© Penguin Books
A couple of years ago something piqued my curiosity about George Orwell’s lesser known novels and since then I’ve been working my way through them. I’ve read Burmese Days (1934), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and most recently Coming Up for Air (1939). I’ve found them surprisingly good. The worlds they depict may not be as iconic as those of Orwell’s two post-war triumphs, Manor Farm in Animal Farm (1945) and Airstrip One in 1984 (1949). But they ooze with as much vivid and sordid detail as the non-fiction books he wrote during the 1930s, which are better remembered today – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Homage to Catalonia (1938). Also, they convey similar frustration and despair, their imaginary characters being as much victims of circumstances as the real characters Orwell encountered whilst travelling and researching his non-fiction.
Coming Up for Air, written on the cusp of World War II, maintains the high standard. Its narrator is George Bowling, a 45-year-old insurance salesman whose exterior is at odds with his interior. Superficially, he’s “an active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party”. Inside, though, he’s suffering what in modern parlance would be called a mid-life crisis – one coinciding with his acquisition of a new set of dentures, which informs the novel’s opening line: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.”
But Bowling’s discontent is fuelled by more than his sense of physical decay. He’s stuck in a little house in one of the countless streets that “fester all over the inner-outer suburbs”, mortgaged to the hilt by something called the Cheerful Credit Building Society. “Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times,” he broods. “My own line, insurance, is a swindle I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table.” He shares the house with two noisy offspring – “Two kids in a home the size of ours is like a quart of beer in a pint mug” – and a shrewish wife called Hilda. “Butter is going up, and the gas-bill is enormous, and the kids’ boots are wearing out and there’s another instalment due on the radio – that’s Hilda’s litany.”
To escape from this, Bowling immerses himself in the past and the book’s central section has him recounting his life-story, especially his boyhood in an Oxfordshire market town called Lower Binfield, “in a bit of a valley, with a low ripple of hills between itself and the Thames, and higher hills behind.” Thus, he grew up within a stone’s throw of the countryside and it’s his antics there with his young mates – cycling, swimming, ferreting, stealing birds’ eggs, ice-skating in winter – that he recalls most fondly.
But fishing was his main passion as a boy. “It’s queer, the feeling I had for fishing – and still have, really. I can’t call myself a fisherman. I’ve never in my life caught a fish two feet long, and it’s thirty years now since I had a rod in my hands. And yet when I look back the whole of my boyhood from eight to fifteen seems to have revolved round the days when we went fishing.” And the memory that haunts him most of all is of visiting Binfield Manor, an estate overlooking the town, and discovering a pool hidden away behind a dense screen of bushes and tree-boughs. Populating this pool were some huge carp. “A pool gets forgotten somehow, nobody fishes in it for years and decades and the fish grow to monstrous sizes.”
The idea Bowling has at the book’s start is to sneak away for a few days – pretending to his unsympathetic wife that he’s making a work-trip. He’ll return to Lower Binfield for the first time in decades, buy a fishing rod and fish in the secret pool. The final third of the book describes what Bowling finds when he gets there. Predictably, things have changed and not for the better.
Orwell’s account of Bowling’s early life in Lower Binfield is engrossing. By a coincidence, a few months earlier, I’d read Cider with Rosie (1959), Laurie Lee’s memoir of growing up in a Cotswolds village in the 1920s. It’s fun to compare Lee’s famously lyrical and nostalgic work with Coming Up for Air and the more hard-headed approach Orwell takes in it. “It’s not like I’m trying to put across any of that poetry of childhood stuff. I know that’s all baloney… The truth is that kids aren’t in any way poetic, they’re merely savage little animals, except that no animal is as a quarter as selfish.” Orwell illustrates this with a few examples, most graphically: “We used to catch toads, ram the nozzle of a bicycle pump up their backsides and blow them up till they burst. That’s what boys are like. I don’t know why.” (To be fair to Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie is darker than it usually gets credit for. At one point it has the villagers closing ranks and hiding the identity of a murderer. At another it has a gang of boys plotting to rape a girl in the woods.)
But it’s not just the past that’s on Bowling’s mind. He’s conscious of the future too, a future that’s ominously symbolised at the beginning of the book by a low-flying bomber he notices from his train-window. A cataclysmic new war is on its way. “I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loudspeakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners…” he ruminates. “I can see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine guns squirting out of bedroom windows.”
Later, he wonders, “what’ll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England? The truth is it probably won’t make the slightest difference… the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as usual. And yet it frightens me – I tell you it frightens me.” Bowling sees not just war ahead but, riding on its coat-tails, the nightmare of totalitarianism. Indeed, Coming Up for Air feels at times like a precursor to 1984. Possibly, in the alternative historical timeline of 1984, Bowling survived to the 1960s, after the atomic wars and Britain’s absorption into the super-state of Oceania. Though I suspect that he’d have been sensible enough to discard his lower middle-class trappings and disappear into the ranks of the Proles.
Unfortunately, this theme causes Coming Up for Air’s one misstep. Near the end, Orwell describes a traumatic incident in the new, not-necessarily-improved Lower Binfield, which serves both to highlight again the inevitability of war and to convince Bowling that it’s time to abandon the past and return home. But the incident feels unlikely and contrived. For me, it makes the book fall a little short of perfection.
But generally it’s an excellent read. What’s striking about it today are Orwell’s rueful observations about the injustices of the economic system in pre-World War II Britain. For instance, Bowling is a prisoner of his mortgage (“we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them. They’re not freehold, only leasehold”); and he recalls how his father’s seed-shop in Lower Binfield was gradually squeezed out of existence by a bigger, better-resourced rival called Sarazins’ (“the big retail seedsmen who had branches all over the home county”). Such details sound depressingly familiar. They’re reminders that cutthroat, laissez-faire capitalism didn’t just begin at the end of the 1970s when neoliberals like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power. In this respect, Coming Up for Air feels uncomfortably closer to 2016 than it does to 1984.
And now for A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935)…
© Ralph Steadman / New Statesman