Aspidistras and Money

Contains spoilers.

Two weeks ago I finished reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, published in 1936.  As with most things he wrote, the issues he raised in the novel have lingered in my mind long since returning it to the library.  It focuses on the life of Gordon Comstock, a part-time bookseller and poet who descends into a life of squalor and poverty.  While not as revolutionary or powerful as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell admitted that, somewhat fittingly, he wrote the book largely because he was in need of money and claimed to be dissatisfied with the final edit – I would argue that it takes a critical look at society just as effectively.

The main theme of Aspidistra is, of course, poverty.  Never one for subtlety, Orwell shoehorns in references to the topic wherever possible, but the nature of poverty allows him to get away with it.  Throughout the novel are constant repetitions regarding Gordon’s lack of money; he is ever-aware of the coins in his pocket, he does mental calculations for every transaction he makes – every aspect of his life is ruled by money.  Through such basic repetition, Orwell gets his point across that we live in a society ruled by what he terms ‘The Money Gods’.   How shocking it is to have the dream of capitalism pulled away to reveal the murky truths hidden belief.  To follow a lifestyle where Gordon must turn down almost all social invitations, including pub gatherings, journeys to the countryside or meals, because they require him to spend money he doesn’t have.  For those of us who have never been at such a poverty line it truly is horrifying to consider how prevalent worries about money can be.

Arguably, Aspidistra is written as a comedy.  The way in which Gordon becomes obsessed by money is so unrealistic as to be comical, yet it does highlight how consuming poverty can be.  The most interesting part of the book is when Gordon unexpectedly gets sent a cheque from a magazine he sent poems to.  He begins rationally, planning to save and repay his debts, but by the day’s end he has squandered it all; on alcohol, transport, his girlfriend Rosmary, a prostitute – even his wealthy friend Ravelston – and finds himself in prison the next day.  As someone incredibly scrupulous with money I find this behaviour difficult to comprehend, yet it’s utterly realistic and the sort of actions I’ve seen displayed time and time again.  It’s not a case of “the proles can’t handle money,” but the result of handing someone the opportunity of a brief, glimmering escape from crushing poverty.  Therefore, it can be surmised that poverty breeds self destructive behaviour.  Never is this clearer than in Gordon’s eerily prophetic yearnings to see London destroyed by foreign bombers.

There are a couple of flaws with the book, however.  Most notably is that Gordon’s poverty is self-inflicted, as he actually once had a decent job working for an advertising company and throughout the novel faces the possibility of returning.  Fair enough, I can appreciate his disgust for such a job and his reasons for leaving in an attempt to defy the defy the Money God, but this does, in my opinion, somewhat limit the impact.  Is is true poverty if you have an escape route?  Much better to have had Gordon suffering from rapid unemployment and poor working conditions, I’d have thought.  It comes across less of a criticism of capitalist economics and more the character study of a slightly deranged man.

Also, I take issue with the suggestion that only two options were open to Gordon: that he could either live by the Money God or reject the system and live in complete poverty.  Orwell’s message is almost ruined by the resolution of the novel – Gordon returns to his job at the advertising company, and therefore has to submit to the Money God, symbolised by throwing his poetry manuscripts into a drain and buying an aspidistra, that symbol of middle-class money worship.  What is Orwell trying to say?  A Democratic Socialist to his death, as a person he clearly wouldn’t have supported Gordon’s decisions yet he never provides any condemnation through the narrative.  Thing is, life rarely works in absolutes and I believe Gordon didn’t have to take such an extreme route either way.  Why couldn’t he have returned to the job but continued with the poetry in his spare time, resolved to resign the moment he could make a decent income from writing?  While most of the novel is brilliance, after reading the ending I could see why Orwell was ashamed of the book.

The only other option vaguely mentioned is Ravelston’s vague Marxist theories of tearing down the capitalist system altogether and establishing a Socialist State.  This, I suspect, is closer to Orwell’s own views, yet it’s discredited whenever mentioned.  I accept that political apathy is another byproduct of poverty and this is a point Orwell expressed well, but to expand on this option for Gordon would have gone some way to giving the conclusion the depth it lacked.

Criticisms aside, it’s remarkable how relevant Aspidistra remains today.  One opinion it has caused me to rethink is the morality of tipping.  It was actually another of Orwell’s books, Homage to Catalonia, which first made me wonder whether tipping is right.  He described the Communist/Anarchist (the ideologies were diverse and vague) revolution in Barcelona where, among other rules, tipping workers was banned.  This supposedly coincided with the emancipation of workers, whereupon tipping would be considered a bourgeoisie insult.  It has always been my opinion that the introduction of, say, a living wage would be much more preferable than making people rely on tips for an income.  Of course I do tip because I know how underpaid many workers in the service industry are, and Aspidistra has reinforced this for me.  It’s very much like giving money to beggars in that we shouldn’t have to do it, that there should be provisions from the state to make such actions unnecessary, yet until that happens to do nothing would be even worse.

Overall, Keep the Aspidistra Flyingis a very engaging book which can truly change your perspective on society and economics.  I wonder how long it will continue to be relevant for?

Homelessness

Bit of a belated post here, but it’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.

Every time I travel into a large city, which for most of my life has been once or twice a year, I never fail to be shocked by the homelessness pandemic I always find.  Having been brought up in a society where even oficially homeless people have some sort of roof over their heads, it’s incredibly shocking to imagine a life of ‘sleeping rough’.

For years, I’ve never been able to decide on the morality of giving money to those who beg.  If they’re selling The Big Issue, or doing some other means of getting money, then fine, it’s more clear cut.  But I guess I feel it should be the state’s responsibility to ensure everyone, at the very least, has a house to live in (and ideally a job, too, though that clearly has not been a priority for any government in decades – the cynical side of me would say most modern governments actually want some unemployment, but that’s digressing).  However, I have quickly come to the conclusion that, although creating a system in which many people need the charity of others to survive is wrong, to simply ignore someone in such need is also wrong.

However, there has to be balance.  It is unreasonable to suggest giving money to every single homelessness person you meet, else you’ll soon be going a similar way (so widespread the problem is).  So, I guess, to ease my conscience, perhaps just giving money to one or two homeless people a day would suffice.  A quota, if you like.  I don’t know.  If everyone did this, rather than the majority who are desensitised and do walk past every day, surely their plight would improve? 

One issue is that, quite often, homeless people do spend the money they receive on alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.  When I was last in Edinburgh I gave one man a small amount of money, and later passed him smoking a cigarette.  I don’t judge him for this by any means – in such an empty, purposeless life, you would grasp anything which could provide even the slightest escape.  So I don’t see this as a good reason to ignore beggars.  There is also the issue of people faking being homeless – although I’m inclined to want to give someone money simply for the mental endurance to sit for so long in the cold, ignored and detested by society for all of that time.  I was told the other day that you can supposedly identify a true homeless person by whether they make eye contact or not; someone with experience of the streets will not, because theyre so used to being spat at or otherwise abused.

Indeed, I am increasingly noticing simply how demonized homeless people are in society.  “Oh, he’s just a stupid hobo,” is something which would not surprise or even shock me if I heard it casually said.  “That coat makes you look like a homeless person LOL!”  Because it is a situation so few people can relate to, and don’t expect to ever experience (I do not see myself being homeless in the future, for instance, even though I know it’s possible), it becomes easy to brush off their woes as self-inflicted.  I could be wrong, but I believe very few people truly understand the issue of homelessness, or care to try.  I certainly don’t.

I think, if I ever see the opportunity, I may at some point volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, or something along those lines which would allow me to actually meet and speak to homeless people, and to better understand them.  Or, I suppose, even speak to the ones on the street – show them that not everyone in society despises them, and perhaps help ease even a tiny fraction of the loneliness.  We must all do what we can.

Home, Sweet Home!

This is the first entry ever in this blog to be written from my own home, from the home I’ve lived all 17 years of my life within.  Here is where I shall tell you why – the tale is rather dramatic.  It’s also an explanation towards my total lack of activity over the last week.

On the 29th August earlier this year I arrived at home after a fulfilling day at school and made myself a cup of tea.  I’m not sure whether it was coincidence or a result of the high air pressure addling my thoughts, but instead of browsing the internet for social networks and world news as is my usual routine upon getting home, I decided to lie in bed and read a book – God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin I think, if it matters.

I vaguely became aware of a thunderstorm brewing.  There were dim flashes and faint crashes but I wasn’t phased.  In fact, in what would soon be a fine example of irony, I was eager to see a lightning bolt rather than simply a flash out the corner of my eye, so I sat at the window expectantly.  There existed no fear in my heart; for years I’ve laughed off people’s claims to be scared of thunder and lightning.  “It’s harmless!” I’d say.  It was a particularly bad thunderstorm – my mother had commented on how the thunder was causing the entire house to vibrate – but I thought nothing of it.

And then the house was struck by lightning.  As with most traumatic events in my life, the actual details have been wiped from my memory, but fortunately I wrote a diary the night after it happened in which I recalled the scraps I could remember.  Even then my memories were blurred like a dream.  I described the event as a colossal explosion – a daydream which had leaked into reality.  The house shook violently and my thoughts leapt between images of bombs and meteors, but I quickly realised we’d been hit by lightning.  Out the window I saw bits of masonry, which I think were burning, splintering apart as they fell to the ground.  This must have all happened in the space of a second.

My Mum was in the room which had been hit and she came running into my bedroom, having bared the brunt of the explosion and sparks, but was mercifully unharmed.  We were both terrified and disorientated, having no idea what to do.  I ran across the landing and looked into the room which had been hit.  Plasterboard hung from the ceiling and a mixture of singed smoke and dust filled the air, giving the house a chemical stench.  Believing the house was on fire and in the irrational terror of the moment, we made the foolish move of running to our neighbours’ house.  I only realised afterwards how exposed this had made us to lightning,  being directly in the centre of a storm of this intensity.  I arrived soaked, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt.

Our neighbours were very accommodating and took us in.  From the window I got my first proper view of our house.  Where the chimney ought to have been remained a stump, blasted to pieces.  Our neighbour’s fuse box had literally been blown apart, though this didn’t feel very important at the time.  I cowered from flashes for the remaining hour that the storm continued in what was, it’s fair to say, one of the least enjoyable moments of my life.  Water flooded across the path and flowed into a small lagoon next to the beach.  You could clearly see the blue/brown divide where the floodwater had flowed in.  I later saw pictures of another road in my village which was completely impassable after a river burst its banks.  I don’t believe the flooding ever became dangerous enough to pose a risk to any homes, however.  I phoned my Dad using a mobile to tell him what had happened, and he was convinced for a long while that I was joking.  The call was cut off after a particularly bright flash.

Once the lightning stopped I finally became convinced to exit the safety of a standing structure and walk home.  We passed a piece of chimney which I kept as a souvenir, but sadly now is lost.  It may have come from our house, or that of another neighbour’s who we noticed was also missing a chimney and had various pulled up roof tiles.  The lightning strike must have forked and hit several houses at once – we never stood a chance!

Upon re-entering the house we realised with relief that it was not on fire.  I opened windows to ventilate out the smoke which the initial strike must have created.  I struggled to climb the stairs, engulfed by the irrational terror of another random explosion, but managed to peak into the room which had been struck.  It was in a terrible state: rubble lay strewn across the ground and water poured in through the gaping hole in the ceiling.  At this point we believed it was rainwater from the roof and, utterly powerless to prevent it, placed a large bucket underneath.  The light switch had been blasted to pieces.  That was not all: our modem had clearly exploded, from the charcoaled plastic which was scattered throughout the living room, and a plug socket had been blown out of the wall, hanging weakly by fried wires.  

With no idea how to proceed next, we drove out to my Dad’s house, about six miles away.  The road was almost impassable in places, covered in rocks and soil which had been washed over it.  We passed him on the way driving towards out house and turned around.  Upon arriving, Dad inspected the damages with shock and disbelief.  None of us had ever seen or even heard of a lightning strike this devastating.  Dad took a look in our attic at the bizarrely placed water tank, and described it as looking as if someone had taken a machine gun to it.  Rubble from the chimney must have scattered into the attic and pierced the metal tank.  The scale of the damages were truly terrifying.  Dad switched off the water and gradually the room became less flooded, though it didn’t stop damp seeping into three rooms – which is still there now.

We packed essentials, most importantly tea, and spent the night at Dad’s.  And so began our 110 day absence from home.  We would live in no fewer than four temporary houses, one of which was absolutely appalling.  There was much stress to be had to do with the insurance company, as would be expected, including being blamed for delays (as if we’d intentionally put off moving home) and being expected to pay £4,000 for rewiring the house (they eventually accepted this was not our fault).  My personal favourite is when the insurance woman asked on the phone, “are you sure that was lightning?”

We spent a lot of time driving the hour-round journey out to our house, mostly to feed the cats but also to observe process on the house.  Repairs didn’t even start until late October, which is appalling.  We waited weeks for the ‘loss adjustor’ (what the Hell does a loss-adjustor even do?  Confirm we actually were hit by lightning?) who missed his flight.  Twice.  And then getting quotes and approving them were even worse.  It was a tearful sight, seeing my home cold, damp and decrepit.  The cats missed us and gradually grew furrier coats in response to the cold.  One traumatic day we turned up, while the house was being rewired, to hear miaowing coming from the bathroom floor.  After shedding blood pulling up the rotten floorboard, we rescued our cat who had been trapped beneath it.  I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if we hadn’t found her.

The strike had its advantages, however.  Our temporary homes were right in the centre of town, where I got to experience the luxuries of a well-connected life.  It confirmed to me that I would prefer to go to a university in a city, such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, rather than a more isolated one like Stirling or St. Andrews.  To be able to go shopping at virtually any time, to walk to school, to make plans with friends without the stress of travelling, was enjoyable.  It also taught me that as long as I have fundamental needs met such as water and shelter, I can live anywhere.  This is another valuable lesson to have learned in time for university.  Of course it also had its obvious downsides: lack of home comforts, lack of cats, heavy stress, etc.  The house was a museum preserved in time; the empty mug sat on my desk for many months.  But in time I may be able to look back and see how the lightning pushed my life into a positive direction.  And also, pragmatically, the house was completely rewired after the meddling antics of its previous inhabitant.  There’s no longer the fear of electrocution every time we flick one of the uniquely wired switches.

But here I am, in my bedroom, back to normality.  The house has taken a week to get into an inhabitable state, and is still in a great mess – which is why I’ve been so quiet on this blog recently.  I’m already considering digging a bunker in preparation for the next thunderstorm.