In the mid-1930s George Orwell, who was still being published under his birth name of Eric or E.A. Blair, was able to move slowly from a series of ill-paid teaching posts towards the literary life he wanted. A period working in a bookshop in Hampstead, in north London, was part of that transition.
In November 1936, Orwell published his essay “Bookshop Memories”. Now, in another November, Ron Bateman discusses Orwell’s literary life and time.
Of Paranoiacs & Dead Bluebottles
Bookshop memories 1934-36
From October 1934 until January 1936 George Orwell was employed as a sales assistant in a bookshop known as Booklover’s Corner, situated on the junction of South End Rd and Pond Street in Hampstead, London. His essay Bookshop Memories represents his recollections of the job that his Aunt Nellie Limouzin had recommended him for to her friends Francis and Myfanwe Westrope who were the proprietors. It was a perfect arrangement for Orwell as he was offered a room rent-free at Warwick Gardens in the same block as the premises, and aside from opening the shop at 9:30am, he only had to work afternoons from 2:00 until 6:30, leaving him plenty of time for writing.
Biographers have tended to view this fifteen months as a critical period in Orwell’s progression as a writer, with many of them devoting a whole chapter to his ‘bookshop days’. During that time, A Clergyman’s Daughter was published, the UK edition of Burmese Days was finally published, and he was able to write his third novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying during the hours when he was not working in the store. It was also during this time – March 1935 to be exact, that he met Eileen O’Shaughnessy whom he would marry the following year in June 1936. It has also been suggested that during this period he began, on occasions, to introduce himself as Mr Orwell (Sheldon 1991).
Booklovers Corner, the owner’s name, Francis Westrope, appears above the door
It is likely that the essay that became Bookshop Memories was included in a collection of essays that Orwell had originally planned to submit as his fourth book. Later, when he reviewed the material he indicated his literary agent Leonard Moore that he had decided to work the material contained in the essays into a novel that he would in due course submit as Keep the Aspidistra Flying (CW, X, p387). One can only guess that Orwell cherry-picked the essay to describe the bookstore in which the novel’s chief character Gordon Comstock worked under the proprietorship of Mr McKechnie. Orwell later submitted it to the magazine Fortnightly Review who published it in November 1936. It is tempting to believe this course of events because so many of the same components are there – the two rooms, one for used books, another as a lending library, and there is also the constant irritation of the ‘decayed salesman smelling of old bread-crusts trying to sell you worthless books’. Additionally, the first-edition snob, the book-pincher, the horrible book-dust – everything except the ‘dead bluebottles on the tops of books’ seems to make an earlier appearance in the novel. It has also been claimed that Orwell goes as far as to endow Comstock with aspects of his own consciousness (Williams 1971), for the descriptions of customers who enter the shop are clearly not the descriptions of an objective third-person narrator. More than one former customer of Booklover’s Corner has testified that the shop in which Orwell worked was a far more pleasant place than the one he created for his novel (Taylor 2003), an indication that Orwell’s account had been furnished with a good deal of exaggeration. This didn’t stop his publisher Victor Gollancz and his legal advisor from raising concerns, requiring Orwell to counter that McKechnie was nothing like Francis Westrope, and that even if he was that he could easily get Westrope to provide a written undertaking that he wouldn’t take legal action (Davison 1996).
Booklovers Corner as it appears today
While Orwell worked on his novel in the mornings, the shop was staffed by Jon Kimche who later went out to visit Orwell in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, and also worked with him at Tribune in future years. I have long been amused by Kimche’s favourite recollection of Orwell in those bookshop days as ‘a tall imposing figure standing in the centre of the shop looking down at a small boy buying stamps’ (Sheldon 1991). This is probably because as a small boy, I was myself one of Orwell’s ‘strange, silent, fish-like breed’ who also found a certain pleasure in ‘gumming bits of coloured paper into albums’. Orwell is quick to point out that women seem to be totally immune from this fascination, stating that ‘they fail to see the charm’ which I think is very true. One also forms the impression that, although he did his job well, Orwell soldiered-on through his working hours in a mood of frustration and could never really relax; Jon Kimche observed that he never once saw him sit (Taylor 2003).
Orwell’s observations on the customers were cutting to put it mildly – describing them as ‘paranoiacs’ and ‘not quite certifiable lunatics’ being afforded a special opportunity inside a bookshop to become a nuisance. ‘Most of them’ he tells us came in because it was ‘the one place they could enter and hang around for a long time without spending any money’, even going so far as to order books they had no intention of buying ‘to give themselves the illusion of spending money’. Orwell reserved the hottest coals for the customers who frequented the lending library where you discover peoples ‘real tastes’, particularly the men gorging on detective stories. Here, we are treated to an example of the extent to which Orwell’s cynicism could reach. He calculated that one customer’s detective-story addiction amounted to such ‘a frightful torrent of trash’ that the pages he read in just one year would cover three-quarters of an acre. The classics, he noticed, were never taken out and that people shied away from nineteenth century novels; Dickens, for example, was forever cast aside as old. It was something people are ‘always meaning to read’ but never do, yet they ‘know all the characters by hearsay – rather like The Bible.’ The rarity of what he described as ‘bookish people’ coming into the store was something that clearly disappointed Orwell. As far as he was concerned, the store was forever infested with time-wasters and people with little or no idea of what they were actually looking for.
Whether it was the irritating customers or his anxiousness to plough-on with his novel that stoked his frustration we can’t know, the one thing we do know from his time working in the bookshop was that Orwell often complained that he never had enough money. There was little money for new clothes, nights out or other ‘luxuries’, Rayner Heppenstall remembered that he always wore the same baggy grey flannel trousers, a leather-elbowed sports coat, a khaki or green shirt and a pale, hairy tie (Coppard & Crick 1984). It is not easy to estimate Orwell’s total combined earnings from this period. He would not have made much from working as a sales assistant in a bookshop, while his earnings from writing and the occasional lecture probably amounted to little more than £60 (CW, X, p404). This leads us to refer again to ‘Aspidistra’ and the extent to which Orwell vents his frustration through Gordon Comstock. Orwell endows Comstock with an acute sense of personal failure and sketches a man who convinces himself that the root of all his problems comes down to money – the hopelessness of ‘having to live on two quid a week’. Comstock’s employment not only embodies the most repellent aspects of working in Booklover’s Corner, it also condemns him to financial embarrassment even when his own meagre earnings from writing poetry are taken into consideration.
Orwell struck-up friendships with at least two young women who frequented the shop, firstly with Sally Jerome who ultimately rebuffed his advances, and then with a bookish girl known at the time as Kay Welton who became a casual girlfriend of his up until the time he met Eileen. With only his dingy bed-sit and meagre earnings, his dates with his girlfriends amounted almost exclusively to long country walks. His friend the author Anthony Powell remembers Orwell reflecting on his money troubles of the difficult years and firing off the question “have you ever had a woman in the park? – I was forced to, – nowhere else to go!” (Lewis 1981). Interestingly, Kay Welton later refuted his claims of being broke, asserting that he was not as badly off as he always claimed, and that he always insisted on paying for their meals (Coppard & Crick 1984). He had also moved from Warwick Mansions to a much more pleasant flat at 77 Parliament Hill, and his wages had been adjusted upwards to take his additional expenses into account (Stansky & Abrahams 1979). One can equate this constant complaining to Gordon Comstock’s mood of hopelessness as he attempts to seduce Rosemary ‘with only eight-pence in his pocket’. Orwell conceded to George Woodcock in later years that Keep the Aspidistra Flying along with his second novel A Clergyman’s Daughter were written simply as an exercise and would not have been published had he not been so desperate for money, – ‘at that time I hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in £100 or so’ (CW, XIII, p411).
The former Booklovers Corner remains of interest to all of Orwell’s readers. Here Michael King, Orwell Society member and guide to Orwell’s London, speaks. To the left of the doorway the Orwell memorial plaque can be seen.
One of the more striking observations in Bookshop Memories is its author’s awareness at around Christmastime of the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment was exploited. We tend to view the over-commercialisation of Christmas as being a modern phenomenon, and yet this was the mid-nineteen-thirties and as early as June the Christmas-card salesmen were already hawking their wares around the London bookshops. A phrase from one of their invoices stuck in Orwell’s memory – “2 doz infant Jesus with rabbits”.
Towards the end of the essay, Orwell concedes that working in a bookshop killed his love of books. We know this is not strictly true, as Orwell’s reading lists were impressive in length right up until the year he died. Additionally, in an autobiographical note from 1940 he admitted that he found the work ‘interesting’, – with the only detestable aspect being ‘that it condemned him to live in London (CW, XII, p147). It is probably fairer to say that the sight of over-crowded bookshelves that once excited him now appeared less appealing to him, and he became much more selective when it came to buying books – only the ones he actually wanted to read. That rush of pleasure he had always experienced when acquiring a ‘job-lot’ of old books for a shilling at a country auction was something he could no longer feel.
Uploaded November 11 2017
Coppard A, Crick B. 1984. Orwell Remembered, Ariel Books/BBC, London. pp101, 108.
CW – The Complete Works of George Orwell. Edited by Peter Davison. 1998. Secker & Warburg, London. (Volume and page numbers in text)
Davison. P. 1996. George Orwell: A Literary Life. St Martin’s Press, New York pp59
Lewis. P. 1981. George Orwell: The Road to 1984, Heinemann, London. pp47
Orwell. G. 1936 Bookshop Memories, The Complete Works Vol X, Secker & Warburg, London (1998) pp510-513.
Shelden. M. 1991. Orwell: The Authorised Biography, Heinemann, London. pp212-215
Stansky. P. Abrahams.W. 1979. Orwell: The Transformation. Constable, London (1994 ed) pp77
Taylor.D. J. 2003. Orwell: The Life. Chatto & Windus, London. pp 148-149.
Williams. R. 1971. Orwell. Flamingo, London. (1984 ed) pp48