Essay | Reflections on Orwell’s Coming Up for Air by Patrick Maxwell

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Henley-on-Thames, where Orwell lived as a child. Image credit: Aleks Marinkovic

Patrick Maxwell


Reflections on Orwell’s Coming Up for Air


Call it peace, if you like. But when I say peace I don’t mean absence of war, I mean peace, a feeling in your guts. And it’s gone for ever if the rubber-truncheon boys get hold of us.

What moves us about this passage? It is not particularly difficult to know which literary world we are in, which part of history we are being exposed to, and even which author is speaking. In these few sentences, blatant nostalgia and mistrust of the future culminate in fierce agony at the final image. It is not so much the word ‘war’ which sparks fright in the narrator, but the idea of the state’s ‘rubber-truncheons’, and their being wielded on ‘us’ by the military forces of fascism or communism that threatened to overrun Europe in early 1939.

We are moved as well by the direct contrast between war and truncheons on one side, and the vague notion of peace ‘in your guts’ – an indefinable sensation, not like the harsh reality of the violent ‘boys’ patrolling the streets – on the other. The contentment of this gut feeling of inner peace is ruptured by the new threat of war; the contrast between them is striking. The writer is frightened, not angry, but perhaps resigned to the fact that whatever his conception of ‘peace’ is, it will not make sense for much longer.

The writer, the real voice, is also recognisable, so ordinary and so concise. Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air is layered with sentences like the one above. They are repetitive reflections of Orwell’s protagonist, a bored, unremarkable middle-aged man, in the lead-up to the Second World War. It is a portrait not just of one man but of the generation of Englishmen who continued to live throughout the Thirties, threatened by the daily odour of failed capitalism and the ‘fear of the boss’, stuck between the two wars and seemingly two emerging ideals: fascism and communism. As with much of Orwell, everything seems hopeless; the stories and their characters are driven towards the inevitable victory of one or the other, his heroes merely everyday instances of a failed resistance.

There is Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman’s Daughter, who tries to persuade herself that she must be a Christian to please her father and fulfil her role as his faithful daughter. There is Gordon Comstock of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, who adorns his failure to earn money with a virulent hatred of wealth and all it supposedly represents. And of course, there is Winston Smith, who frees himself from a state-enforced system of thought, only to be rebuked not so much in his actions but in his mind.

Orwell charts the way that we persuade ourselves that we are in the right, exposing the thin veil of reason – or its outright rejection – under which monsters are allowed to pass as acceptable society. Dorothy pretends that she is a proper Christian because without faith she cannot live her secluded life (for Orwell, belief comes before the thought). It was his genius in these novels to show how and what his characters felt was simply the most rational explanation of their own personal problems, and how the unfettered freedom to think remains open to all if we only remove the boundaries of prejudice and fear – something that many of Orwell’s characters try, but ultimately fail, to do.

These qualities are alive in a different way in George Bowling, Coming Up for Air’s affable narrator. An unhappily married father, who works as an insurance salesman, he finds his life pointless and monotonous: a seemingly endless series of children to attend to, trains to catch, meetings to make. Orwell’s initial exposition of him is almost satirical in its balefulness and dreary caricature. The novel begins, mundanely enough, on ‘the day I got my new false teeth.’ But Bowling soon discovers, in the midst of his life, a new freedom, and uncovers a world that has been festering in his mind from the bucolic imagination of his childhood.

And so, Orwell visits an old world, one that we know never really existed, but is created in Bowling’s mind by the oddest sense of detail, by the vague recollection of some long-lost tranquility. By showing himself this world again, and trying to re-evoke it for himself, he persuades himself that he is free, that the world he has entered is nothing like the one he lives in now, and is able to reclaim the innocence of his imagined youth from the present age. This neo-Romantic delusion is shown by Orwell to be almost debilitating, as it strips the narrator of his sense of reality.

Bowling, spurred on by a memory of Og, the king of Bashan, is transported to the rustic church, the village green, high street and family home of his childhood, each coming together to form a perfect picture in his mind; one that remains alive despite the drab existence he has created for himself now (really it only exists as a contrast to this new life, a welcome antidote to the fear and boredom of the suburbs he lives in).

Orwell, fond in his political writings of broad, general strokes, manages to impress upon us his intellectual honesty. In his fiction, this is achieved through a grasp of detail, whether ostensibly real or phantasmagoric. Bowling recalls a world of imaginary details that he remembers from decades ago: the writing on the memorials on the village church floor, the sweets he used to buy from the village shop, the sizes of the fish he used to catch on illicit escapades out of school. All of these combine, morph, into the greater image of his childhood, which represents for him the only point of resistance to his current state, his sole riposte to the cruel, ongoing march of the present. Bowling persuades himself of this apparent haven, self-assured, as he eyes a primrose, that the world he lives in, ‘doesn’t matter’ (Orwell’s italics). He knows that ‘I don’t even want to be young again’, but says that ‘I was alive that moment’, recognising again ‘a kind of peaceful feeling, and yet it’s like a flame.’

Bowling has let the idea of the images, the fiction of this other world in his mind, overwhelm him, just as Dorothy Hare loses her memory, or Gordon Comstock tells himself he can’t sleep with his girlfriend because it would be to give in to the ‘money-god.’ He decides to return to explore Lower Binfield, the fictional town Orwell first wrote of in Down and Out in Paris and London, after his experience as an English tramp, and based on Orwell’s own memories of growing up in rural Oxfordshire. Remembering the many hours fishing as a child, Bowling decides to find the huge carp he imagined in the pool of the manor house. ‘Why shouldn’t I catch those carp?’ he tells us, remembering it ‘in the dark places among the trees, waiting for me all those years.’ He becomes almost fixated upon these fish, as if catching them would be his final victory in reclaiming the old town for himself.

Bowling’s imaginings amount to a paradise lost. The carp are of course no longer there, and the town has been overrun by new housing developments and the grisly stain of industry. When he visits the church and sees the graves of all the adults he remembers, he reflects on the world of his childhood, that there was ‘nothing left of any of them except a slab of stone and God knows what underneath.’ Finally, he comes to realise that ‘the bad times are coming, and the streamlined men are coming too.’ The details of his childhood are soon replaced by the details of war:

The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. It’s all going to happen. I know it – at any rate, I knew it then. There’s no escape.

Orwell was perhaps the most lucid writer of twentieth-century fiction, and Bowling his most succinct character. In this passage, Orwell shakes Bowling, grabs him out of his delusion and pushes him back into the world of the Thirties, the ‘low, dishonest decade’ of Auden’s phrase, ‘whose blind skyscrapers’ Bowling so abhors speak to the ‘strength of collective man.’

There is a point in the novel where Bowling goes to a meeting of the Left Book Club to hear a lecturer speak on ‘The Menace of Fascism’ at the local hall. He is scared by the progress of fascism across Europe but loses interest in the lecturer’s dry clichés and ‘grating’ tone. The repeated set of phrases quickly become meaningless (‘Back to the dark Ages. … European civilisation. … Act before it is too late’). The speaker is possessed by hatred of all that he is opposed to, which gives Bowling ‘the feeling that something has got inside [his] skull and is hammering down on [his] brain.’ He marvels at this man, who is incapacitated with rage and unable to see past his own slogans. Orwell shows us the banality, the inherent crudeness, in the speaker’s words, and the hypocrisy in his message; it is satirical, but given the timing of the novel, strikingly pertinent.

Bowling, more than ever Orwell’s sympathetic caricature, feels stuck between two extremes, between thinking of ‘Hitler and Stalin’ as merely ‘mean spanners and smashed faces.’ He is terrified by the prospect of war and its components, ‘the kind of hate-world … The coloured-shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber-truncheons.’ It is almost Nineteen Eighty-Four in miniature. Orwell warns us of the never-changing perils of propaganda, especially in times of crisis, and the need to think, without overt prejudice, in the face of extremes. Beleaguered by threats from either side, Bowling resorts to the idyllic world of the past rather than confronting the hard truths of his day.

Coming Up for Air helps us to see that disillusionment with the present, through nostalgia, can lead only to further delusion. Orwell’s work, written in the midst of the rise of fascism and economic depression, can help us to see the importance of rationalism in opposition to idealism. As we face more problems at home and abroad, this message remains significant as ever, and the consequences of our failure to live up to it just as colossal.

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Patrick Maxwell is an English writer on politics, literature and music, based near Oxford. He is the editor of Gerrymander, and a writer for many other publications, such as Comment Central and Backbench.


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