Mark Handley - Gordon Bowker on George Orwell,Keep the Aspidistra Flying

The Road to Room 101

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Every time I go into one of those old-fashioned second-hand bookshops – the ones with rows of leather-bound copies of Punch and shelves full of long-expired novels and the sweet smell of decaying paper pervading the air – I think of Gordon Comstock, George Orwell’s anti-hero in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Poor Gordon, an advertising dropout and aspiring poet who is scraping a living as an assistant in such a bookshop, is forever bemoaning a world ruled by ‘the Money God’ rather than the Muses.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is Orwell’s most autobiographical novel, written in 1935, when temporarily his career appeared to have stalled. His first two books, Down and Out in Paris and London and Burmese Days, had earned him some modest critical acclaim, but his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, had had a mixed reception. It had been written under the influence of James Joyce’s Ulysses and had been part-experimental, but the experiment had failed. So he jettisoned the ambition to write highly poetic fiction and at the same time abandoned any lingering hope of ever shining as a poet. Henceforth his prose would be pared down and economical, aspiring to an ideal of clarity – the clarity, he said, of a windowpane.

Since the end of 1934, he had been living in Hampstead, working part-time, like Gordon, for a bookseller. A job among mostly forgotten books seemed to symbolize what he then saw as his own failure as a writer. He was also frustrated in love. Too poor to get married, he was reduced to occasional affairs with ‘liberated’ girlfriends or encounters with prostitutes. He had a lot to get out of his system, and his anger and frustration would soon be channelled into his own brand of left-wing politics. By the end of the year he had met his future wife and was about to set foot on ‘the road to Wigan Pier’ to study the effects of mass unemployment in the industrial north, a journey t

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Every time I go into one of those old-fashioned second-hand bookshops – the ones with rows of leather-bound copies of Punch and shelves full of long-expired novels and the sweet smell of decaying paper pervading the air – I think of Gordon Comstock, George Orwell’s anti-hero in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Poor Gordon, an advertising dropout and aspiring poet who is scraping a living as an assistant in such a bookshop, is forever bemoaning a world ruled by ‘the Money God’ rather than the Muses.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is Orwell’s most autobiographical novel, written in 1935, when temporarily his career appeared to have stalled. His first two books, Down and Out in Paris and London and Burmese Days, had earned him some modest critical acclaim, but his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, had had a mixed reception. It had been written under the influence of James Joyce’s Ulysses and had been part-experimental, but the experiment had failed. So he jettisoned the ambition to write highly poetic fiction and at the same time abandoned any lingering hope of ever shining as a poet. Henceforth his prose would be pared down and economical, aspiring to an ideal of clarity – the clarity, he said, of a windowpane.

Since the end of 1934, he had been living in Hampstead, working part-time, like Gordon, for a bookseller. A job among mostly forgotten books seemed to symbolize what he then saw as his own failure as a writer. He was also frustrated in love. Too poor to get married, he was reduced to occasional affairs with ‘liberated’ girlfriends or encounters with prostitutes. He had a lot to get out of his system, and his anger and frustration would soon be channelled into his own brand of left-wing politics. By the end of the year he had met his future wife and was about to set foot on ‘the road to Wigan Pier’ to study the effects of mass unemployment in the industrial north, a journey towards socialism which became eventually the road to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

When I first read Keep the Aspidistra Flying in my teens, I didn’t think much of it. The London it conjured up was a grim one, a cold, colourless world of dingy boarding-houses, soulless drudgery, unfulfilled ambition, frustrated sexuality and unyielding snobbery. An obsession with money and scraping around for the price of a meal or a packet of fags is a recurrent motif. Here is Orwell at his most resentful and unforgiving, hating a society peopled by vainglorious poets, back-scratching critics, posing book collectors and dishonest advertisers. Gordon, his doppelgänger, is at war with the whole social set-up, and especially the cosy world of respectability into which he feels his girlfriend Rosemary is attempting to lure him, a dismal world symbolized by the omnipresent aspidistra.

Many of the novel’s ingredients are drawn directly from his experiences at the time he was writing it – most notably the dreary routine of the bookshop, its eccentric customers, his relationships with girlfriends, his friendship with Sir Richard Rees (the aristocratic literary editor who bailed him out from time to time), and his self-mortifying excursions into the underworld of the Lambeth slums, where not long before he had dossed among the down-and-outs. He was still anxious to purge himself of the burden of sin he felt he had incurred as a young imperial policeman in Burma, and degradation and poverty, he thought, were the way to free himself of the guilt.

He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself – to sink . . . It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being underground. He liked to think about the lost people, the underground people, tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.

Orwell’s conscience was always hard at work in anything he wrote. In all his novels – from Burmese Days, which drew on those experiences as a policeman, to Nineteen Eighty-Four – Paradise is first gained and then lost. Here, for Gordon, the Paradise of being an occasionally published poet, living free from bourgeois respectability and the Money God in squalid South London digs, is lost when he is trapped (by Rosemary’s pregnancy) into marriage, a respectable job back in advertising, and a house in the suburbs with, of course, the dreaded aspidistra conspicuously on display.

Literary biographers are often warned not to seek their subjects in their works of fiction, but Orwell believed that we could best glimpse the inner world of an author through his creative writing, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying contains many elements through which we can read his character and enter into the consciousness of a man on the brink of a great writing career. After it was published, because of tuberculosis, he had less than fifteen years to live, and here as in all his novels there are clocks throughout chiming and ticking away the minutes of any remaining life. While completing the novel, Orwell had decided, like Gordon, that he was not after all a poet, and he wrote almost no verse thereafter; he was also determined, like Gordon, to live in virtual poverty to be able to write freely rather than to order; he did, like Gordon, refuse his family’s blandishments to find a ‘good job’, and he did finally settle for marriage – though not because he had to – and retreated to a house, not in the suburbs, however, but in the countryside, far removed from aspidistras.

Although it attracted a fan letter from the young Anthony Powell and words of appreciation from Edith Sitwell, the novel was panned by his friends Cyril Connolly and Richard Rees, who disliked its prevailing air of squalor and what Rees called its ‘loose violence of style’. Because in its first draft it had included some mild swear-words, the names of well-known businesses (Drages and the Times Furnishing Company among them) and slighting comments about the popular novelists Ethel M. Dell and Warwick Deeping, Victor Gollancz, his publisher, ever-fearful of libel actions, demanded cuts. Orwell later complained that the Aspidistra had been mangled by lawyers, and he came to dismiss it as a pot-boiler, written solely for money. It was one of the few of his books he left instructions was not to be reprinted, and for years he never even owned a copy.

However, Orwell did manage to slip in a couple of jokes that evaded the attention of both publisher and lawyers. One is a poem that Gordon recites to Rosemary in a moment of lustful passion. It’s in medieval French which, when translated, proves to be a sly invitation to a pornographic act. The joke is only intensified by the name of his protagonist – Comstock was the name of the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and ‘Comstockery’, of course, had come to mean an unjustified excess of prudery. Having Gordon utter these words, therefore, was a delightfully subtle protest against those who would have cut his book even more had they had the wit to understand what he was up to.

Preparing a biography of Orwell, naturally I reread all his work, but I did not approach Keep the Aspidistra Flying with any great sense of excitement. However, just before reading it again, I saw the film of the novel, dramatized by Alan Plater and starring Richard E. Grant as the angry young poet. It quite transformed my reading of the book. What in my youth I had read as a bleak tale of failure I now saw as an exuberant satire of 1930s literary London, revealing a little-known Rabelaisian side of Orwell. The gloomy anti-hero, Gordon, had somehow transformed himself into a brilliantly comic character, a forerunner of John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, and the scourge not only of corrupt book reviewers and posturing poets but of the whole money culture in general.

Then, too, it became clear that it occupied an important place in Orwell’s creative oeuvre. His friend Julian Symons was probably the first to notice a connection between his first novel, Burmese Days, and his last, Nineteen Eighty-Four, with each of his intervening novels working towards that final great work. Gordon Comstock is brother to John Flory of Burmese Days, and George Bowling of Coming Up for Air, as well as Winston Smith of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Gordon is conducting a private underground war against the Money God, just as Winston is secretly plotting to bring down Big Brother. He is spied on by his landlady, Mrs Wisbech, just as Winston is spied on by his neighbours, the Parsons family and the Thought Police. He lusts after his fiancée Rosemary just as Winston lusts after Julia, the girl from the Fiction Department of the Ministry of Truth, and both consummate their relationships in an idyllic country setting. Finally, having tasted a false freedom in the slums of Lambeth, Gordon is defeated, embracing the respectability he had previously despised and becoming the proud owner of the dreaded aspidistra, while Winston, having also found a haven among the proles and imagining himself to be free, succumbs finally to the tortures of Room 101 and finds himself loving Big Brother.

This is one of those books – some of George Gissing’s novels about Grub Street fall into the same category – that can suddenly acquire a new significance in a new age, and beckon us to look at it afresh. The times, one might say, have ensured that Keep the Aspidistra Flying flies again.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Gordon Bowker 2006


About the contributor

Gordon Bowker first discovered Orwell while working among books – not in a bookshop, but in a library. He blames him for having been lured, for a time, away from Literature into Sociology, but has long since forgiven him. He has, at least, managed to avoid the Orwellian nightmare of exile to suburbia. Aspidistras, he is pleased to say, have never crossed his threshold.

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