Keep the Aspidistra Flying(7)

By: George Orwell

Ding Dong Dell! Dukes and dogwhips! Mrs Penn’s eye signalled highbrow irony. Gordon returned her signal. Keep in with Mrs Penn! A good, steady customer.

‘Oh, certainly, Mrs Weaver. We’ve got a whole shelf by Ethel M. Dell. Would you like The Desire of his Life? Or perhaps you’ve read that. Then what about The Altar of Honour?’

‘I wonder whether you have Hugh Walpole’s latest book?’ said Mrs Penn. ‘I feel in the mood this week for something epic, something big. Now Walpole, you know, I consider a really great writer, I put him second only to Galsworthy. There’s something so big about him. And yet he’s so human with it.’

‘And so essentially English,’ said Gordon.

‘Oh, of course! So essentially English!’

‘I b’lieve I’ll jest ’ave The Way of an Eagle over again,’ said Mrs Weaver finally. ‘You don’t never seem to get tired of The Way of an Eagle, do you, now?’

‘It’s certainly astonishingly popular,’ said Gordon, diplomatically, his eye on Mrs Penn.

‘Oh, astonishingly!’ echoed Mrs Penn, ironically, her eye on Gordon.

He took their twopences and sent them happy away, Mrs Penn with Walpole’s Rogue Herries and Mrs Weaver with The Way of an Eagle.

Soon he had wandered back to the other room and towards the shelves of poetry. A melancholy fascination, those shelves had for him. His own wretched book was there—skied, of course, high up among the unsaleable. Mice, by Gordon Comstock; a sneaky little foolscap octavo, price three and sixpence but now reduced to a bob. Of the thirteen BFs who had reviewed it (and The Times Lit. Supp. had declared that it showed ‘exceptional promise’) not one had seen the none too subtle joke of that title. And in the two years he had been at McKechnie’s bookshop, not a single customer, not a single one, had ever taken Mice out of its shelf.

There were fifteen or twenty shelves of poetry. Gordon regarded them sourly. Dud stuff, for the most part. A little above eye-level, 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, exactly at eye-level, were 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 coco-nut. And if we did get a writer worth reading, should we know him when we saw him, so choked as we are with trash?

Ping! Shop bell. Gordon turned. Another customer.

A youth of twenty, cherry-lipped, with gilded hair, tripped Nancifully in. Moneyed, obviously. He had the golden aura of money. He hadn’t been in the shop before. Gordon assumed the gentlemanly-servile mien reserved for new customers. He repeated the usual formula:

‘Good afternoon. Can I do anything for you? Are you looking for any particular book?’

‘Oh, no, not weally.’ An R-less Nancy voice. ‘May I just bwowse? I simply couldn’t wesist your fwont window. I have such a tewwible weakness for bookshops! So I just floated in—tee-hee!’

Float out again, then, Nancy. Gordon smiled a cultured smile, as booklover to booklover.

‘Oh, please do. We like people to look round. Are you interested in poetry, by any chance?’

‘Oh, of course! I adore poetwy!’

Of course! Mangy little snob. There was a sub-artistic look about his clothes. Gordon slid a ‘slim’ red volume from the poetry shelves.

‘These are just out. They might interest you, perhaps. They’re translations—something rather out of the common. Translations from the Bulgarian.’

Very subtle, that. Now leave him to himself. That’s the proper way with customers. Don’t hustle them; let them browse for twenty minutes or so; then they get ashamed and buy something. Gordon moved to the door, discreetly, keeping out of Nancy’s way; yet casually, one hand in his pocket, with the insouciant air proper to a gentleman.

Outside, the slimy street looked grey and drear. From somewhere round the corner came the clatter of hooves, a cold hollow sound. Caught by the wind, the dark columns of smoke from the chimneys veered over and rolled flatly down the sloping roofs. Ah!