Inspiring Older Readers
Coming Up For Air by George Orwell
Fat, forty and with a new set of false teeth, George Bowling is, in my estimation, one of George Orwell’s finest fictional creations. Living a humdrum lower middle-class life in suburbia, working as an insurance agent and married to the hare-like Hilda, Bowling looks at his life with a jaundiced eye as the world slips towards the Second World War.
When the novel opens we join Bowling considering what he might do with an unexpected win on the horses – he’s got £17 in his pocket and he hasn’t told his wife about it. As he goes about his life we see the world through his internal monologue and his meandering thoughts are oddly reminiscent of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom as he made his way around the streets of Dublin. Bowling’s mind flits from his win on the horses to his new false teeth and then to the shaving cream he’s left on his neck. He gloomily considers the looming certainty of war and the slaughter that will ensue before he heads into a milk bar, has a nasty encounter with a frankfurter sausage before he’s brought up short by a billboard plastered with news headlines.
The news of King Zog’s wedding acts on him like Proust’s famous madeleine, catapulting his thoughts back to his childhood in Lower Binfield – a small market town in Oxfordshire:
“But just at that moment a queer thing happened, King Zog’s name……had started memories in me…some chance sight or sound or smell, especially smell, sets you going and the past doesn’t merely come back to you, you’re actually in the past…I was back in the parish church at Lower Binfield, and it was thirty-eight years ago.”
Orwell conjures up George Bowling’s Edwardian childhood and youth with his usual unsentimental but undeniably nostalgic precision. It’s a world of failing small town shop keepers, young boys seeking whatever limited adventure they can find, learning life lessons from nature and, in Bowling’s case, falling in love with fishing. In fact young George falls more in love with the idea of fishing than he does with anything else – including girls.
In fact fishing becomes one of the key themes of the book. As a teenager Bowling gets access to, what becomes for him, the perfect, mythological pool of fish that have been left to grow to huge sizes in a forgotten and neglected part of Lower Binfield House’s grounds. He promises himself that he will get the right equipment and return to fish the pool – but, of course, for one reason and another he never does. But it is this vision of the ‘perfect’ fishing spot only he knows about that becomes grail-like in his mind – it symbolises everything that could be perfect in his life if only he can rediscover it.
When the First World War comes along, young George signs up and even in the midst of the terrors of trench warfare he finds himself still seeking for the perfect fishing pool – which again he thinks he’s found until he’s wounded and shipped back to Britain. He spends the rest of the war farcically guarding tins of corned beef that have been stockpiled against a potential invasion – and he never fishes again.
The issue of what the now grown-up George Bowling will do with his £17 windfall (that’s just over £1,000 at today’s value) is resolved when he’s motoring through the countryside on an uncharacteristically warm early spring day and he’s overwhelmed by the urge to go back to Lower Binfield and find the mythical pool of fish and finally try and catch some of them. He feels elated at the decision:
“The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and octopuses.”
As the reader knows – and as Bowling himself knows and knows we know – this is bound to end in disaster. What he’s searching for doesn’t exist and probably never existed. Lower Binfield could never stay locked in the amber of George’s memory – and so it proves. Everything has changed. The pool is gone. All that’s left of that Lower Binfield of the past are memories. You can’t go back, you can only go forward and the future on the eve of war is bleak – especially if you’re fighting for a modern world that, in any case, alienates you.
George knows he’s going to have to return home to his depressing wife and kids and that he’ll almost certainly be rumbled over the £17 he’s not told them about. His world is what he’s made of it and there’s no way to surface and swim free, no air to come up for and no future worth looking forward to. The past isn’t just a foreign country it’s a myth that only exists in your memory and there’s no sanctuary to be found there.
Orwell’s critics and admirers tend to be united in the view that his strengths as a writer were not in fiction. His novels are not, by and large, strong on character and his plotting is sometimes clunky to say the least. It’s also the case that his novels are pretty dismal in their outlook and they are obsessed with the grim and frequently depressing travails of the down-at-heel and down-at-spirit lower middle classes – which is true of this one, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying - or, they are dystopian political tracts like Animal Farm or 1984.
But in case you think they are all so miserable that you wouldn’t want to read them, I want to mention an aspect of Orwell’s skill as a novelist that is frequently overlooked – what I see as his unique sensibility that creates genuinely comic satirical moments and situations, albeit shot through with a very dark and sardonic humour. Orwell’s persona often seems austere and cerebral but his novels show a quite different person – someone who very much experienced the world through his senses and especially through smell and taste. He’s super-sensitive to the things that disgust him or make him physically uncomfortable and his attempts to write that down result in, what are for me at least, passages of prose that make me laugh out loud. It is, I admit, a very bitter humour informed by his disgust but it’s no accident I think that one of his literary heroes was Jonathan Swift who was possibly one of the finest writers to use satire as a way of finding the dark humour in disgust.
For me, Coming Up For Air, sees Orwell capitalising on this visceral, knowing, grizzly humour with the greatest aplomb. Right from the outset we get to know George Bowling by his attitude to his false teeth and the way they make him feel.
“..it struck me that nowadays I nearly always do have a morose kind of feeling in the early mornings, although I sleep well and my digestion is good. I knew what it was, of course – it was those bloody false teeth. The things were magnified by the water in the tumbler, and they were grinning at me like the teeth in a skull. It gives you a rotten feeling to have your gums meet, a sort of pinched-up, withered feeling like when you’ve bitten into a sour apple.”
He’s ‘Fatty Bowling’, physically uncomfortable, who has shaving soap on his neck:
“As I stepped out of the front door a nasty gust of wind caught the soapy patch on my neck and made me suddenly feel that my clothes didn’t fit and I was sticky all over.”
Later he goes into a ‘modern’ milk bar and buys himself a frankfurter:
“The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren’t much of a fit. I had to do a sort of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly – pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear.”
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that it tastes to him of fish. And somehow this ersatz food seems to sum up the path to perdition:
“It gave me the feeling I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of.”
Throughout the book Bowling’s engagement with the world is constantly mediated and controlled by things that disgust or disappoint. Even when he tries to think about the future, when he tries to engage with political ideas, he finds himself drifting to a semi-hallucinogenic state in which physicality of violence – the brutality of blood and bone being shattered by spanners in the face - dominates his response. When he attends a Left Book Club lecture in a drafty church hall, Bowling’s description of the event is something that will reappear again in 1984:
“It was a voice that sounded as if it could go on for a fortnight without stopping. It’s a ghastly thing, really, to have a sort of human barrel-organ shooting propaganda at you by the hour. The same thing over and over again. Hate, hate, hate. Let’s all get together and have a good hate.”
For me, although Orwell’s novels present themselves as straightforward exercises in social realism I prefer to think of him as a social satirist, a inheritor of the tradition stretching down from the 18th century and making him heir to world view that would have been shared by Swift and Pope. I don’t think any great satirists hated humanity but they were profoundly disappointed by it. I think that was true of Orwell too.