened the situation even more.


When the scale of their defeat dawned on them, Corbyn and his lieutenants were quick to blame the unremittingly hostile coverage they’d received in Britain’s mainstream media.  There’s no doubt that the majority of the newspapers – owned largely by billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and the 4th Viscount Rothermere, men whose ambition in life is to pay as little tax as possible or no tax at all – are excretable right-wing rags that were never going to give Corbyn a fair hearing.  Actually, if Corbyn was responsible for a tenth of the misdemeanours that Johnson’s responsible for, you would have heard the outraged screams of the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express from the moon.  But that’s still not an excuse.  After all, the Scottish National Party have next to zero support among the newspapers on sale in Scotland, yet that didn’t stop them getting excellent results on Friday.


It says something about Corbyn’s inadequacy that he failed to score against Johnson even though Johnson ran an election campaign so terrible it made that of his predecessor in 2017, Theresa May, look accomplished.  He chickened out of being interviewed by the BBC’s bear-like inquisitor-in-chief Andrew Neil, although all the other party leaders submitted themselves to grillings from Neil.  He actually hid in a giant refrigerator to avoid questions from Piers Morgan.  (Admittedly, if Piers Morgan tried to talk to me, I’d probably run away and hide in a fridge too, but then I’m not campaigning to become prime minister.)  He grabbed a mobile phone from a journalist and pocketed it so that the journalist couldn’t show him a photo of a four-year-old boy forced to sleep on a hospital floor.  And whenever he did muster the courage to do interviews, he just rambled incoherently and incontinently.  His performance was dire.


Predictably, a few days before the vote, with the polls suggesting that his lead over Labour might be shrinking, Johnson went into panic mode and started bleating about EU nationals living in Britain who treated it “as though it’s basically part of their own country” – unashamed anti-immigrant dog-whistling, intended to get the racist low-life among the population out voting for him on the day.  And it’s no surprise either that far-right midget Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, or ‘Tommy Robinson’ as he likes to call himself, announced after the election that he’d joined the Conservatives.


So that’s it.  A man who’s crafted an image of himself as a harmless, bumbling idiot but, underneath the slapstick, is as devoid of moral character and as nasty a piece of work as Donald Trump, now has the power to do whatever he wants with Britain for the next five years.  Brexit is definitely happening.  The framework of EU regulations that once ensured things like wage-levels, health and safety and the environment got some consideration will soon be swept away.  Boris Johnson and his right-wing cadre will proceed with their disaster-capitalism project, which is to turn Britain into a deregulated, lowest-common-denominator Airstrip One – and Sweatshop Two, and Tax Haven Three.


To return to 1984 and paraphrase George Orwell: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a clown-shoe stamping on a human face – forever.”




Dorothy – somewhere under the rainbow


© Penguin


Anyone who’s followed this blog over the last couple of years will know that I’ve been catching up with George Orwell’s less famous novels, i.e. those that aren’t Animal Farm (1945) or 1984 (1949).  I’ve read 1934’s Burmese Days, 1936’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and 1939’s Coming Up for Air, all of which impressed me.  Recently, I finished reading what was for me Orwell’s final novel, 1935’s A Clergyman’s Daughter.  How does it measure up to the rest of Orwell’s fiction?


Well, I’d say A Clergyman’s Daughter is the weakest of the bunch, although the weakness is structural rather than to do with the content.  As usual, I was absorbed by Orwell’s prose and powers of description and characterisation; but the narrative devices he uses here are problematic.


Actually, outside of 1984, it’s perhaps the most ambitious of Orwell’s books too.  It portrays life in mid-1930s Britain across a wide range of social classes.  We meet characters from the hard-pressed working class and, below them, the underclass of beggars, derelicts and prostitutes for whom securing shelter on a winter’s night can be a matter of life and death; from the blunt and materialistic lower middle class, the petty bourgeoise, who here seem petty indeed; and from an upper middle class that’s on the slide, floundering financially if not yet in terms of social standing.  Dorothy Hare, the titular clergyman’s daughter, is an unhappy member of that last class.


Her father is the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s Church in a Suffolk village called Knype Hill.  However, it’s clear from the very start – “As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion” – that it’s his daughter who keeps his household, church and parish afloat, with the most meagre of resources.


Dorothy gets the food on his table, tends to his garden, types out his sermons, delivers his parish magazine, visits his parishioners, organises all the school plays, concerts, jumble sales, bazaars and pageants that bring a trickle of money to cover the most serious repairs needed by his near-ruinous church-building, serves as honorary secretary of three different church leagues and captains the local Girl Guides and, exhaustingly, struggles to pay or at least stave off the bills that come constantly through the vicarage door.  Her father is lazy, pompous, snobbish, bullying and contemptuous of his parishioners and his head is totally in the sand regarding the desperate state of his finances.  In his genteel way, he’s as monstrous as the most racist of the colonialists in Orwell’s previous novel, Burmese Days.  Meanwhile, the only thing that keeps Dorothy going is her Christian faith, which is so stringent that when she finds herself entertaining un-Christian thoughts she chastises herself by sticking a pin into her arm.


Ironically, the only person in the neighbourhood who seems aware of Dorothy’s plight is an atheistic and decadent artist called Warburton.  He enjoys Dorothy’s company and, despite multiple misgivings, she has some fondness for his.  But Orwell makes it plain that early on that Warburton is no lovable rogue – he’s a loathsome predator.  On page 41 we learn how once he “sat down beside her on the sofa and begun making love to her, violently, outrageously, even brutally.  It was practically an assault.”  (The preface to my edition of A Clergyman’s Daughter states that the original publisher, Gollancz, insisted that Orwell remove the phrase “tried to rape”.)  The fact that after this Dorothy still puts up with Warburton underlines how starved of friendship and attention she is in the rest of her existence.


Then 85 pages in, things change.  Dorothy is launched on a journey as unexpected and, in its way, as extraordinary as that of another Dorothy, in Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).  However, Orwell’s Dorothy ends up in no fairy-tale land, but in harsh 1930s working-class London.  She also arrives there, temporarily, without her memory.  Orwell’s account of how this happens is unsatisfactory.  Indeed, he doesn’t spend much time explaining it, suggesting he himself is unhappy with his plot machinations here.  It also involves a mighty coincidence, as Dorothy’s mishap occurs at the same moment that Warburton leaves Knype Hill for the continent.  As a result, the gossipy villagers assume that she’s run off with him and her father is too outraged to search for her.


The amnesic Dorothy falls in with some Cockney never-do-wells, who take her on what was a common autumn pilgrimage for people from London’s East End at the time – into the fields of Kent to pick the hop harvest.  Orwell writes this section of the book with a convincing eye for detail – he knows what he’s talking about since he went hop-picking himself in 1931.  (Actually, I once picked hops too, as a teenager in 1983.  I don’t suppose anyone does this now, modern British farms being so mechanised.)




Later, there’s a curious 34-page section written in the style of a play, wherein Dorothy, now back in London with her memory restored, spends a night on the streets with a company of assorted down-and-outs whose one objective is to stop themselves freezing to death.  This piece of literary experimentation feels like something James Joyce might have done in Ulysses (1922).  It doesn’t feel like Orwell, though.


Then comes another twist to the plot – not much more believable than the last one – and Dorothy, unable to return to Knype Hill because of the scandal she’s allegedly caused, finds herself teaching at a small private school called Ringwood House Academy for Girls in a “repellent suburb ten or a dozen miles from London.”  Equally repellent is the school’s principal and owner, Mrs Creevy, of whom Orwell writes: “You could tell her at a glance for a person who knew exactly what she wanted, and would grasp it as ruthlessly as any machine.”  Dorothy gamely tries to up the standard of education the girls have received there, which has basically consisted of getting fragments of rote-learning and mindlessly copying passages into their jotters.  But predictably, her efforts to teach her young charges how to think, use their imaginations and enjoy the works of Shakespeare go down badly with their lower-middle-class shopkeeper parents, who have very different notions of what ‘education’ means.  They’re particularly horrified that she’s introduced their daughters to Macbeth, which contains disgusting words like ‘womb’.


This section lets Orwell take aim at the private schools that proliferated in 1930s England.  “At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection.  And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money….  Only the tiny minority of ‘recognised’ schools – less than one in ten – are officially tested to decide whether they keep up a reasonable educational standard.  As for the others, they are free to teach or not teach exactly as they choose.  No one controls or inspects them except the children’s parents – the blind leading the blind.”


Things end badly for Dorothy at Ringwood House Academy, but there’s yet another unlikely twist (and another unlikely coincidence involving Warburton) and she’s finally returned to Knype Hill, where she faces her biggest dilemma.  Does she simply return to doing what she’d done before, keeping her father’s shaky clerical enterprise on the road?  Because now, thanks to everything that she’s been through, she’s lost the spark that’d previously animated her – her belief in God.


Orwell was not proud of A Clergyman’s Daughter and referred to it as ‘a silly potboiler’.  It’s certainly much more than that although, as I’ve said, it’s damaged by the unlikeliness of the devices that move its plot from A to B and then to C.  However, if you treat it not as a novel but as a series of novellas – a triptych of stories giving accounts of the annual 1930s hop harvest, of a ghastly 1930s private school and of a decaying 1930s vicarage – it’s as fine as his other fiction.


© Daily Telegraph


Coming up for Orwell


© Penguin Books


A couple of years ago something piqued my curiosity about George Orwell’s lesser known novels and since then I’ve been working my way through them.  I’ve read Burmese Days (1934), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and most recently Coming Up for Air (1939).  I’ve found them surprisingly good.  The worlds they depict may not be as iconic as those of Orwell’s two post-war triumphs, Manor Farm in Animal Farm (1945) and Airstrip One in 1984 (1949).  But they ooze with as much vivid and sordid detail as the non-fiction books he wrote during the 1930s, which are better remembered today – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Homage to Catalonia (1938).  Also, they convey similar frustration and despair, their imaginary characters being as much victims of circumstances as the real characters Orwell encountered whilst travelling and researching his non-fiction.


Coming Up for Air, written on the cusp of World War II, maintains the high standard.  Its narrator is George Bowling, a 45-year-old insurance salesman whose exterior is at odds with his interior.  Superficially, he’s “an active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party”.  Inside, though, he’s suffering what in modern parlance would be called a mid-life crisis – one coinciding with his acquisition of a new set of dentures, which informs the novel’s opening line: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.”


But Bowling’s discontent is fuelled by more than his sense of physical decay.  He’s stuck in a little house in one of the countless streets that “fester all over the inner-outer suburbs”, mortgaged to the hilt by something called the Cheerful Credit Building Society.  “Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times,” he broods.  “My own line, insurance, is a swindle I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table.”  He shares the house with two noisy offspring – “Two kids in a home the size of ours is like a quart of beer in a pint mug” – and a shrewish wife called Hilda.  “Butter is going up, and the gas-bill is enormous, and the kids’ boots are wearing out and there’s another instalment due on the radio – that’s Hilda’s litany.”


To escape from this, Bowling immerses himself in the past and the book’s central section has him recounting his life-story, especially his boyhood in an Oxfordshire market town called Lower Binfield, “in a bit of a valley, with a low ripple of hills between itself and the Thames, and higher hills behind.”  Thus, he grew up within a stone’s throw of the countryside and it’s his antics there with his young mates – cycling, swimming, ferreting, stealing birds’ eggs, ice-skating in winter – that he recalls most fondly.


But fishing was his main passion as a boy.  “It’s queer, the feeling I had for fishing – and still have, really.  I can’t call myself a fisherman.  I’ve never in my life caught a fish two feet long, and it’s thirty years now since I had a rod in my hands.  And yet when I look back the whole of my boyhood from eight to fifteen seems to have revolved round the days when we went fishing.”  And the memory that haunts him most of all is of visiting Binfield Manor, an estate overlooking the town, and discovering a pool hidden away behind a dense screen of bushes and tree-boughs.  Populating this pool were some huge carp.  “A pool gets forgotten somehow, nobody fishes in it for years and decades and the fish grow to monstrous sizes.”


The idea Bowling has at the book’s start is to sneak away for a few days – pretending to his unsympathetic wife that he’s making a work-trip.  He’ll return to Lower Binfield for the first time in decades, buy a fishing rod and fish in the secret pool.  The final third of the book describes what Bowling finds when he gets there.  Predictably, things have changed and not for the better.


Orwell’s account of Bowling’s early life in Lower Binfield is engrossing.  By a coincidence, a few months earlier, I’d read Cider with Rosie (1959), Laurie Lee’s memoir of growing up in a Cotswolds village in the 1920s.  It’s fun to compare Lee’s famously lyrical and nostalgic work with Coming Up for Air and the more hard-headed approach Orwell takes in it.  “It’s not like I’m trying to put across any of that poetry of childhood stuff.  I know that’s all baloney…  The truth is that kids aren’t in any way poetic, they’re merely savage little animals, except that no animal is as a quarter as selfish.”  Orwell illustrates this with a few examples, most graphically: “We used to catch toads, ram the nozzle of a bicycle pump up their backsides and blow them up till they burst.  That’s what boys are like.  I don’t know why.”  (To be fair to Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie is darker than it usually gets credit for.  At one point it has the villagers closing ranks and hiding the identity of a murderer.  At another it has a gang of boys plotting to rape a girl in the woods.)


But it’s not just the past that’s on Bowling’s mind.  He’s conscious of the future too, a future that’s ominously symbolised at the beginning of the book by a low-flying bomber he notices from his train-window.  A cataclysmic new war is on its way.  “I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loudspeakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners…” he ruminates.  “I can see it all.  I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine guns squirting out of bedroom windows.”


Later, he wonders, “what’ll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England? The truth is it probably won’t make the slightest difference… the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as usual.  And yet it frightens me – I tell you it frightens me.”  Bowling sees not just war ahead but, riding on its coat-tails, the nightmare of totalitarianism.  Indeed, Coming Up for Air feels at times like a precursor to 1984.  Possibly, in the alternative historical timeline of 1984, Bowling survived to the 1960s, after the atomic wars and Britain’s absorption into the super-state of Oceania.  Though I suspect that he’d have been sensible enough to discard his lower middle-class trappings and disappear into the ranks of the Proles.


Unfortunately, this theme causes Coming Up for Air’s one misstep.  Near the end, Orwell describes a traumatic incident in the new, not-necessarily-improved Lower Binfield, which serves both to highlight again the inevitability of war and to convince Bowling that it’s time to abandon the past and return home.  But the incident feels unlikely and contrived.  For me, it makes the book fall a little short of perfection.


But generally it’s an excellent read.  What’s striking about it today are Orwell’s rueful observations about the injustices of the economic system in pre-World War II Britain.  For instance, Bowling is a prisoner of his mortgage (“we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them.  They’re not freehold, only leasehold”); and he recalls how his father’s seed-shop in Lower Binfield was gradually squeezed out of existence by a bigger, better-resourced rival called Sarazins’ (“the big retail seedsmen who had branches all over the home county”).  Such details sound depressingly familiar.  They’re reminders that cutthroat, laissez-faire capitalism didn’t just begin at the end of the 1970s when neoliberals like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power.  In this respect, Coming Up for Air feels uncomfortably closer to 2016 than it does to 1984.


And now for A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935)…


© Ralph Steadman / New Statesman 


Burma, by George


You know the feeling of pleasurable surprise and relief you get when you’re walking through a place you haven’t been in before, populated with people you don’t know, and ahead you suddenly spy a familiar face?  I had that feeling a while ago while I was walking along a street in Yangon, capital city of Myanmar.  Under the awning of a bookshop I spotted a kindly-looking face, liberally etched with lines and sporting an avuncular moustache, which could have belonged to some British character actor who specialised in playing crusty civil servants and harassed bureaucrats in post-war Ealing comedy films.


Yes, the face was that of the great English author, essayist and journalist George Orwell.  It was pictured on a poster advertising a new edition of his 1934 novel Burmese Days, which was set in Myanmar while it was still part of the British Empire, ruled from Delhi and known as Burma.  The edition advertised was a Burmese translation done by Maung Myint Kywe in 2013.



By coincidence, I’d read Burmese Days for the first time only months earlier.  As the Scottish political commentator and columnist Gerry Hassan has noted, Orwell “challenged three big issues of his day, Stalinism, Nazism and… Empire.”  Burmese Days, which draws on Orwell’s experiences as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police during the 1920s, sees him grapple with the third of those topics, the British Empire.


Incidentally, it’s still a topic capable of causing controversy.  Take, for example, the publicity given to a recent YouGov poll that suggested 44% of Britons believed their country’s record of imperialism was something to be proud of.  This is despite the Indian Famine of 1899-1900, which killed at least a million people and was brought about in part by the British colonial administrators’ belief in laissez-faire economics.  Despite the British Empire’s invention, during the Boer War, of concentration camps – in which 26,000 Boer women and children lost their lives.  Despite the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in Punjab, which may have caused as many as 1000 fatalities.  And despite the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya during the 1950s that led to 12,000 official deaths but possibly another 8,000 or more unofficial ones.  Oh, and let’s not forget Britain’s messy exit from the Asian sub-continent, which sparked the largest mass-migration in human history, the Partition of India, and which killed something between 200,000 and two million people.


Obviously, when I started to read Burmese Days, I didn’t expect Orwell to be singing the praises of British imperialism.  No, I expected him to slaughter it.  So how did the book measure up to my expectations?


What surprised me was that I didn’t think it was that stridently anti-Empire.  At least, Burmese Days doesn’t seem so much to condemn the greed, ruthlessness and hypocrisy behind the imperial system.  Rather, it focuses on the effects – most of them bad, admittedly – on the individuals working day to day at the business-end of it.  The British characters, living in a district called Kyauktada, are an exhausted, corrupted and brutalised lot.  Flory, the novel’s hero in theory if not in deed, is weak, indecisive and, ultimately, tragically stupid – but more on him in a minute.  Then there are characters such as Ellis, an out-and-out racist bastard; Lackersteen, a drunken lecher who, when his wife’s back is turned, will happily chase a bit of tail, whether it’s the local Burmese women or his own niece; and Lieutenant Verrall, whose youthful and dashing veneer only briefly disguises the fact that he’s an arrogant, stuck-up and untrustworthy arsehole of the highest, or lowest, order.


The British memsahibs are no better.  Mrs Lackersteen is a scandalmongering and scheming shrew who’s managed to spend decades in Burma without ever learning a word of the local language.  Meanwhile, her niece Elizabeth, who arrives part-way through the novel and becomes, for a while at least, an item with Flory, initially gives the impression of sophistication but soon proves to be vacuous and fickle.  Flory loses his appeal for her in part because he tries to acquaint her with the indigenous culture, which he finds fascinating but she thinks is primitive and disgusting.  A little later, she’s relieved to fall into Verrall’s arms instead – though Verrall, needless to say, drops her the moment he decides it’s time to sling his hook.


Yet Burmese Days isn’t just about British colonial types being horrid.  The natives are pretty awful too.  Local Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin is vile morally and physically.  Not only is he wickedly corrupt but he’s grossly obese and Orwell’s descriptions make him sound like a cross between Fu Manchu and Jabba the Hut.  Aware of his own evilness, U Po Kyin hopes to neutralise his bad karma (and avoid being reincarnated as a frog or a rat) by spending his later years building Buddhist pagodas.  Elsewhere, Ma Hla May, who at the start of the book is Flory’s mistress, is a vain and profligate creature who elicits no sympathy even though, on paper, she’s a victim of a white man’s wantonness.  She’s such a diva that we can understand why Flory has no qualms about ejecting her from his household when Elizabeth appears on the scene.


If the British Empire is to be despised, Orwell suggests here, it’s not so much because of its oppression of countries.  It’s because it brings out the worst and promotes the least savoury of what’s already in those countries.


(c) Penguin Books


It’s hard finding someone in Burmese Days whom you feel much sympathy for.  Flory is understanding towards and knowledgeable about the Burmese and has no illusions regarding the system he’s working for, but his wishy-washiness in front of his racist countrymen and his failure to see Elizabeth for what she is become annoying.  Meanwhile, his best friend in Kyauktada is an Indian doctor called Veraswami, who is clearly intelligent and decent but prey to a foolish idealism.  For Dr Veraswami is the only person in the novel who passionately believes that – surprise! – the British Empire is a force for the good, bringing civilisation to corners of the globe where it didn’t exist before.  This prompts some ironic discussions where Flory, one of the oppressors, argues against the Empire while Veraswami, one of the oppressed, argues for it.


Burmese Days’ main storyline concerns a scheme by U Po Kyin to destroy Veraswami.  The doctor, well aware of what U Po Kyin is up to, is desperate to join Kyauktada’s European Club, which he believes will give him sufficient status to protect him against the fat magistrate’s plots.  He pins his hopes on Flory nominating him for the club’s membership — though to do this, Flory will have to show courage and square up to the club’s more bigoted members, like Ellis and the Lackersteens, who’ll object to having an Indian in their social ranks.  Thus, we spend the book waiting for the feckless Flory to bottle it and abandon his friend Veraswami by failing to nominate him.


But in the end, this doesn’t happen.  What happens is that U Po Kyin eliminates Flory before he can (or can’t) get Veraswami into the club.  Just as Flory and Elizabeth rekindle their romance, the magistrate encourages the spurned Ma Hla May to create a very public scene that leaves Flory humiliated.  Revolted, Elizabeth dumps Flory again and he kills himself – though in depriving him of the shallow and insipid Elizabeth, you can’t help feeling that U Po Kyin and Ma Hla May have done him a favour.


It’s all good dramatic stuff, but I was left with the impression that the novel pulls its punches a little.  Because Flory isn’t given a chance to betray Veraswami, Burmese Days is never quite the damning indictment of the British colonial mind-set – which compels even a well-meaning character like Flory to do something utterly shameful – it should be.


By the way, I’ve made Burmese Days sound like a litany of grimness and despair, but in fact I thought it was an entertaining read.  A lot goes on in its pages, and not just the twists and turns of the intrigue between U Po Kyin and Veraswami and of Flory’s doomed romance with Elizabeth.  There are also episodes involving an attack by a buffalo, a hunting expedition, an earthquake, an assassination with dahs (Burmese swords), a rebellion and a riot.  And the narrative is nicely embroidered with Orwell’s descriptions of the landscapes and indigenous culture.  However, the fact that Burmese Days is so busy with incident and detail is another reason why I have difficulty in viewing it as primarily a work of anti-imperialist polemic.


On the other hand…  Last week, I finished reading Doris Lessing’s 1950 novel The Grass is Singing.  Now if you want a crushing condemnation of European colonialism, you should read that.  It truly is depressing.


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.