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George Orwell > Keep the Aspidistra Flying > Chapter 3

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Chapter 3

'Gordon Comstock' was a pretty bloody name, but then Gordon came
from a pretty bloody family. The 'Gordon' part of it was Scotch,
of course. The prevalence of such names nowadays is merely a part
of the Scotchification of England that has been going on these last
fifty years. 'Gordon', 'Colin', 'Malcolm', 'Donald'--these are the
gifts of Scotland to the world, along with golf, whisky, porridge,
and the works of Barrie and Stevenson.

The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the
middle-middle class, the landless gentry. In their miserable
poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding
themselves as an 'old' family fallen on evil days, for they were
not an 'old' family at all, merely one of those families which rose
on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than
the wave itself. They had had at most fifty years of comparative
wealth, corresponding with the lifetime of Gordon's grandfather,
Samuel Comstock--Gran'pa Comstock, as Gordon was taught to call
him, though the old man died four years before he was born.

Gran'pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave
exert a powerful influence. In life he was a tough old scoundrel.
He plundered the proletariat and the foreigner of fifty thousand
pounds, he built himself a red brick mansion as durable as a
pyramid, and he begot twelve children, of whom eleven survived.
Finally he died quite suddenly, of a cerebral haemorrhage. In
Kensal Green his children placed over him a monolith with the
following inscription:










No need to repeat the blasphemous comments which everyone who had
known Gran'pa Comstock made on that last sentence. But it is worth
pointing out that the chunk of granite on which it was inscribed
weighed close on five tons and was quite certainly put there with
the intention, though not the conscious intention, of making sure
that Gran'pa Comstock shouldn't get up from underneath it. If you
want to know what a dead man's relatives really think of him, a
good rough test is the weight of his tombstone.

The Comstocks, as Gordon knew them, were a peculiarly dull, shabby,
dead-alive, ineffectual family. They lacked vitality to an extent
that was surprising. That was Gran'pa Comstock's doing, of course.
By the time when he died all his children were grown up and some of
them were middle-aged, and he had long ago succeeded in crushing
out of them any spirit they might ever have possessed. He had lain
upon them as a garden roller lies upon daisies, and there was no
chance of their flattened personalities ever expanding again. One
and all they turned out listless, gutless, unsuccessful sort of
people. None of the boys had proper professions, because Gran'pa
Comstock had been at the greatest pains to drive all of them into
professions for which they were totally unsuited. Only one of
them--John, Gordon's father--had even braved Gran'pa Comstock to
the extent of getting married during the latter's lifetime. It was
impossible to imagine any of them making any sort of mark in the
world, or creating anything, or destroying anything, or being
happy, or vividly unhappy, or fully alive, or even earning a decent
income. They just drifted along in an atmosphere of semi-genteel
failure. They were one of those depressing families, so common
among the middle-middle classes, in which NOTHING EVER HAPPENS.

From his earliest childhood Gordon's relatives had depressed him
horribly. When he was a little boy he still had great numbers of
uncles and aunts living. They were all more or less alike--grey,
shabby, joyless people, all rather sickly in health and all
perpetually harassed by money-worries which fizzled along without
ever reaching the sensational explosion of bankruptcy. It was
noticeable even then that they had lost all impulse to reproduce
themselves. Really vital people, whether they have money or
whether they haven't, multiply almost as automatically as animals.
Gran'pa Comstock, for instance, himself one of a litter of twelve,
had produced eleven progeny. Yet all those eleven produced only
two progeny between them, and those two--Gordon and his sister
Julia--had produced, by 1934, not even one. Gordon, last of the
Comstocks, was born in 1905, an unintended child; and thereafter,
in thirty long, long years, there was not a single birth in the
family, only deaths. And not only in the matter of marrying and
begetting, but in every possible way, NOTHING EVER HAPPENED in the
Comstock family. Every one of them seemed doomed, as though by a
curse, to a dismal, shabby, hole-and-corner existence. None of
them ever DID anything. They were the kind of people who in every
conceivable activity, even if it is only getting on to a bus, are
automatically elbowed away from the heart of things. All of them,
of course, were hopeless fools about money. Gran'pa Comstock had
finally divided his money among them more or less equally, so that
each received, after the sale of the red-brick mansion, round about
five thousand pounds. And no sooner was Gran'pa Comstock underground
than they began to fritter their money away. None of them had the
guts to lose it in sensational ways such as squandering it on women
or at the races; they simply dribbled it away and dribbled it away,
the women in silly investments and the men in futile little business
ventures that petered out after a year or two, leaving a net loss.
More than half of them went unmarried to their graves. Some of the
women did make rather undesirable middle-aged marriages after their
father was dead, but the men, because of their incapacity to earn a
proper living, were the kind who 'can't afford' to marry. None of
them, except Gordon's Aunt Angela, ever had so much as a home to
call their own; they were the kind of people who live in godless
'rooms' and tomb-like boarding-houses. And year after year they
died off and died off, of dingy but expensive little diseases that
swallowed up the last penny of their capital. One of the women,
Gordon's Aunt Charlotte, wandered off into the Mental Home at
Clapham in 1916. The Mental Homes of England, how chock-a-block
they stand! And it is above all derelict spinsters of the middle-
classes who keep them going. By 1934 only three of that generation
survived; Aunt Charlotte already mentioned, and Aunt Angela, who by
some happy chance had been induced to buy a house and a tiny annuity
in 1912, and Uncle Walter, who dingily existed on the few hundred
pounds that were left out of his five thousand and by running
short-lived 'agencies' for this and that.

Gordon grew up in the atmosphere of cut-down clothes and stewed
neck of mutton. His father, like the other Comstocks, was a
depressed and therefore depressing person, but he had some brains
and a slight literary turn. And seeing that his mind was of the
literary type and he had a shrinking horror of anything to do with
figures, it had seemed only natural to Gran'pa Comstock to make him
into a chartered accountant. So he practised, ineffectually, as a
chartered accountant, and was always buying his way into
partnerships which were dissolved after a year or two, and his
income fluctuated, sometimes rising to five hundred a year and
sometimes falling to two hundred, but always with a tendency to
decrease. He died in 1922, aged only fifty-six, but worn out--
he had suffered from a kidney disease for a long time past.

Since the Comstocks were genteel as well as shabby, it was
considered necessary to waste huge sums on Gordon's 'education'.
What a fearful thing it is, this incubus of 'education'! It means
that in order to send his son to the right kind of school (that is,
a public school or an imitation of one) a middle-class man is
obliged to live for years on end in a style that would be scorned
by a jobbing plumber. Gordon was sent to wretched, pretentious
schools whose fees were round about 120 pounds a year. Even these
fees, of course, meant fearful sacrifices at home. Meanwhile
Julia, who was five years older than he, received as nearly as
possible no education at all. She was, indeed, sent to one or two
poor, dingy little boarding schools, but she was 'taken away' for
good when she was sixteen. Gordon was 'the boy' and Julia was 'the
girl', and it seemed natural to everyone that 'the girl' should be
sacrificed to 'the boy'. Moreover, it had early been decided in
the family that Gordon was 'clever'. Gordon, with his wonderful
'cleverness', was to win scholarships, make a brilliant success in
life, and retrieve the family fortunes--that was the theory, and no
one believed in it more firmly than Julia. Julia was a tall,
ungainly girl, much taller than Gordon, with a thin face and a neck
just a little too long--one of those girls who even at their most
youthful remind one irresistibly of a goose. But her nature was
simple and affectionate. She was a self-effacing, home-keeping,
ironing, darning, and mending kind of girl, a natural spinster-
soul. Even at sixteen she had 'old maid' written all over her.
She idolized Gordon. All through his childhood she watched over
him, nursed him, spoiled him, went in rags so that he might have
the right clothes to go to school in, saved up her wretched pocket-
money to buy him Christmas presents and birthday presents. And of
course he repaid her, as soon as he was old enough, by despising
her because she was not pretty and not 'clever'.

Even at the third-rate schools to which Gordon was sent nearly all
the boys were richer than himself. They soon found out his
poverty, of course, and gave him hell because of it. Probably the
greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to school
among children richer than itself. A child conscious of poverty
will suffer snobbish agonies such as a grown-up person can scarcely
imagine. In those days, especially at his preparatory school,
Gordon's life had been one long conspiracy to keep his end up and
pretend that his parents were richer than they were. Ah, the
humiliations of those days! That awful business, for instance,
at the beginning of each term, when you had to 'give in' to the
headmaster, publicly, the money you had brought back with you; and
the contemptuous, cruel sniggers from the other boys when you
didn't 'give in' ten bob or more. And the time when the others
found out that Gordon was wearing a ready-made suit which had cost
thirty-five shillings! The times that Gordon dreaded most of all
were when his parents came down to see him. Gordon, in those days
still a believer, used actually to pray that his parents wouldn't
come down to school. His father, especially, was the kind of
father you couldn't help being ashamed of; a cadaverous, despondent
man, with a bad stoop, his clothes dismally shabby and hopelessly
out of date. He carried about with him an atmosphere of failure,
worry, and boredom. And he had such a dreadful habit, when he was
saying good-bye, of tipping Gordon half a crown right in front of
the other boys, so that everyone could see that it was only half a
crown and not, as it ought to have been, ten bob! Even twenty
years afterwards the memory of that school made Gordon shudder.

The first effect of all this was to give him a crawling reverence
for money. In those days he actually hated his poverty-stricken
relatives--his father and mother, Julia, everybody. He hated them
for their dingy homes, their dowdiness, their joyless attitude to
life, their endless worrying and groaning over threepences and
sixpences. By far the commonest phrase in the Comstock household
was, 'We can't afford it.' In those days he longed for money as
only a child can long. Why SHOULDN'T one have decent clothes and
plenty of sweets and go to the pictures as often as one wanted to?
He blamed his parents for their poverty as though they had been
poor on purpose. Why couldn't they be like other boys' parents?
They PREFERRED being poor, it seemed to him. That is how a child's
mind works.

But as he grew older he grew--not less unreasonable, exactly, but
unreasonable in a different way. By this time he had found his
feet at school and was less violently oppressed. He never was very
successful at school--he did no work and won no scholarships--but
he managed to develop his brain along the lines that suited it. He
read the books which the headmaster denounced from the pulpit, and
developed unorthodox opinions about the C. of E., patriotism, and
the Old Boys' tie. Also he began writing poetry. He even, after a
year or two, began to send poems to the Athenaeum, the New Age, and
the Weekly Westminster; but they were invariably rejected. Of
course there were other boys of similar type with whom he
associated. Every public school has its small self-conscious
intelligentsia. And at that moment, in the years just after the
War, England was so full of revolutionary opinion that even the
public schools were infected by it. The young, even those who had
been too young to fight, were in a bad temper with their elders, as
well they might be; practically everyone with any brains at all was
for the moment a revolutionary. Meanwhile the old--those over
sixty, say--were running in circles like hens, squawking about
'subversive ideas'. Gordon and his friends had quite an exciting
time with their 'subversive ideas'. For a whole year they ran an
unofficial monthly paper called the Bolshevik, duplicated with a
jellygraph. It advocated Socialism, free love, the dismemberment
of the British Empire, the abolition of the Army and Navy, and so
on and so forth. It was great fun. Every intelligent boy of
sixteen is a Socialist. At that age one does not see the hook
sticking out of the rather stodgy bait.

In a crude, boyish way, he had begun to get the hang of this money-
business. At an earlier age than most people he grasped that ALL
modern commerce is a swindle. Curiously enough, it was the
advertisements in the Underground stations that first brought it
home to him. He little knew, as the biographers say, that he
himself would one day have a job in an advertising firm. But there
was more to it than the mere fact that business is a swindle. What
he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-
worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only
real religion--the only really FELT religion--that is left to us.
Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any
longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly
significant phrase, to MAKE GOOD. The decalogue has been reduced
to two commandments. One for the employers--the elect, the money-
priesthood as it were--'Thou shalt make money'; the other for the
employed--the slaves and underlings--'Thou shalt not lose thy job.'
It was about this time that he came across The Ragged Trousered
Philanthropists and read about the starving carpenter who pawns
everything but sticks to his aspidistra. The aspidistra became a
sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, flower of
England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion
and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while
there are aspidistras in the windows.

He did not hate and despise his relatives now--or not so much, at
any rate. They still depressed him greatly--those poor old
withering aunts and uncles, of whom two or three had already died,
his father, worn out and spiritless, his mother, faded, nervy, and
'delicate' (her lungs were none too strong), Julia, already, at
one-and-twenty, a dutiful, resigned drudge who worked twelve hours
a day and never had a decent frock. But he grasped now what was
the matter with them. It was not MERELY the lack of money. It was
rather that, having no money, they still lived mentally in the
money-world--the world in which money is virtue and poverty is
crime. It was not poverty but the down-dragging of RESPECTABLE
poverty that had done for them. They had accepted the money-code,
and by that code they were failures. They had never had the sense
to lash out and just LIVE, money or no money, as the lower classes
do. How right the lower classes are! Hats off to the factory lad
who with fourpence in the world puts his girl in the family way!
At least he's got blood and not money in his veins.

Gordon thought it all out, in the naive selfish manner of a boy.
There are two ways to live, he decided. You can be rich, or you
can deliberately refuse to be rich. You can possess money, or you
can despise money; the one fatal thing is to worship money and fail
to get it. He took it for granted that he himself would never be
able to make money. It hardly even occurred to him that he might
have talents which could be turned to account. That was what his
schoolmasters had done for him; they had rubbed it into him that he
was a seditious little nuisance and not likely to 'succeed' in
life. He accepted this. Very well, then, he would refuse the
whole business of 'succeeding'; he would make it his especial
purpose NOT to 'succeed'. Better to reign in hell than serve in
heaven; better to serve in hell than serve in heaven, for that
matter. Already, at sixteen, he knew which side he was on. He was
AGAINST the money-god and all his swinish priesthood. He had
declared war on money; but secretly, of course.

It was when he was seventeen that his father died, leaving about
two hundred pounds. Julia had been at work for some years now.
During 1918 and 1919 she had worked in a Government office, and
after that she took a course of cookery and got a job in a nasty,
ladylike little teashop near Earl's Court Underground Station. She
worked a seventy-two hour week and was given her lunch and tea and
twenty-five shillings; out of this she contributed twelve shillings
a week, often more, to the household expenses. Obviously the best
thing to do, now that Mr Comstock was dead, would have been to take
Gordon away from school, find him a job, and let Julia have the two
hundred pounds to set up a teashop of her own. But here the
habitual Comstock folly about money stepped in. Neither Julia nor
her mother would hear of Gordon leaving school. With the strange
idealistic snobbishness of the middle classes, they were willing to
go to the workhouse sooner than let Gordon leave school before the
statutory age of eighteen. The two hundred pounds, or more than
half of it, must be used in completing Gordon's 'education'.
Gordon let them do it. He had declared war on money but that did
not prevent him from being damnably selfish. Of course he dreaded
this business of going to work. What boy wouldn't dread it? Pen-
pushing in some filthy office--God! His uncles and aunts were
already talking dismally about 'getting Gordon settled in life'.
They saw everything in terms of 'good' jobs. Young Smith had got
such a 'good' job in a bank, and young Jones had got such a 'good'
job in an insurance office. It made him sick to hear them. They
seemed to want to see every young man in England nailed down in the
coffin of a 'good' job.

Meanwhile, money had got to be earned. Before her marriage
Gordon's mother had been a music teacher, and even since then she
had taken pupils, sporadically, when the family were in lower water
than usual. She now decided that she would start giving lessons
again. It was fairly easy to get pupils in the suburbs--they were
living in Acton--and with the music fees and Julia's contribution
they could probably 'manage' for the next year or two. But the
state of Mrs Comstock's lungs was now something more than
'delicate'. The doctor who had attended her husband before his
death had put his stethoscope to her chest and looked serious. He
had told her to take care of herself, keep warm, eat nourishing
food, and, above all, avoid fatigue. The fidgeting, tiring job of
giving piano lessons was, of course, the worst possible thing for
her. Gordon knew nothing of this. Julia knew, however. It was a
secret between the two women, carefully kept from Gordon.

A year went by. Gordon spent it rather miserably, more and more
embarrassed by his shabby clothes and lack of pocket-money, which
made girls an object of terror to him. However, the New Age
accepted one of his poems that year. Meanwhile, his mother sat on
comfortless piano stools in draughty drawing-rooms, giving lessons
at two shillings an hour. And then Gordon left school, and fat
interfering Uncle Walter, who had business connexions in a small
way, came forward and said that a friend of a friend of his could
get Gordon ever such a 'good' job in the accounts department of a
red lead firm. It was really a splendid job--a wonderful opening
for a young man. If Gordon buckled to work in the right spirit he
might be a Big Pot one of these days. Gordon's soul squirmed.
Suddenly, as weak people do, he stiffened, and, to the horror of
the whole family, refused even to try for the job.

There were fearful rows, of course. They could not understand him.
It seemed to them a kind of blasphemy to refuse such a 'good' job
when you got the chance of it. He kept reiterating that he didn't
want THAT KIND of job. Then what DID he want? they all demanded.
He wanted to 'write', he told them sullenly. But how could he
possibly make a living by 'writing'? they demanded again. And of
course he couldn't answer. At the back of his mind was the idea
that he could somehow live by writing poetry; but that was too
absurd even to be mentioned. But at any rate, he wasn't going into
business, into the money-world. He would have a job, but not a
'good' job. None of them had the vaguest idea what he meant. His
mother wept, even Julia 'went for' him, and all round him there
were uncles and aunts (he still had six or seven of them left)
feebly volleying and incompetently thundering. And after three
days a dreadful thing happened. In the middle of supper his mother
was seized by a violent fit of coughing, put her hand to her
breast, fell forward, and began bleeding at the mouth.

Gordon was terrified. His mother did not die, as it happened, but
she looked deathly as they carried her upstairs. Gordon rushed for
the doctor. For several days his mother lay at death's door. It
was the draughty drawing-rooms and the trudging to and fro in all
weathers that had done it. Gordon hung helplessly about the house,
a dreadful feeling of guilt mingling with his misery. He did not
exactly know but he half divined, that his mother had killed
herself in order to pay his school fees. After this he could not
go on opposing her any longer. He went to Uncle Walter and told
him that he would take that job in the red lead firm, if they would
give it him. So Uncle Walter spoke to his friend, and the friend
spoke to his friend, and Gordon was sent for and interviewed by an
old gentleman with badly fitting false teeth, and finally was given
a job, on probation. He started on twenty-five bob a week. And
with this firm he remained six years.

They moved away from Acton and took a flat in a desolate red block
of flats somewhere in the Paddington district. Mrs Comstock had
brought her piano, and when she had got some of her strength back
she gave occasional lessons. Gordon's wages were gradually raised,
and the three of them 'managed', more or less. It was Julia and
Mrs Comstock who did most of the 'managing'. Gordon still had a
boy's selfishness about money. At the office he got on not
absolutely badly. It was said of him that he was worth his wages
but wasn't the type that Makes Good. In a way the utter contempt
that he had for his work made things easier for him. He could put
up with this meaningless office-life, because he never for an
instant thought of it as permanent. Somehow, sometime, God knew
how or when, he was going to break free of it. After all, there
was always his 'writing'. Some day, perhaps, he might be able to
make a living of sorts by 'writing'; and you'd feel you were free
of the money-stink if you were a 'writer', would you not? The
types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him
squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To
settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an
aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak--
Strube's 'little man'--the little docile cit who slips home by the
six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears,
half an hour's listening-in to the B. B. C. Symphony Concert, and
then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife 'feels
in the mood'! What a fate! No, it isn't like that that one was
meant to live. One's got to get right out of it, out of the money-
stink. It was a kind of plot that he was nursing. He was as
though dedicated to this war against money. But it was still a
secret. The people at the office never suspected him of unorthodox
ideas. They never even found out that he wrote poetry--not that
there was much to find out, for in six years he had less than
twenty poems printed in the magazines. To look at, he was just the
same as any other City clerk--just a soldier in the strap-hanging
army that sways eastward at morning, westward at night in the
carriages of the Underground.

He was twenty-four when his mother died. The family was breaking
up. Only four of the older generation of Comstocks were left now--
Aunt Angela, Aunt Charlotte, Uncle Walter, and another uncle who
died a year later. Gordon and Julia gave up the flat. Gordon took
a furnished room in Doughty Street (he felt vaguely literary,
living in Bloomsbury), and Julia moved to Earl's Court, to be near
the shop. Julia was nearly thirty now, and looked much older. She
was thinner than ever, though healthy enough, and there was grey in
her hair. She still worked twelve hours a day, and in six years
her wages had only risen by ten shillings a week. The horribly
ladylike lady who kept the teashop was a semi-friend as well as an
employer, and thus could sweat and bully Julia to the tune of
'dearest' and 'darling'. Four months after his mother's death
Gordon suddenly walked out of his job. He gave the firm no
reasons. They imagined that he was going to 'better himself', and--
luckily, as it turned out--gave him quite good references. He had
not even thought of looking for another job. He wanted to burn his
boats. From now on he would breathe free air, free of the money-
stink. He had not consciously waited for his mother to die before
doing this; still, it was his mother's death that had nerved him to

Of course there was another and more desolating row in what was
left of the family. They thought Gordon must have gone mad. Over
and over again he tried, quite vainly, to explain to them why he
would not yield himself to the servitude of a 'good' job. 'But
what are you going to live on? What are you going to live on?' was
what they all wailed at him. He refused to think seriously about
it. Of course, he still harboured the notion that he could make a
living of sorts by 'writing'. By this time he had got to know
Ravelston, editor of Antichrist, and Ravelston, besides printing
his poems, managed to get him books to review occasionally. His
literary prospects were not so bleak as they had been six years
ago. But still, it was not the desire to 'write' that was his real
motive. To get out of the money-world--that was what he wanted.
Vaguely he looked forward to some kind of moneyless, anchorite
existence. He had a feeling that if you genuinely despise money
you can keep going somehow, like the birds of the air. He forgot
that the birds of the air don't pay room-rent. The poet starving
in a garret--but starving, somehow, not uncomfortably--that was his
vision of himself.

The next seven months were devastating. They scared him and almost
broke his spirit. He learned what it means to live for weeks on
end on bread and margarine, to try to 'write' when you are half
starved, to pawn your clothes, to sneak trembling up the stairs
when you owe three weeks' rent and your landlady is listening for
you. Moreover, in those seven months he wrote practically nothing.
The first effect of poverty is that it kills thought. He grasped,
as though it were a new discovery, that you do not escape from
money merely by being moneyless. On the contrary, you are the
hopeless slave of money until you have enough of it to live on--a
'competence', as the beastly middle-class phrase goes. Finally he
was turned out of his room, after a vulgar row. He was three days
and four nights in the street. It was bloody. Three mornings, on
the advice of another man he met on the Embankment, he spent in
Billingsgate, helping to shove fish-barrows up the twisty little
hills from Billingsgate into Eastcheap. 'Twopence an up' was what
you got, and the work knocked hell out of your thigh muscles.
There were crowds of people on the same job, and you had to wait
your turn; you were lucky if you made eighteen-pence between four
in the morning and nine. After three days of it Gordon gave up.
What was the use? He was beaten. There was nothing for it but to
go back to his family, borrow some money, and find another job.

But now, of course, there was no job to be had. For months he
lived by cadging on the family. Julia kept him going till the last
penny of her tiny savings was gone. It was abominable. Here was
the outcome of all his fine attitudes! He had renounced ambition,
made war on money, and all it led to was cadging from his sister!
And Julia, he knew, felt his failure far more than she felt the
loss of her savings. She had had such hopes of Gordon. He alone
of all the Comstocks had had it in him to 'succeed'. Even now she
believed that somehow, some day, he was going to retrieve the
family fortunes. He was so 'clever'--surely he could make money if
he tried! For two whole months Gordon stayed with Aunt Angela in
her little house at Highgate--poor, faded, mummified Aunt Angela,
who even for herself had barely enough to eat. All this time he
searched desperately for work. Uncle Walter could not help him.
His influence in the business world, never large, was now
practically nil. At last, however, in a quite unexpected way, the
luck turned. A friend of a friend of Julia's employer's brother
managed to get Gordon a job in the accounts department of the New
Albion Publicity Company.

The New Albion was one of those publicity firms which have sprung
up everywhere since the War--the fungi, as you might say, that
sprout from a decaying capitalism. It was a smallish rising firm
and took every class of publicity it could get. It designed a
certain number of large-scale posters for oatmeal stout, self-
raising flour, and so forth, but its main line was millinery and
cosmetic advertisements in the women's illustrated papers, besides
minor ads in twopenny weeklies, such as Whiterose Pills for Female
Disorders, Your Horoscope Cast by Professor Raratongo, The Seven
Secrets of Venus, New Hope for the Ruptured, Earn Five Pounds a
Week in your Spare Time, and Cyprolax Hair Lotion Banishes all
Unpleasant Intruders. There was a large staff of commercial
artists, of course. It was here that Gordon first made the
acquaintance of Rosemary. She was in the 'studio' and helped to
design fashion plates. It was a long time before he actually spoke
to her. At first he knew her merely as a remote personage, small,
dark, with swift movements, distinctly attractive but rather
intimidating. When they passed one another in the corridors she
eyed him ironically, as though she knew all about him and
considered him a bit of a joke; nevertheless she seemed to look at
him a little oftener than was necessary. He had nothing to do with
her side of the business. He was in the accounts department, a
mere clerk on three quid a week.

The interesting thing about the New Albion was that it was so
completely modern in spirit. There was hardly a soul in the firm
who was not perfectly well aware that publicity--advertising--is
the dirtiest ramp that capitalism has yet produced. In the red
lead firm there had still lingered certain notions of commercial
honour and usefulness. But such things would have been laughed at
in the New Albion. Most of the employees were the hard-boiled,
Americanized, go-getting type to whom nothing in the world is
sacred, except money. They had their cynical code worked out. The
public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a
swill-bucket. And yet beneath their cynicism there was the final
naivete, the blind worship of the money-god. Gordon studied them
unobtrusively. As before, he did his work passably well and his
fellow-employees looked down on him. Nothing had changed in his
inner mind. He still despised and repudiated the money-code.
Somehow, sooner or later, he was going to escape from it; even now,
after his first fiasco, he still plotted to escape. He was IN the
money world, but not OF it. As for the types about him, the little
bowler-hatted worms who never turned, and the go-getters, the
American business-college gutter-crawlers, they rather amused him
than not. He liked studying their slavish keep-your-job mentality.
He was the chiel amang them takin' notes.

One day a curious thing happened. Somebody chanced to see a poem
of Gordon's in a magazine, and put it about that they 'had a poet
in the office'. Of course Gordon was laughed at, not ill-
naturedly, by the other clerks. They nicknamed him 'the bard' from
that day forth. But though amused, they were also faintly
contemptuous. It confirmed all their ideas about Gordon. A fellow
who wrote poetry wasn't exactly the type to Make Good. But the
thing had an unexpected sequel. About the time when the clerks
grew tired of chaffing Gordon, Mr Erskine, the managing director,
who had hitherto taken only the minimum notice of him, sent for him
and interviewed him.

Mr Erskine was a large, slow-moving man with a broad, healthy,
expressionless face. From his appearance and the slowness of his
speech you would have guessed with confidence that he had something
to do with either agriculture or cattle-breeding. His wits were as
slow as his movements, and he was the kind of man who never hears
of anything until everybody else has stopped talking about it. How
such a man came to be in charge of an advertising agency, only the
strange gods of capitalism know. But he was quite a likeable
person. He had not that sniffish, buttoned-up spirit that usually
goes with an ability to make money. And in a way his fat-
wittedness stood him in good stead. Being insensible to popular
prejudice, he could assess people on their merits; consequently, he
was rather good at choosing talented employees. The news that
Gordon had written poems, so far from shocking him, vaguely
impressed him. They wanted literary talents in the New Albion.
Having sent for Gordon, he studied him in a somnolent, sidelong way
and asked him a number of inconclusive questions. He never
listened to Gordon's answers, but punctuated his questions with a
noise that sounded like 'Hm, hm, hm.' Wrote poetry, did he? Oh
yes? Hm. And had it printed in the papers? Hm, hm. Suppose they
paid you for that kind of thing? Not much, eh? No, suppose not.
Hm, hm. Poetry? Hm. A bit difficult, that must be. Getting the
lines the same length, and all that. Hm, hm. Write anything else?
Stories, and so forth? Hm. Oh yes? Very interesting. Hm!

Then, without further questions, he promoted Gordon to a special
post as secretary--in effect, apprentice--to Mr Clew, the New
Albion's head copywriter. Like every other advertising agency, the
New Albion was constantly in search of copywriters with a touch of
imagination. It is a curious fact, but it is much easier to find
competent draughtsmen than to find people who can think of slogans
like 'Q. T. Sauce keeps Hubby Smiling' and 'Kiddies clamour for
their Breakfast Crisps'. Gordon's wages were not raised for the
moment, but the firm had their eye on him. With luck he might be a
full-fledged copywriter in a year's time. It was an unmistakable
chance to Make Good.

For six months he was working with Mr Clew. Mr Clew was a harassed
man of about forty, with wiry hair into which he often plunged his
fingers. He worked in a stuffy little office whose walls were
entirely papered with his past triumphs in the form of posters. He
took Gordon under his wing in a friendly way, showed him the ropes,
and was even ready to listen to his suggestions. At that time they
were working on a line of magazine ads for April Dew, the great new
deodorant which the Queen of Sheba Toilet Requisites Co. (this was
Flaxman's firm, curiously enough) were putting on the market.
Gordon started on the job with secret loathing. But now there was
a quite unexpected development. It was that Gordon showed, almost
from the start, a remarkable talent for copywriting. He could
compose an ad as though he had been born to it. The vivid phrase
that sticks and rankles, the neat little para. that packs a world
of lies into a hundred words--they came to him almost unsought. He
had always had a gift for words, but this was the first time he had
used it successfully. Mr Clew thought him very promising. Gordon
watched his own development, first with surprise, then with
amusement, and finally with a kind of horror. THIS, then, was what
he was coming to! Writing lies to tickle the money out of fools'
pockets! There was a beastly irony, too, in the fact that he, who
wanted to be a 'writer', should score his sole success in writing
ads for deodorants. However, that was less unusual than he
imagined. Most copywriters, they say, are novelists manques; or is
it the other way about?

The Queen of Sheba were very pleased with their ads. Mr Erskine
also was pleased. Gordon's wages were raised by ten shillings a
week. And it was now that Gordon grew frightened. Money was
getting him after all. He was sliding down, down, into the money-
sty. A little more and he would be stuck in it for life. It is
queer how these things happen. You set your face against success,
you swear never to Make Good--you honestly believe that you
couldn't Make Good even if you wanted to; and then something
happens along, some mere chance, and you find yourself Making Good
almost automatically. He saw that now or never was the time to
escape. He had got to get out of it--out of the money-world,
irrevocably, before he was too far involved.

But this time he wasn't going to be starved into submission. He
went to Ravelston and asked his help. He told him that he wanted
some kind of job; not a 'good' job, but a job that would keep his
body without wholly buying his soul. Ravelston understood
perfectly. The distinction between a job and a 'good' job did not
have to be explained to him; nor did he point out to Gordon the
folly of what he was doing. That was the great thing about
Ravelston. He could always see another person's point of view. It
was having money that did it, no doubt; for the rich can afford to
be intelligent. Moreover, being rich himself, he could find jobs
for other people. After only a fortnight he told Gordon of
something that might suit him. A Mr McKechnie, a rather
dilapidated second-hand bookseller with whom Ravelston dealt
occasionally, was looking for an assistant. He did not want a
trained assistant who would expect full wages; he wanted somebody
who looked like a gentleman and could talk about books--somebody to
impress the more bookish customers. It was the very reverse of a
'good' job. The hours were long, the pay was wretched--two pounds
a week--and there was no chance of advancement. It was a blind-
alley job. And, of course, a blind-alley job was the very thing
Gordon was looking for. He went and saw Mr McKechnie, a sleepy,
benign old Scotchman with a red nose and a white beard stained by
snuff, and was taken on without demur. At this time, too, his
volume of poems, Mice, was going to press. The seventh publisher
to whom he had sent it had accepted it. Gordon did not know that
this was Ravelston's doing. Ravelston was a personal friend of the
publisher. He was always arranging this kind of thing, stealthily,
for obscure poets. Gordon thought the future was opening before
him. He was a made man--or, by Smilesian, aspidistral standards,

He gave a month's notice at the office. It was a painful business
altogether. Julia, of course, was more distressed than ever at
this second abandonment of a 'good' job. By this time Gordon had
got to know Rosemary. She did not try to prevent him from throwing
up his job. It was against her code to interfere--'You've got to
live your own life,' was always her attitude. But she did not in
the least understand why he was doing it. The thing that most
upset him, curiously enough, was his interview with Mr Erskine. Mr
Erskine was genuinely kind. He did not want Gordon to leave the
firm, and said so frankly. With a sort of elephantine politeness
he refrained from calling Gordon a young fool. He did, however,
ask him why he was leaving. Somehow, Gordon could not bring
himself to avoid answering or to say--the only thing Mr Erskine
would have understood--that he was going after a better-paid job.
He blurted out shamefacedly that he 'didn't think business suited
him' and that he 'wanted to go in for writing'. Mr Erskine was
noncommittal. Writing, eh? Hm. Much money in that sort of thing
nowadays? Not much, eh? Hm. No, suppose not. Hm. Gordon,
feeling and looking ridiculous, mumbled that he had 'got a book
just coming out'. A book of poems, he added with difficulty in
pronouncing the word. Mr Erskine regarded him sidelong before

'Poetry, eh? Hm. Poetry? Make a living out of that sort of
thing, do you think?'

'Well--not a living, exactly. But it would help.'

'Hm--well! You know best, I expect. If you want a job any time,
come back to us. I dare say we could find room for you. We can do
with your sort here. Don't forget.'

Gordon left with a hateful feeling of having behaved perversely and
ungratefully. But he had got to do it; he had got to get out of
the money-world. It was queer. All over England young men were
eating their hearts out for lack of jobs, and here was he, Gordon,
to whom the very word 'job' was faintly nauseous, having jobs
thrust unwanted upon him. It was an example of the fact that you
can get anything in this world if you genuinely don't want it.
Moreover, Mr Erskine's words stuck in his mind. Probably he had
meant what he said. Probably there WOULD be a job waiting for
Gordon if he chose to go back. So his boats were only half burned.
The New Albion was a doom before him as well as behind.

But how happy had he been, just at first, in Mr McKechnie's
bookshop! For a little while--a very little while--he had the
illusion of being really out of the money-world. Of course the
book-trade was a swindle, like all other trades; but how different
a swindle! Here was no hustling and Making Good, no gutter-
crawling. No go-getter could put up for ten minutes with the
stagnant air of the book-trade. As for the work, it was very
simple. It was mainly a question of being in the shop ten hours a
day. Mr McKechnie wasn't a bad old stick. He was a Scotchman, of
course, but Scottish is as Scottish does. At any rate he was
reasonably free from avarice--his most distinctive trait seemed to
be laziness. He was also a teetotaller and belonged to some
Nonconformist sect or other, but this did not affect Gordon.
Gordon had been at the shop about a month when Mice was published.
No less than thirteen papers reviewed it! And The Times Lit. Supp.
said that it showed 'exceptional promise'. It was not till months
later that he realized what a hopeless failure Mice had really

And it was only now, when he was down to two quid a week and had
practically cut himself off from the prospect of earning more, that
he grasped the real nature of the battle he was fighting. The
devil of it is that the glow of renunciation never lasts. Life on
two quid a week ceases to be a heroic gesture and becomes a dingy
habit. Failure is as great a swindle as success. He had thrown up
his 'good' job and renounced 'good' jobs for ever. Well, that was
necessary. He did not want to go back on it. But it was no use
pretending that because his poverty was self-imposed he had escaped
the ills that poverty drags in its train. It was not a question of
hardship. You don't suffer real physical hardship on two quid a
week, and if you did it wouldn't matter. It is in the brain and
the soul that lack of money damages you. Mental deadness,
spiritual squalor--they seem to descend upon you inescapably when
your income drops below a certain point. Faith, hope, money--only
a saint could have the first two without having the third.

He was growing more mature. Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-
nine. He had reached the age when the future ceases to be a rosy
blur and becomes actual and menacing. The spectacle of his
surviving relatives depressed him more and more. As he grew older
he felt himself more akin to them. That was the way he was going!
A few years more, and he would be like that, just like that! He
felt this even with Julia, whom he saw oftener than his uncle and
aunt. In spite of various resolves never to do it again, he still
borrowed money off Julia periodically. Julia's hair was greying
fast; there was a deep line scored down each of her thin red
cheeks. She had settled her life into a routine in which she was
not unhappy. There was her work at the shop, her 'sewing' at
nights in her Earl's Court bed-sitting-room (second floor, back,
nine bob a week unfurnished), her occasional forgatherings with
spinster friends as lonely as herself. It was the typical
submerged life of the penniless unmarried woman; she accepted it,
hardly realizing that her destiny could ever have been different.
Yet in her way she suffered, more for Gordon than for herself. The
gradual decay of the family, the way they had died off and died off
and left nothing behind, was a sort of tragedy in her mind. Money,
money! 'None of us ever seems to make any money!' was her
perpetual lament. And of them all, Gordon alone had had the chance
to make money; and Gordon had chosen not to. He was sinking
effortless into the same rut of poverty as the others. After the
first row was over, she was too decent to 'go for' him again
because he had thrown up his job at the New Albion. But his
motives were quite meaningless to her. In her wordless feminine
way she knew that the sin against money is the ultimate sin.

And as for Aunt Angela and Uncle Walter--oh dear, oh dear! What a
couple! It made Gordon feel ten years older every time he looked
at them.

Uncle Walter, for example. Uncle Walter was very depressing. He
was sixty-seven, and what with his various 'agencies' and the
dwindling remnants of his patrimony his income might have been
nearly three pounds a week. He had a tiny little cabin of an
office off Cursitor Street, and he lived in a very cheap boarding-
house in Holland Park. That was quite according to precedent; all
the Comstock men drifted naturally into boarding-houses. When you
looked at poor old uncle, with his large tremulous belly, his
bronchitic voice, his broad, pale, timidly pompous face, rather
like Sargent' s portrait of Henry James, his entirely hairless
head, his pale, pouchy eyes, and his ever-drooping moustache, to
which he tried vainly to give an upward twirl--when you looked at
him, you found it totally impossible to believe that he had ever
been young. Was it conceivable that such a being had ever felt
life tingle in his veins? Had he ever climbed a tree, taken a
header off a springboard, or been in love? Had he ever had a brain
in working order? Even back in the early nineties, when he was
arithmetically young, had he ever made any kind of stab at life? A
few furtive half-hearted frolics, perhaps. A few whiskies in dull
bars, a visit or two to the Empire promenade, a little whoring on
the Q. T.; the sort of dingy, drabby fornications that you can
imagine happening between Egyptian mummies after the museum is
closed for the night. And after that the long, long quiet years of
business failure, loneliness, and stagnation in godless boarding-

And yet uncle in his old age was probably not unhappy. He had one
hobby of never-failing interest, and that was his diseases. He
suffered, by his own account, from every disease in the medical
dictionary, and was never weary of talking about them. Indeed, it
seemed to Gordon that none of the people in his uncle's boarding-
house--he had been there occasionally--ever did talk about anything
except their diseases. All over the darkish drawing-room, ageing,
discoloured people sat about in couples, discussing symptoms.
Their conversation was like the dripping of stalactite to
stalagmite. Drip, drip. 'How is your lumbago?' says stalactite to
stalagmite. 'I find my Kruschen Salts are doing me good,' says
stalagmite to stalactite. Drip, drip, drip.

And then there was Aunt Angela, aged sixty-nine. Gordon tried not
even to think of Aunt Angela oftener than he could help.

Poor, dear, good, kind, depressing Aunt Angela!

Poor, shrivelled, parchment-yellow, skin-and-bone Aunt Angela!
There in her miserable little semi-detached house in Highgate--
Briarbrae, its name was--there in her palace in the northern
mountains, there dwelleth she, Angela the Ever-virgin, of whom no
man either living or among the shades can say truly that upon her
lips he hath pressed the dear caresses of a lover. All alone she
dwelleth, and all day long she fareth to and fro, and in her hand
is the feather-mop fashioned from the tail feathers of the
contumacious turkey, and with it she polisheth the dark-leaved
aspidistras and flicketh the hated dust from the resplendent never-
to-be-used Crown Derby china tea-service. And ever and anon she
comforteth her dear heart with draughts of the dark brown tea, both
Flowery Orange and Pekoe Points, which the small-bearded sons of
Coromandel have ferried to her across the wine-dark sea. Poor,
dear, good, kind, but on the whole unloveable Aunt Angela! Her
annuity was ninety-eight pounds a year (thirty-eight bob a week,
but she retained a middle-class habit of thinking of her income as
a yearly and not weekly thing), and out of that, twelve and
sixpence a week went on house rates. She would probably have
starved occasionally if Julia had not smuggled her packets of cakes
and bread and butter from the shop--always, of course, presented as
'Just a few little things that it seemed a pity to throw away',
with the solemn pretence that Aunt Angela didn't really need them.

Yet she too had her pleasures, poor old aunty. She had become a
great novel-reader in her old age, the public library being only
ten minutes' walk from Briarbrae. During his lifetime, on some
whim or other, Gran'pa Comstock had forbidden his daughters to read
novels. Consequently, having only begun to read novels in 1902,
Aunt Angela was always a couple of decades behind the current mode
in fiction. But she plodded along in the rear, faint yet pursuing.
In the nineteen-hundreds she was still reading Rhoda Broughton and
Mrs Henry Wood. In the War years she discovered Hall Caine and Mrs
Humphry Ward. In the nineteen-twenties she was reading Silas
Hocking and H. Seton Merriman, and by the nineteen-thirties she had
almost, but not quite, caught up with W. B. Maxwell and William J.
Locke. Further she would never get. As for the post-War
novelists, she had heard of them afar off, with their immorality
and their blasphemies and their devastating 'cleverness'. But she
would never live to read them. Walpole we know, and Hichens we
read, but Hemingway, who are you?

Well, this was 1934, and that was what was left of the Comstock
family. Uncle Walter, with his 'agencies' and his diseases. Aunt
Angela, dusting the Crown Derby china tea-service in Briarbrae.
Aunt Charlotte, still preserving a vague vegetable existence in the
Mental Home. Julia, working a seventy-two-hour week and doing her
'sewing' at nights by the tiny gas-fire in her bedsitting-room.
Gordon, nearly thirty, earning two quid a week in a fool's job, and
struggling, as the sole demonstrable object of his existence, with
a dreadful book that never got any further.

Possibly there were some other, more distantly related Comstocks,
for Gran'pa Comstock had been one of a family of twelve. But if
any survived they had grown rich and lost touch with their poor
relations; for money is thicker than blood. As for Gordon's branch
of the family, the combined income of the five of them, allowing
for the lump sum that had been paid down when Aunt Charlotte
entered the Mental Home, might have been six hundred a year. Their
combined ages were two hundred and sixty-three years. None of them
had ever been out of England, fought in a war, been in prison,
ridden a horse, travelled in an aeroplane, got married, or given
birth to a child. There seemed no reason why they should not
continue in the same style until they died. Year in, year out,
NOTHING EVER HAPPENED in the Comstock family.

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