“It was a time of labels, slogans, and evasions.” #1940Club #Orwell @RenardPress


It’s always a delight to discover that one of your favourite authors has something published in one of our club years, and even more so when it’s available in a pretty edition from a favourite indie publisher! That’s the case today with “Inside the Whale” by George Orwell; Renard Press have a lovely series of pamphlets entitled ‘Orwell’s Essays’ and one of their most recent editions (#8) is indeed the “Whale”! I’m always happy for an excuse to read the wonderful George, and this long piece (82 pages in the Renard) turned out to be a marvellous and thought-provoking work.

“Inside the Whale” is a fascinating essay which opens with a discussion of Henry Miller’s 1933 novel, ‘Tropic of Cancer’; the latter was a controversial work, yet Orwell is full of praise for the book and its honesty about the human condition. However, this is just a springboard for his more general exploration of modern writing and its strengths and weaknesses, as well his thoughts on literature and those authors considered the greats of the early 20th century.

Orwell is always a clear and trenchant commentator, and here he provides a wonderfully acid take-down of the influx of so-called artists to Paris in the 1920s. His discussion ranges far and wide, bringing in so many well-known names from Chesterton to Louisa M. Alcott; and his critique of the moral and political position of writers like Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley is damning.

On the whole the literary history of the thirties seems to justify the opinion that a writer does well to keep out of politics. For any writer who accepts or partially accepts the discipline of a political party is sooner or later faced with the alternative: toe the line, or shut up. It is, of course, possible to toe the line and go on writing — after a fashion. Any Marxist can demonstrate with the greatest of ease that ‘bourgeois’ liberty of thought is an illusion. But when he has finished his demonstration there remains the psychological fact that without this ‘bourgeois’ liberty the creative powers wither away. In the future a totalitarian literature may arise, but it will be quite different from anything we can now imagine. Literature as we know it is an individual thing, demanding mental honesty and a minimum of censorship.

The essay is split into three parts, with the first containing the initial discussions of Miller (and interestingly, Orwell finds that the rest of that author’s work is not necessarily up to the standard of “Tropic of Cancer”). The conclusion he reaches is that the novel is so strong because it is a novel of acceptance of the way life is (as is the poetry of Walt Whitman) instead of those books full of ideas and politics. Part two of the essay compares Miller’s book with the literary trends of the early 20th century, from the nostalgic countryside portrayed by Houseman through to the political and left-leaning writers of the 30s, with many writers blindly seduced by the appeal of communism, in which they fail to note any flaws. And in part three, Orwell returns to Miller, drawing on the tale of Jonah inside the whale as an analogy for the writer isolating himself, and our wish to return to an adult sized womb to hide and escape from the horrors of the modern world.

All of this makes a fascinating read, and is perhaps a little surprising coming from an author who was politically engaged himself. His message seems to be that the better books are written by those who accept the state of the world and don’t try to change it; yet Orwell’s published works up to that point, in particular his non-fiction books, had commented on the state of the world, pointing out things which needed to be changed. It may be that after the War his views changed, as his two great novels of political comment were published in 1945 and 1948.

Putting that aside, “Inside the Whale” was such a wonderful read, full of so many truths which seem to me still so relevant today (the description, via Cyril Connolly, of a Public School education as “five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery” definitely rings true). Orwell’s writing is such that I could pull out masses of quotes, and in fact I filled several pages of my notebook with parts I wanted to remember; what he says seems so clear and straightforward and yet I never would have thought of it myself. As always, I come away from reading Orwell feeling clearer headed, ready to judge things with his words ringing in my ears, and more than ever convinced that he’s an exemplary writer, a real genius whether producing fiction or non-fiction.

“Inside the Whale” was a perfect choice for our #1940Club; a substantial and stimulating essay, from one of the 20th century’s leading commentators, which is full of wonderfully inspiring writing. I often think that what we’re missing in the 21st century is someone with the clarity and authority of Orwell to take on the hideous political situation in which we find ourselves. Kudos to Renard for bringing out editions of these striking essays as bite-sized reads – you can never have too much Orwell in my view!!

Exploring Orwell and Empire – over @ShinyNewBooks!


I have a new review up today at Shiny New Books which I wanted to share with you, and it’s of an intriguing new book about an author I love – George Orwell.

“Orwell and Empire” by Douglas Kerr, from OUP, looks at the life and work of the great writer through the lens of Empire and its influence, and it’s quite fascinating. Focusing on different perspectives in each chapter, it certainly made me look at Orwell’s writings in a new light and I highly recommend it – you can read my full review here!

“…planting the roses and launching the garden could mean a thousand things…” #orwellsroses


Back at the end of 2021, the UK bookshop chain Waterstones had a very popular half-price sale on all hardbacks; many bookish types shared massive hauls, but mine in the end was more restrained! I picked up two lovely looking volumes via my proxy shopper, Youngest Child, and they were Paul Morley’s massive tome on Tony Wilson, and the book I want to talk about today – “Orwell’s Roses” by Rebecca Solnit.

I’d been umming and ahing about Solnit’s book for a while; she’s an author I knew of but hadn’t read, and although I love anything Orwell, I did wonder how I would find her take on him. However, there had been much praise doing the rounds online, and so I instructed Youngest Child to pounce on the one copy lurking; I figured it was worth having a go at her work! Was the purchase justified? Yes, I think so, although the jury is still out a little bit on this one…

Solnit is the author of numerous books and essays, and in fact I’d bought her “Men Explain Things To Me” for Middle Child when it came out. Here, she takes the jumping off point of the fact that author George Orwell planted rose bushes in his cottage at Wallington in 1936; planting anything is an act of faith, an investment of sorts in the future, and at the same time he planted trees. Visiting the cottage recently, Solnit found that the trees had gone but there were rose bushes still there which could have been Orwell’s. From this start, she goes on to explore far and wide: the symbolism of roses, the problems of their mass production, whether beauty is a luxury or a necessity, Orwell’s life and beliefs, colonialism – well, as you can see, there are all manner of topics covered in the book! Underlying them is that love of nature and gardening, and the positive effects this can have on our struggling planet; as well as an attempt to show Orwell in a new light, that of a man who took joy in small things and whose outlook was not as dour and dark as has been portrayed.

If you dig into Orwell’s work, you find a lot of sentences about flowers and pleasures and the natural world. If you read enough of those sentences the gray portrait turns to colour, and if you look for these passages, even his last masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, changes complexion.

It has to be said that Solnit writes beautifully, and the number of post-its peeking out of my copy is evidence of that. However, my initially positive response to the book became a little tempered as I went on through it. Without wishing to resort to cliche, Solnit can meander like the best rambling rose, and there were times when I thought she was stretching her point and that the book needed a little judicious pruning. Much of the narrative covers her own experiences, too, so you need to be invested in her as an author. In reality, this is a series of essays knitted together, and there are some elements which really felt a bit extraneous to me. A section on Ralph Lauren and chintzes; a slightly clumsy anecdote about Jaffa cakes; there were parts which I felt could have been removed and improved the whole.

Revisiting a significant book is like revisiting an old friend: you find out how you’ve changed when you encounter them again; you see differently because you’re different. Some books grow, some wither upon reacquaintance, or because you’re asking different questions you find different answers.

This is not to say that the book is bad; when she’s on point and discussing Orwell, his life, his writing, his books, their relevance to their time and to today, she’s excellent and there was much to chew on and much I hadn’t taken in before. Although I love Orwell, I haven’t read a biography recently and so I’m not sure if I was aware of his family background; that particular aspect was fascinating. I was also intrigued to learn that Orwell had tried to help one of my other favourite authors, Victor Serge, to get published. And Solnit’s explorations of politics and history made interesting reading, pulling in Stalin, the Purges, the problems the left had with reconciling Stalin’s behaviour with their communist beliefs and so on. There was much to read and much to provoke thoughts.

However, when I began reading the book I thought I was going to love it; instead I ended up liking quite a lot of it, but wishing it had not been allowed to ramble so much. With a tighter focus I personally feel the book would have been better; as it was, I found my attention drifting in places and I began to meander off a little myself… So “Orwell’s Roses” was an interesting, if for me a little flawed, read; I wouldn’t rule out reading Solnit again but would be keen to know from anyone who’s read her if this sounds typical of her work! I’m quite drawn to the concept of her “Wanderlust” book but would like to explore a bit before committing – has anyone read it???

Flaming June – and onwards into July!!


When I say ‘flaming June’ I could of course be implying two different meanings! Flaming as in it was very hot, which it was; and flaming in the sense of the British English use to express annoyance! June for me was both of those things; too hot, because I’m not good with high temperatures, and busy again so I didn’t get to read as much as I wanted to. What I read I loved, though, and here they are:

No disappointments at all and quite a variety, from short stories (crime and modernist), novels new and old, non-fiction and translated lit. The re-read of “Gormenghast” was pure joy and kept me sane when things were very manic at work!

I have, of course, now completed the #Narniathon, which was great fun, even if I found “The Last Battle” a bit sad. Others will be going on to read an interesting sounding work about the Narnia books, but I am going to pass on that as I don’t have the book and I’m trying to avoid acquiring more; though I will follow their thoughts with interest!

As for what I *do* plan to read, well, I’m going to keep that as loose as possible. Annabel has an Italian Fortnight coming up at the end of the month, and so I shall try to join in with that. There is, I think, a Paris in July event knocking about somewhere online, but it will depend on my mood as to whether I take part. Also Stu usually hosts a Spanish/Portuguese Lit event so if that’s going ahead I may try to take part. What I *do* want to do is to make a dent in the mountainous TBR as on the imminent pile are some very interesting titles:

First up, an inviting pair of review books – Orwell and Golden Age Crime are two of my favourite things to read, so I hope to get to these soon.

Spark is also a huge favourite, and I’m intrigued by Lange – I love interesting women authors, so either of these would be a great choice for July.

Irina Mashinski’s book sounds quite marvellous, and I can’t wait to get to it – it’s definitely one title I’ll be prioritising in July!

I’m currently reading the Letters of Basil Bunting alongside whichever other book I have to hand and it’s a fascinating volume; so far much of the correspondence has been addressed to Ezra Pound, and this really is something of a treasure trove.

My current read, along with the Bunting is this:

Yes, I’m finally making an attempt to read Brookner properly! Only a little way in but so far I’m impressed – watch this space for progress reports!!!

Apart from that, I’ll just keep on picking up the books which take my fancy as that’s what works for me. I hadn’t *planned* to re-read “Gormenghast” in June, for example, but when the reading mojo calls, you just have to follow it! Do you have any plans for your July reading??

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…


During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!


Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!


As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!


I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!


2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!


I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

“… it’s better to die violently and not too old.” #georgeorwell


I can’t recall now what it was that prompted me to dig out my old Penguin edition of vol 4 of Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, to seek out a specific essay; but I’m glad I did because as usual George is spot on… The essay in question is called “How The Poor Die“, and it was first published in November 1946. In it, Orwell looks back to time spent in a public ward of a French hospital in 1929 (presumably during the time covered in “Down and Out in Paris and London”); and what he relates is quite chilling…

Orwell was, of course, really living down and out in Paris at the time, and so when he was taken ill with pneumonia he had no option but the nearest hospital because he certainly couldn’t afford a doctor… The treatment he received was quite shocking: cupping, a mustard poultice, indifference from the various doctors and nurses, and disgustingly insanitary conditions where disease must have spread unchecked. Patients died and were left in their beds until someone could be bothered to move them; whether you were actually treated by the doctors often depended on how ‘interesting’ your illness was; and running through all this was an attitude from those supposedly caring of total disinterest, with most of them treating the patients as if they were less than human.

A few feeble protests that I uttered got no more response that if I had been an animal. I was very much impressed by the impersonal way in which the two men started on me. I have never been in the public ward of a hospital before, and it was my first experience of doctors who handle you without speaking to you, or, in the human sense, taking any notice of you.

Orwell escapes as soon as he’s well enough, though not before he’s thoroughly shocked by what he’s experienced; and he compares it with the kind of treatment he would have received in an English hospital which would have been very different. However, this was in the pre-NHS days, so presumably the kind of treatment you got still depended on how much money you had (something which I picked up in my reading of the British Library Crime Classic, “The Port of London Murders” – here, the struggle from hand to mouth and the cost of medical care was very much an issue). Anyway, Orwell rounds up his essay reflecting on the fact that in 1929 medical treatment was often viewed with suspicion, being still in its infancy in many ways, and up until the introduction of anaesthetics most people tried to avoid doctors and hospitals…

As always, Orwell is a wonderful essayist – immediate, clear, getting to the point, yet setting his scene wonderfully and capturing the experiences he lived through so vividly. “How the Poor Die” was profoundly moving in places, focusing on the poor suffering people with no way out other than a cold, lonely death. Orwell seems of the opinion that it’s better to die young and quickly, rather than a long and lingering and eventually painful death at an old age – and I can see where he’s coming from…

By BBC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This essay also set me thinking about our own NHS, so lauded, yet often criticised, underfunded and under threat. Having read about the cost of healthcare, and the horrors of trying to get treatment, in the USA, I’m glad we have the system we do; although I think other countries have more efficient systems than ours. And I see the NHS is under attack again at the moment; I try not to stray into politics too much on the Ramblings, for the good of my blood pressure; but having witnessed what Orwell saw and went through, all those years ago, I really think we need to start protecting and improving the system we already have in place. As always, Orwell’s wonderful writing really does bring clarity and focus the mind!

#1936Club – “…money, like murder, will out.” #georgeorwell


My final read for the #1936Club is one which took me a little by surprise! My love of George Orwell and his work must be quite clear from even a casual glance at the Ramblings. I have numerous paperback editions of his work, as well as a lovely boxed collection which Mr. Kaggsy presented me with many moons ago. So when we decided on 1936 for the club, and I realised his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was published that year, I thought it would be perfect for a re-read – as I had, I thought, read all of his fiction.

Aspidistra x 2!

Well – a quick dig on the shelves made me question myself; because rummaging revealed that I had *no* paperback edition of “Aspidistra”, only the nice hardback in the set, and I was sure I’d never read that copy. Then I started to actually explore the text and it didn’t seem familiar at all… So now I’m beginning to think that somehow I’d missed reading “Aspidistra” over the last few decades and that my encounter with it here is a first-time read – how exciting is that!!!

My posh hardback edition.

Anyway, I was faced with reading my posh book, which always stupidly makes me a bit nervous. However, fortune stepped in, in the form of Oxford University Press’s Word Classics series (I have quite a few of these – it’s always a toss-up whether to get an OWC or a Penguin Classic of a particular book, and I sometimes pick up both!) OUP have just issued a beautiful new set of Orwells in their OWC range, and were kind enough to provide me with a review copy of “Aspidistra” – what perfect timing!!

In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.

On to the story. “Aspidistra” was Orwell’s third novel (fourth published full-length work) and its epigraph, dealing as it does with all things fiscal, sets the tone for the book. Money really is the root of all evil, or at least the problems besetting the main character, Gordon Comstock, and many of those he encounters. Gordon is in effect the last of the Comstocks; a fairly feeble family who have gradually died out through mediocrity, the only members left are Gordon, his sister Julia, and the occasional aunt or uncle. Gordon’s mother and sister have scrimped and saved to get the young man an education, feeling that he has a chance to make something of himself. But Gordon has always been aware of the poverty in which his family have existed, the fact that he is of the wrong class and that those with money look down on them while living lives of ease. And so as the book opens, we encounter him having chucked up a reasonable job with decent pay in an advertising agency, and now slumming it by working in a bookshop and living in fairly unpleasant digs.

Gordon was not impressive to look at. He was just five feet seven inches high, and because his hair was usually too long he gave the impression that his head was a little too big for his body. He was never quite unconscious of his small stature. When he knew that anyone was looking at him he carried himself very upright, throwing a chest, with a you-be-damned air which occasionally deceived simple people.

Gordon is really not a happy man; his girlfriend Rosemary declares that she loves him but won’t sleep with him, which he puts down to money; he’s published a book of poems “Mice”, which was well reviewed but failed to earn him much; he’s struggling to write more, but his mood swings aren’t helping; and his friendship with the wealthy Ravelston is complex, poisoned once more by money. Money, money, money – that *is* very much what Gordon bangs on about all of the time, and bearing in mind the time when the book was written, he does have a point.

Lovely new OWC edition!

Britain in the 1930s was a land of extremes; the rich were trying to hold on to money and status, while the poor were struggling dreadfully. There was no welfare state, and some of the poverty portrayed in the book is devastating. I know other readers have perhaps had difficulty in warming to Gordon, but I think without insight into his circumstances, it’s hard perhaps to understand why he’s in the state he’s in.

Gordon also puts much of his situation down to lack of sex, and the book does discuss this issue a fair bit. In the 1930s contraception was relatively primitive (and presumably also cost quite a bit) and so any kind of sex life brought risks, particularly for the women involved. Gordon might seem to be being a bit selfish in his desire to sleep with Rosemary, but my reading of him is of a damaged, depressed man who lacks human warmth in his life, and I think he’s representative of many at the time.

Marriage is only a trap set for you by the money-god. You grab the bait; snap goes the trap; and there you are, chained by the leg to some ‘good’ job till they cart you to Kensal Green. And what a life! Licit sexual intercourse in the shade of the aspidistra. Pram-pushing and sneaky adulteries. And the wife finding you out and breaking the cut-glass whisky decanter over your head.

So Gordon and Rosemary attempt a day out in the country, on not very much cash, and that doesn’t go well at all. In our modern world, where sex is everywhere, it’s somehow shocking that the couple’s only chance for a physical relationship is if they go off into the woods for the day… Then Gordon has a windfall, and this is where things get really problematic, as events spiral out of control and he ends up in an even worse situation. He *could* go back to his old job, but refuses on principle – he doesn’t want to be sucked into the money world, tied to work and the 9-5 grind just to earn enough to live and have an aspidistra (the symbol for him of normality and conformity) in his front window like the rest of the respectable world. His stubbornness is infuriating at times, although you can understand his feelings. However, a crisis will come along and change everything – but how will Gordon respond?

There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.

I don’t want to give away any more plot elements, because “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is such a wonderful and fascinating book. I just can’t believe I hadn’t read it before! Orwell apparently always regarded 1936 as a pivotal year in his life: he visited the north, which led to “The Road to Wigan Pier; he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, with all that brought; he broke through as a novelist, with “Aspidistra…” bringing him in some income; and from that point on he regarded his work as to be to fight against fascism in all its forms, which led to seminal works like “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen eighty-four”. He apparently dismissed “Aspidistra” but I think he shouldn’t have, because I feel it does explore very deeply and bitterly the pernicious effects of poverty. Gorden is angry and indignant; his sister Julia works all hours of the day just to survive; Rosemary is no richer either; and the degradation of some of the boarding houses in which Gordon stays is just awful. I believe “Aspidistra” draws on some of Orwell’s own life experiences, and of course he was well aware of what it was to be down and out, both in Paris and London! He may seem to be going on a bit about the evil of money, but we only have to look around us, in a world which is still anything but equal, to see that he has a point…

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.

The end of “Aspidistra” is interesting, although I’m loath to discuss it in detail because of spoilers. It might be the only logical one, and it does suggest perhaps that Gordon has been going through some kind of breakdown from which he *does* recover. The themes are often dark, the portrait of London between the wars often grimy and gritty, and the living conditions squalid. However, the book is not without its humour: Orwell’s portrait of the advertising business, with its corny slogans and ghastly advertising campaigns, has not dated, and his contempt for it is palpable! He definitely seems to feel that slavishly following the media is a Bad Thing (that’s a pretty modern attitude, too) and complains about the populace being so easily influenced. Well, not much changes.

My lovely Orwell box set

So I ended up thoroughly impressed with this Orwell which I hadn’t read, and yes, convinced again that he really was a genius. He captures brilliantly the post-war era, the struggles of the poor, the difficulty of coping on a few bob a week, and how the class system in England cripples the country and prevents it moving forward (hmmmm – familiar, that….) Although an early novel, it still features Orwell’s regular preoccupations, and I found the characters quite rounded too. His women characters were believable: sister Julia (interesting choice of name) with her self-sacrifice, and Rosemary, a well-defined character in her own right, caring for Gordon but often struggling to understand his principles. The latter, of course, can only be held successfully by people with money; if you’re poor, they go right out the window! I finished the book several days ago, and I’m still thinking about the many elements and issues it raised – such a thought-provoking read. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” was the perfect way to end my reading for the #1936Club – what a week it’s been and what an amazing choice of books there was from the year!

(Emma has also read the book for the club, and you can read her post here!)


I though I’d also share a few separate thoughts on the new OWC edition of “Aspidistra”, as my hardback from the box set comes with limited notation which is mainly to do with textual variations. As this edition originally hails from 1987, much of the landscape of Britain and the terminology would be quite familiar to the reader then. However, getting on for 35 years later than that, there’s the need for a little more explanation and the new edition has excellent notation which explains many terms which might seem strange or exotic to a younger, modern reader! Additionally, there is detail on the money of the time; as that subject underpins the story, it certainly is important that the reader understands ‘old money’ (I can just about remember it…) The notes are provided by Benjamin Kohlmann, who also supplies an excellent introduction which discusses the book in the context of the 1930s – it definitely is a book of its time and that needs to be remembered, I think, to get the most out of it. Sensibly, readers are advised to treat the foreword as an afterword if unfamiliar with the plot, and I wish all books would remind us of that before we embark. There’s a bibliography and a chronology, and so really there’s all you need. As you’ll guess from my review, I really loved “Aspidistra…”; and I think if you plan to read it, the OWC would be the perfect edition to choose!

“…one has to think fearlessly…” @renardpress #ReadIndies #GeorgeOrwell


Today’s indie press needs no introduction on the Ramblings, as I’ve featured them many times; in fact, I even interviewed Will, the man behind the imprint, for Shiny New Books! They are, of course, Renard Press, purveyors of lovely handbound editions of a really fascinating range of works; and today I want to talk about their recent release of some essays from one of my favourite authors of all time – George Orwell!

Renard have recently issued a lovely set of Orwellian pamphlets, each featuring one of the great man’s essays; and as well as being beautiful objects, they’re a timely reminder of how relevant his writing still is. Renard’s pamphlets are hand bound, each with its own bookmark and with a removeable dustjacket; this is a lovely format, and as well as having decent sized type on quality paper (making it easy to read…), they look rather lovely on the shelves! Onto the essays themselves!

Up first is “Why I Write”, the most fundamental thing an author considers, I suppose. After providing a kind of mini summary of biography, telling of his early attempts at poetry and short stories, Orwell explores the theme of constantly telling a story in his head and covers his development as a writer. He discusses the main motivations for writing, and spells out the importance of the political and the personal meeting in his own works. His politics are as clearly laid out as his writing, and it’s obvious that he feels his best writing is that which has a political as well as artistic purpose.

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it.

Pamphlet 2 of the Essays features “Politics and the English Language”. This is a fascinating essay, which I’ve read before though possibly haven’t written about; and in it Orwell explores the kind of political language which is, as he says, “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted that from an anthology of his writing before, and he’s spot on. In this world of spin and fake news and the media feeding us constant lies, Orwell’s commentary on the distortion of political language is an essential counterpoint to the nonsense being flung at us from every angle. Quite brilliant.

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.

The third essay is “The Prevention of Literature”, which I’ve read before in one of my Penguin Great Ideas volumes. It’s a deep and thoughtful discussion of how political regimes affect the literature of their authors, and Orwell is so clear eyed about the effect of totalitarianism on writing, on what can survive during a dictatorship and about the pressures on authors. Interestingly, he thinks poetry has the best chance in a country under tight control, and he may well be right. Lots of food for thought here.

…in England the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates and the bureaucrats…

Pamphlet 4 contains “Politics vs. Literature”, the longest of the four essays, and a really fascinating one. It’s subtitled “An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels”, and in it Orwell takes a close look not only Swift’s great work but also his politics and viewpoints. Despite loving Swift and his book, Orwell is critical of the thinking expressed in the book, even equating Swift with Tolstoy when it comes to both men’s intolerance. Nevertheless, he does feel that despite his disagreement with Swift politically he loves the book, considering it a great work of art; and feels that even if a book expresses a viewpoint with which he disagrees, it can still be good!

Orwell is always a wonderful essayist to read, expressing his arguments so clearly and in such seemingly plain yet actually quite sophisticated language. I have numerous collections of his writings, but somehow reading them in pamphlet form worked quite brilliantly. Not only was I not pressured or overwhelmed by the vast amount of his wisdom waiting to be discovered, the format is a pleasure to read physically, and there is time to pause after finishing each pamphlet to reflect. I don’t know if Renard are planning to issue more Orwell essays like this, but I do hope they do. It’s a wonderful initiative, a great way to visit (or revisit) the great man’s works, and they really *are* going to look pretty on my Orwell shelf… [ You *do* all have an Orwell shelf, don’t you? 😉 ]

On My Book Table…6 – a bit of a shuffle!


The world is a little bit scarier than usual at the moment, as we’re all quite aware, and so I’m trying personally to balance keeping my awareness of what’s happening at a sensible level and trying to keep myself on an even keel. Books have always been my go-to in times of stress and frankly are being a little bit of a lifeline right now. Anyway, after all the recent excitement of the #fitzcarraldofortnight, plus a number of new arrivals, I thought it was time to take stock and reorganise a little. Reading from one publisher is a lovely experience, but as I have so many other books lurking I wanted to try to clarify what I planned to pick up next. Of course, I never stick to reading plans, but it’s always fun to spend time shuffling books, as well as being very therapeutic… 😀

After spending some time digging among the stacks and moving books about, I ended up with a few piles I currently want to focus on and here’s the first:

This rather chunky pile has some of the weightier books (intellectually and literally!) that are calling right now. Some of these were in my last book table post, but some have snuck in when I wasn’t looking. There’s a lot of French writing there and both the Existentialist Cafe and Left Bank books sound excellent. Barthes is of course still hanging about in the wings even though I haven’t added him to the pile. I could go for a Barthes fortnight (or longer…) quite easily, but that might a bit brain-straining. Some of the volumes *are* reasonably slim so I might be able to slip them into my reading between bigger books – we shall see! 😀

Next up, some of the review books I have pending:

These are only *some* of the review books lurking, but if I put them all in a pile it looks scary and I panic, so I thought a modest selection would do. There are some beauties from the British Library Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics range, as well as Camus and a classic Russian play and Frankenstein! They all sound so marvellous….

And this is the pile of recent finds or other titles I really want to read at the moment:

More French writing. The top two are books about French authors – I’ve read the start of each and they’re marvellous. The Queneau is short but essential (and another play! I’m reading more drama!!), the Hitchens and the Christiansen arrived recently, as did the beautiful Persephone (which I think I might well pick up soon). And the Makioka Sisters is there because there’s a readalong going on. I doubt I’ll get to it – I’ve failed every one so far this year, getting nowhere near either Proust or Musil. But it’s there just in case.

However, there *is* another pile of interest lurking. Coming up in April, Simon and I will be hosting the #1920club, the next in our themed weeks of reading from a particular year. I’ve been thinking ahead about which books I’d like to spend time with, and there really are some wonderful titles from 1920. I always try to read from the stacks and a quick dig revealed I had these books on the shelves:

All of them are beautiful titles, and most of them would be re-reads – which is not really what I want to do with the reading clubs. I have another new title lurking digitally which I am definitely going to overcome my aversion to e-reading and get to; but with the re-reads I shall have to be picky so that I can perhaps focus on unread books. Though it *would* be nice just to spend the week re-reading Agatha, Virginia and Colette…

And of course, just after I had finished writing this post, a lovely collection of review books popped through the door looking like this:

There are some wonderfully exciting titles there, including a new Crime Classic from the British Library; two editions from their new imprint focusing on Women Writers (which is being curated by Simon – well done, that man!); and a fascinating book on Artemisia Gentileschi with an introduction by Susan Sontag – how timely!

So there we go. The state of the books at the moment. I have just finished reading Lennie Goodings’ wonderful book about her life in the book trade and with Virago which I will eventually get to reviewing (I’m very behind…) – I highly recommend it. And I confess to being unsure as to what I’ll pick up next, although it may have to be escapism in the form of Golden Age crime. As usual, watch this space! 😀

“Every thinking person nowadays is stiff with fright” – #Orwell on Truth


I guess no-one can be unaware of the the awful mess the world seems to have got itself into; or rather, the humans on it, because I often think that nature and the animals would manage quite well without us here. The last couple of months of 2019 were particularly hideous, and we seem to be surrounded by hate and lies wherever we turn. After the result of the UK General Election (one I was expecting, but was particularly unhappy about) I found myself drawing much comfort from reading George Orwell, and in particular a book which Youngest Child gifted me a while ago; a lovely anthology entitled “Orwell on Truth”. Bearing in mind how many lies seem to be thrown about wildly nowadays, his views were prescient, trenchant and so very relevant.

Orwell made great company on a train journey from hell in December… Here we are in Ely Station waiting room… (at least it wasn’t snowing!)

“Orwell on Truth” draws quotations and extracts from a wide range of his works, starting with “Burmese Days” in 1934 up until his final masterwork “Nineteen Eighty Four”. All are startling, enlightening and bracing, showing for me what a unique thinker and commentator he was, and also how we’re missing someone of his stature nowadays. Interestingly, the extracts revealed the fact that there were recurring motifs in his work (the ‘boot in face’ one from “Nineteen Eighty Four” turned up surprisingly early in 1941).

Rather than go on and on about how brilliant Orwell was, I thought I would just share a few favourite quotes here; and if they encourage you to go and read him, so much the better. As Alan Johnson says in his pithy introduction, “Orwell’s writing brought clarity and an understanding of the dark and dangerous times we were living through” and I think that statement applies very much to today. I certainly found reading Owell helped my mind to settle and clarify, and as Christopher Hitchens said, he is still “vividly contemporary“. Orwell’s writing is always clear and pertinent, and I doubt we will see his like again.


The monied class can keep all the important ministerial and official jobs in its own hands, and it can work the electoral system in its own favour by bribing the electorate, directly or indirectly. Even when by some mischance a government representing the poorer classes gets into power, the rich can usually blackmail it… (1941)


One of the worst things about a democratic society in the last twenty years has been the difficulty of any straight talking or thinking. (1941)


If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of Socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. (1945)


It is not said often enough that a nation gets the newspapers it deserves… When the bulk of the press is owned by handful of people, one has not much choice… (1946)


Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. (1945)

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