Keep the Aspidistra Flying(6)

By: George Orwell


He jingled the coins in his pocket. He was nearly thirty and had accomplished nothing; only his miserable book of poems that had fallen flatter than any pancake. And ever since, for two whole years, he had been struggling in the labyrinth of a dreadful book that never got any further, and which, as he knew in his moments of clarity, never would get any further. It was the lack of money, simply the lack of money, that robbed him of the power to ‘write’. He clung to that as to an article of faith. Money, money, all is money! Could you write even a penny novelette without money to put heart in you? Invention, energy, wit, style, charm—they’ve all got to be paid for in hard cash.

Nevertheless, as he looked along the shelves he felt himself a little comforted. So many of the books were faded and unreadable. After all, we’re all in the same boat. Memento mori. For you and for me and for the snooty young men from Cambridge, the same oblivion waits—though doubtless it’ll wait rather longer for those snooty young men from Cambridge. He looked at the time-dulled ‘classics’ near his feet. Dead, all dead. Carlyle and Ruskin and Meredith and Stevenson—all are dead, God rot them. He glanced over their faded titles. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ha, ha! That’s good. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson! Its top edge was black with dust. Dust thou art, to dust returnest. Gordon kicked Stevenson’s buckram backside. Art there, old false-penny? You’re cold meat, if ever Scotchman was.

Ping! The shop bell. Gordon turned round. Two customers, for the library.

A dejected, round-shouldered, lower-class woman, looking like a draggled duck nosing among garbage, seeped in, fumbling with a rush basket. In her wake hopped a plump little sparrow of a woman, red-cheeked, middle-middle class, carrying under her arm a copy of The Forsyte Saga—title outwards, so that passers-by could spot her for a highbrow.

Gordon had taken off his sour expression. He greeted them with the homey, family-doctor geniality reserved for library-subscribers.

‘Good afternoon, Mrs Weaver. Good afternoon, Mrs Penn. What terrible weather!’

‘Shocking!’ said Mrs Penn.

He stood aside to let them pass. Mrs Weaver upset her rush basket and spilled onto the floor a much-thumbed copy of Ethel M. Dell’s Silver Wedding. Mrs Penn’s bright bird-eye lighted upon it. Behind Mrs Weaver’s back she smiled up at Gordon, archly, as highbrow to highbrow. Dell! The lowness of it! The books these lower classes read! Understandingly, he smiled back. They passed into the library, highbrow to highbrow smiling.

Mrs Penn laid The Forsyte Saga on the table and turned her sparrow-bosom upon Gordon. She was always very affable to Gordon. She addressed him as Mister Comstock, shopwalker though he was, and held literary conversations with him. There was the freemasonry of highbrows between them.

‘I hope you enjoyed The Forsyte Saga, Mrs Penn?’

‘What a perfectly marvellous achievement that book is, Mr Comstock! Do you know that that makes the fourth time I’ve read it? An epic, a real epic!’

Mrs Weaver nosed among the books, too dim-witted to grasp that they were in alphabetical order.

‘I don’t know what to ’ave this week, that I don’t,’ she mumbled through untidy lips. ‘My daughter she keeps on at me to ’ave a try at Deeping. She’s great on Deeping, my daughter is. But my son-in-law, now, ’e’s more for Burroughs. I don’t know, I’m sure.’

A spasm passed over Mrs Penn’s face at the mention of Burroughs. She turned her back markedly on Mrs Weaver.

‘What I feel, Mr Comstock, is that there’s something so big about Galsworthy. He’s so broad, so universal, and yet at the same time so thoroughly English in spirit, so human. His books are real human documents.’

‘And Priestley, too,’ said Gordon. ‘I think Priestley’s such an awfully fine writer, don’t you?’

‘Oh, he is! So big, so broad, so human! And so essentially English!’

Mrs Weaver pursed her lips. Behind them were three isolated yellow teeth.

‘I think p’raps I can’t do better’n ’ave another Dell,’ she said. ‘You ’ave got some more Dells, ’aven’t you? I do enjoy a good read of Dell, I must say. I says to my daughter, I says, “You can keep your Deepings and your Burroughses. Give me Dell,” I says.’