I couldn't remember. It was not in this book. It wasn't as if I had read Wake in Fright once before and then forgotten. I've heard of people reading the same book years apart and not realising until the end, if at all.
Nor had I met John Grant in anything like this Tim Storrier landscape where
Eventually the sun relinquished its torturing hold and the plains became brown and purple and gold and then black as the sky was pierced by a million bursts of flickering light from dispassionate worlds unthinkable distances apart.Kenneth Cook paints landscape pictures like few other writers. I kept reading. It was midnight.
It hit me at four in the morning. I was dreaming. I was on a train rushing across a flat treeless plain when it screamed to a stop in an oasis of green, scattering potted plants everywhere. The plants were aspidistras. I woke suddenly and sat up in bed.
John Grant is Gordon Comstock.
Gordon Comstock is the petulant hero of George Orwell's semi-autobiographical 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. While the Australian outback and London couldn’t be farther apart, Wake in Fright and Keep the Aspidistra Flying play out eerily similar stories on their vastly different stages.
Later that day I dragged out my old copy of Keep the Aspidistra Flying from its untidy shelf underneath about a hundred cooking books, some old diaries and a mildewed copy of Farewell My Lovely that I left out in the rain one summer night a few years ago.
I started reading the Orwell again.
Comstock's downward spiral finds him obsessively counting his dwindling cigarette supplies and money:
He was perishing for a smoke. However, there were only four cigarettes left. Today was Wednesday and he had no money coming to him until Friday. ... The money clinked in his trouser pocket as he got up. He knew the precise sum that was there. Five pence halfpenny.(Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Page 1, Penguin)
Grant, in Wake in Fright, does the same:
... The first cigarette, the first of eleven that were left in his last packet, and all that a search of his pockets had produced was two shillings and sevenpence. ...(Wake in Fright, Page 56, Penguin)
Soon, Comstock is reduced to pawning:
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 ...(53)
As is Grant:
Could he sell anything? Only his clothes and there did not seem much of a market for second-hand clothes. His watch was battered and old and worth a few shillings at most, and besides he knew of nothing that approached a pawn shop in the city.(59)
Petulant Comstock unfairly suggests the affections of his girlfriend are dependent on his wealth. He tells Rosemary:
"Money’s got to do with everything. If I had more money you'd love me more."(25)
Grant is similarly unreasonable:
But then Robyn was more used to money than he, and might not be so impressed at the idea of three hundred and forty pounds.(47)
Bar scenes abound. Comstock opens the door of the pub:
The saloon bar was crowded ... One elbow on the bar, his foot on the stool, a beer-streaked glass in the other hand, he was swapping backchat with the blonde cutie barmaid. ... The warm fog of smoke and beer slipped through the crack. A familiar, reviving smell ...(81)
Grant finds similar revival half a world away and several decades apart:
He leaned on the bar with his left elbow so that he could feel the scar by resting his head on his hand. In his right hand he held a glass of beer. ... He looked around at the drinking men, and the sweating barmaid in the smoky fug of the bar. A vivid joyousness quickened in him simply at being there, alive...(203)
Finally, Comstock is homeless:
He was three days and four nights in the street.(53)
As is Grant:
Grant looked at the barren heaps of worked-out earth as possibly being where he would spend the nights for the next six weeks.(60)
Comstock wants a job:
All this time he searched desperately for work.(54)
As does Grant:
The only possibility seemed to be to find some sort of work in Bundanyabba... If he could find a job in a shop, or an office ...(58)
But in vain. Comstock scrounges:
But now, of course, there was no job to be had. For months he lived by cadging on the family.(54)
No family nearby for Grant, so Tim Hynes buys his drinks before taking him home for dinner and free board:
At first Grant kept trying to bring the conversation around to his chances of getting work in Bundanyabba, but that only set Hynes off on the imponderability of Grant’s not being a Buff, and Grant couldn’t stand it. So Grant, who soon didn’t care much anyway, just gave himself up to drinking.(68)
Then, the morning after Comstock’s night of drunkenness:
He perceived that he was lying on his side, with a hard smooth pillow under his cheek and a coarse blanket scratching his chin and pushing its hairs into his mouth. Apart from the minor pains that stabbed him every time he moved, there was a large, dull sort of pain which was not localized but which seemed to hover all over him. Suddenly he flung off the blanket and sat up.(198)
Grant wakes after a similar night culminating, as it had for Comstock, in a failed sexual encounter:
He was lying on a stretcher. Thirst was ploughing furrows in his throat. His head hurt and hurt and hurt. Where the devil was he? He stood up and swayed as pain swilled around inside his skull.(90)
A turning point. Comstock's realisation of his obduracy:
Gordon was sinking effortless into grey, deadly failure. He seemed to want to sink.(240)
Grant sees the light:
It was as though he had deliberately set out destroying himself.(181)
Finally, redemption for both. Comstock understands:
Yet it was foredoomed that he should come back, and he had known it even then.(265)
As does Grant, although he can't think why he should be saved:
Then he thought, almost aloud:(204)
I can see quite clearly the ingenuity whereby a man may be made mean or great by exactly the same circumstances.
I can see quite clearly that even if he chooses meanness the things he brings about can even then be welded into a pattern of sanity for him to take advantage of if he wishes.
'What I can't altogether see' – he turned his eyes from the stars to the blackness of the plains and back to the stars again – 'What I can’t altogether see is why I should be permitted to be alive, and to know these things...'
My conclusion? There isn’t one. I'm not suggesting plagiarism. Far from it. The whole thing is a coincidence. Writers have always been inspired by other writers and stories; and cautionary tales such as these have a million precedents.
It’s just that, for years, I had been vaguely troubled by that Wake in Fright title. Its format and style seemed slightly out of place with its contemporaries. Why the verb phrase title? Well, why not? Orwell's book has one. And is that a touch of alliteration with the title of Orwell's book, when you repeat them together? Fright and flying. Rosemary and Robyn.
I'm just imagining it.
But come to think of it (and now we are stretching things, but why not?) I have noticed that all of the letters of Wake in Fright - if we allow the initial ‘W’ to fall deferentially out of ‘Orwell’, are contained very neatly within Keep the Aspidistra Flying.