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George Orwell > Keep the Aspidistra Flying > Chapter 5

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Chapter 5

'We're printing that poem of yours in next month's Antichrist,'
said Ravelston from his first-floor window.

Gordon, on the pavement below, affected to have forgotten the poem
Ravelston was speaking about; he remembered it intimately, of
course, as he remembered all his poems.

'Which poem?' he said.

'The one about the dying prostitute. We thought it was rather
successful.' Gordon laughed a laugh of gratified conceit, and
managed to pass it off as a laugh of sardonic amusement.

'Aha! A dying prostitute! That's rather what you might call one
of my subjects. I'll do you one about an aspidistra next time.'

Ravelston's over-sensitive, boyish face, framed by nice dark-brown
hair, drew back a little from the window.

'It's intolerably cold,' he said. 'You'd better come up and have
some food, or something.'

'No, you come down. I've had dinner. Let's go to a pub and have
some beer.'

'All right then. Half a minute while I get my shoes on.'

They had been talking for some minutes, Gordon on the pavement,
Ravelston leaning out of the window above. Gordon had announced
his arrival not by knocking at the door but by throwing a pebble
against the window pane. He never, if he could help it, set foot
inside Ravelston's flat. There was something in the atmosphere of
the flat that upset him and made him feel mean, dirty, and out of
place. It was so overwhelmingly, though unconsciously, upper-
class. Only in the street or in a pub could he feel himself
approximately Ravelston's equal. It would have astonished
Ravelston to learn that his four-roomed flat, which he thought of
as a poky little place, had this effect upon Gordon. To Ravelston,
living in the wilds of Regent's Park was practically the same thing
as living in the slums; he had chosen to live there, en bon
socialiste, precisely as your social snob will live in a mews in
Mayfair for the sake of the 'WI' on his notepaper. It was part of
a lifelong attempt to escape from his own class and become, as it
were, an honorary member of the proletariat. Like all such
attempts, it was foredoomed to failure. No rich man ever succeeds
in disguising himself as a poor man; for money, like murder, will

On the street door there was a brass plate inscribed:



Ravelston lived on the first floor, and the editorial offices of
Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle- to high-brow
monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general,
it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist
who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing
so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets. This was not
really Ravelston's character; merely he was softer-hearted than an
editor ought to be, and consequently was at the mercy of his
contributors. Practically anything got printed in Antichrist if
Ravelston suspected that its author was starving.

Ravelston appeared a moment later, hatless and pulling on a pair of
gauntlet gloves. You could tell him at a glance for a rich young
man. He wore the uniform of the moneyed intelligentsia; an old
tweed coat--but it was one of those coats which have been made by a
good tailor and grow more aristocratic as they grow older--very
loose grey flannel bags, a grey pullover, much-worn brown shoes.
He made a point of going everywhere, even to fashionable houses and
expensive restaurants, in these clothes, just to show his contempt
for upper-class conventions; he did not fully realize that it is
only the upper classes who can do these things. Though he was a
year older than Gordon he looked much younger. He was very tall,
with a lean, wide-shouldered body and the typical lounging grace
of the upper-class youth. But there was something curiously
apologetic in his movements and in the expression of his face. He
seemed always in the act of stepping out of somebody else's way.
When expressing an opinion he would rub his nose with the back of
his left forefinger. The truth was that in every moment of his
life he was apologizing, tacitly, for the largeness of his income.
You could make him uncomfortable as easily by reminding him that he
was rich as you could make Gordon by reminding him that he was

'You've had dinner, I gather?' said Ravelston, in his rather
Bloomsbury voice.

'Yes, ages ago. Haven't you?'

'Oh, yes, certainly. Oh, quite!'

It was twenty past eight and Gordon had had no food since midday.
Neither had Ravelston. Gordon did not know that Ravelston was
hungry, but Ravelston knew that Gordon was hungry, and Gordon knew
that Ravelston knew it. Nevertheless, each saw good reason for
pretending not to be hungry. They seldom or never had meals
together. Gordon would not let Ravelston buy his meals for him,
and for himself he could not afford to go to restaurants, not even
to a Lyons or an A.B.C. This was Monday and he had five and
ninepence left. He might afford a couple of pints at a pub, but
not a proper meal. When he and Ravelston met it was always agreed,
with silent manoeuvrings, that they should do nothing that involved
spending money, beyond the shilling or so one spends in a pub. In
this way the fiction was kept up that there was no serious
difference in their incomes.

Gordon sidled closer to Ravelston as they started down the
pavement. He would have taken his arm, only of course one can't do
that kind of thing. Beside Ravelston's taller, comelier figure he
looked frail, fretful, and miserably shabby. He adored Ravelston
and was never quite at ease in his presence. Ravelston had not
merely a charm of manner, but also a kind of fundamental decency,
a graceful attitude to life, which Gordon scarcely encountered
elsewhere. Undoubtedly it was bound up with the fact that
Ravelston was rich. For money buys all virtues. Money suffereth
long and is kind, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly,
seeketh not her own. But in some ways Ravelston was not even like
a moneyed person. The fatty degeneration of the spirit which goes
with wealth had missed him, or he had escaped it by a conscious
effort. Indeed his whole life was a struggle to escape it. It was
for this reason that he gave up his time and a large part of his
income to editing an unpopular Socialist monthly. And apart from
Antichrist, money flowed from him in all directions. A tribe of
cadgers ranging from poets to pavement-artists browsed upon him
unceasingly. For himself he lived upon eight hundred a year or
thereabouts. Even of this income he was acutely ashamed. It was
not, he realized, exactly a proletarian income; but he had never
learned to get along on less. Eight hundred a year was a minimum
living wage to him, as two pounds a week was to Gordon.

'How is your work getting on?' said Ravelston presently.

'Oh, as usual. It's a drowsy kind of job. Swapping back-chat with
old hens about Hugh Walpole. I don't object to it.'

'I meant your own work--your writing. Is London Pleasures getting
on all right?'

'Oh, Christ! Don't speak of it. It's turning my hair grey.'

'Isn't it going forward at all?'

'My books don't go forward. They go backward.'

Ravelston sighed. As editor of Antichrist, he was used to
encouraging despondent poets that it had become a second nature to
him. He did not need telling why Gordon 'couldn't' write, and why
all poets nowadays 'can't' write, and why when they do write it is
something as arid as the rattling of a pea inside a big drum. He
said with sympathetic gloom:

'Of course I admit this isn't a hopeful age to write poetry in.'

'You bet it isn't.'

Gordon kicked his heel against the pavement. He wished that London
Pleasures had not been mentioned. It brought back to him the
memory of his mean, cold bedroom and the grimy papers littered
under the aspidistra. He said abruptly:

'This writing business! What b--s it all is! Sitting in a corner
torturing a nerve which won't even respond any longer. And who
wants poetry nowadays? Training performing fleas would be more
useful by comparison.'

'Still, you oughtn't to let yourself be discouraged. After all,
you do produce something, which is more than one can say for a lot
of poets nowadays. There was Mice, for instance.'

'Oh, Mice! It makes me spew to think of it.'

He thought with loathing of that sneaky little foolscap octavo.
Those forty or fifty drab, dead little poems, each like a little
abortion in its labelled jar. 'Exceptional promise', The Times
Lit. Supp. had said. A hundred and fifty-three copies sold and the
rest remaindered. He had one of those movements of contempt and
even horror which every artist has at times when he thinks of his
own work.

'It's dead,' he said. 'Dead as a blasted foetus in a bottle.'

'Oh, well, I suppose that happens to most books. You can't
expect an enormous sale for poetry nowadays. There's too much

'I didn't mean that. I meant the poems themselves are dead.
There's no life in them. Everything I write is like that.
Lifeless, gutless. Not necessarily ugly or vulgar; but dead--just
dead.' The word 'dead' re-echoed in his mind, setting up its own
train of thought. He added: 'My poems are dead because I'm dead.
You're dead. We're all dead. Dead people in a dead world.'

Ravelston murmured agreement, with a curious air of guilt. And now
they were off upon their favourite subject--Gordon's favourite
subject, anyway; the futility, the bloodiness, the deathliness of
modern life. They never met without talking for at least half an
hour in this vein. But it always made Ravelston feel rather
uncomfortable. In a way, of course, he knew--it was precisely this
that Antichrist existed to point out--that life under a decaying
capitalism is deathly and meaningless. But this knowledge was only
theoretical. You can't really feel that kind of thing when your
income is eight hundred a year. Most of the time, when he wasn't
thinking of coal-miners, Chinese junk-coolies, and the unemployed
in Middlesbrough, he felt that life was pretty good fun. Moreover,
he had the naive belief that in a little while Socialism is going
to put things right. Gordon always seemed to him to exaggerate.
So there was subtle disagreement between them, which Ravelston was
too good-mannered to press home.

But with Gordon it was different. Gordon's income was two pounds a
week. Therefore the hatred of modern life, the desire to see our
money-civilization blown to hell by bombs, was a thing he genuinely
felt. They were walking southward, down a darkish, meanly decent
residential street with a few shuttered shops. From a hoarding on
the blank end of a house the yard-wide face of Corner Table
simpered, pallid in the lamplight. Gordon caught a glimpse of a
withering aspidistra in a lower window. London! Mile after mile
of mean lonely houses, let off in flats and single rooms; not
homes, not communities, just clusters of meaningless lives drifting
in a sort of drowsy chaos to the grave! He saw men as corpses
walking. The thought that he was merely objectifying his own inner
misery hardly troubled him. His mind went back to Wednesday
afternoon, when he had desired to hear the enemy aeroplanes zooming
over London. He caught Ravelston's arm and paused to gesticulate
at the Corner Table poster.

'Look at that bloody thing up there! Look at it, just look at it!
Doesn't it make you spew?'

'It's aesthetically offensive, I grant. But I don't see that it
matters very greatly.'

'Of course it matters--having the town plastered with things like

'Oh, well, it's merely a temporary phenomenon. Capitalism in its
last phase. I doubt whether it's worth worrying about.'

'But there's more in it than that. Just look at that fellow's face
gaping down at us! You can see our whole civilization written
there. The imbecility, the emptiness, the desolation! You can't
look at it without thinking of French letters and machine guns. Do
you know that the other day I was actually wishing war would break
out? I was longing for it--praying for it, almost.'

'Of course, the trouble is, you see, that about half the young men
in Europe are wishing the same thing.'

'Let's hope they are. Then perhaps it'll happen.'

'My dear old chap, no! Once is enough, surely.'

Gordon walked on, fretfully. 'This life we live nowadays! It's
not life, it's stagnation, death-in-life. Look at all these bloody
houses, and the meaningless people inside them! Sometimes I think
we're all corpses. Just rotting upright.'

'But where you make your mistake, don't you see, is in talking as
if all this was incurable. This is only something that's got to
happen before the proletariat take over.'

'Oh, Socialism! Don't talk to me about Socialism.'

'You ought to read Marx, Gordon, you really ought. Then you'd
realize that this is only a phase. It can't go on for ever.'

'Can't it? It FEELS as if it was going on for ever.'

'It's merely that we're at a bad moment. We've got to die before
we can be reborn, if you take my meaning.'

'We're dying right enough. I don't see much signs of our being

Ravelston rubbed his nose. 'Oh, well, we must have faith, I
suppose. And hope.'

'We must have money you mean,' said Gordon gloomily.


'It's the price of optimism. Give me five quid a week and I'D be a
Socialist, I dare say.'

Ravelston looked away, discomforted. This money-business!
Everywhere it came up against you! Gordon wished he had not said
it. Money is the one thing you must never mention when you are
with people richer than yourself. Or if you do, then it must be
money in the abstract, money with a big 'M', not the actual
concrete money that's in your pocket and isn't in mine. But the
accursed subject drew him like a magnet. Sooner or later,
especially when he had a few drinks inside him, he invariably began
talking with self-pitiful detail about the bloodiness of life on
two quid a week. Sometimes, from sheer nervous impulse to say the
wrong thing, he would come out with some squalid confession--as,
for instance, that he had been without tobacco for two days, or
that his underclothes were in holes and his overcoat up the spout.
But nothing of that sort should happen tonight, he resolved. They
veered swiftly away from the subject of money and began talking in
a more general way about Socialism. Ravelston had been trying for
years to convert Gordon to Socialism, without even succeeding in
interesting him in it. Presently they passed a low-looking pub on
a corner in a side-street. A sour cloud of beer seemed to hang
about it. The smell revolted Ravelston. He would have quickened
his pace to get away from it. But Gordon paused, his nostrils

'Christ! I could do with a drink,' he said.

'So could I,' said Ravelston gallantly.

Gordon shoved open the door of the public bar, Ravelston following.
Ravelston persuaded himself that he was fond of pubs, especially
low-class pubs. Pubs are genuinely proletarian. In a pub you can
meet the working class on equal terms--or that's the theory,
anyway. But in practice Ravelston never went into a pub unless he
was with somebody like Gordon, and he always felt like a fish out
of water when he got there. A foul yet coldish air enveloped them.
It was a filthy, smoky room, low-ceilinged, with a sawdusted floor
and plain deal tables ringed by generations of beer-pots. In one
corner four monstrous women with breasts the size of melons were
sitting drinking porter and talking with bitter intensity about
someone called Mrs Croop. The landlady, a tall grim woman with a
black fringe, looking like the madame of a brothel, stood behind
the bar, her powerful forearms folded, watching a game of darts
which was going on between four labourers and a postman. You had
to duck under the darts as you crossed the room, there was a
moment's hush and people glanced inquisitively at Ravelston. He
was so obviously a gentleman. They didn't see his type very often
in the public bar.

Ravelston pretended not to notice that they were staring at him.
He lounged towards the bar, pulling off a glove to feel for the
money in his pocket. 'What's yours?' he said casually.

But Gordon had already shoved his way ahead and was tapping a
shilling on the bar. Always pay for the first round of drinks! It
was his point of honour. Ravelston made for the only vacant table.
A navvy leaning on the bar turned on his elbow and gave him a long,
insolent stare 'A ---- toff!' he was thinking. Gordon came back
balancing two pint glasses of the dark common ale. They were thick
cheap glasses, thick as jam jars almost, and dim and greasy. A
thin yellow froth was subsiding on the beer. The air was thick
with gunpowdery tobacco-smoke. Ravelston caught sight of a well-
filled spittoon near the bar and averted his eyes. It crossed his
mind that this beer had been sucked up from some beetle-ridden
cellar through yards of slimy tube, and that the glasses had never
been washed in their lives, only rinsed in beery water. Gordon was
very hungry. He could have done with some bread and cheese, but to
order any would have been to betray the fact that he had had no
dinner. He took a deep pull at his beer and lighted a cigarette,
which made him forget his hunger a little. Ravelston also
swallowed a mouthful or so and set his glass gingerly down. It was
typical London beer, sickly and yet leaving a chemical after-taste.
Ravelston thought of the wines of Burgundy. They went on arguing
about Socialism.

'You know, Gordon, it's really time you started reading Marx,' said
Ravelston, less apologetically than usual, because the vile taste
of the beer had annoyed him.

'I'd sooner read Mrs Humphry Ward,' said Gordon.

'But don't you see, your attitude is so unreasonable. You're
always tirading against Capitalism, and yet you won't accept the
only possible alternative. One can't put things right in a hole-
and-corner way. One's got to accept either Capitalism or
Socialism. There's no way out of it.'

'I tell you I can't be bothered with Socialism. The very thought
of it makes me yawn.'

'But what's your objection to Socialism, anyway?'

'There's only one objection to Socialism, and that is that nobody
wants it.'

'Oh, surely it's rather absurd to say that!'

'That's to say, nobody who could see what Socialism would really

'But what WOULD Socialism mean, according to your idea of it?'

'Oh! Some kind of Aldous Huxley Brave New World: only not so
amusing. Four hours a day in a model factory, tightening up bolt
number 6003. Rations served out in grease-proof paper at the
communal kitchen. Community-hikes from Marx Hostel to Lenin Hostel
and back. Free abortion-clinics on all the corners. All very well
in its way, of course. Only we don' t want it.'

Ravelston sighed. Once a month, in Antichrist, he repudiated this
version of Socialism. 'Well, what DO we want, then?'

'God knows. All we know is what we don't want. That's what's
wrong with us nowadays. We're stuck, like Buridan's donkey. Only
there are three alternatives instead of two, and all three of them
make us spew. Socialism's only one of them.'

'And what are the other two?'

'Oh, I suppose suicide and the Catholic Church.'

Ravelston smiled, anticlerically shocked. 'The Catholic Church!
Do you consider that an alternative?'

'Well, it's a standing temptation to the intelligentsia, isn't it?'

'Not what _I_ should call the intelligentsia. Though there was
Eliot, of course,' Ravelston admitted.

'And there'll be plenty more, you bet. I dare say it's fairly cosy
under Mother Church's wing. A bit insanitary, of course--but you'd
feel safe there, anyway.'

Ravelston rubbed his nose reflectively. 'It seems to me that's
only another form of suicide.'

'In a way. But so's Socialism. At least it's a counsel of
despair. But I couldn't commit suicide, real suicide. It's too
meek and mild. I'm not going to give up my share of earth to
anyone else. I'd want to do in a few of my enemies first.'

Ravelston smiled again. 'And who are your enemies?'

'Oh, anyone with over five hundred a year.'

A momentary uncomfortable silence fell. Ravelston's income, after
payment of income tax, was probably two thousand a year. This was
the kind of thing Gordon was always saying. To cover the
awkwardness of the moment, Ravelston took up his glass, steeled
himself against the nauseous taste, and swallowed about two-thirds
of his beer--enough at any rate, to give the impression that he had
finished it.

'Drink up!' he said with would-be heartiness. 'It's time we had
the other half of that.'

Gordon emptied his glass and let Ravelston take it. He did not
mind letting Ravelston pay for the drinks now. He had paid the
first round and honour was satisfied. Ravelston walked self-
consciously to the bar. People began staring at him again as soon
as he stood up. The navvy, still leaning against the bar over his
untouched pot of beer, gazed at him with quiet insolence.
Ravelston resolved that he would drink no more of this filthy
common ale.

'Two double whiskies, would you, please?' he said apologetically.

The grim landlady stared. 'What?' she said.

'Two double whiskies, please.'

'No whisky 'ere. We don't sell spirits. Beer 'ouse, we are.'

The navvy smiled flickering under his moustache. '---- ignorant
toff!' he was thinking. 'Asking for a whisky in a ---- beer
'ouse!' Ravelston's pale face flushed slightly. He had not known
till this moment that some of the poorer pubs cannot afford a
spirit licence.

'Bass, then, would you? Two pint bottles of Bass.'

There were no pint bottles, they had to have four half pints. It
was a very poor house. Gordon took a deep, satisfying swallow of
Bass. More alcoholic than the draught beer, it fizzed and prickled
in his throat, and because he was hungry it went a little to his
head. He felt at once more philosophic and more self-pitiful. He
had made up his mind not to begin belly-aching about his poverty;
but now he was going to begin after all. He said abruptly:

'This is all b--s that we've been talking.'

'What's all b--s?'

'All this about Socialism and Capitalism and the state of the
modern world and God knows what. I don't give a ---- for the state
of the modern world. If the whole of England was starving except
myself and the people I care about, I wouldn't give a damn.'

'Don't you exaggerate just a little?'

'No. All this talk we make--we're only objectifying our own
feelings. It's all dictated by what we've got in our pockets.
I go up and down London saying it's a city of the dead, and our
civilization's dying, and I wish war would break out, and God knows
what; and all it means is that my wages are two quid a week and I
wish they were five.'

Ravelston, once again reminded obliquely of his income, stroked his
nose slowly with the knuckle of his left forefinger.

'Of course, I'm with you up to a point. After all, it's only
what Marx said. Every ideology is a reflection of economic

'Ah, but you only understand it out of Marx! You don't know what
it means to have to crawl along on two quid a week. It isn't a
question of hardship--it's nothing so decent as hardship. It's the
bloody, sneaking, squalid meaness of it. Living alone for weeks on
end because when you've no money you've no friends. Calling
yourself a writer and never even producing anything because you're
always too washed out to write. It's a sort of filthy sub-world
one lives in. A sort of spiritual sewer.'

He had started now. They were never together long without Gordon
beginning to talk in this strain. It was the vilest manners. It
embarrassed Ravelston horribly. And yet somehow Gordon could not
help it. He had got to retail his troubles to somebody, and
Ravelston was the only person who understood. Poverty, like every
other dirty wound, has got to be exposed occasionally. He began to
talk in obscene detail of his life in Willowbed Road. He dilated
on the smell of slops and cabbage, the clotted sauce-bottles in the
dining-room, the vile food, the aspidistras. He described his
furtive cups of tea and his trick of throwing used tea-leaves down
the W.C. Ravelston, guilty and miserable, sat staring at his glass
and revolving it slowly between his hands. Against his right
breast he could feel, a square accusing shape, the pocket-book in
which, as he knew, eight pound notes and two ten-bob notes nestled
against his fat green cheque-book. How awful these details of
poverty are! Not that what Gordon was describing was real poverty.
It was at worst the fringe of poverty. But what of the real poor?
What of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-
five bob a week? When there are people living like that, how dare
one walk the world with pound notes and cheque-books in one's

'It's bloody,' he murmured several times, impotently. In his heart
he wondered--it was his invariable reaction--whether Gordon would
accept a tenner if you offered to lend it to him.

They had another drink, which Ravelston again paid for, and went
out into the street. It was almost time to part. Gordon never
spent more than an hour or two with Ravelston. One's contacts with
rich people, like one's visits to high altitudes, must always be
brief. It was a moonless, starless night, with a damp wind
blowing. The night air, the beer, and the watery radiance of the
lamps induced in Gordon a sort of dismal clarity. He perceived
that it is quite impossible to explain to any rich person, even to
anyone so decent as Ravelston, the essential bloodiness of poverty.
For this reason it became all the more important to explain it. He
said suddenly:

'Have you read Chaucer's Man of Lawe's Tale?'

'The Man of Lawe's Tale? Not that I remember. What's it about?'

'I forget. I was thinking of the first six stanzas. Where he
talks about poverty. The way it gives everyone the right to stamp
on you! The way everyone WANTS to stamp on you! It makes people
HATE you, to know that you've no money. They insult you just for
the pleasure of insulting you and knowing that you can't hit back.'

Ravelston was pained. 'Oh, no, surely not! People aren't so bad
as all that.'

'Ah, but you don't know the things that happen!'

Gordon did not want to be told that 'people aren't so bad'. He
clung with a sort of painful joy to the notion that because he was
poor everyone must WANT to insult him. It fitted in with his
philosophy of life. And suddenly, with the feeling that he could
not stop himself, he was talking of the thing that had been
rankling in his mind for two days past--the snub he had had from
the Dorings on Thursday. He poured the whole story out quite
shamelessly. Ravelston was amazed. He could not understand what
Gordon was making such a fuss about. To be disappointed at missing
a beastly literary tea-party seemed to him absurd. He would not
have gone to a literary tea-party if you had paid him. Like all
rich people, he spent far more time in avoiding human society than
in seeking it. He interrupted Gordon:

'Really, you know, you ought not to take offence so easily. After
all, a thing like that doesn't really matter.'

'It isn't the thing itself that matters, it's the spirit behind it.
The way they snub you as a matter of course, just because you've
got no money.'

'But quite possibly it was all a mistake, or something. Why should
anyone want to snub you?'

'"If thou be poure, thy brother hateth thee,"' quoted Gordon

Ravelston, deferential even to the opinions of the dead, rubbed his
nose. 'Does Chaucer say that? Then I'm afraid I disagree with
Chaucer. People don't hate you, exactly.'

'They do. And they're quite right to hate you. You ARE hateful.
It's like those ads for Listerine. "Why is he always alone?
Halitosis is ruining his career." Poverty is spiritual halitosis.'

Ravelston sighed. Undoubtedly Gordon was perverse. They walked
on, arguing, Gordon vehemently, Ravelston deprecatingly. Ravelston
was helpless against Gordon in an argument of this kind. He felt
that Gordon exaggerated, and yet he never liked to contradict him.
How could he? He was rich and Gordon was poor. And how can you
argue about poverty with someone who is genuinely poor?

'And then the way women treat you when you've no money!' Gordon
went on. 'That's another thing about this accursed money business--

Ravelston nodded rather gloomily. This sounded to him more
reasonable than what Gordon had been saying before. He thought of
Hermione Slater, his own girl. They had been lovers two years but
had never bothered to get married. It was 'too much fag', Hermione
always said. She was rich, of course, or rather her people were.
He thought of her shoulders, wide, smooth, and young, that seemed
to rise out of her clothes like a mermaid rising from the sea; and
her skin and hair, which were somehow warm and sleepy, like a
wheatfield in the sun. Hermione always yawned at the mention of
Socialism, and refused even to read Antichrist. 'Don't talk to me
about the lower classes,' she used to say. 'I hate them. They
SMELL.' And Ravelston adored her.

'Of course women ARE a difficulty,' he admitted.

'They're more than a difficulty, they're a bloody curse. That is,
if you've got no money. A woman hates the sight of you if you've
got no money.'

'I think that's putting it a little too strongly. Things aren't so
crude as all that.'

Gordon did not listen. 'What rot it is to talk about Socialism or
any other ism when women are what they are! The only thing a woman
ever wants is money; money for a house of her own and two babies
and Drage furniture and an aspidistra. The only sin they can
imagine is not wanting to grab money. No woman ever judges a man
by anything except his income. Of course she doesn't put it to
herself like that. She says he's SUCH A NICE man--meaning that
he's got plenty of money. And if you haven't got money you aren't
NICE. You're dishonoured, somehow. You've sinned. Sinned against
the aspidistra.'

'You talk a great deal about aspidistras,' said Ravelston.

'They're a dashed important subject,' said Gordon.

Ravelston rubbed his nose and looked away uncomfortably.

'Look here, Gordon, you don't mind my asking--have you got a girl
of your own?'

'Oh, Christ! don't speak of her!'

He began, nevertheless, to talk about Rosemary. Ravelston had
never met Rosemary. At this moment Gordon could not even remember
what Rosemary was like. He could not remember how fond he was of
her and she of him, how happy they always were together on the rare
occasions when they could meet, how patiently she put up with his
almost intolerable ways. He remembered nothing save that she would
not sleep with him and that it was now a week since she had even
written. In the dank night air, with beer inside him, he felt
himself a forlorn, neglected creature. Rosemary was 'cruel' to
him--that was how he saw it. Perversely, for the mere pleasure of
tormenting himself and making Ravelston uncomfortable, be began to
invent an imaginary character for Rosemary. He built up a picture
of her as a callous creature who was amused by him and yet half
despised him, who played with him and kept him at arm's length, and
who would nevertheless fall into his arms if only he had a little
more money. And Ravelston, who had never met Rosemary, did not
altogether disbelieve him. He broke in:

'But I say, Gordon, look here. This girl, Miss--Miss Waterlow, did
you say her name was?--Rosemary; doesn't she care for you at all,

Gordon's conscience pricked him, though not very deeply. He could
not say that Rosemary did not care for him.

'Oh, yes, she does care for me. In her own way, I dare say she
cares for me quite a lot. But not enough, don't you see. She
can't, while I've got no money. It's all money.'

'But surely money isn't so important as all that? After all, there
ARE other things.'

'What other things? Don't you see that a man's whole personality
is bound up with his income? His personality IS his income. How
can you be attractive to a girl when you've got no money? You
can't wear decent clothes, you can't take her out to dinner or to
the theatre or away for week-ends, you can't carry a cheery,
interesting atmosphere about with you. And it's rot to say that
kind of thing doesn't matter. It does. If you haven't got money
there isn't even anywhere where you can meet. Rosemary and I never
meet except in the streets or in picture galleries. She lives in
some foul women's hostel, and my bitch of a landlady won't allow
women in the house. Wandering up and down beastly wet streets--
that's what Rosemary associates me with. Don't you see how it
takes the gilt off everything?'

Ravelston was distressed. It must be pretty bloody when you
haven't even the money to take your girl out. He tried to nerve
himself to say something, and failed. With guilt, and also with
desire, he thought of Hermione's body, naked like a ripe warm
fruit. With any luck she would have dropped in at the flat this
evening. Probably she was waiting for him now. He thought of the
unemployed in Middlesbrough. Sexual starvation is awful among the
unemployed. They were nearing the flat. He glanced up at the
windows. Yes, they were lighted up. Hermione must be there. She
had her own latchkey.

As they approached the flat Gordon edged closer to Ravelston. Now
the evening was ending, and he must part from Ravelston, whom he
adored, and go back to his foul lonely bedroom. And all evenings
ended in this way; the return through the dark streets to the
lonely room, the womanless bed. And Ravelston would say 'Come up,
won't you?' and Gordon, in duty bound, would say, 'No.' Never stay
too long with those you love--another commandment of the moneyless.

They halted at the foot of the steps. Ravelston laid his gloved
hand on one of the iron spearheads of the railing.

'Come up, won't you?' he said without conviction.

'No, thanks. It's time I was getting back.'

Ravelston's fingers tightened round the spearhead. He pulled as
though to go up, but did not go. Uncomfortably, looking over
Gordon's head into the distance, he said:

'I say, Gordon, look here. You won't be offended if I say


'I say, you know, I hate that business about you and your girl.
Not being able to take her out, and all that. It's bloody, that
kind of thing.'

'Oh, it's nothing really.'

As soon as he heard Ravelston say that it was 'bloody', he knew
that he had been exaggerating. He wished that he had not talked in
that silly self-pitiful way. One says these things, with the
feeling that one cannot help saying them, and afterwards one is

'I dare say I exaggerate,' he said.

'I say, Gordon, look here. Let me lend you ten quid. Take the
girl out to dinner a few times. Or away for the week-end, or
something. It might make all the difference. I hate to think--'

Gordon frowned bitterly, almost fiercely. He had stepped a pace
back, as though from a threat or an insult. The terrible thing was
that the temptation to say 'Yes' had almost overwhelmed him. There
was so much that ten quid would do! He had a fleeting vision of
Rosemary and himself at a restaurant table--a bowl of grapes and
peaches, a bowing hovering waiter, a wine bottle dark and dusty in
its wicker cradle.

'No fear!' he said.

'I do wish you would. I tell you I'd LIKE to lend it you.'

'Thanks. But I prefer to keep my friends.'

'Isn't that rather--well, rather a bourgeois kind of thing to say?'

'Do you think it would be BORROWING if I took ten quid off you? I
couldn't pay it back in ten years.'

'Oh, well! It wouldn't matter so very much.' Ravelston looked
away. Out it had got to come--the disgraceful, hateful admission
that he found himself forced so curiously often to make! 'You
know, I've got quite a lot of money.'

'I know you have. That's exactly why I won't borrow off you.'

'You know, Gordon, sometimes you're just a little bit--well,

'I dare say. I can't help it.'

'Oh, well! Good night, then.'

'Good night.'

Ten minutes later Ravelston rode southwards in a taxi, with
Hermione. She had been waiting for him, asleep or half asleep in
one of the monstrous armchairs in front of the sitting-room fire.
Whenever there was nothing particular to do, Hermione always fell
asleep as promptly as an animal, and the more she slept the
healthier she became. As he came across to her she woke and
stretched herself with voluptuous, sleepy writhings, half smiling,
half yawning up at him, one cheek and bare arm rosy in the
firelight. Presently she mastered her yawns to greet him:

'Hullo, Philip! Where have you been all this time? I've been
waiting ages.'

'Oh, I've been out with a fellow. Gordon Comstock. I don't expect
you know him. The poet.'

'Poet! How much did he borrow off you?'

'Nothing. He's not that kind of person. He's rather a fool about
money, as a matter of fact. But he's very gifted in his way.'

'You and your poets! You look tired, Philip. What time did you
have dinner?'

'Well--as a matter of fact I didn't have any dinner.'

'Didn't have any dinner! Why?'

'Oh, well, you see--I don't know if you'll understand. It was a
kind of accident. It was like this.'

He explained. Hermione burst out laughing and dragged herself into
a more upright position.

'Philip! You ARE a silly old ass! Going without your dinner, just
so as not to hurt that little beast's feelings! You must have some
food at once. And of course your char's gone home. Why don't you
keep some proper servants, Philip? I hate this hole-and-corner way
you live. We'll go out and have supper at Modigliani's.'

'But it's after ten. They'll be shut.'

'Nonsense! They're open till two. I'll ring up for a taxi. I'm
not going to have you starving yourself.'

In the taxi she lay against him, still half asleep, her head
pillowed on his breast. He thought of the unemployed in
Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-five bob a week. But the
girl's body was heavy against him, and Middlesbrough was very far
away. Also he was damnably hungry. He thought of his favourite
corner table at Modigliani's, and of that vile pub with its hard
benches, stale beer-stink, and brass spittoons. Hermione was
sleepily lecturing him.

'Philip, why do you have to live in such a dreadful way?'

'But I don't live in a dreadful way.'

'Yes, you do. Pretending you're poor when you're not, and living
in that poky flat with no servants, and going about with all these
beastly people.'

'What beastly people?'

'Oh, people like this poet friend of yours. All those people who
write for your paper. They only do it to cadge from you. Of
course I know you're a Socialist. So am I. I mean we're all
Socialists nowadays. But I don't see why you have to give all your
money away and make friends with the lower classes. You can be a
Socialist AND have a good time, that's what I say.'

'Hermione, dear, please don't call them the lower classes!'

'Why not? They ARE the lower classes, aren't they?'

'It's such a hateful expression. Call them the working class,
can't you?'

'The working class, if you like, then. But they smell just the

'You oughtn't to say that kind of thing,' he protested weakly.

'Do you know, Philip, sometimes I think you LIKE the lower

'Of course I like them.'

'How disgusting. How absolutely disgusting.'

She lay quiet, content to argue no longer, her arms round him, like
a sleepy siren. The woman-scent breathed out of her, a powerful
wordless propaganda against all altruism and all justice. Outside
Modigliani's they had paid off the taxi and were moving for the
door when a big, lank wreck of a man seemed to spring up from the
paving-stones in front of them. He stood across their path like
some fawning beast, with dreadful eagerness and yet timorously, as
though afraid that Ravelston would strike him. His face came close
up to Ravelston's--a dreadful face, fish-white and scrubby-bearded
to the eyes. The words 'A cup of tea, guv'nor!' were breathed
through carious teeth. Ravelston shrank from him in disgust. He
could not help it. His hand moved automatically to his pocket.
But in the same instant Hermione caught him by the arm and hauled
him inside the restaurant.

'You'd give away every penny you've got if I let you,' she said.

They went to their favourite table in the corner. Hermione played
with some grapes, but Ravelston was very hungry. He ordered the
grilled rumpsteak he had been thinking of, and half a bottle of
Beaujolais. The fat, white-haired Italian waiter, an old friend of
Ravelston's, brought the smoking steak. Ravelston cut it open.
Lovely, its red-blue heart! In Middlesbrough the unemployed huddle
in frowzy beds, bread and marg and milkless tea in their bellies.
He settled down to his steak with all the shameful joy of a dog
with a stolen leg of mutton.

Gordon walked rapidly homewards. It was cold. The fifth of
December--real winter now. Circumcise ye your foreskins, saith the
Lord. The damp wind blew spitefully through the naked trees.
Sharply the menacing wind sweeps over. The poem he had begun on
Wednesday, of which six stanzas were now finished, came back to his
mind. He did not dislike it at this moment. It was queer how
talking with Ravelston always bucked him up. The mere contact with
Ravelston seemed to reassure him somehow. Even when their talk had
been unsatisfactory, he came away with the feeling that, after all,
he wasn't quite a failure. Half aloud he repeated the six finished
stanzas. They were not bad, not bad at all.

But intermittently he was going over in his mind the things he had
said to Ravelston. He stuck to everything he had said. The
humiliation of poverty! That's what they can't understand and
won't understand. Not hardship--you don't suffer hardship on two
quid a week, and if you did it wouldn't matter--but just
humiliation, the awful, bloody humiliation. The way it gives
everyone the right to stamp on you. The way everyone WANTS to
stamp on you. Ravelston wouldn't believe it. He had too much
decency, that was why. He thought you could be poor and still be
treated like a human being. But Gordon knew better. He went into
the house repeating to himself that he knew better.

There was a letter waiting for him on the hall tray. His heart
jumped. All letters excited him nowadays. He went up the stairs
three at a time, shut himself in and lit the gas. The letter was
from Doring.

DEAR COMSTOCK,--What a pity you didn't turn up on Saturday. There
were some people I wanted you to meet. We did tell you it was
Saturday and not Thursday this time, didn't we? My wife says she's
certain she told you. Anyway, we're having another party on the
twenty-third, a sort of before-Christmas party, about the same
time. Won't you come then? Don't forget the date this time.



A painful convulsion happened below Gordon's ribs. So Doring was
pretending that it was all a mistake--was pretending not to have
insulted him! True, he could not actually have gone there on
Saturday, because on Saturday he had to be at the shop; still, it
was the intention that counted.

His heart sickened as he re-read the words 'some people I wanted
you to meet'. Just like his bloody luck! He thought of the people
he might have met--editors of highbrow magazines, for instance.
They might have given him books to review or asked to see his poems
or Lord knew what. For a moment he was dreadfully tempted to
believe that Doring had spoken the truth. Perhaps after all they
HAD told him it was Saturday and not Thursday. Perhaps if he
searched his memory he might remember about it--might even find the
letter itself lying among his muddle of papers. But no! He
wouldn't think of it. He fought down the temptation. The Dorings
HAD insulted him on purpose. He was poor, therefore they had
insulted him. If you are poor, people will insult you. It was his
creed. Stick to it!

He went across to the table, tearing Doring's letter into small
bits. The aspidistra stood in its pot, dull green, ailing,
pathetic in its sickly ugliness. As he sat down, he pulled it
towards him and looked at it meditatively. There was the intimacy
of hatred between the aspidistra and him. 'I'll beat you yet, you
b--,' he whispered to the dusty leaves.

Then he rummaged among his papers until he found a clean sheet,
took his pen and wrote in his small, neat hand, right in the middle
of the sheet:

DEAR DORING,--With reference to your letter: Go and ---- yourself.

Yours truly


He stuck it into an envelope, addressed it, and at once went out to
get stamps from the slot machine. Post it tonight: these things
look different in the morning. He dropped it into the pillar-box.
So there was another friend gone west.

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