Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Orwell is a breath of fresh air, his tremendous writing pokes you in the gut with jabs of anti-capitalist hypocrisy. In this tale, we have Gordon Comstock, last scion of a once-briefly-noble family, toiling away in a bookshop and writing poetry at night in his wretched rented room where he sneaks cups of tea and tiptoes down the stairs to dispose of the used tea leaves. He’s (self-proclaimed) moth-eaten, and has declared a War on Money, living on £2 a week and later on about half of that after he’s fired from his job after one reckless drunken evening where, celebrating the receipt of a £10 check from a magazine printing his poem, he gets drunk and (among other things) socks a policeman.

The story follows him hungrily stalking the streets, spying aspidistras on window sills everywhere, bemoaning the dead existence of modern life, slaves to capitalism, eager to have drinks with his rich friend Ravelston but only if he can moan about poverty and buy the first drink while Ravelston fronts the remainder. Throughout the story, he’s haunted by the looming specter of penury, aspidistras, and the odd advertisement for Bovex with Roland Butta. Orwell shows us a penniless life amidst advertisements and more prosperous citizens; Comstock quit his decent job as an advertising copywriter in order to focus on poetry, the beginning of his war on money. Money jangles in his pocket and his brain– preventing him from having a decent outing in the country after he and his girl, Rosemary, end up at an expensive hotel for lunch and haughtily order a meal that costs everything he has (this after borrowing money from his sister to cover the train fare to the country).

He is ashamed to take money from anyone but family, and nearly dies of embarrassment in having to have Rosemary cover their train ride back (and tea, always that necessary British afternoon tea). One interesting note about the trip to the countryside – the reactions of the city-folk (Gordon/Rosemary) to basic country delights (smooth tree bark, rabbits, a feather from a jay, fungi on trees) struck me as similar to country-folk reactions to the city; we bemoan tourists’ “absurd enthusiasms” over regular city things we take for granted. After the drunken escapade, he lets himself go, wanting to sink further into the mud, truly enjoying the wretched and dirty attic garret he ends up in, giving up literature for the crappy books he loans at the lending library. He’s jarred from this rut by news of Rosemary’s pregnancy (that old shopworn plot point), and after mental anguish, serves himself up for his old job, marries Rosemary, gets respectable. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is a rallying cry to chin up and pretend the world is normal as is spirals toward another devastating war, as it descends blindly into the clutches of capitalism.

He went back to the front room. The Nancy had put his book back in the wrong shelf and vanished. A lean, straight-nosed, brisk woman, with sensible clothes and gold-rimmed pince-nez – schoolmarm possibly, feminist certainly – came in and demanded Mrs Wharton-Beverly’s history of the suffrage movement. With secret joy Gordon told her that they hadn’t got it. She stabbed his male incompetence with gimlet eyes and went out again.