Keep the Aspidistra Flying: Look back in anger 1930s style

This is my review of  “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” by George Orwell

Since history repeats itself, Orwell’s caustic parody of capitalism in 1930s London still seems remarkably relevant in our post-financial crisis, commercially manipulative world of making people want things and often paying them too little to produce them.

Orwell’s anti-hero Gordon Comstock is not just trying to escape the clutches of what he calls “the money god” but is also a mouthpiece for the author’s own pet hats and self-doubt over his ability to succeed as a writer. In the first chapter which could stand as a short story in this own right, Gordon painfully perfects the first verse of a poem during a boring shift in a bookshop, in between raging at the adverts in the street which remind him of the better paid job in copywriting which he has abandoned on principle to get out of what he regards as a corrupt system. He despises most books on sale for being “turned out by wretched hacks at the rate of four a year, as mechanically as sausages and with much less skill.” With only twopence halfpenny left until the end of the week, not enough for the cigarettes he needs – like Orwell? – to be able to write, he is beginning to realise that “you do not escape from money by being moneyless. On the contrary, you are the hopeless slave of money until you have enough of it to live on”.

Gordon is frankly rather tedious and unlikeable in his negative view of the world and borderline mentally ill in his desire “to lose himself in smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness… great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal.” Yet it is revealing to be transported back to the 1930s, beginning to emerge from a deep Depression, with the poignant wisdom of hindsight that the destructive war which Gordon claims to welcome is in fact imminent.

People tolerate appalling bedsits with repressive landladies, but expect to receive in the evenings letters posted earlier in the day. It’s a remarkably cheap world to modern eyes, where Gordon can take his girlfriend Rosemary on a trip to the country for only fourteen shillings (seventy pence). But it’s also riddled with social divides and casually-voiced prejudices that make us wince: Gordon comes from one of “those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle class, in which nothing ever happens”; his landlady is obsessed with “mingy lower-middle-class decency”; a poverty-stricken old couple, in a society with no proper pension system, are “the throw-outs of the money-god. All over London, by tens of thousands, draggled old beasts of that description: creeping like unclean beetles to the grave”.

Gordon’s upper class friend Ravelston is unusual that “in every moment of his life” he is “apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income” but still adores his girlfriend Hermione who remarks, “Don’t talk to me about the lower classes….. I hate them. They smell”. As narrator, Orwell often seems guilty of unconscious flashes of snobbery and prejudice – anti-semitic comments or cruelly amusing descriptions of a dwarf, but all this seems part of what was acceptable at the time. Ironically, advertising of specific brands, mention of real people or companies and “alleged obscenities” all had to be edited out at the last minute, leading Orwell to resist reprinting of a book he felt had been “garbled”.

There is in fact a good deal of humour in the book, not least in the aspidistras, symbols of “lower class decency” which refuse all Gordon’s efforts to kill them off. When Gordon stops moaning there are some striking descriptions: “the mist-dimmed hedges wore that strange purplish brown, the colour of brown madder, that naked brushwood takes on in winter.”

Apart from hoping that the likeable Ravelston and Rosemary might “get together”, there is the impetus to find out whether the book will end in tragedy or something will make Gordon surrender to “the money-code”.

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