Today is the birthday (1903) of Eric Arthur Blair, usually known by his pen name George Orwell. I covered some aspects of his life 7 years ago when I celebrated the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four (www.bookofdaystales.com/big-brother-is-watching/ ). By all means go there first for my initial appraisal of Orwell whose writing I consider some of the finest in the English language, both in terms of style and content. Between the ages of roughly 15 and 35 I read all of his books and a great many of his essays, and I still hunt down lesser-known works. In my early years as a college professor in New York I also assigned a few of his works, the most important (by my lights) being “Politics and the English Language,” although my very first freshman group were the class of 1984, and petitioned for you-know-what. Nineteen Eighty-Four is, indeed, startlingly insightful and prescient, and I have read it cover to cover many times – including as a set book when I was studying English literature in the 6th form in England. No need to go on about it. Read my old post. Rather, I would like to extol some of his books that are less commonly read or discussed.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying was an early foray of mine into the cloudier recesses of Orwell’s writing. All of his writing involves social commentary of some sort, but some is more biting than merely observational. So it is with Aspidistra. The main character, Gordon Comstock has ‘declared war’ on what he sees as an ‘overarching dependence’ on money by leaving a promising job as a copywriter for an advertising company called ‘New Albion’—at which he shows great dexterity—and taking a low-paying job instead, ostensibly so he can write poetry. Coming from a respectable family background in which the inherited wealth has now become dissipated, Gordon resents having to work for a living. The ‘war’ (and the poetry), however, aren’t going particularly well and, under the stress of his ‘self-imposed exile’ from affluence, Gordon has become absurd, petty and deeply neurotic.
Orwell’s attention to precise details, written in plain language, is compelling in this novel – from the beginning. But it was the structure of the book that most caught my attention. In the opening chapter, Comstock plays with the first two lines of a new poem, and as the novel progresses he fleshes the poem out more and more as his life becomes more convoluted and desperate, until, finally, his life rights itself and the poem is finished. Not a masterwork by any means, but a definite tapestry woven from fine threads.
Coming Up For Air has a similar bitterly mocking tone. At the opening of the book, the first-person narrator, George Bowling has a day off work to go to London to collect a new set of false teeth. A news-poster about the contemporary King Zog of Albania sets off thoughts of a biblical character Og, King of Bashan that he recalls from Sunday church as a child. Along with ‘some sound in the traffic or the smell of horse dung or something’ these thoughts trigger Bowling’s memory of his childhood as the son of an unambitious seed merchant in “Lower Binfield” near the River Thames. Bowling relates his life history, dwelling on how a lucky break during the First World War landed him in a comfortable job away from any action and provided contacts that helped him become a successful salesman.
Bowling is wondering what to do with a modest sum of money that he has won on a horserace and which he has concealed from his wife and family. He decides to use the money on a trip down memory lane, to revisit the places of his childhood. He recalls a particular pond with huge fish in it which he had missed the chance to try and catch thirty years previously. He therefore plans to return to Lower Binfield but when he arrives, he finds the place unrecognizable. Eventually he locates the old pub where he is to stay, finding it much changed. His home has become a tea shop. Only the church and vicar appear the same, but he has a shock when he discovers an old girlfriend, who is completely changed and utterly devoid of the qualities he once adored. She fails to recognize him at all. Bowling remembers the slow and painful decline of his father’s seed business – resulting from the nearby establishment of corporate competition. This painful memory seems to have sensitized him to – and given him a repugnance for – what he sees as the marching ravages of “Progress”. The final disappointment is to find that the estate where he used to fish has been built over, and the secluded and once hidden pond that contained the huge carp he always intended to take on with his fishing rod, but never got around to, has become a rubbish dump.
In reading these two, and others, it’s hard not to see Orwell as a cynical observer of everyday middle-class life in pre-war England. His protagonists seem pathetic in their dreams and ambitions, and completely unimaginative when it comes to making changes in their lives. Is this how he saw the world around him in general? Did any of these accounts reflect doubts about himself? There is no doubt that he saw the English class system as pernicious and cruel, but was he a victim of it, or a revolutionary?
Orwell championed many social causes, but none is dearer to my heart than his loud defense of English cooking, which may be found here — https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/in-defence-of-english-cooking/ His point is twofold. First, visitors to England usually have to eat in restaurants and so miss the great array of dishes that home cooking has to offer (Yorkshire pudding being his prime example). Second, visitors are usually unaware of the huge number of regional specialties available. You could write a whole book on English regional sausages (and these days, most certainly on cheeses). I have made this point countless times before in this blog. Orwell was especially fond of English puddings and he claimed that a list of them would be interminable if he gave it in full. Look in Mrs Beeton if you doubt him. Here is a favorite of mine:
- INGREDIENTS.—10 oz. of bread crumbs, 4 oz. of sago, 7 oz. of finely-chopped suet, 6 oz. of moist sugar, the rind of 1/2 lemon, 1/4 pint of rum, 7 eggs, 4 tablespoonfuls of cream, 4 small sponge cakes, 2 oz. of ratafias, 1/2 lb. of jam.
Mode.—Put the bread crumbs into a basin with the sago, suet, sugar, minced lemon-peel, rum, and 4 eggs; stir these ingredients well together, then add 3 more eggs and the cream, and let the mixture be well beaten. Then butter a mould, strew in a few bread crumbs, and cover the bottom with a layer of ratafias; then put in a layer of the mixture, then a layer of sliced sponge cake spread thickly with any kind of jam; then add some ratafias, then some of the mixture and sponge cake, and so on until the mould is full, taking care that a layer of the mixture is on the top of the pudding. Bake in a good oven from 3/4 to 1 hour, and serve with the following sauce:—Put 3 tablespoonfuls of black-currant jelly into a stewpan, add 2 glasses of sherry, and, when warm, turn the pudding out of the mould, pour the sauce over it, and serve hot.
Time.—From 1 to 1-1/4 hour. Average cost, 2s. 6d.
Sufficient for 7 or 8 persons. Seasonable at any time.