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?

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Rioting in Stockholm

For the past week, I’ve been following fairly shocking news of rioting in Stockholm, and also various other areas in Sweden.   It’s shocking because Sweden has a particular reputation for being a peaceful, largely equal country.  In retrospect I don’t think the 2005 riots in Paris and the 2011 riots across England were hugely surprising, though I don’t know nearly enough about Sweden to comment here.

What saddens me is that the riots are reported to have occurred in areas where immigrants make a majority.  I know there will always be cultural difficulties and conflicts with first-generation immigrants, especially when they arrive on a large scale, but it’s tragic that it results in such violence.  This will just give credence to the policies of growing right-wing, anti-immigrant nationalist parties across the continent – the New Democracy party in Sweden, or UKIP in the UK, National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, etc…

I personally cannot understand the psychology behind rioting.  The smashing of public or private property, of setting cars alight, of attacking police, is not something people would do on their own, yet there seems to be a sense of safety and anonymity in numbers during riots.  Yet, do riots really allow people to exercise a normally hidden desire for violence?  I find that hard to believe.  There is the theory of ‘mob mentality’, which argues that people can become caught up with the mood of the group and conform to its expectations, following this uncontrolled force like sheep.  I accept this to be true – it’s the same force which powers most aspects of human society – but I cannot personally understand it.  I’ve never been in a situation such as this, but would I suddenly get involved if a riot would break out?  I just cannot imagine it.  Of course, I’m also a generally privileged White male who’s had access to a decent education and healthcare for his whole life.  I have a stake in society, and see no reason to riot, within or without a mob.  So is inequality a major factor?  Both inequality and the mob mentality combined?  It’s an intriguing question.

Related links:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22656657
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/05/2013525239363676.html

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Wow, series 7 of Doctor Who is going by fast!  Episode 12/14, now.  I really am starting to miss the two-parter episodes we have become accustomed to for the last 7 years.  It’s difficult to explain why, but I really think the series is suffering because of their absence; it’s like there’s no place to benchmark where we are on what’s happening, and instead there’s a random stream of sharp, rushed stories.  Generally good stories, sure, but… Hm.  I found out this morning that The Crimson Horror only got around 4.6 million overnight views which, while still promising over 6m views with the timeshift, is undeniably a decline.  I’ve never approved of head-writer Steven Moffat’s manic obsession for ratings, giving episodes, in his words, ‘slutty’ but irrelevant titles like Let’s Kill Hitler, or his admission that getting rid of two-parters is purely to increase views, rather than to increase the quality of the show.  So I suppose I’m gleaming some savage, “I told you so” pleasure in seeing this happen, though I dearly hope the show won’t lose too much popularity.

Rant aside, episode 12 by Mark Gatiss, The Crimson Horror, looked set to be an interesting but conventional addition to the series.  Gatiss is not known for his groundbreaking ambitionwhen writing scripts, but I should have learnt after Hide not to put an episode down as ‘dull’.  It’s directed by Saul Metzstein, who has proven his abilities by directing several well-made episodes of Doctor Who over the last year, including The Snowmen – so no worries there.  It also sees the return of the Doctor’s Victorian Gang, comprised of Silurian Madam Vastra, her wife Jenny and the Sontaran Strax, who are always entertaining.

I must admit, Gatiss surprised me with this one.  This has to be one of the scariest episodes I have watched in a long time.  So many terrors: the red, semi-frozen creaky people; people getting forcibly dipped into red goo; the grotesque ‘Mr Sweet’ attached to Mrs Gillyflower’s chest… The episode made my shudder so many times.  There’s an interesting contrast of horror and comedy which Doctor Who does so well, blown up to the extremes here.  For every moment of intense horror there’s a joke (“Horse!  You have failed in your mission!” … A satnav-boy called ‘Thomas Thomas’, etc) and it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the two hardly contrast at all.  One aspect of the tone which may have let the episode down slightly was its tendency to go over the top at times – Mrs Gillyflower’s pantomime performance: “DIE!! DIE!!!” for instance.  Not a huge detractor, but was a little distracting.  It was also interesting to see a return to “human on human” violence.  There was nothing very graphic, but having Ada batter her mother with her cane or Mrs Gillyflower firing at the Doctor twice with a revolver felt very odd.  Not wrong, but odd.  Humans being nasty to each other was a common feature of the ‘Classic Series’, but it’s mostly been replaced by ‘fantasy violence’ in the newer series.  Mark Gatiss has said that out of all the episodes he’s written, this feels the most “him”, and you can tell.

Some people have criticised the decision to spend roughly the first half the episode centered around Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax, but I don’t have a problem with it.  It was nice to see more of Jenny’s character, who has in the past been sidelined by her stranger friends.  Perhaps the Doctor and Clara got caught too easily in Mrs Gillyflower’s plans, but I like that he has a safety net of friends to help him out just in case.  The villain’s plot was a bit bizarre – wiping out humanity with an ancient parasite and then replacing them with biologically perfect “Adams and Eve.”  It’s a common idea in science fiction, but is written creatively.  I quite enjoyed hearing Mrs Gillyflower invent fascism 30 years early – even referring to a Golden Dawn.  And I liked the idea of the… Octogram, was it?  Having the corpses’ eyes recording images was a clever way to quickly advance the plot.  The setting in general works well, feeling the most authentic ‘Victorian episode’ we’ve had for a while.  I enjoyed hearing the grand variety of accents, from the Northerners who populated most of the episode, to Jenny’s London tones, Vastra’s Scots and Strax’s Welsh.  The plan was a bit easily defeated, which is kind of understandable when you consider that Mrs Gillyflower has simply become a mad old woman with an intelligent leach, though for all her earlier successes in planning I’d have thought the team might have found stopping her a bit more challenging once they had got going.  But these are really tiny niggles.

The mystery of Clara is continuing to be mentioned.  I do like the low-key way it gets brought up, although we’re getting very little development.  It’s hinted that the Doctor intended to take her to Victorian London to see how she reacts, which shows he is still unceasingly trying to figure out, but we’re not getting any more clues.  We don’t need more clues, but every time she gets brought up we’re getting the same “dunno who she is” response.  This is meant to infuriate the Doctor, so perhaps this irritation I’m feeling is also intentional?  Builds excitement for the finalé…

The characters were all very entertaining in The Crimson Horror.  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman great as usual, and the trio of Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey and Catrin Stewart were very entertaining.  I found some of Strax’s lines, although humorously performed, a bit repetitive, and I’m still waiting for an explanation regarding his lack of death.  Oh well.  Mother and daughter team Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling were performed well in their roles.  Rigg sold the part of the “nuts” Gillyflower, and Stirling’s performance brought such a rawness of suffering which added to the moments of horror.  I can’t recall the last time a character has convincingly suffered so much in the show.  Honourable mention goes to the man in the morgue, whose nonplussed response to Freaky Red Corpses verging on amusement made for many laughable moments.

As expected, Metzstein’s direction was highly skilled.  I was awed in the first seconds alone by that shot rising up above the terraces, revealing Victorian Yorkshire into view.  He’s created a tense, atmospheric episode that gave me many genuine scares.  And other little touches, like the slow pan-out to huge industrial noises, only to subvert the viewer’s expectations by revealing a trio of huge gramophones.  There were many lovely surreal touches, including the ‘Adams and Eves’ inside glasses attached to pumps.  Oh, and that flashback scene!  The colours went sepia tone, grains appeared and the audio became muffled.  Made absolutely no sense but I loved it as a storytelling device; it really set the scene.

All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable episode, and by far the best piece of writing I have ever seen Mark Gatiss produce.  I’m looking forward to seeing the team back in the season finalé, The Name of the Doctor.  And Cybermen next week, written by Neil Gaiman… Hopefully this series will go out with a bang.

Final rating: 8.5/10

Great Expectations (2012)

Contains spoilers, though possibly not accurate ones.

Yesterday I went to see the recent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, directed by Mike Newell.  Having fallen in love with a trailer for this film in the bombastic tedium of adverts which preceded my viewing of Argo, I decided to book tickets immediately.  I had known of the original book by Dickens for as long as I can remember, knowing it to be regarded as a classic example of literature.  It is fair to say I had great expectations for this film… (I’m so sorry, but that was inevitable).

I’m afraid to say these expectations were not met.  While the film was highly atmospheric and visually stunning, with excellent acting all through, I simply didn’t ‘get it’.  Perhaps this is because I haven’t read the book before, but I just did not understand what was happening for a large amount of time.  Characters seemed to say things and commit actions not based on any clear motivation, but because it’s what the script required them to do to advance the film.  How was Pip chosen by Miss Havisham to become Estella’s playmate and, practice heartbreak – or whatever he was?  Why such rushed reactions to Pip’s fortune?  I was completely lost in the flurry of names and explanations which dealt with Pip’s benefactor and the story of Estella’s parents.  I am still clueless as to who exactly did what in the conning of Miss Havisham, frantically piecing together faces and names but failing.  Mike Newell also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I consider to be one of the weaker Potter films and I would guess butchered the source material in a similar way in order to create a thriller.

I was unconvinced by the love story; Pip’s love for Estella seemed unfounded and the character of Estella herself was utterly unbelievable.  This is not a fault on the acting, I just failed to comprehend the point of her.  But what was most unconvincing, and I think this is a flaw on Dickens’ part, is the treatment of poverty.  George Orwell, despite acknowledging Dickens’ passion for helping the poor, argued that he seemed to lack any knowledge of how poverty actually works.  Having seen this film I am forced to agree.  When he became ‘a gentleman’, Pip’s character completely changed.  While I can understand his effort to learn socially accepted enunciation and manners, he becomes a different person when living in London.  This is acknowledged by Pip’s step brother Joe upon visiting the big city, yet I don’t believe it.

Despite this flurry of complaints, I did enjoy the film.  The twists kept me engaged as far as I understood them and the development of Pip’s character was fascinating to behold.  The portrayal of Victorian England contained enjoyable humour behind the serious themes and, visually, felt authentic.  But ultimately I left the cinema unsure of what the point of the film had been.  Great Expectations has confirmed my belief of the superiority of the book over the film, and in future I will be hesitant to make the mistake again of watching the film first.

Final rating: 6/10