George Orwell on writing, poverty, and the comfort of tea

This is a companion piece to George Orwell on Tea, in which the circumstances are less ideal. Gordon Comstock, impoverished poet, makes a forbidden cup of tea in his boarding house.

When he went back to his room the oil lamp had got going, more or less. It was hot enough to boil a kettle by, he thought. And now for the great event of the evening–his illicit cup of tea. He made himself a cup of tea almost every night, in the deadliest secrecy. Mrs Wisbeach refused to give her lodgers tea with their supper, because she ‘couldn’t be bothered with hotting up extra water’, but at the same time making tea in your bedroom was strictly forbidden. Gordon looked with disgust at the muddled papers on the table. He told himself defiantly that he wasn’t going to do any work tonight. He would have a cup of tea and smoke up his remaining cigarettes, and read King Lear or Sherlock Holmes. His books were on the mantelpiece beside the alarm clock–Shakespeare in the Everyman edition, Sherlock Holmes, Villon’s poems, Roderick Random, Les Fleurs du Mal, a pile of French novels. But he read nothing nowadays, except Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, that cup of tea.

Gordon went to the door, pushed it ajar, and listened. No sound of Mrs Wisbeach. You had to be very careful; she was quite capable of sneaking upstairs and catching you in the act. This tea-making was the major household offence, next to bringing a woman in. Quietly he bolted the door, dragged his cheap suitcase from under the bed, and unlocked it. From it he extracted a sixpenny Woolworth’s kettle, a packet of Lyons’ tea, a tin of condensed milk, a tea-pot, and a cup. They were all packed in newspaper to prevent them from chinking.

He had his regular procedure for making tea. First he half filled the kettle with water from the jug and set it on the oil stove. Then he knelt down and spread out a piece of newspaper. Yesterday’s tea-leaves were still in the pot, of course. He shook them out on to the newspaper, cleaned out the pot with his thumb and folded the leaves into a bundle. Presently he would smuggle them downstairs. That was always the most risky part–getting rid of the used tea-leaves. It was like the difficulty murderers have in disposing of the body. As for the cup, he always washed it in his hand basin in the morning. A squalid business. It sickened him, sometimes. It was queer how furtively you had to live in Mrs Wisbeach’s house. You had the feeling that she was always watching you; and indeed, she was given to tiptoeing up and downstairs at all hours, in hope of catching the lodgers up to mischief. It was one of those houses where you cannot even go to the W.C. in peace because of the feeling that somebody is listening to you.

Gordon unbolted the door again and listened intently. No one stirring. Ah! A clatter of crockery far below. Mrs Wisbeach was washing up the supper things. Probably safe to go down, then.

He tiptoed down, clutching the damp bundle of tea-leaves against his breast. The W.C. was on the second floor. At the angle of the stairs he halted, listened a moment longer. Ah! Another clatter of crockery.

All clear! Gordon Comstock, poet (‘of exceptional promise’, The Times Lit. Supp. had said), hurriedly slipped into the W.C., flung his tea-leaves down the waste-pipe, and pulled the plug. Then he hurried back to his room, rebolted the door, and, with precautions against noise, brewed himself a fresh pot of tea.

– From Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell.

8 thoughts on “George Orwell on writing, poverty, and the comfort of tea

  1. Nice excerpt. Have boarding houses gone the way of baths on Sunday night, which is what I was offered in a boarding house in London in the swinging 60s? No wonder we used to send up the Poms! Affectionately, of course. Some of my best friends…

    • I suspect they have, and good riddance if the likes of Mrs Wisbeach have gone with them. Boarding house landladies were a staple of music hall comics, who actually did suffer from them on tour.

      “You’ll not need an alarm clock. You’ll hear me scraping the toast!”

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