I rather wish I had read this essay Bookshop Memories, which first appeared in the November 1936 issue of Fortnightly magazine, before I had read and written about Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. As usual, he used his own experiences to help him write both novels and essays, and his time working in the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in Hampstead in 1934 really informed his characterisation of Aspidistra’s anti-hero Gordon Comstock. I felt, as I was reading that novel, that Comstock really was Orwell himself, only vaguely hidden. And now that I have read his own personal account of working in a second-hand bookshop, I have no doubt that’s the case.
It’s a short and simple account of his observations about what it is like to work in a second-hand bookshop. He offers us all sorts of opinions, regarding the clientele, what sells well (and what doesn’t), the sensory overload of being surrounded by tens of thousands of books, to how it changes your own opinion about books. Having myself been a second-hand book trader (although online, not in a shop) I can recognise some truths in his writing that are as accurate today as they were in the 1930s.
That overwhelming sense, for instance, of being surrounded by centuries of writing, of decaying paper and musty dust. “Books give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die.” How true. Orwell claims that he would never have wanted to be a full-time bookseller because “while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro.” I also think there’s a lot of truth in that; and whilst I hope I never lied about the books I had for sale, I did have to dissect them scientifically in my descriptions, highlighting all the faults within a particular copy – there’s nothing worse than a disappointed book-buyer – and by doing so you miss out on conveying the magic of the thing. Certainly when I was a bookseller I was not a book-reader.
But I was still shocked by Orwell’s criticisms and sheer judginess of the customers in the shop – and it’s exactly the same snobbery and cynicism that colours the character of Gordon Comstock, which makes him so thoroughly unlikeable. It’s the first topic that Orwell takes in this essay – the kind of people who, you suspect, made every day in the shop a misery for him. If it’s not “first edition snobs”, it’s “oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks”, “the decayed person smelling of old breadcrusts”, “unmistakable paranoiacs”, “certifiable lunatics”, or “wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists”. He is so judgmental about the customers! To him they are nothing but “pests”. He definitely wasn’t created for retail work.
Rather like Comstock, he is dismayed that the number one author with the library subscribers was neither Priestley, Hemingway, Walpole nor Wodehouse, but Ethel M Dell, a fairly prolific writer of romances whom the critics hated but her readers loved. The snob in Orwell gets no pleasure out of giving the people what they want, because it’s not what he thinks they should want. He’s very certain about what he thinks people should read: “Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petronius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators.” The use of the phrase “manly and wholesome” seems very revealing to me – particularly when you consider how Comstock despised the artistic young man to whom he referred as Nancy in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
There are some general observations about life in the bookshop that, whilst still being judgmental, are perhaps not quite so offensive. He notes that they sold used stamps to stamp collectors, whom he describes as “a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums.” Whilst personally I wouldn’t call all stamp collectors strange, silent and fish-like, I have to say I’ve never met a female stamp collector, but I’m sure there must be some! I think it’s something that gets introduced to boys whilst girls are happily doing something else, and time never catches up with them.
It’s also interesting to see that the shop made good business from the sale of Christmas Cards, although they only spent “a feverish ten days” on sale, whereas today they’d be there for at least two months. “It used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment is exploited.” Some things never change, but just get worse. There’s also the very interesting observation that “in a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones” – and the authors that one borrows are very different from the authors that one buys.
“It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say. “Oh but that’s old!” and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are “always meaning to” read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand.”
I’m not sure that Dickens has stayed that popular 85 years later; although, yes, there are a number of Dickens that I haven’t read, and I’ve always meant to! He notes the growing unpopularity of American books – that’s a trend that’s certainly changed over the years; and the unpopularity of short stories. I’m no expert, but I sense that might still be the case.
So this a curious essay in some respects. Very personal, and one presumes Orwell is being scrupulously honest with his reader. His bookshop snobbery is quite jarring, but his factual observations about what sells and what doesn’t are fascinating. It’s written in a chatty, conversational style, that’s perhaps different from any of his previous essays which were more detached and serious in both style and content. A very interesting accompanying piece to Keep the Aspidistra Flying!
Next in my George Orwell Challenge, and still with the essay format, is In Defence of the Novel, first published in the New English Weekly in two instalments November 1936. I look forward to reading it soon and I hope you read it too!
Orwell had already used his experiences as a police officer in Burma for five years from 1922 to create not only his superb Burmese Days, but also his essay A Hanging. In September 1936 he published his essay Shooting an Elephant in New Writing magazine; several years later in 1948 it was broadcast on the BBC Home Service. Once more he would call on his time as an imperialist authoritarian figure in Burma to write this short piece that he himself describes in it as “a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.”
In Moulmein (present day Mawlamyine, the fourth largest city in Myanmar), the un-named narrator (but Orwell doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s him) is notified that an elephant is on the rampage in one of the city’s poorer quarters. It’s not a wild elephant, but a tame, privately owned elephant, who’s in must; Wikipedia tells us more about that state: “a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants characterized by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be on average 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times (in specific individuals these testosterone levels can even reach as much as 140 times the normal). However, whether this hormonal surge is the sole cause of musth, or merely a contributing factor, is unknown. Scientific investigation of musth is problematic because even the most placid elephants become highly violent toward humans and other elephants during musth.”
Orwell/Blair takes his rifle, even though it is too small to kill an elephant. Nor is he willing to kill the animal; he takes it more as an automatic self-defence strategy. But he becomes aware that his actions are creating attention from the locals; they are watching his every move and clearly expect him to kill the elephant. This will be spectacle for the people; and also, the promise of elephant meat is very attractive to them. If he fails to deliver the three outcomes of spectacle, death and meat, he will lose face; and nothing would be worse for him than for the assembled crowd to laugh at him. This is his biggest fear.
The elephant has caused some havoc in the marketplace, but, worst of all, has killed a man. “He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth.” He realises he has no choice but to kill the elephant, but because of his inexperience, he does not know that the best way is to shoot it in the ear. Instead, he imagines where the animal’s brain and heart would be, aims there, and shoots several times, which causes the animal to die a slow, painful, lingering death. “It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat.”
He’s satisfied that he was right to kill the elephant as it had taken a human life, although “the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.” The elephant’s owner was furious “but he was only an Indian and could do nothing.” “Afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”
It’s fascinating to see the opposing motivations at work in this little story. For a piece that was written 85 years ago, and describes an event that had taken maybe 100 years ago, Orwell has quite a complex view on the whole event. For him it is primarily a horrific act to kill a noble beast like the elephant who, although dangerous, is only following his own instinct. But Orwell’s own self-preservation kicks in too, and, unsurprisingly, he values his own safety and authority above that of the elephant. But he realises that, long term, this is a symptom of the evil that is imperialism. “I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalised figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.”
For the locals, they have a much less romantic image of their own local animal life. The elephant is owned by an Indian, so they don’t worry about its death. The locals have a natural cynicism and distrust of their colonial invader, and have no qualms about betraying those feelings to individual foreigners. “As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter […] The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.” Young Orwell is only human; his own reaction to that is also a matter of balance: “With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.”
He doesn’t shy away from describing the grim excesses of life in Burma, whether it be the imperialist influence or nature’s own. “As for the job I was doing, I hate it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear […] the wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.” His description of the dead Dravidian is both gruesome and gripping with its attention to detail: “He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony […] the friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit.”
And the death of the elephant is a mixture of the surreal and tragic: “A mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down […] he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him […] the thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause […] in the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were arriving with dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.”
It’s a powerful piece of writing, constructed with the detailed sincerity and insight you would expect from Orwell. Next in my George Orwell Challenge is a continuation with the essay format, and Bookshop Memories, first published in the Fortnightly Review for November 1936. Once again Orwell writes about what he knows about – his experiences working in a second-hand bookshop that he had already explored in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I look forward to reading it soon and I hope you read it too!
Orwell must have been a nightmare for publishers Victor Gollancz, with his penchant for writing about characters and places that he knew and only thinly cloaking them with a veneer of fiction. Burmese Days was originally rejected due to fear of libel, with recognisable links between fictional Kyauktada and the real town of Katha, where Orwell had been stationed. A Clergyman’s Daughter was the subject of many cuts and amendments to mask the reality of Orwell’s own experiences of hop-picking, school-teaching and working with the Church, that inspired the story. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, one of the major characters, Ravelston, was a barely concealed representation of Sir Richard Rees, who was the editor of The Adelphi magazine, a left-wing journal that published many of Orwell’s essays and other writings.
In addition to A Clergyman’s Daughter, this was the other book that Orwell wrote where he was displeased with the final result, and originally refused permission for it to be reprinted after his death. In a letter to the Canadian literary critic, George Woodcock, he wrote that it “was written simply as an exercise and I oughtn’t to have published it, but I was desperate for money. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in £100 or so”. He retracted this decision later on – and interestingly, Orwell chose Rees as his literary executor, so he must have trusted him well!
Orwell’s epigraph for Keep the Aspidistra Flying was presaged in his previous book. The untrustworthy Mr Warburton had a favourite saying: “if you took 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen, and in every verse wrote “money” instead of “charity”, the chapter had ten times as much meaning as before.” This is exactly what Orwell has used for his epigraph; by taking verses 1 to 7 and the final verse 13 of that Bible extract, and replacing “charity” (or “love”, depending on your translation) with “money”, he creates something of a nightmare creed. “Though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, have not money, I am nothing.” Perhaps the most telling of all is verse 13: “And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.”
As I mentioned in my previous blog posts about Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter, I’m not attempting to write a serious criticism of the book – there are plenty of wise words out there written by much more able brains; instead I’m just wanting to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to his writing. So here’s my reaction to Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I found it a harder book to read than his previous two novels – Burmese Days in particular I read over the course of a weekend because I literally could not put it down. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, however, I read over the course of a few weeks, taking in a chapter at a time, considering it and processing it, before proceeding with the next chapter. It’s extremely intense, so taking it slowly helps you appreciate it more. It’s also written in a very episodic style, so each chapter is quite self-contained, as far as the story progresses. That makes it easier for you to pause before you continue.
However, the main issue with it, in comparison to the other books, is that its central hero, in this case Gordon Comstock, is for the most part thoroughly unlikeable. The reader can identify quite easily with John Flory and Dorothy Hare, even though aspects of their personalities are unappealing, because it takes a while for the negative aspects of their characters to show themselves – by which time Orwell has hooked you in. But Comstock instantly repels us – he’s snobbish, prejudiced, contrary, difficult – and in a reverse process from the other books, it’s only after reading quite a lot of the book that you can start identifying with certain aspects of him.
Comstock has taken a moral stance, not to follow the Money God but to derive satisfaction from actively working against it. It’s a conclusion he worked out by observing the behaviours of his own family. “There are two ways to live, he decided. You can be rich, or you can deliberately refuse to be rich. You can possess money, or you can despise money; the one fatal thing is to worship money and fail to get it.” On one hand, that’s quite a reasonable and even admirable attitude to take. The trouble is, he’s so priggish about it; he blames everyone and everything else for his problems, he takes it out on his family and friends, he’s selfish and immature; and every time something bad happens to him, secretly, we’re quite pleased. It’s only towards the end, when his degradation gets almost too much to bear, that we start to give him the benefit of the doubt.
He sees himself as a poet, whiling his time away in a dead-end library job, making up verse to help the day go by. When we first meet him, he’s ridiculing or patronising members of the public who come to the bookshop/library where he works. He judges the well-dressed businessman who heads straight for the D H Lawrence, “pining for a bit of smut”; he inwardly criticises the book choice of Mrs Weaver and admires that of Mrs Penn, purely on the basis of their class; he loathes the “moneyed artistic young man” referring to him as a Nancy and mocking his speech.
But his superiority disdain for his clients is a façade to conceal his own failure and underachievement. Although he’s the published author of Mice, it’s a book that no one ever reads, and of which he himself despairs. “Forty or fifty drab, dead little poems, each like a little abortion in its labelled jar […] The poems themselves are dead. There’s no life in them. Everything I write is like that. Lifeless, gutless, Not necessarily ugly or vulgar; but dead – just dead […] My poems are dead because I’m dead. You’re dead. We’re all dead. Dead people in a dead world.” His masterwork that will never be, London Pleasures, is a half-finished, half-hearted waste of time that he carries around in his pocket, ostensibly in case he ever gets the inspiration to add to it, but primarily to remind him of his failure. He aspires to living the archetypal life of a poet, struggling in some lonely filthy garret somewhere. That’s probably one of the few ambitions he has that he achieves. Otherwise, all he has to offer artistically is failure. In a revealing throwaway line he describes poetry to himself as “the last futility”.
In his imitable style, Orwell provides several evocative descriptions of Comstock’s miserable, lonely domestic existence. “He looked about him. Another evening wasted. Hours, days, years slipping by. Night after night, always the same. The lonely room, the womanless bed; dust, cigarette ash, the aspidistra leaves […] For a quarter of an hour, perhaps, he lay on the bed fully dressed, his hands under his head. There was a crack on the ceiling that resembled the map of Australia […] He held up one foot and looked at it. A smallish, delicate foot. Ineffectual, like his hands, Also, it was very dirty. It was nearly ten days since he had had a bath […] Then he turned out the gas and slid between the sheets, shuddering, for he was naked, He always slept naked. His last suit of pyjamas had gone west more than a year ago.”
He is a curiously contrary character who, whenever any form of success beckons, retreats in the other direction. When he starts doing well at New Albion, he chucks the job in. His boss Erskine would have understood if he was going for a better job, but he was just going to do writing, in a non-committal way. “Poetry? Make a living out of that sort of thing, do you think?” And of course he can’t. If he could have, he probably would have turned away from it. He came from a generally sterile family, the only surviving members being two ageing aunts and an irrelevant uncle, and his sister Julia who had spent her life in subjugation to her brother, “working a seventy-two hour week and doing her “sewing” at nights by the tiny gas-fire in her bed-sitting-room.” “As for Gordon’s branch of the family, the combined income of the five of them, allowing for the lump sum that had been paid down when Aunt Charlotte entered the Mental Home, might have been six hundred a year. Their combined ages were two hundred and sixty-three years. None of them had ever been out of England, fought in a war, been in prison, ridden a horse, travelled in an aeroplane, got married or given birth to a child. There seemed no reason why they should not continue in the same style until they died. Year in, year out, nothing ever happened in the Comstock family.”
His relationships are one-sided. He loves his girlfriend Rosemary on his own, controlling terms – which are more lust than love. He rides roughshod over Julia, borrowing money that she can scarcely afford and that he will never return. When he receives a ten pounds windfall, he instantly puts five aside to pay back to Julia – but you just know from the start that she’ll never receive it; on those rare occasions when Comstock does have money in his pocket he has no idea how to look after it and he just fritters it away pointlessly. He has no time for any of the other tenants in his block – presumably because their very presence there means they are failures; and he’s quick to perceive a slight against himself such as when he goes to Doring’s house for a party and the place is in darkness; he replies to Doring’s follow-up letter with the words “go to Hell”, thus removing another potential light from his otherwise dark world.
The only person he does have time for is Ravelston; he likes, admires and respects Ravelston but hates being financially needy and reliant on him. “Gordon sidled closer to Ravelston as they started down the pavement. He would have taken his arm, only of course one can’t do that kind of thing. Beside Ravelston’s taller, comelier figure he looked frail, fretful, and miserably shabby. He adored Ravelston and was never quite at ease in his presence. Ravelston had not merely a charm of manner, but also a kind of fundamental decency, a graceful attitude to life, which Gordon scarcely encountered elsewhere.” Eventually he even blocks Ravelston from his life, as his self-destructive quest for personal degradation reaches its worst. “He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered […] without regret, almost intentionally, he was letting himself go to pieces.” Today, we’d say that Comstock was suffering from depression. “He just lay there, flat on his back, sometimes smiling a little, as though there were some private joke between himself and the ceiling. The room had already the stuffy sweetish smell of rooms that have been lived in a long time and never cleaned. There were dirty crocks lying about in the fender.”
Orwell always adhered to the adage, write what you know about, and he continues to do that in this book. Elements of Comstock’s morose and poverty-stricken domestic existence are reminiscent of his experiences in Paris, as he wrote more about in Down and Out in Paris and London. “He had turned his collar inside out and tied his tie so that the torn place didn’t show. With the point of a match he had scraped enough blacking from the tin to polish his shoes […] he had procured an empty Gold Flake packet and put not it a single cigarette extracted from the penny-in-the-slot-machine. That was just for the look of the thing.” These are Down and Out tricks of survivial. The fact that Comstock deliberately turns away from money and chooses to attain poverty reminds us of Orwell’s own habit of deliberately living poor for a while, just to get the experience, although he could always return to his middle-class family for support whenever he wanted, unlike Comstock. In many ways Comstock is Orwell – and it’s fascinating that he always refers to him in the book as Gordon, not Comstock, as though he is very personally involved with and relates to the character.
As always, an Orwell book gives us an excellent insight into the societal themes of the time. From the start, Orwell is scathing of the advertising hoardings that bombard the public with marketing messages, designed to make you feel inadequate unless you buy the product being advertised. Not much has changed there over the last 85 years. “Of them all, the Bovex one oppressed Gordon the most. A spectacled rat-faced clerk, with patent-leather hair, sitting at a café table grinning over a white mug of Bovex. “Corner table enjoys his meal with Bovex,” the legend ran.” (Bovex was a type of Bovril drink, by the way.) Just as the advertisement sees the clerk purely in terms of being “corner table”, so does Comstock. “Corner Table grins at you, seemingly optimistic, with a flash of false teeth. But what is behind the grin? Desolation, emptiness, prophecies of doom. For can you not see, if you know how to look, that behind that slick self-satisfaction, that tittering fat-bellied triviality, there is nothing but a frightful emptiness, a secret despair? The great death-wish of the modern world. […] It is all written in Corner Table’s face.”
The business where Comstock used to work, New Albion, is described as “one of those publicity firms which have sprung up everywhere since the War – the fungi, as you might say, that sprout from a decaying capitalism.” No love lost there, then. London, the home of capitalism in Britain, he describes as “mile after mile of mean lonely houses, let off in flats and single rooms; not homes, not communities, just clusters of meaningless lives drifting in a sort of drowsy chaos to the grave! He saw men as corpses walking.”
Orwell had a lot to say about private education in A Clergyman’s Daughter and he has more personal recollections in this book, which he delivers through Comstock’s invective. His unhappy experience at St Cyprian’s School, Eastbourne, where he became very aware that he was from a much poorer background than his school colleagues, clearly comes out in Comstock’s memories of his own education. “Gordon’s life had been one long conspiracy to keep his end up and pretend that his parents were richer than they were. Ah, the humiliation of those days! That awful business, for instance, at the beginning of each term, when you had to “give in” to the headmaster, publicly, the money you had brought back with you; and the contemptuous, cruel sniggers from the other boys when you didn’t ”give in” ten bob or more. And the time when the others found out that Gordon was wearing a ready-made suit which had cost thirty-five shillings! […] His father, especially, was the kind of father you couldn’t help being ashamed of […] he carried about with him an atmosphere of failure, worry and boredom. And he had such a dreadful habit, when he was saying goodbye, of tipping Gordon half a crown right in front of the other boys, so that everyone could see that it was only half a crown and not, as it ought to have been, ten bob! Even twenty years afterwards the memory of that school made Gordon shudder.”
On women, Comstock is very uncomplimentary. “They’re a bloody curse. That is, if you’ve got no money. A woman hates the sight of you if you’ve got no money […] the only thing a woman ever wants is money; money for a house of her own and two babies and Drage furniture and an aspidistra. The only sin they can imagine is not wanting to grab money. No woman ever judges a man by anything except his income […] and if you haven’t got money you aren’t nice. You’re dishonoured, somehow. You’ve sinned. Sinned against the aspidistra.” Ravelston’s girlfriend, the appalling Hermione, is given as an example. “She was rich, of course, or her people were […] “Don’t talk to me about the lower classes,” she used to say. “I hate them. They smell.” […] “Hermione, dear, please don’t call them the lower classes!” “Why not? They are the lower classes, aren’t they?” “It’s such a hateful expression. Call them the working class, can’t you?” “The working class, if you like, then. But they smell just the same.” “You oughtn’t to say that kind of thing, “ he protested weakly. “Do you know, Philip, sometimes I think you like the lower classes.” “Of course I like them.” “How disgusting. How absolutely disgusting.”
There’s also the latent racism of the age, which to be fair doesn’t arise very much, but is well expressed in this brief description of one of Comstock’s near neighbours: “In the garret adjoining Gordon’s there lived a tall handsome old woman who was not quite right in the head and her whole face was often as black as a Negro’s from dirt. Gordon could never make out where the dirt came from. It looked like coal dust. The children of the neighbourhood used to shout “Blackie!” after her as she stalked along the pavement like a tragedy queen, talking to herself.”
However, over and above everything else, money is the theme that matters in this book. Indeed, “money writes books, money sells them” concludes Comstock, as he gazes at the rows of books in the bookshop. “Books of criticism and belles-lettres. The kind of thing that those moneyed young beasts from Cambridge write almost in their sleep – and that Gordon himself might have written if he had had a little more money. Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.”
It seeps into all sectors of society. “All human relationships must be purchased with money. If you have no money, men won’t care for you, women won’t love you”. It’s always been the case, Comstock would argue, as he quotes Chaucer: “if thou be poure, thy brother hateth thee” (from The Man of Law’s Tale). He sees the elderly people who try to sell their worthless books to him as a consequence of money’s place in society: “They were just by-products. 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.” Money has replaced faith: “Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.” For Comstock, it even prevents sexual intercourse. “It dismayed him to find how little, at this moment, he really wanted her. The money-business still unnerved him. How can you make love when you have only eightpence in your pocket and are thinking about it all the time?” Indeed, Rosemary rejects his advances when it becomes clear he can’t afford something for the weekend.
He likens poverty to one of those complaints that the all-pervasive advertisements are designed to make us anxious: “It’s like those ads for Listerine. “Why is he always alone? Halitosis is ruining his career.” Poverty is spiritual halitosis.” And you can’t pretend to be poor when you’re not: “no rich man ever succeeds in disguising himself as a poor man; for money, like murder, will out” – which must be Orwell delivering a side-swipe against himself.
Another by-product of the lack of money is charity. Early on, Comstock rejects Flaxman’s offer of a drink in the pub: “Oh for a pint of beer! He seemed almost to feel it going down his throat, If only he had had any money! Even sevenpence for a pint. But what was the use? Twopence halfpenny in pocket, You can’t let other people buy your drinks for you. “Oh, leave me alone, for God’s sake!” he said irritably, stepping out of Flaxman’s reach, and went up the stairs without looking back.” Later, he rejects Ravelston’s attempts to alleviate his money worries: “However delicately it is disguised, charity is still horrible; there is a malaise, almost a secret hatred, between the giver and the receiver.” Later, when he reflects that he and Ravelston never see each other anymore, Comstock concludes “their friendship was at an end, it seemed to him. The evil time when he had lived on Ravelston had spoiled everything. Charity kills friendship.”
There are endless references to money all the way through the book, but perhaps the most telling conclusion that Comstock – or perhaps Orwell – comes in a conversation Gordon has with Ravelston. “The mistake you make […] is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself […] But one can’t. One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing.”
Orwell brings up a couple of cultural references, which, given Comstock’s pretensions towards culture is perhaps unsurprising. As well as the Chaucer quotation earlier, he refers to “Father Hilaire Chestnut’s latest book of R C propaganda” – a combination of Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton I guess – they were close associates and G B Shaw coined the name Chesterbelloc. It’s interesting to see Comstock’s reaction to the poet names on the bookshelf: “already on their way to heaven and oblivion, were the poets of yesteryear, the stars of his earlier youth. Yeats, Davies, Housman, Thomas, De La Mare, Hardy. Dead stars. Below them […] the squibs of the passing minute. Eliot, Pound, Auden, Campbell, Day Lewis, Spender. Very damp squibs, that lot. Dead stars above, damp squibs below. Shall we ever again get a writer worth reading? But Lawrence was all right, and Joyce even better before he went off his coconut.” There’s a nice dig here at Eliot, who rejected Orwell’s writing for Faber; however, in 1940 Orwell wrote that “The writers I care about most and never grow tired of are: Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Flaubert and, among modern writers, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence.” Nevertheless, four years later, Eliot would still reject Animal Farm for Faber.
I enjoyed how Comstock regarded his more intellectual literary conversations with Mrs Penn, reader of John Galsworthy, instead of Mrs Weaver, reader of Ethel M Dell, as a “freemasonry of highbrows”. When he moves to the more downtrodden library later in the book, he realises he consumes the “yellow-jacketed trash that the library contained” because he didn’t want to put any effort into reading, or to reward himself with anything worthwhile. He’s an immense book snob.
As always, Orwell is a master of language, expressing ideas with wonderful imagination, using brilliant similes, even inventing words. Right at the start, he describes the “elvish children” on a “Rackhamesque dust-jacket” as “tripping Wendily through a bluebell glade”. There’s no such word as Wendily, but we know he means in the style of Peter Pan’s Wendy and you can easily imagine those elvish children. Towards the end, when he’s back in the world of advertising, Comstock has to promote a cure for PP Pedic Perspiration, even though “Gordon had searched for the word “pedic” in the Oxford Dictionary and found that it did not exist. But Mr Warner said “Hell! What did it matter anyway?” I’ve checked my Oxford English Dictionary and can confirm that it still hasn’t made it into that hallowed tome.
He describes a tram as a “raucous swan of steel”, which implies both its rattling noise but also its effortless gliding movement. Commuters on trams or tubes are a “strap-hanging army”, emphasising both the numbers of commuters and the fact that they aren’t enough seats to convey them – nothing changes there. He anthropomorphises the contents of the bookshop as women in various degrees of sexual experience. “Novels straight from the press” are described as “still unravished brides, pining for the paperknife to deflower them”. Review copies are “like youthful widows, blooming still though virgin no longer”, whilst remainder copies are “pathetic spinster-things […] still guarding hopefully their long preserv’d virginity”. Using the archaic “preserv’d” adds an air of classical literary respectability.
Other great turns of phrase are when the drunken Comstock is complaining about the reputations of great writers “with the fine scorn of the unpublished”; Comstock’s observation that “one’s contacts with rich people, like one’s visits to high altitudes, should always be brief”; his description of Mrs Meakin as having “a loving manner towards anything in trousers”; and Orwell’s brilliant account of Ravelston unwillingly enduring the filth and commonness of the ghastly pub where Comstock insisted on taking Ravelston in for a drink:
“Gordon came back balancing two pint glasses of dark common ale. They were thick cheap glasses, thick as jam jars almost, and dim and greasy. A thin yellow froth was subsiding on the beer. The air was thick with gunpowdery tobacco-smoke. Ravelston caught sight of a well-filled spittoon near the bar and averted his eyes. It crossed his mind that this beer had been sucked up from some beetle-ridden cellar through yards of slimy tube, and that the glasses had never been washed in their lives, only rinsed in beery water […] Ravelston […] swallowed a mouthful or so and set his glass gingerly down. It was typical London beer, sickly and yet leaving a chemical after-taste. Ravelston thought of the wines of Burgundy. They went on arguing about Socialism.” Not only is this a brilliantly visceral description, it also emphasises the disparity between the poor and the rich Socialist.
A few other thoughts and observations I had… when Comstock is flashing his cash and spending like there’s no tomorrow, Comstock reveals he has something of a split personality, where he has a sober, sensible half, and a reckless, drunken half. Orwell gives us this moment of truth: “Gordon was restless and thirsty. He had wanted to come here, but he was no sooner here than he wanted to escape. Drunken half was clamouring for a bit of fun. And drunken half wasn’t going to be kept in check much longer. Beer, beer! cried drunken half.” It reminded me so much of Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears, if you’ve ever seen that production. Furthermore, Comstock’s angry letter to his friend (ex-friend) Doring, penned in a fury and posted without thought reminded me of something between a drunken text and a troll tweet. No form of communication is ever really new!
There’s an inconsistency with how Orwell describes Ravelston’s income. Orwell tells us that, after income tax, his income was “probably two thousand a year.” Yet a short while earlier, he tells us Ravelston earns eight hundred a year. That’s a rather unusual proofing mistake, unless I’m misreading it. By the way, two thousand a year in today’s value equals something in the region of 100k. Not absolute topflight, but a pretty good income no matter what.
The fictitious Brewers Yard, just off Lambeth Cut, where Comstock ends up bedding down at Mrs Meakin’s, is described as an utter hell-hole. However, take a walk on the streets off The Cut today and you’ll find yourself in a swanky, trendy and genteel part of London that’s the envy of everyone. Interesting how times change!
There’s two things I haven’t really mentioned. First – the plot twist, so to speak, that reveals Comstock to be essentially much more traditional and indeed materialistic than Rosemary, who you sense will carry on to be something of a free spirit. Is it a credible ending? It’s driven, not so much by his desire to follow Mammon, but more to steer away from what he feels is immoral – specifically, he won’t countenance Rosemary having an abortion. I don’t feel it lacks credibility, although it is very sudden, and you’d be forgiven for feeling a little like he’s strangely let the side down.
And finally, there’s the symbolism of the aspidistra. All the way through, aspidistras haunt Comstock, whether they be intimidatingly healthy or dusty and dying. It’s a symbol of everything that Comstock has always despised; wealth, stability, middle-class, aspirational, something given far more prominence in people’s lives than it really ought. The story comes full circle at the end when he and Rosemary have a disagreement about whether to invest in an aspidistra as a mark of their outwardly respectable marriage and family; in the end, he wins, and they buy one. He’s now really let the side down!
It is an intriguing book; less of a good read than his others to date, but there is a lot to think about and a lot to appreciate. As in the end of A Clergyman’s Daughter, the hero disappoints us by not following through and being the person we really want them to be. But Comstock is his own man and will do what he wants, whether it’s right or wrong. And at least, the (literal) sterility of the Comstock family will finally come to an end, so there’s an element of hope at the book’s conclusion.
Next in my George Orwell Challenge is a return to the essay format, and Shooting An Elephant, first published in New Writing magazine in September 1936, later published in book format as part of a collection of essays in 1950. It’s a return to Orwell’s Burma days; only ten paperback-size pages long, but I expect it to be as powerful a piece as A Hanging. I look forward to reading it over the next month or so and I hope you’ll join me in tracking down a copy too.
Advice to budding novelists often includes the recommendation to write about what you know about. Down and Out in Paris and London was a memoir of Orwell’s times spent in those two capitals deliberately living with the poor and homeless. Burmese Days was the result of his experiences with the Indian Police Service in Burma in the late 1920s. Gollancz initially rejected it for publication, largely due to fear of libel as there was little concealment that the fictional Kyauktada was in fact the real town of Katha, where Orwell had been stationed. History repeated itself with Orwell’s next novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, which was written with the insight provided by two of Orwell’s personal experiences, that of living “on the beach” (homeless) in London, hop-picking in Kent, working in a minor private school in Hayes, Middlesex, becoming friendly with the curate of a local church, and finally more school teaching experience at a larger college in Uxbridge. Homelessness, poverty, hop-picking, teaching in private schools and the machinations of the day to day running of a parish church are all essential elements of his new book, and Gollancz had the same reaction that they had to Burmese Days. They insisted on many cuts and amendments before they would publish, to which Orwell reluctantly agreed. However, partly (but not solely) because of this censorship, he was very unhappy with the final outcome of the book and, initially at least, refused permission for it to be reprinted after his death. This was, however, a decision he came to alter when he consented to the printing of cheap editions “of any book which may bring in a few pounds for my heirs” following his death.
As I mentioned in my blog post about Burmese Days, when I started my George Orwell Challenge I decided that I just wanted to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to what he wrote, and leave any more serious criticism to other more intelligent souls. So here’s my reaction to A Clergyman’s Daughter: it’s a hotch potch of brilliant and not-quite-so-brilliant writing, with a fascinating central character who goes on one helluva journey, with some extraordinary plot turns, a too-easy resolution to her main story, and a too-neat ending. There’s also a section which is written as a play text, which, perhaps surprisingly is the sequence that Orwell felt was the best thing in the book; I think it’s the worst. It’s a very experimental book, and – as an experiment – some aspects of it work and some don’t. But, as when I see a play, I try always to value a brave failure over a lazy success, so I have to admire Orwell for a work that he himself didn’t value much. God loves a trier as my mother-in-law would say. Big spoilers alert – it’s impossible to write about this book without telling you the story so if you haven’t read it and want to, please go away and read it. I’ll be fascinated to know what you think of it!
The book is split into five chapters, each of which are split into smaller parts. Chapter One introduces us to Dorothy, a clergyman’s daughter, who spends all her days looking after either the said clergyman, or his parishioners, in numerous ways. She makes the costumes for the village children’s plays, she tries to raise money for the church upkeep, she gets up early to make her father’s breakfast; the list of her duties is endless. But she does it all with spirited grace, backed up by her firm faith. There is one murky presence in her life – Mr Warburton, a middle-aged lounge lizard, who’d like to add Dorothy’s notch to his bedpost. Dorothy, however, has no intention of being anyone’s bedpost notch ever. He is persistent, and so is she; and chapter one ends with her refusing his advances and going back to making the children’s costumes. However, the local gossip Mrs Semprill sees her and Warburton in a late-night clinch, suspects the worst, and isn’t afraid to mention it to all and sundry.
When Chapter Two opens, you don’t know where you are; and nor does Dorothy. It turns out that she had some kind of amnesia attack and suddenly finds herself in London, unsuitably dressed, knowing neither her name nor occupation, with no home and no money. She falls in with some youths off to Kent for some hop-picking; and she ends up begging and getting arrested. However, after a while, her memory comes back so she writes to her father to explain what has happened and ask for him to come and get her and bring her home. Several letters in fact; and no reply to any of them. Chapter Three sees her so down and out that she spends a night with the tramps in Trafalgar Square, freezing cold, and abjectly miserable. In Chapter Four she is tracked down by her uncle’s servant and employed at a private school by one Mrs Creevy, who has elevated meanness and cruelty to an art form. Whilst Dorothy enjoys teaching the children (and they have a good relationship with her) her modern approaches to education aren’t appreciated by their neanderthal parents – and Mrs Creevy is only in it for the money (well, and the sadism), so Dorothy has to revert to teaching in the old-fashioned, boring way.
At the end of the chapter Mrs Creevy boots her off the premises with no references, notice or thanks. But Chapter Five sees her rescued by Mr Warburton and taken back home where her reputation has kind of been reinstated, as Mrs Semprill has been discredited by other lies that she told in the past. Warburton offers marriage but she refuses; but she admits she has now lost her faith. This isn’t a springboard to the freer life that Warburton thinks she should enjoy, but simply means she goes back to her old duties, but without faith; so with an element of hypocrisy and meaninglessness. She has made progress as a character, but the book ends the same way that Chapter One ends – just with her previous faith replaced by a gaping void. Does she live miserably ever after, or does she go round again on another amnesia-driven journey of self-discovery? You decide!
There’s a huge amount to enjoy in this book. Like Burmese Days, I found myself devouring it, reading it quickly and avidly, and frequently marvelling at those amazing Orwellian turns of phrase. Chapter One is a delightful account of Dorothy’s life in this turgid parish, with her ungrateful, un-Christian vicar father, full of wonderful observations and cracking characterisations. Chapter Four, also, is a great read, as we follow Dorothy’s struggles living chez Creevy, a money-grabbing vicious old bag who never does a kind act if an unkind one is possible. Chapter Two is a return to Orwell’s already published experiences of hop-picking and living down and out in London, which sometimes feels as though he has just lifted extracts from his Hop Picking diary and plonked them into the story, and just added Dorothy and a few other characters for good measure.
Chapter Three is a bizarre straying into the world of drama, but with little information about the people who populate Trafalgar Square, and not very convincing voices for many of his characters there; it makes the one night that Dorothy spent there feel very long indeed. And finally Chapter Five finishes the book where we began, with a lot of soul-searching about how Dorothy can continue doing the same things without faith, and, frankly, frustrating the reader that her journey didn’t create a more fulfilling result for her. “Beliefs change, thoughts change, but there is some inner part of the soul that does not change. Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.” So, personally, I loved Chapters One and Four, found Two acceptable, Five frustrating and Three utterly tedious!
There’s no doubt that Dorothy is a great and rather complex character. When we first see her, we rather admire her ability to put on a brave front in the face of being subjected to some raw treatment from her father who just treats her like a skivvy. There are menial tasks to perform but she does them keenly and earnestly. But we’re quickly alarmed by her self-harming which appears to be driven, not by mental ill-health, but by an almost medieval sense of self-punishment if her mind strays from the letter of the Gospels. Any uncharitable thought, any deviation from the Word of God, and out comes her pin to prick herself, preferably to the point of bleeding.
But this stops when her amnesia kicks in, and she can no longer remember her old life – or even that she had a life; nor does she pray. Instead she faces the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with stoicism, kindness, optimism, and a sense of ambition – to get out of the situation in which she finds herself but without causing additional hurt to her father. She throws herself into providing stimulating education for Mrs Creevy’s pupils, but when these efforts are thrown back in her face, she puts her job first, as she knows to avoid another Trafalgar Square situation at all costs. She’s imaginative, but realistic. The book ends with her in a position of near-stasis, which is frustrating and disappointing, but probably inevitable. Her dislike of anything physical means she was never going to accept Warburton’s offer of marriage – anything else would have been totally unrealistic. Her experiences have confirmed to her what she doesn’t want out of life, but not what she does want.
Warburton offers a reason for Dorothy’s amnesia. He maintains that her faith was never genuine, and just a convenient excuse for her day-to-day existence. ““You’d built yourself a life-pattern – if you’ll excuse a bit of psychological jargon – that was only possible for a believer, and naturally it was beginning to be a strain on you.” He saw that she did not understand, and explained to her that loss of memory is only a device, unconsciously used, to escape from an impossible situation. The mind, he said, will play curious tricks when it is in a tight corner.” I presume that if he is correct in his explanation, then there should not be a recurrence of amnesia after the book ends.
As usual, Orwell fills the book with a few strong supporting characters who are beautifully written and come to life on the page. Warburton is a total louse, completely devoid of shame, who doesn’t remotely care if his approaches to Dorothy are spurned, no matter how much he presses her. A vital plot point that was by necessity censored from Orwell’s original text was that Warburton had attempted to rape Dorothy, so any sense that he is a lovable rogue is misplaced. He has no compunction about lying to get Dorothy on her own. If nothing else, Dorothy is much wiser after her London experiences, and is not going to be taken in by him. He is insightful though: “a favourite saying of Mr Warburton’s […] if you took 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen, and in every verse wrote “money” instead of “charity”, the chapter had ten times as much meaning as before.” Interestingly, this Bible chapter would become the epigraph for Orwell’s next book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
There’s also the appalling Mrs Creevy, by profession a head-teacher but in reality, a parsimonious self-centred bully, who takes her revenge on the clients who pay less by treating their children worse; vice versa, if they pay well, their children can get away with murder. She guards the marmalade pot with her life; deliberately slices the breakfast fried egg so that Dorothy gets less than her share; turns on her in front of the parents to threaten her with the sack; and only laughs when she’s swindled someone out of some hard-earned cash. “So long as she could think of a way of docking Dorothy’s dinner of another potato or getting her exercise books a halfpenny a dozen cheaper, or shoving an unauthorised half guinea onto one of the “good payers” bills, she was happy after her fashion.” She even manages to cheat Warburton out of half-a-crown. She advocates physical violence against the children: “the best thing with children is to twist their ears”. As a delightful irony, she only sees Shakespeare as a source of immorality; so much for a private education. There’s something of the Wackford Squeers about her; I wonder if Orwell had been reading his Nicholas Nickleby at the same time, as there is a character there called Miss La Creevy (although she is kind!)
And we have the thoroughly unpleasant Reverend Charles Hare, Dorothy’s father, Rector of St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, Suffolk; a fictional location, much to Gollancz’s relief, no doubt, but strongly suspected to be Southwold, where the book was written. In one of those marvellous, to-the-point descriptions of a character and his behaviour that Orwell executes so well, we understand immediately the kind of person he is. “The Rector, in cassock and short linen surplice, was reciting the prayers in a swift practised voice, clear enough now that his teeth were in, and curiously ungenial. In his fastidious, aged face, pale as a silver coin, there was an expression of aloofness, almost of contempt. “This is a valid sacrament,” he seemed to be saying, “and it is my duty to administer it to you. But remember that I am only your priest, not your friend. As a human being I dislike you and despise you.””
Unsurprisingly he hates Harvest Festival. “Do you suppose […] it is any pleasure to me to have to preach my sermon among festoons of runner beans? I am not a greengrocer.” He’s also a snob; being “the younger son of a younger son of a Baronet […] had gone into the Church for the outmoded reason that the Church is the traditional profession for younger sons. His first cure had been in a large, slummy parish in East London – a nasty hooliganish place it had been, and he looked back on it with loathing. Even in those days the lower classes (as he made a point of calling them) were getting decidedly out of hand.” He keeps his money to himself, leaving Dorothy to fend off creditors; he finds it particularly distasteful that tradesmen should want to be paid.
Dorothy meets a range of colourful characters on the road; but these are perhaps not quite as memorable as the others. This is curious, as two of them, Ginger and Deafie, were real people about whom Orwell wrote in his hop-picking diaries; if Gollancz feared a libel case, this was maybe his closest shave. The details about Deafie were true; a) that he was stone deaf and b) that he continually exposed himself to women and children, despite being essentially decent. The details about Ginger were attributed to Nobby in the book – that he was a fearless and charismatic guy who often lived on Trafalgar Square and whose wife had died in childbirth, had been to Borstal, and was a master of thefts, both great and small. However, for the most part, the people she meets hop picking and on Trafalgar Square just don’t inhabit your imagination. Chapter Three – the drama scene – doesn’t do anything to fix these characters firmly in the reader’s mind’s eye. If you had already read Orwell’s essay Hop Picking, which he had published four years earlier, none of Dorothy’s experiences or Orwell’s observations on the whole phenomenon would come as a surprise. I did have to fight a suspicion that Orwell simply created Dorothy’s hop-picking experiences simply so that he could put his own experience and writing to good use. Cynical of me, I know.
Orwell is at his best when revelling in beautifully worded imagery and impactful sentences that just yearn to be read out loud. In that opening scene, he goes into terrific detail to reveal the horror of a putrid Holy Communion service, with Dorothy having to share the communion wine with the unpleasant Miss Mayfill. “Miss Mayfill was creeping towards the altar with slow, tottering steps. She could barely walk, but she took bitter offence if you offered to help her. In her ancient, bloodless face her mouth was surprisingly large, loose and wet. The under lip, pendulous with age, slobbered forward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellow as the keys of an old piano. On the upper lip was a fringe of dark, dewy moustache. It was not an appetising mouth; not the kind of mouth that you would like to see drinking out of your cup.” It’s a magnificent piece of writing – you can almost smell and taste Miss Mayfill’s saliva as it dribbles over the cup.
I love Orwell’s description of the clients at the “fully licensed” Knype Hill Conservative Club “from whose bow window, any time after the bar was open, the large, rosy-gilled faces of the town’s elite were to be seen gazing like chubby goldfish from an aquarium pane”. When Dorothy has returned to the parish, she notices “that the ash tree by the gate was in bloom, with clotted dark-red blossoms that looked like festerings from a wound”; which dazzles you with its comparison of nature’s beauty with grim disease. In one of his many descriptions of Mrs Creevy, he highlights her personal habit of noisy inelegance: “Mrs Creevy got up from the table and banged the breakfast things together on the tray. She was one of those women who can never move anything without banging it about; she was as full of thumps and raps as a poltergeist” – which is a fantastic simile. Another is when he describes tearing down bines of hops: “huge, tapering strands of foliage, like the plaits of Rapunzel’s hair that came tumbling down on top of you, showering you with dew.”
In an amusing nod to the quotation from Macbeth that got Dorothy into trouble with the school parents, when Warburton takes Dorothy to lunch in Coventry Street, among the side vegetables she found “tiny, pearly-white potatoes that had been ripped untimely from their mother earth”. There’s a lovely observation when Dorothy has been having a busy day in the parish: “The sun, burning in the cloudless sky, scorched her back through her gingham frock, and the dusty road quivered in the heat, and the hot, flat meadows, over which even at this time of year numberless larks chirruped tiresomely, were so green that it hurt your eyes to look at them. It was the kind of day that is called “glorious” by people who don’t have to work.” There it is – a typical, Orwellian, killer finish!
I was interested to see a continuation of the disapproval of the way a Labour government, in an attempt to make things better for working class people, actually made things worse. This was a theme that started in Down and Out in Paris and London. One of the farmers employing hop pickers has stated that he will only take on “home pickers”; as Mrs McElligot explains: “dem as has got homes o’ deir own […] dat’s de law nowadays. In de old days when you come down hoppin’, you kipped in a stable an’ dere was no questions asked. But dem bloody interferin’ gets of a Labour Government brought in a law to say as no pickers was to be taken on widout de farmer had proper accommodation for ‘em. So Norman only takes on folks as has got homes o’ deir own.” And, Orwell, never a friend of communism, refers to the life that Dorothy was now leading in London: “the enormous sleepless nights, the cold, the dirt, the boredom and the horrible communism of the Square.”
He also takes the opportunity to deliver a diatribe against private education; something he himself had benefited from, and some elements of which were required to be censored by Mr Gollancz. “There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England. Second-rate, third-rate and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town.” “…There is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money. Often, except that there is nothing illegal about them, they are started in exactly the same spirit as one would start a brothel or a bucket shop.” Dorothy “heard tales of schools that were worse by far than Ringwood House. She heard of a cheap boarding-school where travelling actors dumped their children as one dumps luggage in a railway cloakroom, and where the children simply vegetated, doing absolutely nothing, reaching the age of sixteen without learning to read; and another school where the days passed in a perpetual riot, with a broken-down old hack of a master chasing the boys up and down and slashing at them with a cane, and then suddenly collapsing and weeping with his head on a desk, while the boys laughed at him. So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen.”
The regulation of the schools was nonsense; “one day a Government inspector did, indeed, visit the school, but beyond measuring the dimensions of the schoolroom to see whether each girl had her right number of cubic feet of air, he did nothing; he had no power to do more.” I must say, Mrs Creevy’s watchword that you do what the parents want and that’s the most important thing in private education was certainly not my experience of going to a private school. If a parent went to my headmaster and quibbled with the way their son was being taught, he’d simply have recommended them to withdraw him from the school!
One final note of interest: I saw that the unfrocked Mr Tallboys, homeless on Trafalgar Square, sang (to the tune of Deutschland über Alles) “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” which would of course go on to be the name of Orwell’s next novel.
I know it’s a cliché, but this book really is the archetypal curate’s egg. The opening chapter is so full of brilliant observations and terrific characterisations, that you can’t wait for the next page. Similarly, the sequence where Dorothy is shacked up at the abominable Creevy’s makes your heckles rise with its injustice. The reader is very concerned about Dorothy’s wellbeing; we really want her to do well, to rise above all the things that have gone wrong for her and to create a happy and successful future. So when it looks like that’s not going to happen, it’s genuinely disappointing; but on reflection, all other outcomes would be artificial. I still feel that the hop-picking episode was written just because Orwell had had the experience and wanted to write about it; and the dramatext-style chapter three just seems totally unsatisfactory.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book very much and would certainly recommend it. Next in my George Orwell Challenge comes his third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I read this as a teenager – or maybe in my young 20s – but I have absolutely no memory of it. So it will be like reading a brand new book! I’ll read it over the next month or so and then write down my thoughts as usual. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.
Burmese Days was the first full-length novel that Orwell wrote, using observations he made during his years with the Indian Police Service in Burma. He wrote the first draft while living in Paris in the late 1920s; then revised it in 1932, with its final version fully written by early 1934. However, it was rejected by Gollancz, who had published Down and Out in Paris and London the previous year, due to their fears of libel. It was clear that Orwell’s fictional location for his story – Kyauktada – was in fact the real town of Katha, where Orwell had served in the Police Force. In fact, the European Club, the jail and the police station are still in existence today, and, if you needed any further clues, the map that Orwell reprints at the beginning of the book makes it all too clear that Kyauktada is indeed Katha. It was feared that the characters bore too great a similarity to people he met whilst stationed there, and Gollancz was not prepared to take the risk. Orwell offered the book to Jonathan Cape and Heinemann too, but they turned it down for the same reason. However, it was accepted by Harpers for publication in the United States, where it was finally published in October 1934. On the understanding that Orwell could demonstrate that he had not named real people, Gollancz finally accepted it for publication the following June.
When I started my George Orwell Challenge a short while ago, I decided that it would be both big-headed and redundant of me to try to add to the weight of literary criticism about any of his writing. I just wanted to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to what he wrote, and leave any greater insights to brains much more accomplished than mine. So let me start by saying that I had no real expectation of what this book would be like. But you know the kind of book where you’re gripped from the first page, you resent time not spent reading it, and you can see the characters in your mind’s eye, and hear their voices and their accents, and see the locations, and feel the emotions of everyone involved in the book? This book is that book. I REALLY LOVED THIS BOOK!
So what is it about this book that made it stand out for me? I answer by directing you to the four things that most people would want from a first-rate novel. A strong, credible story; vibrant, memorable characters; eloquent use of language; and conveying truths and insights that makes your brain work. And Burmese Days has these four assets in spades. If you haven’t read the book yet, and don’t want to see any spoilers, please stop reading here, go and read the book this instant, and then come back! It’s going to be impossible to write about this book without giving away vast amounts of the plot – and its shocks and surprises.
Let’s start off with the strong, credible story. John Flory, thirty-five years old, English timber merchant and long-time resident of Burma, doesn’t fit in with the other Englishmen at the Club; primarily because his best friend in the country is the Indian Doctor Veraswami, and pukka sahibs in Burma are only meant to mix with other white people. A decree has gone out, that the club must elect one non-European Member, in an effort to improve relations with the local people. Subdivisional Magistrate U Po Kyin, corrupt and ambitious, has his sights set on being granted this honour; the thorn in his flesh is Veraswami, as the most likely other person to be elected.
Meanwhile, Flory is otherwise sad and alone, and can see no way out of his miserable lifestyle. Enter Elizabeth Lackersteen, twenty-two and a highly eligible Englishwoman, newly arrived in Burma from living in Paris. Flory sees his chance and does his best to arouse her romantic interest. But there are two problems; one – he is cultured, well-read and artistic, all characteristics that she loathes. And secondly, he has a large and unsightly birthmark on his face that he finds hard to cover up and which takes away a lot of his confidence; will the birthmark make a difference to how Elizabeth sees him? Not only that, but a rival appears on the scene – military policeman Verrall, a handsome but vain man who loves his polo. But does he also love Elizabeth? I don’t really need to outline any more of the story here; this just gives you a hint of the intrigues at play and the possible outcomes.
What about those characters? Looking at it from an old-fashioned moral standpoint, there’s one out-and-out good person, one irredeemably evil person, and everyone else falls somewhere between the two. Dr Veraswami is, maybe not goodness personified, but still a thoroughly decent and honest man, which makes the attempts to discredit him even more telling. He respects the authority of the British, he does everything he can to be a good friend and host, and when push comes to shove, he is there to support Flory in quelling the rebellion. In the opposite corner is U Po Kyin, an outright villain with no redeeming features, corrupt to the nth degree; a murderer and rapist, likened by Veraswami to a crocodile in that he’s always out for a kill and will always go for the weak spot to secure his evil wishes.
As those two characters occupy the end positions in the goodness/evil scale, although they are well drawn and entertaining to read about, perhaps they are slightly less interesting than the more complex characters. A case in point, and somewhere in between them, is Elizabeth Lackersteen, whose experiences in Paris have affected her detrimentally, so that when she arrives in Burma she is extremely vulnerable. She is pretty and presents herself well, and at first appears to be a charming young lady, but she has a very black-and-white view of what’s good and what’s not, and primarily it comes down to money – due to two terms at a very expensive and posh school. “Thereafter, her whole code of living was summed up in one belief, and that a simple one. It was that the Good (“lovely” was her name for it) is synonymous with the expensive, the elegant, the aristocratic; and the Bad (“beastly”) is the cheap, the low, the shabby, the laborious […] Everything from a pair of stockings to a human soul was classifiable as “lovely” or “beastly”.”
As we get to know Elizabeth more, we realise that she is appallingly and unashamedly racist; when Flory introduces her to some local people she quickly loses any sense of decency (“how revoltingly ugly these people are […] so coarse-looking; like some kind of animal […] what absolutely disgusting people”), and this sets her against Flory: “He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a “subject” people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant.” We also discover that she is romantically – even sexually – aroused by watching violence. She is desperate to kill anything that moves when Flory takes her on a hunt, and when he talks animatedly about shooting, “she really loved him when he talked like this”. When she shoots a pigeon, “he put it limp and warm into Elizabeth’s hand. She could hardly give it up, the feel of it so ravished her. She could have kissed it, hugged it to her breast […] She was conscious of an extraordinary desire to fling her arms around Flory’s neck and kiss him; and in some way it was the killing of the pigeon that made her feel this.”
She’s also a cultural philistine, finding the local pwe dance “beastly” and wanting to leave early, thereby offending the local performers; “Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom and something approaching horror […] Surely it was not right to be sitting among the black people like this, almost touching them, in the scent of their garlic and their sweat? Why was she not back at the Club with the other white people? Why had he brought her here, among this horde of natives, to watch this hideous and savage spectacle?” She hates the word “Art”, because her mother was a martyr to Art in Paris, and she equates it with poverty and pretentiousness, dirt and foreigners. “Elizabeth had no friends in Paris […] Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners.” As a result she’s a truly bad romantic match for Flory, for whom culture is very important. She would have hated knowing that he likened her to Rosa Dartle, a character from David Copperfield, as she would find all literary allusions “beastly”.
Other notable characters include the drunken Mr Lackersteen, Elizabeth’s uncle, who perpetually makes lecherous approaches to her; his manipulative and shallow wife, whose only intention is to marry her off, so that they no longer have any responsibility for her; Ma Hla May, Flory’s vengeful ex-mistress; Ellis, the vindictive, cruel racist businessman who never misses an opportunity for violence against the locals; Verrall, the dismissive military policeman who is only happy on horseback; Deputy Commissioner Macgregor in charge of the Club; and Ko S’la, Flory’s devoted and long-suffering servant.
Which leaves the central character, Flory; a fascinatingly flawed anti-hero. Never comfortable with the other pukka sahibs, he despises their racism but is weak to call them out on it. When Ellis organises a petition against Veraswami joining the Club, Flory signs it despite acknowledging his disloyalty to his friend because he doesn’t want any confrontation. He treats Ma Hla May with total disrespect, using her only for sex; he gets so drunk he has to be undressed and put to bed by Ko S’la. He makes himself look foolish in comparison with Verrall with his lack of horsemanship. Nevertheless, it’s Flory who dares to swim the Irrawaddy to alert the police in the town that the Club is under siege, possibly saving lives in the process. It’s Flory who rescues Elizabeth when she fears attack from a water buffalo. It’s Flory who appreciates the Burmese culture and respects the local traditions. And it’s Flory who genuinely tries his hardest to court Elizabeth and do his best for her. The reader wholly identifies with Flory, so that you forgive him his flaws and misjudgements. And it’s those flaws and misjudgements that make him a supremely believable character.
Orwell constantly delights us with his immaculate use of language; his narrative style is clear and full of imagery, flashes of humour, surprises and sideswipes. He starts with an ironic but wholly appropriate epigraph from As You Like It – “this desert inaccessible Under the shade of melancholy boughs” – equating the Forest of Arden with the jungles of Burma. He relishes the opportunity for regular descriptions of jungle fauna and flora, evoking all the senses to convey the setting to the reader. Take, for example, these few lines from the scene where Flory escapes into the jungle because he cannot sleep at night. “It was scrub jungle at first, with dense stunted bushes, and the only trees were half-wild mangoes, bearing little turpentiny fruits the size of plums […] there was a poisonous, ivy-like smell of crushed leaves. It was still hot, though the sun was losing his glaze and the slanting light was yellow […] at the edge of the stream there was a huge dead pyinkado tree festooned with spidery orchids, and there were some wild lime bushes with white, waxen flowers. They had a sharp scent like bergamot. Flory had walked fast and the sweat had drenched his shirt and dribbled, stinging, into his eyes. He had sweated himself into a better mood.”
And there’s more. “Here a peepul tree grew, a great buttressed thing six feet thick, woven of innumerable strands of wood, like a wooden cable twisted by a giant. The roots of the tree made a natural cavern, under which the clear greenish water bubbled […] a flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries […] the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it […] then a single green pigeon fluttered down and perched on a lower branch, It did not know that it was being watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of iridescent colours. Its legs were like the pink wax that dentists use.”
It’s a barrage for the senses. The colours: yellow, white, green, pink; the smells: turpentiny, ivy-like, lime, bergamot; the liquid: the stream, stinging sweat, bubbling water; the fruits, trees and flowers: mangoes, plums, pyinkado, orchids, waxen flowers, peepul, berries. It overflows with lush description, almost too much to take in, overwhelming – just like the jungle would be. Orwell equates the vegetation with the Burmese people. On the first page of the book, he notes that “the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling.” With such regard for the flora and fauna, it comes as a shock to the reader when he describes Flory and Elizabeth on their hunting expeditions; with such an eye and ear for the sights and sounds of nature it’s grotesque when its animals are shot.
Orwell tells us of a time when Flory was trying to impress Elizabeth with tales of shoots he had been on before. “She was quite thrilled when he described the murder of an elephant which he had perpetrated some years earlier.” The word murder, an act he perpetrated, is normally only used of human beings, but here Orwell raises the sense of crime involved – which I’m guessing would have been very forward-looking at the time. During Flory’s erroneous attempt to impress Elizabeth with his horse-riding skills, Orwell affirms that “he knew that, like nearly everyone, he looked his best on horseback”. Association between people and animals is shown positively unless it involves the animal’s death. When Elizabeth wounds and then Flory kills the leopard, “they stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s”; but after the pelt has been cured and prepared as a gift for Elizabeth, “the skin had been utterly ruined. It was as stiff as cardboard, with the leather cracked and the fur discoloured and even rubbed off in patches, It also stank abominably. Instead of being cured, it had been converted into a piece of rubbish.”
Elsewhere, Orwell’s style just captures the reader, with originality and imagination, always truthful and insightful. “Next day the town was quieter than a cathedral city on a Monday morning.” “Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work.” “On board ship everyone behaves as though he were rich.” “He was an intelligent man and an able servant of his firm, but he was one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.” “There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways.” “Is there anything in the world more graceless, more dishonouring, than to desire a woman whom you will never have?”
There’s frequent, almost random use of the N word, by characters such as Ellis, for whom the Burmese and Indians are nothing but scum beneath his feet, but also by Flory and Orwell as the narrator, imbued with irony and exposing the racism of others. “When a man has a black face” says U Po Kyin, “suspicion is proof”, encapsulating the idea that there’s one law for one and one for the other. This lack of fairness is why Flory doesn’t fit in with his white colleagues; and Orwell’s narrative subtly switches between simply giving an account of Flory’s life and commenting on the morality and decency of those who make a living from the British Empire. “There is a prevalent idea that the men at the “outposts of Empire” are at least able and hardworking. It is a delusion. Outside the scientific services – the Forest Department, the Public Works Department and the like – there is no particular need for a British official in India to do his job competently […] it is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.”
I was strongly reminded of a theme that Orwell had written about in both Down and Out in Paris and London, and in his essay on Common Lodging Houses – that of profiteering from the misfortunes of others, at their expense. The prisoners’ food is prepared by the wife of a constable, “a stout Burmese woman”, who Orwell describes as “kneeling outside the cage ladling rice and watery dahl into tin pannikins.” He explains: “the Government provided for the prisoners’ food at the rate of two annas and a half per meal per man, out of which the constable’s wife looked to make a profit of one anna”. Just like the meal ticket swindle, for those staying in lodgings, where vouchers worth sixpence were given to the tramps but were redeemed at an eating-house for only fourpence worth of food, it’s a scandal that is still found everywhere today. Elizabeth’s observations about her mother’s poverty-stricken life in Paris were doubtlessly based on Orwell’s own observations whilst living there in the 1920s.
But it’s not all heartache and savagery. Orwell has a lightness of touch that turns to gentle humour with delicate ease. From colonial jokes: “Reminds me of the old colonel who used to sleep without a mosquito net. They asked his servant why and the servant said: “At night, master too drunk to notice mosquitoes; in the morning, mosquitoes too drunk to notice master””; learned jokes: “at least you have brought to us law and order. The unswerving British Justice and the Pax Britannica.” “Pox Britannica, doctor. Pox Britannica is its proper name”; pricking pomposity jokes: “How slow you are! I should have thought even a fool would have seen that I am raising this rebellion merely in order to crush it. I am – what is that expression Mr Macgregor uses? Agent provocateur – Latin, you would not understand”; irony jokes: “the editor will get six months’ imprisonment for this,” he said finally. “He does not mind. He says that the only time when his creditors leave him alone is when he is prison.” And so on. Reading Orwell is always full of unexpected pleasures!
It’s not a perfect book by any means. There are a couple of dubious plot devices that make you think of Thomas Hardy at his worst – like the earthquake that just so happens to coincide with Flory attempting to say something very important to Elizabeth, and a kind of fatalism overshadows the ending that suggests that it was never going to be end happily for our hero. But then, Orwell did state that he wasn’t that kind of writer. From the essay Why I Write: “I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…is rather that kind of book.”
Orwell ends the book with a lively round-up of what the characters are all up to now. It feels like an extremely modern tactic, such as would end a TV reality/documentary series. “Ethel is now back at home and getting to grips with her new hip” or “Fingers Dolittle was given a ten year prison sentence”; except that here the loose ends of all the major characters are tied up, largely to the satisfaction of the reader – except that, of course, Orwell would never give it a happy ending.
Despite those couple of minor quibbles, I think this is a terrific book. A subtle – or maybe not so subtle, you choose – indictment of the British Empire, from one who worked there and decided that life in Blighty was best. I don’t think this book is anything like as well known as it deserves to be, and I am currently pestering all my friends to give it a read. I think you should too! I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts, so please add them in the comments below. Next in my George Orwell Challenge comes his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter. I have no idea what to expect, so I’m looking forward to reading it over the next month or so and then I’ll put pen to paper and write something about it. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.
Orwell had used his experiences living in deliberate poverty in Paris and London to create material for essays that had already been published, including Hop Picking and Common Lodging Houses. In 1930 he wrote an account of all his Paris experiences, including working as a plongeur (washer-up and general dogsbody) in restaurants, but it was rejected by publishers Jonathan Cape. The following year he added his London memoir to the first part, but this larger version was still rejected, this time by Faber and Faber. Editorial director T S Eliot wrote “We did find it of very great interest, but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.” He left the manuscript with Mabel Fierz, an older woman with whom Orwell had a relationship and who was keen to help young authors, and she sent it to an agent who thought it would be a perfect fit for the new publishing house Victor Gollancz. And, subject to a few changes, it was! Initial sales were low, but it was taken up by Penguin seven years later, when Orwell was a much more established writer, and reprinted, to greater success.
The book is simple in structure; thirty-eight short chapters in two clearly separate parts, the first twenty-three describing his time in Paris and the rest of the book covering his return to London. It opens with an epigraph: O scathful harm, condition of poverte! from the Man of Law’s Prologue in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Living in poverty is the miserable, evil, and unifying thread that runs throughout the book, so it’s a good choice for an epigraph. Down and Out in Paris and London is narrated in the first person, as a memoir; you sense that every word he says is true and this encourages you to keep reading, to share at first hand in his (largely poverty-stricken and grimy) experiences. Orwell indicated in his introduction to the French edition of the book that everything he writes about is more or less true, just with some flexibility on the characters he meets, the order in which things happen, and natural writers’ exaggeration.
This blog post isn’t an attempt by me to write a “proper” piece of literary criticism, it’s just my own reflections on the book and some of its aspects that particularly jumped out at me as I was reading it. I first read the book when I was eighteen and it had a strong effect on me. But I could remember few of the details, apart from Orwell’s advice that you should always take a flyer from someone in the street if it is offered (or even if it isn’t): “When you see a man distributing handbills you can do him a good turn by taking one, for he goes off duty when he has distributed all his bills.” I’ve always put that into practice, even if I’m not remotely interested in what the flyer has to say. It’s the reason that I always come back with dozens of them whenever I’m walking about during the Edinburgh Fringe!
If there’s one message that comes out from this book more than any other for me it’s Orwell’s ability to make the best of a bad situation and how he offers the reader advice so that you can do the same. One of the eminently practical things about Orwell’s writing is that he doesn’t just describe a bad situation and then bemoan the lot of anyone who has to endure it. By making the best of every situation, and also describing how others do the same, he has created a remarkably uplifting book, considering the poverty and degradation strewn on its pages. For example, his first description of life in the Rue Coq d’Or includes the story of the Bulgarian student who makes intricate and elegant shoes all morning before attending lectures at the Sorbonne. He’s someone who is obviously on his way up and out of trouble, much to Orwell’s admiration. An example of Orwell offering advice on how to cope with a bad situation is when he tells how, if you burn sulphur, you can drive the bugs marching around the floor of your room into the next door room – very helpful advice when you’re besieged by them. Also he tells us: “you can live on a shilling a day in Paris if you know how. But it is a complicated business.” He has advice on how not to look destitute even when you are, describing how Boris the Russian soldier “managed to keep a fairly smart appearance. He shaved without soap and with a razor-blade two months old, tied his tie so that the holes did not show, and carefully stuffed the soles of his shoes with newspaper. Finally, when he was dressed, he produced an ink-bottle and inked the skin of his ankles where it showed through his socks. You would never have thought, when it was finished, that he had recently been sleeping under the Seine bridges.”
He also offers solutions for society to escape from bad situations. He has a range of ideas for stopping the continuous problem of tramps in England – specifically in London – roaming the streets pointlessly and dejectedly. They could, for example, be given work on farms to grow their own food. Or they could put an end to the rule that a tramp could not stay at the same casual ward within a thirty day period, which therefore requires him to stay on the road rather than attempt to set down roots.
One tends to think of Orwell as a political writer, but in this book there is no sense of identifying with any one political party. What does come across is that Orwell is strongly on the side of the working man, but not the shirking man. He has little time for the Communist waiter Jules, who stands on the side-lines and watches whilst everyone else breaks their backs trying to get the Auberge de Jehan Cottard ready for opening: “Boris and I did all the work. Jules was skulking…” Orwell doesn’t pass comment on how Jules puts his communism into practice – but he doesn’t have to. “Did any man alive ever see me working when I could avoid it? No, And not only I don’t wear myself out working, like you other fools, but I steal, just to show my independence. Once I was in a restaurant where the patron thought he could treat me like a dog. Well, in revenge I found out a way to steal milk from the milk-cans and seal them up again so that no one should know. I tell you I just swilled that milk down night and morning […] it wasn’t that I wanted milk, you understand because I hate the stuff; it was principle, just principle.”
Orwell describes Jules has having a “curious, malignant spirit”. He goes on: “he told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup before taking it in, just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie.” Jules is an angry and hostile man; a man driven by vengeance and selfishness. He’s one of Orwell’s most vividly drawn characters in this book – of which there are plenty – and one wonders if he was perhaps the first true communist that Orwell ever met, which might inform his opinions about communism that we will characterise future works. He’s also very different from the other waiters that Orwell gets to know in Paris, who approach their work from a completely opposite direction. “Never be sorry for a waiter” he stresses. “Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not […] he is thinking, “one day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man”. He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day […] they are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”
This observation, about the nature of waiters, is typical of Orwell’s writing style, in that it is a clever mix of pure journalism and social commentary, part factual, part gossip, part truth, part inference. With great lightness of touch, he can express a complex issue in a simple sentence – so that you feel you’ve absolutely grasped what he’s trying to convey. He devotes a considerable amount of time in the book discussing the life of tramps, and what can be done to ameliorate their position, and how the rest of society regards them; but he sums it up beautifully in the phrase “a tramp is only an Englishman out of work, forced by law to live as a vagabond”. His friend Boris tells a story of a Russian duke who swindles restaurants and waiters by getting them to pay for his meals, playing on his status as being a guarantee of his integrity (wrongly). Orwell infers that the duke made quite a lot of money that way, and that probably the waiters did not mind being swindled. His summing up: “A duke is a duke, even in exile” expresses the rationale perfectly.
He’s delightfully matter-of-fact in dealing with some of the desperate aspects of the poverty-stricken life. One night, whilst he is working long hours as a plongeur, a murder takes place right outside his lodgings. Everyone in the house is awoken by the noise and disruption; they get up and see what’s happened for themselves. But that is all. “We just made sure that the man was done for, and went straight back to bed. We were working people, and where was the sense of wasting sleep over a murder?” There’s another passage where Orwell encapsulates the reality of employing plongeurs, who are a vital element of the restaurant trade but simply not to be trusted: “the food we were given was no more than eatable, but the patron was not mean about drink; he allowed us two litres of wine a day each, knowing that if a plongeur is not given two litres he will steal three.”
Other lines and descriptions just shout out from the pages, capturing the reader’s imagination and understanding. He describes the moment when you realise that thousands of people in Paris work long hours with no hope of ever doing anything else, as “a good cure for self-pity”. Tramps gathering outside a church in the hope of a free tea are “like kites round a dead buffalo.” In a Paris restaurant, the fewer the waiters involved in the preparation of your meal, the greater the chance it will be clean: “roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”
Orwell does seem to have caught some of the French scorn for the well-to-do foreign clients staying at the Hotel X; they “seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American “cereals”, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred Francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg (sic) dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.” He recognised that waiters are snobs, and he has become snobbish himself.
One thing that did strike me about the book is how relevant much of it is today. Whilst we no longer have common lodging houses, we do have Houses of Multiple Occupation, which, like in the 30s, need to be licensed and have to meet certain standards. Similarly there are no casual wards today, but there are shelters for the homeless. The meal ticket swindle, where vouchers worth sixpence were given to the tramps but were redeemed at an eating-house for only fourpence worth of food – thus having the proprietor effectively stealing twopence from each tramp – is strongly reminiscent of the recent scandal where school meal vouchers were exchanged for hampers containing food worth less than half the value of the voucher; basically, there’s always someone there to make money from the disadvantaged. Orwell could see there was no end to this type of swindle: “this kind of victimization is a regular part of a tramp’s life, and it will go on as long as people continue to give meal tickets instead of money.” And Paddy, Orwell’s Irish tramp companion, saw “all foreigners” as “dem bloody dagoes” – for, according to his theory, foreigners were responsible for unemployment.” Rightly or wrongly, that was one of the reasons people voted for Brexit. Things don’t change as much as we think they do.
The Orwell of this book enjoys his own company; he’s perfectly happy being solitary, taking rooms on his own, writing his essays, observing others. When poverty kicks in, necessity requires him to work alongside other people. But whether he’s on his own or with others, it’s the characters that flit in and out of his life – especially in Paris – that give his memoir extra colour and depth, elements of horror, humour and simple incredulity. We’ve already mentioned the Bulgarian student, working on his shoes before his daily visits to the Sorbonne. There’s the Russian mother and son – she darning socks for sixteen hours a day whilst he loafs in the Montparnasse cafés – it’s not difficult to see with whom Orwell’s sympathies lie there. Orwell points out that poverty breeds eccentricity; “people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work” – another of Orwell’s pearls of wisdom.
He then talks about the true eccentrics he has met in Paris. The Rougiers, for example, who sold postcards on the Boulevard St Michel, packaged as if they were pornographic, but in fact they were merely of Loire chateaux. They spent their lives half-starved and half-drunk and “the filth of their room was such that one could smell it on the floor below.” Henri, the melancholy and silent sewer worker, whose ability to talk about anything other than work had been dashed out of him by a bad love affair. There’s Charlie, the young innocent-looking lad, who tells a tale so shocking of his experience with an unwilling prostitute that is really a brutal rape; Orwell describes him as a “curious specimen”, and an example of the “diverse characters” to be found in the Coq d’Or quarter. Orwell’s relating of Charlie’s story is so appalling and cruel that Gollancz nearly didn’t publish the book because of it.
There is Boris, whom Orwell liked, the brash and booming Russian soldier, now on hard times trying to scrape a living as a waiter; Boris was Orwell’s chief companion in Paris. There is Valenti, a waiter at the Hotel X, whose life is a novel in itself: “crossing the Italian frontier without a passport and selling chestnuts from a barrow on the northern boulevards, and being given fifty days’ imprisonment in London for working without a permit, and being made love to by a rich old woman in a hotel who gave him a diamond ring and afterwards accused him of stealing it, were among his experiences.” There’s Furex, the Limousin stonemason, who worked hard all week so that he could spend Saturday interminably drunk: “the queer thing about Furex was that, though he was a Communist when sober, he turned violently patriotic when drunk. He started the evening with good Communist principles, but after four or five litres he was a rampant Chauvinist denouncing spies, challenging all foreigners to fight and, if he was not prevented, throwing bottles.“ And of course there’s Jules, the lazy, vengeful and proud Magyar waiter. Time for another Orwell bon mot: “Proud and lazy men do not make good waiters. It was Jules’s dearest boast that once when a customer in a restaurant had insulted him, he had poured a plate of hot soup down the customer’s neck, and then walked straight out without even waiting to be sacked.”
Orwell goes into less detail regarding the characters he meets in London; the main two are Paddy, the Irish tramp, and Bozo the screever, or pavement artist. Paddy was unusually smart and didn’t resort to crime in order to eat; he took Orwell under his wing and showed him how to survive as a tramp. Bozo was an artist through and through, intelligent and thoughtful, creative and inspirational. Lame, following what we would now call an industrial accident, Bozo tried to get work, selling books like his father, then toys, then finally resorting to screeving. He had travelled; spoke French, knew Shakespeare, had watched a corpse burn in India. Orwell clearly finds him a very impressive character. The London folk are less eccentric, and more like friends on whom Orwell relied; whereas the Paris characters are quirkier and more peripheral; for the most part Orwell did not need to rely on others in Paris in order to survive.
Whether it’s despite or because of the poverty and the wretchedness – and I’m tempted to think it’s both – there’s a lot of humour hidden away in the darker recesses of this book. As we’ve already seen, Orwell has a wicked turn of phrase, that can convey multitudes in a few syllables. This applies just as well to the humour lurking behind the sorrow. His account of pawning his clothes in Paris, having to take a number and waiting to be called, being swindled out of a decent price for his property, watching the old man pick his woollen pants off the floor, and so on, is delivered as though he were giving a witty and urbane after dinner speech à la Oscar Wilde. Throwaway observations like: “afterwards, when it was too late, I learned that it was wiser to go to a pawnshop in the afternoon. The clerks are French, and, like most French people, are in a bad temper till they have eaten their lunch” are very funny whilst conveying a grain of absolute truth.
Another example of Orwell’s wry sense of humour comes when he is describing how he and Boris applied to work as hands at a circus. “You had to shift benches and clean up litter and, during the performance, stand on two tubs and let a lion jump through your legs. When we got to the place, an hour before the time named, we found a queue of fifty men already waiting. There is some attraction in lions, evidently.” There was also the time when Orwell became involved in a secret society of Communists looking for journalists; anyone arriving at their location brought a bag of washing, to make it look respectable. But it was a con, because you had to pay twenty francs to be allowed in the society. They promised him 150 francs an article, but they swiftly disappeared; however, his sense of humour allows him to respect their inventiveness. “They were clever fellows, and played their part admirably. Their office looked exactly as a secret Communist office should look, and as for that touch about bringing a parcel of washing, it was genius.”
On another occasion, Orwell recounts how he was offered a permanent job as a plongeur at a restaurant, where they spend the entire time swearing and cursing at each other, but treat each other as equals when work is finished for the day. “The head waiter says he would enjoy calling an Englishman names. Will you sign on for a month?” I could go on – but you can see how Orwell’s use of humour, even in the depths of despair, played a major part in seeing him through – as indeed it did all the people whose lives he crossed whilst down and out.
There are plenty of serious observations to be made, however. The hoops that have to be gone through, and humiliation that has to be endured in order to get a Salvation Army bed for the night, mean that, whatever spirit of generosity might be there in the intent, Orwell will resent the Salvation Army for the rest of his life. Churches, generally, come in for a lot of criticism – there’s another oddly hilarious scene where a number of tramps are made to sit through a service, and they behave so riotously badly in revenge against the people offering charity. “The scene had interested me. It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps – from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.”
Here are some more of Orwell’s observations and deductions from his couple of years living down and out. The fact that clothes are powerful things; when Orwell is finally able to wear anything other than rags and patches, “my new clothes had put me instantly into a new world. Everyone’s demeanour seemed to have changed abruptly […] dressed in a tramp’s clothes it is very difficult, at any rate for the first day, not to feel that you are genuinely degraded.” The fact that begging is loathed by society is because it’s impossible to grow rich from begging. “In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable […] Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised […] A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman […] he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.”
The fact that fatigue has a bad effect on one’s manners. The overworked, under slept, underpaid, underwashed hotel workers in Paris treat each other abominably, not only with foul language, but physical and mental cruelty in a manner that no other professional would ever dream of behaving or accepting. Take the argument between Orwell and the cook: “Once she nagged and nagged until at last, out of pure spite, I lifted the dustbin up and put it out in the middle of the floor, where she was bound to trip over it. “Now, you cow, “ I said, “move it yourself.” Poor old woman, it was too heavy for her to lift and she sat down, put her head on the table and burst out crying. And I jeered at her. This is the kind of effect that fatigue has upon one’s manners.” Orwell knows he behaved despicably; but he tells us the tale with honesty as an illustration of those desperate times.
The fact that there is a caste system in a French hotel, with the manager at the top of the tree, the maitre d’hotel next, who “did not serve at table, unless to a lord or someone of that kind”; he would be followed by the head cook, who dined in the kitchen but at a separate table; then came the chef du personnel, the other cooks, then the waiters, who would only receive a retaining fee and their tips, then the laundresses, the apprentice waiters, then the plongeurs (like Orwell), then the chambermaids and finally the cafetiers. The relationship rules were unwritten but fully understood; but only while they were at work. Outside of work, a spirit of liberté, egalité, fraternité took over.
The fact that there is a similar hierarchy of status of begging in London; “there is a sharp social line between those who merely cadge and those who attempt to give some value for money […] The most prosperous beggars are street acrobats and street photographers. On a good pitch – a theatre queue for instance – a street acrobat can often earn five pounds a week […] Organ-grinders, like acrobats, are considered artists rather than beggars […] Screevers can sometimes be called artists, sometimes not […] Below screevers come the people who sing hymns, or sell matches, or bootlaces, or envelopes containing a few grains of lavender – called, euphemistically, perfume […] there is not a singer or match-seller in London who can be sure of £50 a year – a poor return for standing eighty-four hours a week on the kerb, with the cars grazing your backside.” This is just a small selection of the revelations and insights that Orwell offers us throughout the book.
It’s been suggested that Orwell expresses a lot of antisemitic sentiment in the book, particularly in the Parisian section. Is this evidence that Orwell was antisemitic, or is it simply the product of the age? I don’t know enough to comment, but I would point out that he also writes intolerantly of homosexuality; not so much in this book, but in the earlier essays he rather despises the tramps who turn to other men for sex – an almost inevitable consequence to the fact that their daily life completely prevents them from ever meeting women. I’m tempted to think that this is due to the times in which he lived, rather than betraying a truly antisemitic or homophobic characteristic; maybe this will become clearer with his later books. I will keep a watch out!
One other point – if your copy of the book, like mine, was printed many years ago, you may find that chapter 32, where Orwell writes journalistically about everyday London slang and swearing, contains a number of words that have been replaced by a euphemistic dash; this is because Gollancz couldn’t consider the book for publication if those foul words were included – much to Orwell’s fury. It’s only been in very recent publications that the dashes have been replaced by the actual words that Orwell originally used. And, to fulfil your curiosity as to which words they are, I can reveal that they are our good old friends f*ck and f*cking! This is a genuinely fascinating chapter, because a number of the slang words used, which Orwell foresaw would quickly go out of style, either never did, or have since come back into use. You don’t need a glossary to understand what is meant by mooching, dideki, boozer, kip, or knocking-off.
There is so much more to be got out of this book – I can only recommend that you read it for yourself, if you haven’t already! And if you’ve read it too, I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts, please add them in the comments below! Orwell’s next published writing were a few poems, but, for brevity’s sake, I’m not going to include them in my George Orwell Challenge, After that comes his first novel, Burmese Days. Hopefully I’ll read it over the next few weeks then get my thoughts down on paper soon after! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.
By 1932, Orwell was teaching at a boys’ school in West London but was also writing articles for submission to magazines and journals. With this article, Common Lodging Houses, published in the New Statesman on 3rd September 1932, and signed Eric Blair, Orwell recalls his regular experiences over the previous couple of years when he chose to live as a tramp, to find out what it was like to endure the hardships of life with no money, job, or home, as a form of journalistic research. Common Lodging Houses is a factual account of what it’s like to rely on such places, “night-shelters specially licensed by the LCC” – that was the old London County Council.
In 1931 his essay The Spike had been published, which told his experience of staying in a casual ward of a workhouse, the slang term for which was a spike. That essay is a grim depiction of filth and squalor, and the indignities suffered by those who slept there. However, in Common Lodging Houses, Orwell finds they’re not much better than spikes, and in some respects, considerably worse, noting “considering that they house so many people and that most of them are in an extraordinarily bad state common lodging houses do not get the attention they deserve.”
To be specific: “the dormitories are horrible fetid dens, packing with anything up to a hundred men, and furnished with beds a good deal inferior to those in a London casual ward.” He points out that the beds are small and hard, with thin, dirty bedclothes, and with access to neither baths nor privacy; but Orwell goes on to emphasise the horror of the filth. “As often as not the beds are verminous, and the kitchens invariably swarm with cockroaches or black beetles.” Casual wards, or spikes were free; in fact, it was a condition of entry that you were forbidden to bring any money in with you. But Orwell reveals that the charges for a night in a common lodging house vary between 7d and 1s 1d per night; and because so many people use them, “the average common lodging house brings in something like £40 net profit a week to its owner.” That’s the equivalent of around £2000 per week today.
This is Orwell’s main source of despair in this essay. By licensing these lodgings, proprietors could profiteer from the men who stay there, whilst offering a service that is in many ways worse than the (unlicensed) spikes. In addition, Orwell describes the rules and regulations for staying in a house as “exceedingly tyrannical”; “gambling, drunkenness, or even the introduction of liquor, swearing, spitting on the floor, keeping tame animals, fighting – in short, the shole social life of these places – are all forbidden.”
He gives an example of how the legislation effectively works against the lodgers, rather than in their favour. When lodging house owners were required to comply with an LCC regulation that the beds in a dormitory had to be at least 3ft apart, thereby reducing the numbers of beds, and therefore the number of paying customers, they simply increased the prices, without providing any further upgrade to the living conditions. With lodging there was no scope for men and women to be in the same house; nor was there any remedy for the lodgers to prevent the constant appearance of slumming parties – 1930s style slum tourism, people “who march into the kitchen uninvited and hold lengthy religious services”. Orwell criticises the reasoning behind what he calls the “interference-legislation” that governs the common lodging houses: “their emphasis is on hygiene and morals, and the question of comfort is left to the lodging house proprietor”.
The essay is not written simply to alert the reader to what life in a lodging house is like, nor is it simply to bemoan the fate of the unfortunate people who have no choice but to live there. He also offers constructive suggestions to improve the houses. “The LCC would be doing an immense service if they compelled lodging house keepers to divide their dormitories into cubicles and, above all, to provide comfortable beds”; even the casual wards had their cells. “The houses should be licensed for both sexes alike […] and the lodgers should be protected by law against various swindles which the proprietors and managers are now able to practice on them.” Orwell also displays a resentment towards this kind of exploitation in his essay on Hop Picking. He asks the question: “Can anyone imagine such things being tolerated in a hotel? And yet a common lodging house is only a hotel at which one pays 8d a night instead of 10s 6d. This kind of petty tyranny can, in fact, only be defended on the theory that a man poor enough to live in a common lodging house thereby forfeits some of his rights as a citizen.” Highlighting this social injustice is the core of this essay.
There is an alternative to the lodging house, which Orwell briefly touches on; the hostels provided by the Salvation Army and the Rowton Houses – a chain of hostels built by the philanthropist Lord Rowton, who had been Disraeli’s private secretary. According to Orwell, these are “clean and decent. Unfortunately, all of these places set off their advantages by a discipline so rigid and tiresome that to stay in them is rather like being in jail.” Orwell calls not only for decent conditions for poor people, but also respect for them to live their own lives, and not to have to comply with lifestyles imposed on them by their “betters”. His final summing up in the article reveals that harsh alternative on offer. “Tens of thousands of unemployed and partially employed men have literally no other place in which they can live. It is absurd that they should be compelled to choose, as they are at present, between an easy-going pigsty and a hygienic prison.”
Like his essay on hop picking, this is a fact-filled piece of journalistic reporting, also serving as an opinion piece on how low cost lodging could be improved. Orwell’s deep understanding and despising of the horrors that these men must endure is clear in every sentence. He rarely needs to spell it out for the reader to know his precise feelings. Describing the dormitories as “horrible fetid dens” and the kitchens as “murky, troglodytic caves” is enough for us to get an insight into the conditions for ourselves; and his inevitable hatred of those who seek to make money out of the misery of others is obvious throughout. If the reader has any sense of socialism in their soul, this is bound to bring it out! I’m expecting much more of these insights and observations in his next published work, the full-length non-fiction Down and Out in Paris and London, which would appear a few months later, and which I’m looking forward to reading for the first time since I was a teenager.
Despite his middle class background and apparent financial security (or maybe because of it?) Orwell spent several periods of his life deliberately homeless, to find out for himself what it actually felt like to be destitute – and so he could write about it afterwards. His equivalent today would be one of those undercover journalists who hide a microphone somewhere discreet about their person and then infiltrate an organisation under an alias to reveal the truth about what they get up to. His diaries show that for three weeks in September 1931 he journeyed down to Kent to work in the hop fields, getting to know the type of people involved in this activity, and in particular befriending a chap called Ginger. Orwell describes him in his diary as “a strong, athletic youth of twenty six, almost illiterate and quite brainless, but daring enough for anything. Except when in prison, he has probably broken the law every day for the last five years.”
Accompanied by other characters populating his diaries, he and Ginger travel, work, sleep and generally survive side by side throughout the whole exhausting adventure. Never averse to using pseudonyms, Orwell (Blair) adopted the name P S Burton when roaming around the country, assuming a cockney accent, and seemingly fitting in very well with his new-found companions, although he never shies away from judging these people – he often weighs them in the balance and finds them wanting.
Following these experiences he wrote up the essay Hop Picking which was published in the New Statesman & Nation on 17th October 1931, under his real name of Eric Blair. For the most part, it’s a piece of factual reporting, explaining what the work entails, how much people earn from it, what kind of people work there, and the reality of their day to day existence/survival. But Orwell never attempts to conceal his natural concern for and disgust at the conditions and exploitation faced by the working man (and woman, and child).
Just as in his diaries, he’s quick to cast judgment where he feels it’s appropriate. The essay starts with quotes from two experienced hop-pickers, “a holiday with pay” and “keep yourself all the time you’re down there, pay your fares both ways and come back five quid in pocket” – and instantly Blair remarks that these experienced workers “ought to have known better”. He then sets out his basic tenet about hop picking: “hop-picking is far from being a holiday, and, as far as wages go, no worse employment exists.”
He explains that the work entails long hours, but is basically a simple process. He accepts that it’s “healthy, outdoor work” but quickly points out how painful the inevitable cuts to your hands are, as a result of the plant’s spiny stems, and the revulsion you feel as plant-lice crawl down your neck. He also explains the system of payment; piece-work, with the usual rate being six bushels of picked hops for a shilling – in other words 2d per bushel. At today’s rate, that shilling is now the equivalent of about £2.40, so a bushel would have earned you 40p. But it’s not that straightforward; depending on who was accepting and measuring the bushels, it was perfectly easy for the hops to be crushed down low into the bushel, so that what one man might measure as a bushel another would measure as only half a bushel – so if you were unlucky – or victimised, or exploited – you could end up having to work twice as hard for the same income. Blair estimates that he and Ginger earned about nine shillings a week each (£21.60). Even the best pickers in their gang earned only an average of 13/4 each – today’s equivalent being £32. The manipulation of the language used to describe the payment system is not lost on Blair: “six bushels a shilling sounds much more than “fifteen shillings a week””.
As well as being tricked into working twice as hard, there were other ways in which the employers’ rules could reduce the hop-picker “practically to a slave. One rule, for instance, empowers a farmer to sack his employees on any pretext whatever, and in doing so to confiscate a quarter of their earnings; and the picker’s earnings are also docked if he resigns his job.” Then there were the sleeping conditions: “My friend and I, with two others, slept in a tin hut ten feet across, with two unglazed windows and half a dozen other apertures to let in the wind and rain, and no furniture save a heap of straw; the latrine was two hundred yards away, and the water tap the same distance. Some of these huts had to be shared by eight men – but that, at any rate, mitigated the cold.”
But Blair being Orwell – or vice versa – this is no turgid piece of dry journalism. Using that same appreciation for the sensuousness of language that he used in A Hanging, he is able to transport the reader into experiencing the same hardships – or indeed pleasures – with his words. With the phrase “the spiny stems cut the palms of one’s hands to pieces” you can feel the sharp stem digging into you, just as you can feel the uncomfortable irritation of “the plant-lice which […] crawl down one’s neck”. You can sense the slow dull progress of “trying to coax a fire out of wet sticks”. But you can also smell the scene and sense the welcome cool with the sentence “on hot days there is no pleasanter place than the shady lane of hops, with their bitter scent – an unutterably refreshing scent, like a wind blowing from oceans of cool beer”. Who couldn’t resist breathing deeply to enjoy the wind from oceans of cool beer!
With good journalistic balance, he notes that hop pickers come back year after year, so despite the hardship they have to endure, “the Cockneys rather enjoy the trip to the country” and it still “figures in the pickers’ mind as a holiday.” Part of his conclusion is that “whatever the cause, there is no difficulty in getting people to do the work, so perhaps one ought not to complain too loudly about the conditions in the hop fields”.
From my own experience, I know that in the late 20s and early 30s my mother and her brother worked on the hop fields with their parents, and I don’t recall her saying how terrible an experience it was. This is a fascinating, personal piece of journalism, written directly from the writer’s current experience, balancing the rigours and hardship of the activity with its unexpected popularity and the cheerfulness with which it was endured. It’s also a description of a now historical activity that has thankfully been taken over by machinery. Orwell got it right when he says “hop-picking is in the category of things that are great fun when they are over.”
So here I go with my first blog-dip into the world of George Orwell, and we start with an essay entitled A Hanging, first published in The Adelphi magazine, and also in the 1950 volume Shooting an Elephant. I have it as one of the essays in the Penguin 1975 collection, Decline of the English Murder and other Essays.
I think, to appreciate his work better, a little background information would be useful. Eric Blair (for that was his real name, he used George Orwell as a nom de plume, but never actually changed his name as such) was born in India in 1903 into what he described as a “lower-upper-middle class family.” His mother wanted him to have a public school education, but they could not afford the fees. So he went to St Cyprian’s, a prep school in Eastbourne, on a scholarship. He was never told that he was there on reduced fees, but he soon realised that he was from a poorer background from most of his cohort. He gained a scholarship to Wellington School, which he hated, and whilst there gained a King’s Scholarship to Eton, which he enjoyed, remaining there until 1921.
He didn’t show great academic promise at Eton, so bypassed the prospect of university and joined the Imperial Police, the forerunner of the Indian Police service. He was stationed in Burma, where his maternal grandmother lived, and he worked in the police service there for five years from 1922. After returning to England on leave, he resigned from the Indian Police to become a full-time writer. Orwell drew on his experiences in Burma to write not only A Hanging, but also the essay Shooting an Elephant and the novel Burmese Days.
It’s not known whether the event described in A Hanging was real, fictional, or a combination of the two. It is known that attending hangings was considered a rite of passage for young police officers – and indeed it was a legal requirement that there should be a police presence for every such event. It appears that Orwell didn’t care to talk about this essay in future years, which may suggest that it had a truly shocking affect on the young man.
It’s a short, calm, unemotional and reserved description of the hanging of an unnamed man for an unnamed crime. The language is measured but descriptive, occasionally sensuous, as with the description of the warders crowding around the prisoner, “their hands always on him in a careful caressing grip […] it was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.” And when he describes how, just before the moment of death, “everyone had changed colour. The Indians had gone grey like bad coffee” – that’s a great simile that you can both see and smell in your mind’s eye.
Although he’s going through the motions of what his job requires, the young Blair cannot contain his feeling for both the “unspeakable wrongness” of taking a life, and for the unintentional ludicrous humour that can arise from it. He is moved by the natural act of the prisoner to avoid a puddle whilst being marched to the gallows – it’s this automatic reaction that reveals the humanity of the condemned man, the fact that his brain and body functions are completely normal, that shocks the writer into recognising the awful truth, that “we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone.”
Orwell relies on the evidence of his eyes and ears to relay the situation to us. He takes everything in, and mentally processes it, without hysteria or endorsement, purely as a witness to what is clearly a routine event. He observes that the prisoner is “a puny wisp of a man”, with “a thick sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body”. He “watched the bare brown back of the prisoner […] he walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees”. The prisoner never reacts or resists, and only when the noose is around his neck does he cry out to his god. “It was a high, reiterated cry of Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!, not urgent and fearful like a prayer or cry for help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell.” Through his writing, we can hear that slow, mantra-like cry to God for ourselves, as Orwell’s simple words become a conduit from the prisoner to the reader.
Juxtaposed with the ritual solemnity of the procedure, are two humorous events. The first involves a stray dog, unexpectedly breaking into the procession and barking gleefully, even jumping up at the prisoner and licking his face, much to the fury of the superintendent in charge. It reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem 465, where just as the narrator is laid out on a bed ready to die, “and then it was there interposed a fly….” and all attention is diverted away from the sombre “main event” by a trivial irritant.
The second comes after the body has been hanged, and the hangman starts regaling the officers with a story about a condemned prisoner who wouldn’t let go of the cage bars when they went to take him out. ““It took six warders to dislodge him, three pulling at each leg. We all reasoned with him, “my dear fellow,” we said, “think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us! But no, he would not listen! Ach, he was very troublesome!” I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the superintendent grinned in a tolerant way.” As the piece ends, the Burmese magistrate starts laughing again at the thought of “pulling at his legs”. The final sentences are: ”We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.”
It’s this mix of the mundane and the extraordinary, as well as the extinct and the living, that gives this piece tremendous power. From the intensity of the death, we go straight to the chattiness of the breakfast. I also admire how we get a strong impression of the characters involved in the process, even though they say and do little. We know the superintendent is an impatient, authoritative man, but with the supportive kindness to share out his whisky, and to allow the prisoner to say his prayer. We know that Francis is a garrulous type, who wins favour by spinning a few stories to break the tension. The Eurasian boy is only there to try to impress Blair with his generosity with cigarettes and his “classy European style” silver cigarette case, probably to gain some preferment. We learn that Blair himself, whilst trying to hold in all his emotions and reactions to the event, can’t resist bursting into laughter like everyone else as a nervous reaction to what he’s endured. Even the dog backs away from the gallows, “sobered and conscious of having misbehaved itself”. And we never forget that the prisoner is a human being too, side-stepping puddles and spontaneously urinating through fear at the news that his appeal had been dismissed.
So many thoughts packed into six short pages, without the writer ever having to over-emphasise or sensationalise. It’s a challenge for the reader to wish to read an account of a hanging for pleasure, but its power and insight is very enjoyable to read. A very impressive short piece.
After A Hanging, he wrote two more essays, Hop-Picking in October 1931 and Common Lodging Houses in September 1932. I’ll take the first of those two next, hopefully in the next couple of weeks.
You know me. I enjoy a challenge as much as the next man. But is this a challenge too far? After all, I still have many of Agatha Christies and Paul Bernas to read, and James Bond films to watch, let alone keeping up with old travel and theatre memories. And George Orwell? Really? Is this wise?
I had no idea this was going to happen until a few weeks ago when a friend said he had ordered Animal Farm and 1984 from Audible and was looking forward, finally, to getting to know these famous stories. My instant reaction was to feel oh you lucky thing, getting your first taste of Orwell’s best known and probably best-loved books. I also wondered if they were his best-written books; then it occurred to me that it had been ages since I read them myself, let alone Wigan Pier, Catalonia, Down and Out and so on. In fact, there are plenty of his works I’ve never read. I’ve not read Burmese Days or A Clergyman’s Daughter; and I have no memories of Coming Up for Air or Keep the Aspidistra Flying, even if I have read them. I’m convinced that I was too young and certainly too green and immature to appreciate much of what he was trying to say, so I think the time is right to revisit them. However, a quick glimpse at his bibliography on Wikipedia reveals a mass of essays, reviews, articles, pamphlets and so on. There’s no way I can read all those. I’ll be doing it when I’m 100.
But I am very tempted by the prospect of taking Orwell in chronological order, reading his works and then putting virtual pen to paper to record my thoughts. This will be a very different kind of challenge from the others, because there are already reams of learned and insightful critical appreciations of his books written by people far more academic and brighter than I could ever dare to be. So there’s no point in my adding unoriginal and slight insights into a well-established canon of critiques. I also don’t have to provide synopses, like I do with Berna (because no one else has done that) or thrill assessments and marks out of ten like I do with Christie (because it just wouldn’t be appropriate). So instead I will just read, absorb and record my emotional responses and personal reflections on what Orwell is telling me. It could be as dull as ditchwater – in which case, I’ll stop.
Orwell wrote six novels, three non-fiction books and endless other essays and articles. I’m going to read all the books, and a good number of the essays. Taking them in chronological order, he wrote a few essays in French for Le Progrès Civique publication, but I’m not going to tackle those because a) I’m too lazy to translate them and b) I feel reading someone else’s translation would create a barrier between me and him. His first published essay in English appears to be The Spike, but this is later reworked into Down and Out in Paris and London, so I’m also going to ignore that. Instead, the first piece I will read will be A Hanging, an essay written in 1931, published in The Adelphi magazine, and also in the 1950 volume Shooting an Elephant. I have it as one of the essays in the Penguin 1975 collection, Decline of the English Murder. I’ll let you know how I get on! Wish me luck!