Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. 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 the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I 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. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the 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? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell (1936)

The types he saw all round him, especially the older men, made him squirm. That was what it meant to worship the money-god! To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra! To turn into the typical little bowler-hatted sneak — Strube’s ‘little man’— the little docile cit who slips home by the six-fifteen to a supper of cottage pie and stewed tinned pears, half an hour’s listening-in to the B. B. C. Symphony Concert, and then perhaps a spot of licit sexual intercourse if his wife ‘feels in the mood’! What a fate! No, it isn’t like that that one was meant to live. One’s got to get right out of it, out of the money-stink. (p.51)

In Orwell’s previous novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, the seducing cad, Warburton, cynically suggests to the naive young Dorothy that money makes the world go round; in fact, he suggests that the famous chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians should be brought up to date with the word ‘money’ replacing ‘charity’. One year later this novel was published and its epigraph satirically does exactly what Warburton had suggested.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing. Money suffereth long, and is kind; money envieth not; money vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things…  And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.

This weak, unsubtle gag accurately summarises Keep The Aspidistra Flying which is the unremittingly dingy, depressed and ultimately monotonous story of short, miserable, failed poet Gordon Comstock who is obsessed with money and his lack of it.

Gordon Comstock

Gordon is 28 and works in a grimy second-hand bookshop in a seedy part of north-west London. He seethes with resentment against his miserable fate, resentment he takes out in the form of withering satire on his customers, the wretched adverts on hoardings opposite the shop, the weather, London, the depressing spirit of the times, everything. Everything – his clothes, the shop, the boos, the street, the customers, the boarding house, the landlady, the other lodgers – everything, seen through his eyes, is seedy, run-down, grimy, filthy, mangy, mildewed and manky.

Orwell pays minute attention to every humiliating aspect of Gordon’s shabby, poverty-stricken little existence. He takes two pages to describe the lengths Gordon has to go to in order to make a cup of tea in his own room (a practice banned by the landlady) which includes sneaking downstairs to the privy to flush away yesterday’s tea leaves, and heating the water on his room’s wretchedly underpowered gas ring.

Orwell takes a sadistic glee in rubbing the reader’s face in Gordon’s all-conquering sense of failure and the sordid practicalities of his existence. The squalor, the shame and the thousand petty humiliations of a) living on the edge of poverty b) being a wretched failed poet, are drilled home on page after page.

Of the half dozen I’ve read, this is Orwell’s least interesting book: the subject of being a failed writer in London is extremely clichéd, and Gordon’s diatribes, either in his own head or to anyone who will listen, are above all very repetitive; by page 100 they’re just boring.

So this is not such a good book to read as the splendidly descriptive Burmese Days or the experimental and reportage-filled Clergyman’s Daughter.

The plot

Second hand books We’re introduced to Gordon, rotting and miserable in the dingy second-hand bookshop. He takes the mickey out of the customers. He goes home to his dingy miserable boarding house and makes a secret cup of tea. He reminisces about his large and hopeless middle-class family of losers, the wretched Comstocks. He traipses north to a literary party which turns out to have been cancelled to his vast chagrin, so he ends up walking all over London, looking wistfully into pubs and lustfully at passing girls and feeling immensely sorry for himself.

Back story He reminisces about his miserable time at private school where he was mocked for his genteel poverty. Then his time at an advertising agency where he turned out to be good at copywriting but despised himself for being in on the ‘great money-scam’, ‘worshiping the money god’ etc. This is all below Gordon who considers making money sordid and disreputable. So, to the despair of his hard-up family, he quits this excellent job to work in the bookshop out of some misguided wish for moral purity. What an arse.

Ravelston Gordon goes for a few beers in a squalid pub with his rich friend, the magazine editor and champagne socialist, Philip Ravelston. Gordon spends the entire time moaning about how miserable life is on a measly two quid a week, never having enough money to eat properly, to go out, to make friends and contacts, never having the peace of mind to write blah blah blah. The trouble is – we know the problem is entirely of his own making. The kindly owner of the advertising agency made it clear that Gordon can go back any time he wants to. It is obstinate to the point of imbecility to make himself and everyone around him so miserable.

Rosemary He has a girlfriend, the diminutive but tough Rosemary Waterlow. They meet for a walk (Gordon’s landlady won’t allow young women to even enter the hallway). This descends into another long bitter rant against his poverty by Gordon, combined with the bitter accusation that, after two years of going out, she still hasn’t let him sleep with her. The third-person narrator attributes this refusal to her upbringing in a big happy rambunctious family. Rosemary wants to preserve her happy sexless girlhood for as long as possible. She is ‘fond’ of Gordon and wants to mother him etc but can’t bring herself to say yes. He, for his part, is tormented by frustrated lust: it is all he can think of half the time, and all twisted up by the thought that it is essentially his poverty which prevents them either getting married or even being able to afford a hotel to have sex in.

No sex please, we’re British Gordon and Rosemary go on a set-piece outing to Burnham Beeches, catching the train from Paddington station to Slough. The winter sun warms and animates them but they can find nowhere to eat except an over-priced hotel by the Thames and here Gordon is, characteristically, overawed and bullied by the pretentious waiter, finding himself forced to use up all his money on a rotten meal of cold beef and muddy wine.

Eventually, miserable and humiliated, the couple walk on into woodland where they find a warm nook, Rosemary strips off her clothes and prepares to ‘sacrifice’ herself to him. She will ‘give’ herself, although she doesn’t really want to, solely in order to make Gordon happy. This is disheartening enough, but at the vital moment Rosemary realises Gordon isn’t wearing a condom and panics. He is rebuffed. They argue. Standing looking down at her naked body, he is disgusted with himself and with her. The sun goes in and the whole thing suddenly appears unbearably sordid and mean.

Rosemary bursts into tears and gets dressed. They walk for miles in silence, but Gordon is no longer brooding on the failed sex, he has moved on to his more familiar routine of being more worried about not having enough money to pay the fare back to London, after spending more than he meant to at the posh riverside hotel.. Eventually, after prolonged sulking, he reluctantly admits this to Rosemary who promptly points out what an idiot he is: she has more than enough and is happy to pay. But with his ludicrously antiquated sense of ‘honour’ he simply can’t let her and prefers to stew in a juice of humiliation and endlessly pontificate about the ruinous effect of poverty. By this stage we know that what is ruining his life is his ruinous imbecility.

A drunken binge In chapter eight there is an astonishing turn of events as Gordon receives a cheque from an American magazine which has inexplicably decided to publish one of his poems. £10! He insists on taking Ravelston and Rosemary out for a slap-up dinner. The more they urge caution, the more insistent he becomes to go to the finest restaurant, order champagne and generally drink himself stupid. Reeling through the West End he hustles Rosemary into a back alley and tries to have sex with her but she fights free, slaps him and disappears. Completely plastered Gordon finds himself being taken over by two whores and Ravelston mournfully decides he ought to go along to protect his pathetic protege. In the event Gordon is far too drunk to get it up and passes out on the floor. This compares with the Saturday night party scene in Down and Out in Paris and London as a very convincing portrait of the progressive stages of drunkenness, from light exuberance, through gorging on booze, to staggering incoherence. It’s the best passage in the book.

Arrested Gordon wakes up with an incredible hangover in a police cell. After being booted out by the prostitute he wandered Piccadilly swigging from a wine bottle in the street (illegal) and when stopped by the police punched the sergeant. Orwell gives a reliably factual account of a police cell, being taken in a Black Maria to the holding cells at the court, being sentenced to £5 fine or a month in gaol. In fact his fine has already been paid by his sheepish champagne socialist patron, Ravelston, who takes Gordon back to his luxury pad in St John’s Wood. Gordon sleeps in silk pyjamas in a downy bed beneath an electric light – unimaginable luxury.

And this is the central imaginative flaw of the novel – all Gordon has to do is say Yes, Yes to help from his rich friend, Yes to getting his advertising job back, and he would have money and Rosemary’s attitude would soften and he would have her, too. It is the opposite of some searing portrait of Depression-era Britain – it is the portrait of a mean-minded, resentful, selfish little idiot who ruins ‘his own and everyone else’s life for the sake of his ‘meaningless scruples’.

Staying at Ravelston’s After the drunken night and arrest something snaps in Gordon: he accepts Ravelston’s offer of a comfortable place to stay for a while but his bitter resentment at Ravelston’s charity ends their friendship. Ravelston eventually finds him a job with a Dickensian grotesque, a misshapen dwarf who runs a seedy bookshop renting out the cheapest kind of thrillers and romances. Gordon moves into a substantially worse flop house, reeking of haddock and ringing to the arguments of the proley inhabitants. He ignores Ravelston on his one visit to him. He spurns the appeals of Rosemary and his sister, Julia.

Down, down The final chapters become dominated by his death wish, by his wish to sink down, down, down below the realm of decency or class, to submerge into what he calls the ghost-kingdom below class and society. He finds he likes the job, the grinding boredom, the idiotic clientele who borrow the sad cheap two-penny novelettes. He sits and reads cheap magazines all day (Tit BitsThe GemThe Girl’s Own Paper) and lies on his bed smoking looking at the ceiling all night.

Sex at last One evening Rosemary knocks on the door (in this low lodging house women are allowed, unlike the grimly correct rooms of his previous landlady, Mrs Wisbeach). She thinks maybe finally losing her virginity to him will somehow galvanise him and persuade him to take the mythical job back at the advertising agency. (It turns out she has gone in person to see his old boss at the agency to beg, and the boss willingly agreed to have Gordon back.) But Gordon is too far gone. They reluctantly do the deed then lie with their backs to each other. She dresses and leaves without a word.

The baby A few weeks Rosemary turns up in the bookshop. She’s pregnant. She won’t force her to marry him but she wants to keep it. There is the usual squalid discussion about a back-street abortion (such as features in the Michael Caine movie, Alfie, Kingsley Amis’s novel, You Can’t Have It All, and in the Jean-Paul Sartre novel, The Age of Reason) which you are meant to be repelled by. Gordon goes to a public library where the disapproving lady librarian lets him look at medical textbooks in which he leafs through illustrations of foetuses making himself, and the reader, feel sick.

He turned back a page or two and found a print of a six weeks’ foetus. A really dreadful thing this time – a thing he could hardly even bear to look at. Strange that our beginnings and endings are so ugly – the unborn as ugly as the dead. This thing looked as if it were dead already. Its huge head, as though too heavy to hold upright, was bent over at right angles at the place where its neck ought to have been. There was nothing you could call a face, only a wrinkle representing the eye – or was it the mouth? It had no human resemblance this time; it was more like a dead puppy-dog. (p.261)

Gordon gives in But he capitulates. He agrees to marry Rosemary and take the job at the advertising agency, though advertising represents the acme of everything he finds meretricious and trashy in contemporary culture. To his surprise he is immensely relieved. He realises it was his destiny all along. He feels as if he has finally grown up.

Gordon takes the job. He has a gift for copywriting and is soon working on a campaign for a soap client to persuade the British population they have smelly feet and need as much soap as they can buy. Rosemary and Gordon get married at a registry office. Ravelston is the only guest. He gives them a crockery set. They move into a top floor apartment off the Edgware Road. They have barely moved in before they have their first argument. He insists on buying an aspidistra to furnish the room. At first Rosemary thinks he’s joking, but he means it. In Gordon’s mind everything he rejected – including the aspidistra plant which had been, for him, a symbol of craven respectability – it has all won. Genuinely won. With no irony or sarcasm he insists they buy one and display it in the front room for everyone to see. He has joined the grown-up world. Like everyone else he will keep the aspidistra flying.


Comments

Pathetic

Gordon isn’t principled, he’s pathetic. He’s as wretchedly timid and scared as Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter but without her dignity or integrity. He daren’t go into the pub to see his friend because he’s embarrassed about only having a three-penny bit to his name. He’s afraid of going up to the flat of his rich patron, Ravelston, because he’s intimidated by its moneyed comfort. He’s scared of offending his landlady and so hides his illicit tea-making. He is, in short, frightened of life. He is a mouse not a man. Chapter 9, where he lets himself be taken in, is a catalogue of Gordon’s moral cowardice.

  • He wanted to refuse, and yet he had not quite the courage…
  • Yet for the time being he stayed, simply because he lacked the courage to do otherwise…
  • But he hadn’t the guts to face the streets as yet…
  • From time to time Gordon made feeble efforts to escape, which always ended in the same way…

and spending three hundred pages in his company – despite the appeal of Orwell’s ever-lucid prose – is depressing.

  • He lay awake, aware of his own futility, of his thirty years, of the blind alley into which he had led his life. (p.38)
  • He took a sort of inventory of himself and his possessions. Gordon Comstock, last of the Comstocks, thirty years old, with twenty-six teeth left; with no money and no job; in borrowed pyjamas in a borrowed bed; with nothing before him except cadging and destitution, and nothing behind him except squalid fooleries. His total wealth a puny body and two cardboard suitcases full of worn-out clothes. (p.209)
  • He didn’t want to be cried over; he only wanted to be left alone — alone to sulk and despair. (p.216)
  • He looked back over his life. No use deceiving himself. It had been a dreadful life — lonely, squalid, futile. He had lived thirty years and achieved nothing except misery. But that was what he had chosen. It was what he wanted, even now. He wanted to sink down, down into the muck where money does not rule. (p.

He takes every opportunity to offend anyone close to him, starting with his family and continuing with the patron Ravelston, he’s beastly to his girlfriend, bullying and arguing with her. I particularly disliked his snobbish superiority to all popular culture – he despises the cinema, hates the products he used to write advertising copy for – especially the new American trend for ‘breakfast cereals’ – despises the ‘villa culture’ of the suburbs. The pathetic ineffectual intellectual snob.

They began to pass through straggling villages on whose outskirts pseudo-Tudor villas stood sniffishly apart, amid their garages, their laurel shrubberies and their raw-looking lawns. And Gordon had some fun railing against the villas and the godless civilization of which they were part — a civilization of stockbrokers and their lip-sticked wives, of golf, whisky, ouija-boards, and Aberdeen terriers called Jock. (p.143)

And pretty much all the vast verbiage about ‘poverty’ is nothing more than bitterness and resent against the better off. The whole book is a vast crate of sour grapes.

A stream of cars hummed easily up the hill. Gordon eyed them without envy. Who wants a car, anyway? The pink doll-faces of upper-class women gazed at him through the car window. Bloody nit-witted lapdogs. Pampered bitches dozing on their chains. Better the lone wolf than the cringing dogs. He thought of the Tube stations at early morning. The black hordes of clerks scurrying underground like ants into a hole; swarms of little ant-like men, each with dispatch-case in right hand, newspaper in left hand, and the fear of the sack like a maggot in his heart. How it eats at them, that secret fear! Especially on winter days, when they hear the menace of the wind. Winter, the sack, the workhouse, the Embankment benches! (Chapter 4)

The money-stink and war

In all Orwell’s previous books he had interesting things to observe or to explain about imperialism, poverty, coal-mining, sleeping rough, hop-picking and so on. This is the first book where almost everything the protagonist thinks and does is worthless.

Gordon’s attitude to ‘capitalism’ and ‘money worship’ is so naive and childish as to be barely worth discussing. Orwell satirises Gordon’s contempt for money-making, for seeking a good career, a good place, he especially hates go-getting American types and he loathes advertising agencies etc. Every page is packed with new formulations of Gordon’s simplistic hatred of the money god, the money-stink, capitalism etc.

What he realized, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good. The decalogue has been reduced to two commandments. One for the employers – the elect, the money-priesthood as it were – ‘Thou shalt make money’; the other for the employed – the slaves and underlings – ‘Thou shalt not lose thy job.’

It sounds good – like so much of Orwell’s it has a strong rhythm and great clarity of phrasing which drives the words home – but it is undermined by our clear knowledge that Gordon has an easy way out of the trap any time he wants to. Just ring up his old boss at the advertising agency. But no, he prefers to suffer and complain.

In a feeble sort of philosophical conversation with his wealthy patron, Ravelstone, the latter tries to argue Gordon into believing in Socialism – despite showing little or no understanding of what that would actually mean. Ravelston’s reading of Marx seems to amount to the notion that a) present capitalist society is on its last legs b) a communist revolution is inevitable and will sweep away all injustices and usher in the Golden Age. Like some of the book, this has a certain value as social history, as a presumably reasonably accurate of what educated Englishmen of the time thought.

But in any case Gordon dismisses Socialism as bunk; he is too consumed by sheer hatred and resentment of anyone better off than him. With obsessive violence he fantasises about planes flying over London, over the dingy boarding houses and squalid flats and windswept streets and lonely people and bombing it all flat, consuming London in a great conflagration. He wants a massive war to come and Ravelston sadly points out he’s not the only one.

‘Do you know that the other day I was actually wishing war would break out? I was longing for it — praying for it, almost.’
‘Of course, the trouble is, you see, that about half the young men in Europe are wishing the same thing.’
‘Let’s hope they are. Then perhaps it’ll happen.’

Maybe this is the best way to read this book – because it is not much value as a ‘novel’ – maybe it’s best to think of it as a kind of portrait of typical angry man who encapsulates the unhappiness and humiliation of the borderline poor, of the frustrated lower middle-classes, a representative of the clever but frustrated intellectuals of an entire generation. In the hands of a continental writer Gordon could, conceivably have turned into the portrait of a fascist, an angry young man who dreams of violence cleansing the world of parasites and decadence. Encourage his anti-Semitism and throw in a shiny uniform and you have a Nazi.

All over London and all over every town in England that poster was plastered, rotting the minds of men. He looked up and down the graceless street. Yes, war is coming soon. You can’t doubt it when you see the Bovex ads. The electric drills in our streets presage the rattle of the machine-guns. Only a little while before the aeroplanes come. Zoom – bang! A few tons of T.N.T. to send our civilization back to hell where it belongs.

This fetid War Wish of Gordon’s suggests just how little people learn – or intellectuals, anyway. There was a similar mood among the volunteers for the Great War, that it would cleanse and sweep away a corrupt and sick society (see Rupert Brooke). And here, 20 years later, we have the same kind of minor intelligentsia having the same kind of thoughts all over again.

Down, down – Orwell’s psychopathology

In the end Gordon is an embarrassingly revealing description of Orwell’s own self-loathing, embarrassment, shame and cowardice. A pauper at Eton, an odd-ball in the Burmese Police, an outsider to the Bloomsbury Set and the smart London literati, resenting the doting care and concern of his parents and relations – he had a hopeless psychological urge to escape, to plunge down into the filthiest depths of degradation and, in the end, Keep The Aspidistra Flying all-too-clearly conveys Orwell’s own strange nostalgie de la boue. It gives the game away, revealing the deeply personal motivations behind his supposedly fearless social reporting.

The final chapters are dominated by Gordon’s monomania for sinking below the realm of class and decency, of escaping all those who care for him, especially the womenfolk, Rosemary and his sister, Julia; of sinking down, down, down.

  • He must get out of this place, and quickly! Tomorrow morning he would clear out. No more sponging on Ravelston! No more blackmail to the gods of decency! Down, down, into the mud — down to the streets, the workhouse, and the jail. It was only there that he could be at peace. (p.219)
  • He didn’t want ever to work again; all he wanted was to sink, sink, effortless, down into the mud… (p.222)
  • Under ground, under ground! Down in the safe soft womb of earth, where there is no getting of jobs or losing of jobs, no relatives or friends to plague you, no hope, fear, ambition, honour, duty – no duns of any kind. That was where he wished to be. He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself – to sink, as Rosemary had said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being underground. He liked to think about the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. It is a good world that they inhabit, down there in their frowzy kips and spikes. He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost-kingdom, below ambition.  (p.227)
  • Life had beaten him; but you can still beat life by turning your face away. Better to sink than rise. Down, down into the ghost-kingdom, the shadowy world where shame, effort, decency do not exist! (p.233)
  • He had finished for ever with that futile dream of being a ‘writer’. After all, was not that too a species of ambition? He wanted to get away from all that, below all that. Down, down! Into the ghost-kingdom, out of the reach of hope, out of the reach of fear! Under ground, under ground! That was where he wished to be. (p.244)
  • He would not be free, free to sink down into the ultimate mud, till he had cut his links with all of them, even with Rosemary. (p.

On reflection, it is immensely apposite that the first word of the title of Orwell’s first published book was down.

Conclusion

If we take a romantic view of writing i.e the author is trying to ‘express’ something, then the author has to find a genre, a format, a style that provides the suitable framework. When it comes to the novel, an author needs to find characters and a plot to provide a structure for the other elements – dialogue, description, reflections and ideas.

Burmese Days is a success as a novel because the wide range of characters and incidents allow Orwell to show and dramatise his experience of British imperialism, with remarkably little explicit editorialising about it. The story and the characters are the message.

A Clergyman’s Daughter is a fascinating failure. He wanted to shock his readers by taking a highly respectable Anglican spinster and submit her to the humiliations of begging, sleeping rough, hop-picking, staying in London’s roughest flop houses and so on. But a) he is trying to hit too many targets; the same woman who is supposed to experience the bitterness of sleeping rough is also meant to experience the genteel humiliations of working in a fourth-rate private school. He tries to cram too much of his own experience into one container. And b) the precise mechanism by which she is pitched out of her comfortable middle class existence onto the streets is never satisfactorily explained. Nonetheless, I think it is well worth reading because, if you forget about these problems of the book’s ‘integrity’, then the individual sections – sleeping rough in London, hop picking in Kent, being a shabby teacher – are vividly written; they have the power and insight of his best reportage.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying is the second example of Orwell trying to find an outlet, a form or structure for what are obviously his own experiences and feelings. (Orwell himself worked in a bookshop in Highgate while he struggled to write; many of Gordon’s thoughts about the pointlessness of even trying to be a writer must come straight from the heart.) But there isn’t enough variety of scene or subject matter to justify a 300-page book. Realising this, Orwell has taken the conscious decision to exaggerate Gordon’s anger and contempt, to turn up his bilious rants and let his acid resentment go on for page after page. My guess is he thought that by exaggerating every aspect of his own sense of poverty, immiseration, humiliation and resentment, he would produce a Great Satirical Portrait; that Gordon would become a Representative Figure of our Age

But it doesn’t come off. Gordon just comes over as an ineffectual wanker, a stew of petty frustrations. It’s no surprise that Orwell forbade the reprinting of this book in his lifetime. The first and only print run sold just over 2,000 copies.


Aspects of style

Orwell’s use of stereotypes

I noticed in A Clergyman’s Daughter how Orwell’s texts are built of ‘types’ which we are expected to recognise, this recognition drawing us unconsciously into the point of view of the narrator, into the book’s world-view. And recognition of ‘types’ is compounded by worldly-wise sweeping generalisations. Both are exemplified in this passage:

  • Gordon wriggled free of Flaxman’ s arm. Like all small frail people, he hated being touched. Flaxman merely grinned, with the typical fat man’s good humour. He was really horribly fat. He filled his trousers as though he had been melted and then poured into them. But of course, like other fat people, he never admitted to being fat. No fat person ever uses the word ‘fat’ if there is any way of avoiding it. ‘Stout’ is the word they use — or, better still, ‘robust’. A fat man is never so happy as when he is describing himself as ‘robust’.

There’s plenty more where this came from. It would be possible to take Orwell’s narratives to pieces in terms of blocks or chunks built around these types or stereotypes.

  • It was one of those ‘twopenny no-deposit’ libraries beloved of book-pinchers.
  • She was one of those malignant respectable women who keep lodging-houses. Age about forty-five, stout but active, with a pink, fine-featured, horribly observant face, beautifully grey hair, and a permanent grievance. (p.24)
  • It had the sort of furniture you expect in a top floor back [room]. (p.28)
  • Lorenheim was one of those people who have not a single friend in the world and who are devoured by a lust for company. (p.28)
  • 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. (p.31)
  • The Primrose Quarterly was one of those poisonous literary papers in which the fashionable Nancy Boy and the professional Roman Catholic walk bras dessus, bras dessous. (p.35)
  • The Comstocks belonged to the most dismal of all classes, the middle-middle class, the landless gentry. In their miserable poverty they had not even the snobbish consolation of regarding themselves as an ‘old’ family fallen on evil days, for they were not an ‘old’ family at all, merely one of those families which rose on the wave of Victorian prosperity and then sank again faster than the wave itself… Gran’pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave exert a powerful influence. (p.39)
  • They were one of those depressing families, so common among the middle-middle classes, in which nothing ever happens.
  • They were the kind of people who in every conceivable activity, even if it is only getting on to a bus, are automatically elbowed away from the heart of things… (p.41)
  • Some of the women did make rather undesirable middle-aged marriages after their father was dead, but the men, because of their incapacity to earn a proper living, were the kind who ‘can’t afford’ to marry. None of them, except Gordon’s Aunt Angela, ever had so much as a home to call their own; they were the kind of people who live in godless ‘rooms’ and tomb-like boarding-houses. (p.42)
  • His father, especially, was the kind of father you couldn’t help being ashamed of; a cadaverous, despondent man, with a bad stoop, his clothes dismally shabby and hopelessly out of date. (p.44)

And so on and so on throughout the text. These continual expectations that the reader is familiar with this, that or the other aspect of modern life, with this or that ‘type’ of person or place or situation, stand as continual nudges into the fiction. They both flatter the reader’s intelligence and bolster the author’s aura of worldly wisdom. ‘You and I both know about this stuff, don’t we, old chap,’ and you find yourself reluctantly coerced to go along, even if you have no idea what he’s talking about.

  • He was the kind of man who never hears of anything until everybody else has stopped talking about it. (p.56)
  • The New Albion was one of those publicity firms which have sprung up everywhere since the War – the fungi, as you might say, that sprout from a decaying capitalism. (p.54)
  • It was one of those coats which have been made by a good tailor and grow more aristocratic as they grow older… (p.88)
  • He had one of those movements of contempt and even horror which every artist has at times when he thinks of his own work. (p.92)
  • It was one of those small, peaky faces, full of character, which one sees in sixteenth-century portraits.
  • She was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. (p.123)
  • This was one of those cheap arid evil little libraries (‘mushroom libraries’, they are called) which are springing up all over London and are deliberately aimed at the uneducated. (p.225)
  • Gordon knew her type at a glance. (p.259)

Orwell knows all these types at a glance. He is an expert on humanity. And he expects you to be, too.

Orwell’s humour

All this said, Orwell is always capable of moments of pawky humour:

Ravelston lived on the first floor, and the editorial offices of Antichrist were downstairs. Antichrist was a middle – to high-brow monthly, Socialist in a vehement but ill-defined way. In general, it gave the impression of being edited by an ardent Nonconformist who had transferred his allegiance from God to Marx, and in doing so had got mixed up with a gang of vers libre poets.

Though it is often a rather grim, unsmiling humour.

Orwell’s use of the macabre

The ghost of Dickens is always hovering over Orwell’s writing, in the combination of urban poverty with sometimes warm broad humour and other times the weird and macabre.

Mr Cheeseman was a rather sinister little man, almost small enough to be called a dwarf, with very black hair, and slightly deformed. As a rule a dwarf, when malformed, has a full-sized torso and practically no legs. With Mr Cheeseman it was the other way about. His legs were normal length, but the top half of his body was so short that his buttocks seemed to sprout almost immediately below his shoulder blades. This gave him, in walking, a resemblance to a pair of scissors… It was apparent that Mr Cheeseman clipped his words from a notion that words cost money and ought not to be wasted… He took Gordon into his confidence, talked of conditions in the trade, and boasted with much chuckling of his own astuteness. He had a peculiar chuckle, his mouth curving upwards at the corners and his large nose seeming about to disappear into it… (p.223)

More than a touch reminiscent of Dickens’s malignant dwarf, Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop. But the advent of Mr Cheeseman, the miserly bookseller, in the final chapters of the book, is also maybe an indication that the whole thing is intended as a grotesque exaggeration, a satire, a hyperbolic fantasy.

Big Sister is watching you

Early on in the book the landlady of Gordon’s wretched lodgings is described as sneaking around and spying on her lodgers.

It was queer how furtively you had to live in Mrs Wisbeach’s house. You had the feeling that she was always watching you. (p.31)

Ring any bells? When I noticed this I realised the same thing happens in A Clergyman’s Daughter where miserly Mrs Creevy is constantly spying on Dorothy’s school lessons, and creeping about listening at the door of her bedroom.

The unpleasantness of being continually spied on was obviously an theme of Orwell’s fifteen years before Nineteen Eight-Four was published.

Contemporary relevance

Throughout the novel, among the kaleidoscope of his other thoughts Gordon feels guilty for not worrying more about the Depression and the unemployed and the suffering millions. The Depression and its severe impact on the north of England is exemplified in the repeated notion of Middlesborough as a particularly blighted town.

  • Most of the time, when he wasn’t thinking of coal-miners, Chinese junk-coolies, and the unemployed in Middlesbrough, he felt that life was pretty good fun…
  • But what of the real poor? What of the unemployed in Middlesbrough, seven in a room on twenty-five bob a week? When there are people living like that, how dare one walk the world with pound notes and cheque-books in one’s pocket?
  • He thought of the unemployed in Middlesbrough. Sexual starvation is awful among the unemployed.
  • In Middlesbrough the unemployed huddle in frowzy beds, bread and marg and milkless tea in their bellies. He settled down to his steak with all the shameful joy of a dog with a stolen leg of mutton.

As it happens today, Wednesday 9 August 2017, I just listened to a report on Radio 4’s World At One programme about the long-term impact of the financial crash of 2008, and they chose to send a reporter to Middlesborough as exemplifying the enduring negative consequences of the crash. We heard local people saying nothing is done for the town, it’s ignored by southern politicians, there’s no prospects for young people leaving town, not much hope of getting a job and no hope of buying a house. Unemployment is 1 in 6, double the national average and, as a consequence, Middlesborough had the highest Brexit vote of anywhere in the UK.

Obviously lots of things have changed since Orwell’s time, thousands of things, people’s lives have been transformed in countless ways. But some other things, deep structural things, haven’t changed at all.


Related links

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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