Sunday, 21 June 2009

Coming up for Air-George Orwell

Like most people, I had heard of George Orwell long before I had read any of his books. ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm' have achieved such fame that Orwell is known through them and associated with them from early age to anyone with the slightest interest in reading. So much so that it is easy to overlook the main body of his work, which, given its quality and importance (both to an understanding of the author, but also of the time in which he lived) would be a mistake.

‘Coming Up For Air’ was the last book that Orwell wrote before the second world war, and there is a pervasive, oppressive air of threat throughout the narrative that forebodes the great cataclysm that was to come. Written and set in nineteen thirty nine, it is the first person narrative of one George Bowling, a fat, middle aged insurance salesman (earning ‘five to ten quid a week’), trapped in a desperate life of suburban mundanity.

George is a family man, in hate with his wife and father to two children he could happily live without. He lives in the suburbs of London, on a road which he memorably describes as ‘A line of semi-detached torture-chambers where the little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and the wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches.’

The opening of the book thus sets the scene for the reader. George is appalled by the times he is living in, choking on them. Eating a revolting fish-flavoured frankfurter inspires him to sum up his feelings thus: ‘It gave me the feeling that I’d just bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else… Rotten fish in a rubber skin.’ George’s only hope and joy lies in his possession of the princely sum of seventeen pounds, won on the horses, and kept secret
from his wife, as he tries to decide how to spend it.

Orwell’s prose is electric in this section of the book. There is so much disgust for the pre-war world here that one has to wonder whether the words were written in bile rather than ink. Whether describing the slavery of a mortgage, or the tyranny of petty shop floor managers, Orwell hits his mark with deadly accuracy. In these early chapters are clearly visible the beginnings of the train of thought that would ultimately lead to ‘1984’.

In parenthesis, it is interesting that Orwell’s sympathy when he considers the evils of modernism seems to lie entirely with the middle classes. He writes: ‘There’s a lot of rot talked about the suffering of the working class. I’m not so sorry for the proles myself. Did you ever know of a navvy who lay awake thinking about the sack?’ As in ‘1984’, the author seems to be thinking of the poorer classes as a vast herd of cows, contentedly chewing the cud, never having the imagination to see the bleakness of their lives. It’s certainly a harsh judgement, and perhaps a surprising one, when one considers Orwell’s experiences on the bread line as a 'plongeur' in Paris, as described in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. However, I recall a line from that book where Orwell says of his desperate circumstances: ‘One talks so often of going to the dogs. And here are the dogs, and you are among them, and you can bear it. It takes off a lot of anxiety’. For Orwell, the physical hardships of the poor are lesser evils than what he sees as the hopelessness of the middle class. Having never been to the dogs I can’t truly say if I agree or not, but I don’t think I do.

Inevitably, from his sickness with the present, George Bowling seeks escape in nostalgic reflection. A newspaper headline propels his mind back into the past as he remembers his childhood i
n the town of Lower Binfield. Orwell’s pen suddenly runs out of venom, and colour an warmth flow into the world of the past he describes. Part one of the book ends as George muses ‘Is it gone forever? I’m not certain. But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you.’

In the following chapters Orwell describes the world Bowling comes from. I don’t know how much of this section of the book is autobiographical, I suspect not that much of it, as what I know of Orwell’s life does not tally with the reminiscences of George Bowling. However, the result is never less than believable. And while the author is more renowned for the savage satire of his later books, he manages to paint a picture of the past that seems nostalgic, but without succumbing to the temptation to give soft focus and rose tint.

I think the reason that he is successful in this is that Orwell is charting what he sees as a sea change in the way life was lived that took place very early this century. It is easy to cynically dismiss nostalgia as a failure of the ageing to keep up with modern life, but I think that it would be a mistake to classify this part of the book in that way. It strikes me that what in this case the author is describing is the birth of the modern era. The beginning of a time when to simply subsist was no longer enough, when competition began to destroy livelihoods that had supported families for generations, when people learned to strive. Orwell takes as a powerful example George Bowling’s father, a seed merchant, who watches in bewilderment as his business slowly starts to fail, destroyed by competition as market forces reach even to this countryside idyll. ‘None of us had any grasp of what was happening. Father had had a bad year and had lost money, but was he really frightened by the future? I don’t think so. This was 1909, remember. He didn’t know what was happening to him. He wa
sn’t capable of seeing that these Sarazin people would systematically undersell him, ruin him, and eat him up. How could he? Things hadn’t happened like that when he was a young man.’

Bowling describes his formative years in detail, his hobbies and day to day life. We learn that his passion used to be fishing, (most apt, for a man who would grow to spend life floundering on the end of a hook) and he recalls a lost pool in a forest near to his home town, where swam the most enormous, beautiful fish a fisherman could dream of. Spurred by this reflection he decides to spend his seventeen pounds on a trip back to the village he grew up in, to spend a week there, to fish in the pool, to get back his nerve ‘before the bad times begin’. In short, on coming up for air.

What he finds in Lower Binfield on his return I will leave to the reader to discover, but suffice to say that Orwell clearly did not believe that the clock could ever really be turned back. Perhaps it was the impending war, perhaps just a general and genuine horror of the modern way of life, but Orwell clearly felt at this stage of his life that civilisation was leading mankind to ruin. In another passage that can be seen as a precursor to the thinking in ‘1984’, Bowling attends a lecture given in which he watches an anti-fascist speaker, himself driven by hatred and a burning desire to smash faces, ‘trying to work up hatred in the audience’. And as some of the audience are drawn in, George realises ‘They’re the long sighted ones, the first rats to spot that the ship is sinking. Quick, quick! The fascists are coming! Spanners ready, boys! Smash others or they’ll smash you. So terrified of the future that we’re jumping straight into it like a rabbit diving down a boa constrictor’s throat.’

That after the war Orwell wrote ‘1984’ would seem to indicate that it wasn’t just the imp
ending conflict that made the author feel so bleak. Orwell’s nightmare of the future of mankind was that fear, the fear engendered by the way we modernists live, and the hatred that inevitably grows to help us bear that fear, will drive those who should know better to extremes of barbarism and evil, as personified by the rule of Big Brother. Needless to say the herds of unthinking proles will be drawn along, without protest. Thank goodness that so far it has not come to pass.

To finish, then, ‘Coming Up For Air’, while in no wise a cheery novel, remains worth reading for any number of reasons. I would recommend it to anyone who has read ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ as a fascinating insight into the development of Orwell’s ideas. For anyone else I’d recommend it as a superbly written account of a man’s life, as an insight into the psychology and mood of the world as it is dragged inexorably toward war, and as a meditation on the dawn of the age in which we live.


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