By: David Whippman
Ask a random section of the reading public to name a novel by George Orwell, and the overwhelming response will be either Animal Farm or 1984. My personal favourite, though, is the lesser-known Coming Up for Air.
It’s set in the London suburbs of 1938. The protagonist is George Bowling – 45 years old, a moderately successful insurance salesman in a joyless marriage. Ruddy-faced, overweight slightly vulgar in appearance, George doesn’t look like a deep thinker. But he is politically aware – he knows that “a bad time” is coming, probably war. He knows, too, that the world after the war will be the totalitarian world of thought control and slogans: “the crowds cheering for the Leader, and inside hating him so much they want to puke.” It is, of course, the world that Orwell described in detail in 1984. It frightens Bowling, even though “…who’s going to bother about a chap like me? I’m the ordinary middling type that moves on when the policeman tells him.”
Meantime there is the petty disappointment of everyday life: a disgusting meal in a café; accompanying his wife and her friends to a lecture by “a noted anti-fascist” which ends in squabbles between left wing factions. (This rang very true with me in the mid 1980s, when I belonged to a writers’ workshop which contained a member of the British Communist party and a member of the SWP. They bickered constantly with each other.)
In Marcel Proust’s famous novel, it’s the taste of a cake which takes the narrator back to his childhood. Here, the yell of a newspaper vendor serves the same purpose. Suddenly, Bowling is no longer a middle-aged man on a London street. In his memory, he’s a child in the church of Lower Binfield, a small home counties town. In loving detail, we are told of his childhood and early adulthood.
Like Orwell himself, Bowling is no starry-eyed idealist about the past. Life in Lower Binfield was far from idyllic. The butcher’s shop, for instance, was always full of buzzing flies, but “There are worse sounds! Which would you rather hear, a blowfly or a bomber plane?” But there was, at least, a feeling of spiritual security, of continuity. “Peace…we had it once, in Lower Binfield…I don’t mean absence of war, I mean peace, a feeling in your guts.”
Bowling goes off to fight in 1914, and the Great War convinces him, like so many others, that society was “just a balls-up.” The idea of going back to live in Lower Binfield never occurs to him. But now, over twenty years later, he does go back. Not to start a new life – simply for a few days, to recharge his emotional batteries, to reassure himself that there is a bolthole from the dreariness of the suburbs and the looming threat of totalitarianism.
His odyssey is a disaster. What he finds is a modern industrial town with bits of the old place recognisable here and there. Disappointment follows disappointment. He looks for the secluded pool filled with huge carp that he always planned to catch. “Nothing has given me such a thrill as fishing. And after I was 16, I never fished again.” But the pool has been filled in. Elsie, the girl to whom he lost his virginity, is now a dowdy woman who doesn’t even recognise him. Finally, a RAF bomber accidentally obliterates a house. Disillusioned, George goes home, convinced there is no escape. “The bad time is coming…The dustbin that we’re living in reaches right up to the stratosphere.”
This novel, in my opinion, scores over Orwell’s two more famous works – for one thing, because of its descriptive writing. Unlike many political writers, Orwell could vividly depict non-political matters, and he does so here to great effect. Childhood, for instance. “Killing things, that’s about as near to poetry as a boy gets. No animal is a quarter as greedy or as selfish. Yet all the time, there’s that feeling of wanting things as you can’t want them when you’re an adult.”
But this book would, I think, strike a chord with anyone who has ever felt nostalgia for the past; who has been passionate about a hobby (fishing, in Bowling’s case); who has discovered the joy of reading (during his Army service, George stumbles across a cache of ‘good’ books.)
In one sense, the novel is very much of its time. In another, it’s all too relevant. Politics and the personal are intertwined now as they were then; Bowling knows instinctively that the peace he seeks “is gone forever if the rubber truncheon boys get hold of us.” In one of his essays, Orwell spoke of “the smelly little orthodoxies which are contending for our souls.” Over 80 years later, the orthodoxies (or some of them) have changed their names and faces. But the stench of extremist intolerance is as strong in our nostrils as in George Bowling’s. So we can surely sympathise with his doomed quest for fresh, clean air.