By Lorcan Greene
‘The clock struck twelve. Gordon had stretched his legs straight out. The bed had grown warm and comfortable. The upturned beam of a car, somewhere in the street parallel to Willowbed Road, penetrated the blind and threw into silhouette a leaf of the aspidistra, shaped like Agamemnon’s sword.’
This passage, taken from the second chapter of Keep the Aspidistra Flying and set in a room whose model can still be found in modern-day Hampstead, resonates distinctly with the beginning of Orwell’s novel:
‘The clock struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr. McKechnie’s bookshop, Gordon – Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already – lounged across the table, pushing a four-penny packet of Player’s Weights open and shut with his thumb. The ding-dong of another, remoter clock – from the Prince of Wales, the other side of the street – rippled the stagnant air’.
This ‘remoter clock – from the Prince of Wales’ is still to be seen, at Hampstead’s South End Green, sited in the gable above the White Horse pub . The clock survives thanks to a public appeal launched in 1998 to fund its preservation.
The impoverished Comstock yearns for a drink there, when so strapped for cash he is unable to afford one; later in the novel, when his luck turns and he has a fifty dollar cheque from the Californian Review in ‘a stout blue envelope with an American stamp’ for a poem he had written, ‘he strolled into the Prince of Wales for a bite of food. A cut off the joint and two veg., one and twopence, a pint of pale ale ninepence, twenty Gold Flakes a shilling. Even after that extravagance he still had well over ten pounds in hand – or rather, well over five pounds. Beer-warmed he sat and meditated on the things you can do with five pounds.’
WARWICK MANSIONS, 37 POND STREET, N.W.3:
‘Mr. McKechnie’s bookshop’ was modelled on the second-hand bookshop ‘Booklovers’ Corner’, across the road from the pub and the clock (on the west side of South End Green), where Orwell worked and above which he lived for six months. It was Orwell’s aunt, Nellie Limouzin, who secured for him this first Hampstead job and residence: through her work in the Esperanto movement, she knew the owners of Booklovers’ Corner, Francis and Myfanwy Westrope. The couple also owned Flat 3 in Warwick Mansions (alias 37 Pond Street ), one of three apartments above the shop, each occupying a whole floor of the L-shaped block and accessed by a splendid wide internal staircase at the rear. It was in the top-floor flat where Orwell occupied a room from October 1934 to March 1935 free of rent (according to Bernard Crick’s George Orwell: a Life).
Orwell worked in the bookshop during the afternoons, leaving him free to spend mornings and evenings writing in his ‘dim furnished room with its view of the backs of the row of shops in South End Road’ (Stansky & Abrahams’ Orwell: the Transformation). In fact, the top floor of Warwick Mansions  would have offered Orwell some wonderful views: eastward, beyond the drinking-fountain on South End Green, and its tram (now bus) terminus to the east London skyline; and north towards the greenery of Hampstead Heath, rising beyond Keats Grove , a road featuring as ‘Coleridge Grove’ in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
BOOKLOVERS’ CORNER, 1 SOUTH END ROAD, N.W.3:
It was in his lodgings here that Orwell wrote much of Keep the Aspidistra Flying; he shared rooms with Jon Kimche – a future editor of the weekly magazine Tribune – and Kimche worked the morning shift in the shop. In a letter to Brenda Salkeld written from Booklovers’ Corner on 16 February 1935, Orwell wrote: ‘My time-table is as follows: 7am get up, dress etc., cook & eat breakfast. 8.45 go down & open up the shop, & I am usually kept there until about 9.45. Then come home, do out my room, light the fire etc. 10.30am – 1pm do some writing. 1pm get lunch & eat it. 2pm to 6.30pm I am at the shop. Then I come home, get my supper, do the washing up & after that sometimes do about an hour’s work.’ As reported by John Thompson in his Orwell’s London, the bookshop was described by one customer as ‘a gloomy cave of a place’, though it had an ‘exceptionally interesting stock’ according to Orwell himself. The best record of Orwell’s Booklovers’ Corner days is his short 1936 essay on the subject, aptly entitled Bookshop Memories .
No. 1 South End Road remained a bookshop until the mid-1950s and, indeed, Bernard Crick recounts having bought books there himself as a student, just after the Second World War. Since then, however, it has undergone a series of transmutations, becoming firstly the Prompt Corner Café, where for many years earnest patrons could be seen through plate-glass windows, enjoying a game of chess while drinking strong Greek/Turkish coffee. The café, sadly, closed in 1983, to become a takeaway pizza parlour named The Perfect Pizza. By 2007 it was one of the Hamburger Union outlets, before metamorphosing in 2009 into its present incarnation as a branch of the Belgian artisan bakery chain ‘Le Pain Quotidien’.
31 WILLOUGHBY ROAD N.W.3:
In the novel Comstock has a bed-sitting room at 31 Willowbed Road, N.W.; Orwell based this location upon Willoughby Road N.W.3. As Ed Glinert states in Literary London, ‘Both DH Lawrence and George Orwell had bad memories of this street with its tightly packed houses. Although a desirable address now, on account of the lack of redevelopment and the influx of money, the street and much of the area was quite shabby between the wars when Lawrence and Orwell knew it.’ According to Glinert, Lawrence had stayed at 30 Willoughby Road in 1926 when quite ill; it was his last visit to London.
Orwell wrote that ‘Willowbed Road, N.W., was not definitely slummy, only dingy and depressing. There were real slums hardly five minutes’ walk away…but Willowbed Road itself contrived to keep up a kind of mingy, lower-middle-class decency. There was even a dentist’s brass plate on one of the houses. In quite two-thirds of them, amid the lace curtains of the parlour window, there was a green card with “Apartments” on it in silver lettering, above the peeping foliage of an aspidistra.’ He describes the hallway of Number 31 as smelling of ’dishwater, cabbage, rag mats and bedroom slops.’ An estate agent currently values 31 Willoughby Road N.W.3 at a conservative £2,200,000.
One passage set in Willowbed Road stands out particularly for its treatment of the novel’s titular plant: ‘It was beastly cold. Gordon thought he would light the oil lamp. He lifted it – it felt very light; the spare oil can was also empty – no oil till Friday. He applied a match; a dull yellow flame crept unwillingly round the wick. It might burn for a couple of hours, with any luck. As Gordon threw away the match his eye fell upon the aspidistra in its grass-green pot. It was a peculiarly mangy specimen. It only had seven leaves and never seemed to put forth any new ones. Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the aspidistra. Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it – starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem, even mixing salt with its earth. But the beastly things are practically immortal. In almost any circumstances they can preserve a wilting, diseased existence. Gordon stood up and deliberately wiped his kerosiny fingers on the aspidistra leaves.’
KING OF BOHEMIA PUBLIC HOUSE:
The jolly Flaxman, Comstock’s fellow lodger, spends a lot of time in the Crichton Arms, or ‘Cri’ in its abbreviated form. This public house was based upon the King of Bohemia pub, 10 Hampstead High Street N.W.3, which is unfortunately no longer with us: it was closed in 2003 and turned into a retail outlet thereafter. In one exchange, where Comstock is entreated to visit the pub, Orwell writes:
‘Flaxman had reached the bottom of the stairs. He threw a roly-poly arm affectionately round Gordon’s shoulders.
“Cheer up, old man, cheer up! You look like a bloody funeral. I’m off down to the Crichton. Come on down and have a quick one.”
“I can’t. I have to work.”
“Oh, hell! Be matey, can’t you? What’s the good of mooning up here? Come on down to the Cri and we’ll pinch the barmaid’s bum.” – not a practise which would be looked favourably upon in any of the area’s modern drinkeries.
KEATS GROVE N.W.3:
Orwell would have been aware that on one celebrated occasion Coleridge and Keats had met on Millfield Lane, N.6 – also known as ‘Poets’ Lane’ – on the Highgate side of Hampstead Heath. It was the poets’ sole meeting. This chance encounter took place between 1818 and 1820, when Keats lived in Wentworth Place (subsequently Keats House) . Coleridge was the more senior and renowned, being twenty-four years older than Keats. The house and gardens inspired Keats to write On Melancholy and Ode to a Nightingale among other poems. Keats died in Rome in February 1821, aged 25. According to Keats’ friend Charles Brown he wrote Ode to a Nightingale under a plum tree in the garden, which still houses a Black Mulberry tree very likely to have been there in Keats’ day.
In Keep the Aspidistra Flying Comstock is invited by the critic Paul Doring, who lived in ‘Coleridge Grove’, to a literary tea-party:
‘Coleridge Grove was a damp, shadowy, secluded road, a blind alley and therefore void of traffic. Literary associations of the wrong kind (Coleridge was rumoured to have lived there for six weeks in the summer of 1821) hung heavy upon it. You could not look at its antique decaying houses, standing back from the road in dank gardens under heavy trees, without feeling an atmosphere of outmoded “culture” envelop you. In some of those houses, undoubtedly, Browning Societies still flourished, and ladies in art serge sat at the feet of extinct poets talking about Swinburne and Walter Pater. In spring the gardens were sprinkled with purple and yellow crocuses, and later with harebells, springing up in little Wendy rings among the anæmic grass; and even the trees, it seemed to Gordon, played up to their environment and twisted themselves into whimsy Rackhamesque attitudes. It was queer that a prosperous critic like Paul Doring should live in such a place. For Doring was an astonishingly bad critic.’
Ed Glinert suggests Doring is partly based upon the critic Geoffrey Grigson, editor of the New Verse poetry magazine, who lived at no. 4a Keats Grove in the 1930s.
SOUTH END GREEN PLAQUES:
There is a plaque at South End Green commemorating the writer’s time at Booklover’s Corner, paid for by private contributors (apparently including Margaret Drabble) and unveiled in 1969 on the site of the former bookshop by his second wife Sonia Brownell, by then remarried and divorced [7a]. Featuring a portrait head of Orwell, this plaque was replaced in 2001 by a near replica, funded by the South End Green Association and others [7b]. The unveiling ceremony involved Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair, the actress and then Labour MP Glenda Jackson, and the playwright Alan Plater (who wrote the screenplay for the 1997 film version of Keep the Aspidistra Flying). Sadly, however, in 2010 Orwell’s head portrait mysteriously disappeared from the plaque, leaving it quite literally defaced [7c]. Newspapers at the time speculated that it may have been vandalised, though in an email Richard Blair informed me that he believed ‘the one done in 2001 … was subject to corrosion’. Fortunately, in October 2014 the face was restored [7d], paid for by the Orwell Society.
In February 1935 Orwell left Warwick Mansions where he had written most of Keep the Aspidistra Flying; he took a room at 77 Parliament Hill NW3 , where he completed the novel. It was first published by Victor Gollancz Ltd. on 20 April 1936, eighty years ago this month.
If anyone would like to read more about Orwell’s time in the area please access this link: