Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

I didn’t know what to expect from Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit, I thought that maybe the title was some sort of metaphor so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Orwell was a very keen gardener and nature lover, and was particularly fond of roses. In fact he stipulated that he wanted roses on his grave. Apparently there is one scruffy rose on his grave at Sutton Courtenay. I still have a lot of his essays to read and hope to get around to that soon.

Anyway, to the book: It begins with the author travelling by train from London to a small cottage in Wallington, Cambridgeshire to see if the fruit trees and roses that Orwell planted in a garden there in the 1930s were still alive. Orwell had written a meandering essay about planting them, the roses being an absolute bargain from good old Woolworths. Sadly all of the trees had been cut down but there were a couple of his roses still blooming.

Orwell was sent away to a preparatory school at the age of eight, there he was bullied and shamed because he was one of the pupils who was there at reduced fees. From there he was sent to Eton at the age of 13. He acquired the Etonian accent but as a scholarship boy was in the same position as he had been at the prep school, looked down on by the rich boys. Obviously his school experiences led to him writing Animal Farm.

This is a lovely book which wanders around various subjects such as art, war crime trials, the origin of the phrase “Bread and Roses” – something that I must admit I had never even heard of before, his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, the history of the enclosure acts, how the changes affected people, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the plight of Russian peasants, flower production in Colombia and how damaging it is for the people and the environment, the list of subjects tackled seems endless but the author always comes back to Orwell. It ends with

“Orwell’s signal achievement was to name and describe as no one else had the way that totalitarianism was a threat not just to liberty and human rights but to language and consciousness, and he did it in so compelling a way that his last book casts a shadow – or a beacon’s light – into the present. ….
The Work he did is everyone’s job now. It always was.”

Many thanks to Granta Publications for sending me a digital copy of the book via NetGalley.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell – 1936 Club

 Pigeon Post cover

The 1936 Club is hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

I was really happy to see that Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell had been published in 1936 because it’s one of his books that I hadn’t got around to reading. However, I found it to be quite a depressing read although it’s obviously well written.

Gordon Compstock is a 29 year old poet, he has already had a volume of poetry published, but he doesn’t realise that it was really his wealthy friend Ravelston who was instrumental in getting it published, only 153 copies were sold. He had previously had a ‘good’ job in an advertising agency but had given it up as he hated the whole industry. His boss says he can come back if he changes his mind, but Gordon really doesn’t want to be part of the rat-race and commercialism.

His job in a second-hand bookshop fits in with his ideals, but he’s earning a lot less than he was and living in deep poverty, often not having anything to eat all day, especially towards the end of the week as his money has run out. He has had to ‘borrow’ money from his much older sister Julia, despite the fact that she’s really poor herself and works in a tea-shop. She has been brought up to put her brother first though, being the son of the family has meant that all the family’s efforts have been put into him, including a private education which might have been a big mistake as his schoolfellows realise he’s poor – and boys will be boys.

He has been in love with Rosemary for two years, but rarely sees her due to a lack of money. He won’t have Rosemary paying her half of any outings or meals out, that would be too shameful to him. They can’t visit each other in their rooms as their landladies don’t allow that. With his decent clothes in the pawn shop people avoid him, thinking he’s a tramp. As it’s the Depression there are plenty such about. Gordon almost wishes that there would be another war.

Gordon squinted up at the leaden sky. Those aeroplanes are coming.In imagination he saw them coming now; squadron after squadron, innumerable, darkening the sky like clouds of gnats. With his tongue not quite against his teeth he made a buzzing, bluebottle-on-the-window-pane sound to represent the humming of the aeroplanes. It was a sound which, at that moment, he ardently desired to hear.

He lives in hope of getting a cheque from a publisher that he has sent poems to and when an American magazine does send him $50 for a poem Gordon is ecstatic. The dollars equate to £10 and some shillings!! Gordon promises himself that he will keep £5 of it to give to Julia but he ends up going on a disastrous boozy bender and ends up in clink overnight.

Like many an artist before him Gordon realises that he can’t afford his scruples, it’s time for him to grow up and earn his £5 a week and join the rest of society. He even decides he must get an aspidistra, they seem to haunt him! They were apparently the mark of a respectable and aspirational middle-class life. Rosemary isn’t convinced.

Everyone rebels against the money-code, and everyone sooner or later surrenders. He had kept up his rebellion a little longer than most, that was all.

It would seem that this is a very autobiographical novel which is really sad as presumably some of the humiliating situations that Gordon experienced actually happened, or Orwell observed.

1936 club

The Classics Club Spin no. 16 – Down and Out in Paris and London

For the Classics Club Spin I got Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell which he wrote in 1933. It was only on the 28th that I realised that I had to read it before today, luckily it’s a very short read at just around 110 pages.

In 1928 George Orwell moved to Paris and ended up living the life of a poverty stricken down and out. No doubt it was all good copy for his writing, in this book he describes what it was like to be jobless and starving in Paris. He had in fact had his money stolen and I’m sure that he would have been able to get more money from friends if he had really become desperate so the experience wouldn’t have been quite the same as your average down and out.

Eventually he got a job as a dishwasher in a posh hotel, a nightmarish and exhausting existence, he describes the disgusting insanitary conditions in the unseen background of such establishments – not for the squeamish, but honestly for anyone who has had any sort of experience in catering none of it will be particularly shocking. I know that one head chef in a hotel frequented by the Queen in the 1970s routinely spat in the frying pan fat to see if it was hot enough!

Going for days on end with no food and having to pawn the clothes on his back in an attempt to survive must have been no fun, but Orwell must always have had the ability to get money from someone as he must have had friends who would have helped him out if he had asked, unlike the rest of the down and outs.

When he did borrow money to return to London so that he could compare the two cities and the experiences of destitute men he had a lot to learn about the rules that tramps had to stick to if they didn’t want to end up in prison. It seems it was easier to get food as a tramp in England, there were religious groups who would provide bread, margarine and tea – in return for being preached at. No mention of soup kitchens though which surprised me, bread and marg seems to be what tramps lived on in London.

They were only allowed to stay in a ‘spike’ for one night before having to move on to the next one, usually about 14 miles away, walking was the only way to get there, otherwise you would be sleeping on the Thames embankment if you were lucky. A ‘spike’ seems to have been a section of the local workhouse. Tramps weren’t allowed to sit down, they had to keep on the move, literally tramping around. Begging would land you in prison if you were caught at it. There were very few female tramps, almost certainly because they could usually get some sort of live-in employment as a servant.

Due to the fact that all your time was taken up tramping around it wasn’t possible to get any work, not that there would have been many jobs around then anyway. There were various types of dosshouses that you could get a bed of sorts in if you had some money. Sadly the other men were often old soldiers from World War 1, the accommodation was always filthy and usually so crowded that they were breathing into each other’s faces. As George Orwell died of tuberculosis it’s a fair bet that he contracted the disease whilst being down and out in Paris and London.

Ninety years or so on from when this was written things don’t seem to be a lot better for some poor souls in our society – a sobering thought.

The Classics Club Spin number result – 4

The Classics Club Spin number is 4. That means I have to read Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. Not exactly a comfy or easy read I’m sure, but I’ve only got myself to blame for putting it on my list! I’ve been meaning to get around to reading it for ages.

To make matters worse my copy is in one of those huge doorsteps of a book, containing four other Orwell books and a collection of his essays. Unwieldy isn’t the word.

Looking on the bright side, I’m sure I’ll feel a great sense of achievement when I get it finished. I should be blogging about it around about the 31st of December. Have any of you read it?

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017

As I’ve already completed my reading for the Classics Club I decided to get stuck into Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 which is run by Karen @Books and Chocolate (what a fab blog name).
My book list consists of:

1. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
2. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
3. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
4. Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos
5. Montaigne Essays
6. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
7. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
8. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
9. Doctor Dolittle and the Green Canary by Hugh Lofting
10. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
11. I, Claudius – Claudius, the God by Robert Graves
12. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Have you read any of these ones? I’ve had most of these book waiting in a queue to be read for years now and this will encourage me to get around to them at last!

Classic Penguin Cover to Cover by Paul Buckley

 Classic Penguin Cover to Cover  cover

Classic Penguin Cover to Cover by Paul Buckley is a lovely book – the proverbial feast for the eyes if you’re interested in book cover art. I had no idea that this book had been published, I was just lucky to spot it on display in the library. If you want to look inside it click here.

If you’re at all interested in art and design you’ll find this an interesting read, apart from the book cover designs each one is accompanied by an explanation from the artist on how they got the commission and how they had developed the design.

When I think of Penguin books I invariably have a vision of the classic orange or green Penguin editions and I hadn’t really thought about any others. That’s daft because I’ve bought plenty of Penguin classics over the years from the 1970s onwards that aren’t in the orange and white covers.

Having seen some gorgeous covers in this book I think I might just have to take a closer look at modern Penguins in bookshops, although I bought this George Orwell book of essays a few weeks ago and it doesn’t feature in this collection which is a shame because I think it’s a great design. The cover is a detail from a poster by Clive Gardiner for the Empire Marketing Board, 1928

Do you have a favourite Penguin design?

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

I got Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell in the Classics Club spin and I thought to myself, – that’s fine, I have loads of time to read it so I’ll get on with some other reading now. So it was with a horrible shock that I read an email from the Classics Club recently and realised that all that time had whizzed past, and I hadn’t even started my spin book. I got my skates on but still wasn’t finished in time, anyway better late than never, here goes.

When I put Homage to Catalonia on my list I didn’t realise that this is a non-fiction book, but I think it still counts as a classic. It was first published in 1938 and it’s about George Orwell’s experiences as a volunteer soldier in the Spanish Civil War. A civil war is always even nastier than any other war, and this one was incredibly complicated due to the number of warring factions. A mixture of Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Fascists, Revolutionaries and various others meant that the many volunteers from other countries could easily find themselves fighting for the wrong side inadvertently, as happened to poor Mary McGregor in Muriel Spark’s Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Orwell says: The revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it. As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – P.S.U.C., P.O.U.M., F.A.I., C.N.T., U.G.T., J.C.I., J.S.U., A.I.T., – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials.

Some general said that war plans go out the window after the first shot is fired, but this war seems to have been more shambolic than any other. The soldiers in the P.O.U.M which was the outfit that Orwell was fighting in had very little in the way of weapons and equipment. After taking part in a daring assault on the Fascist trenches, the soldiers were more interested in looting anything they could from the evacuated enemy trench, but they discovered that the folks on the other side were in an even worse state than the P.O.U.M, there was nothing worth looting, not even any food. Lack of decent clothing and weapons seem to be a feature of all wars which I’ve read about.

After over 100 days at the front Orwell got a few days leave to go to Barcelona where his wife was staying. Instead of a well earned rest away from fighting he found himself in the middle of street fighting for the city and discovered that the P.O.U.M had been declared illegal so he was in grave danger of being flung into prison and shot with no trial.

The civil war was being reported in newspapers but the men writing the reports were miles and miles away from the action, and basically made their reports up, so Orwell warns people not to believe what is written or heard of any action, everything was lies and exagerration.

He escaped back to England 1938, where life was going on calmly, it was all bowler hats, cricket matches, red buses, Royal weddings – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

At one point Orwell wrote about British warships having been sent to Spain, supposedly to pick up refugees. He didn’t think that they were there for that reason and he thought that the British government was on the side of Franco. However that was written very soon after the fact and I know that at least one ship did pick up British citizens to rescue them from the war. One of those rescued was a very young Laurie Lee (Cider with Rose – amongst other books). In fact Laurie Lee wrote a book about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War and when someone pointed out that he hadn’t been in it as he had been evacuated – Lee claimed that he had gone back out to Spain after that. I somehow think that he was one of the many men making up their own war stories of fighting which they had never seen.

One thing which really did annoy me was that Orwell persisted in calling everyone from Britain – English. It’s a state of affairs which people tend not to fall into nowadays, what Scots, Welsh or Irish person would relish being described as being English? – none obviously, but Orwell did it, as was normal for the times I suppose, but completely ignorant.

So many men from Fife and the Lothians died in Spain that there is a memorial to them in Kirkcaldy. Jack wrote about it here.

This was an interesting but at times confusing read, and completely different from what I expected.

On a lighter note, I couldn’t help being reminded of this bit from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Classics Club Spin

Well the number has been chosen and it’s number 5, which for me means reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which isn’t fiction at all but is his account of his experiences in Spain during their civil war in the 1930s.

I almost changed this title for another Trollope at the last minute as I’m not at all sure that it’s seen as being a classic, but heigh -ho such is life and I’m sure that it’s going to be a really interesting read.

Back Home

We went on another British road trip last week and I managed to be organised enough to schedule some posts to be published while I was away, just in case I didn’t have access to the internet. It turned out that I didn’t feel much like being online anyway, I was too tired as usual, what with running around during the day.

We visited mainly places which we hadn’t visited before. It’s sad but true that I enjoy visiting places in the UK which I’ve heard about, mainly on the TV or radio – often just on road traffic reports, and I wonder what they’re like if I’ve not visited them.

So now I can envisage Wigan, Haydock, Biddulph Gardens, Buxton, Alcester, Blenheim Palace (Woodstock and Bladon) Geddington, Market Harborough, Geoff Hamilton’s Garden at Barnsdale (Rutland), Uppingham, Oakham, Wetherby, Northallerton, Mount Grace Priory, Sedgefield, Washington Village, Morpeth, Rothbury, Cragside and Wooler. The only places we had visited before were Alcester, Blenheim/Woodstock, Morpeth, Cragside and Wooler.

This time we started off driving down south via Moffat in the Scottish Borders. The bookshop was open and I bought two books –
1. Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars
2. Crazy Pavements by Beverley Nichols

It was a bookish beginning to our break, we were heading for Wigan, an unlikely place to visit but as I had just read George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier I was intrigued to find out what it was like now. It has a newish shopping mall but you can tell from the older buildings that Wigan was indeed down at heel in the 1930s. Unlike many places, mainly down south, there was virtually nothing in the way of art deco/1930s buildings. From which I assume that nobody was doing any building at that time, it was a very depressed area. It’s not exactly vibrant at the moment but it’s still an awful lot better than Kirkcaldy, my nearest large town, which seems to have yet another empty shop each time I visit it.

We stopped off at Buxton, mainly because it was a Georgian spa town and has associations with Jane Austen.

Sedgefield was chosen as an overnight visit mainly because it was Tony Blair’s constituency when he was an MP and I wanted to compare it with Kirkcaldy. In the end I didn’t even take any photos there as it was such a wee place with just a few shops, a village really. I feel quite unreasonably aggrieved with the inhabitants of Sedgefield for voting in Tony Blair as their MP and allowing Blair to set off on his egomaniacal merry power binge which has put us in the horrendous position we are in now.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to over the last week or so and I plan to show you some photos of the various places which I hope you might be quite interested to see.

What did I buy when I was away? Not a lot really, apart from some more books, but that’s another blogpost.

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

We’re just about to go on one of our road trips and whilst thinking about where to go I remembered that Laura had had to spend a few hours in Wigan unexpectedly a while ago. She had been surprisingly impressed with the place so I added Wigan to the list.

All I knew about Wigan, apart from it being in what a large amount of English people call ‘The North’ but for us in Scotland it’s definitely Down South – was that George Orwell had written a book called The Road to Wigan Pier. I knew we had a copy of it somewhere, it turned out to be one of the many books still in the garage, thankfully Jack managed to dig it out.

The first half of the book is Orwell’s account of the time which he spent around the north of England in 1934, living in cheap lodging houses amongst the unemployed and low paid men. He describes the disgusting squalor, in one the fact that a full chamber pot had been under the table at breakfast had been the last straw which made him move on elsewhere.

He goes into great detail about the working conditions of coal miners, this was nothing new for me as the conditions were exactly the same as they were for the miners in Fife up until the 1980s when all the pits were closed down. Having to crawl for a mile or more on their hands and knees to reach the coal face, and not being paid until they actually got there, and of course for the Fife miners the mine was also under the sea – terrifying thought.

What I found most depressing about this book though was the fact that the living conditions in 1934 are not a lot worse than those for a lot of people stuck in private rented accommodation nowadays. Landlords are happy enough to take the rent but rarely carry out any repairs, with the result that people are living in damp and squalid conditions and having to pay a fortune for it, with no alternative due to the chronic shortage of housing. The solution in the 1930s was to build council houses and it must have felt like a miracle when families were allocated one of those, but of course almost all of those houses have been sold off over the years since Thatcher decided that that was the easist way to ensure a return of her Tory government after the election – a massive bribe and of course it worked.

In the second half of the book Orwell writes mainly about class, an English obsession, and politics. He regarded himself as being upper lower middle class, having had a public school education, but as he got a scholarship to go there and his parents couldn’t have afforded to send him there if they had had to pay, he would have felt inferior to those whose parents had paid for their education.

Early on in his working life Orwell had spent five years in India working as a Military Policeman, his experiences there had quite an effect on him and he grew to hate the Empire and those who ran it.

The British don’t have a monopoly on snobbery, in fact from my own observations I can count quite a few nations who are staggeringly more snobbish, but possibly it is something which the English give more thought to than any other nation, which is probably a sign of a guilty conscience, and a step in the right direction!

As the book was written in 1934 there’s a lot of mentions of Hitler, Mosley, socialism and fascism and it’s interesting to read his thoughts on it all, it’s a snapshot of history, but I found the first part of the book which concentrates on working and living conditions of ordinary people to be the most interesting.