Coming Up For Air revisited

Coming Up For Air, 2008-2009 theatre production image


Extract from a lecture given at the International Conference hosted at Lille University – “George Orwell, une conscience politique du XXe siècle” 19-20 March, 2010,

by Dominic Cavendish

Besides Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Coming Up For Air ranks as small fry in Orwell’s oeuvre. Yet it endures – is referenced, quoted, read. Maybe that’s because, aside from its own particular charms, its humour, and its descriptive power, it distils an Orwellian preoccupation with imprisonment and escape, his urge to examine human beings in the most straitened circumstances and consider their often thwarted urges for freedom.

Like the fish-filled pool into which George Bowling peers as a boy in rural Oxfordshire, maybe it has hidden depths.

Let’s begin near the end, with Orwell hurrying to complete Nineteen Eighty-Four in the face of worsening tuberculosis.  A writer living in a state of withdrawal from society, from England, on the Scottish island on Jura in 1947-48. He produces a novel that pushes the idea of human captivity to new, nightmarish limits.  Winston Smith is a minor official in a totalitarian slave-state where absolute conformity is the rule, submission to the will of the party – embodied by the totemic Big Brother – is expected in all things, and even thought of dissent is punishable by death – accompanied by torturous mental reprogramming:  ‘Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed – no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.’ 

Those few cubic centimetres can be gnawed away by the rats in Room 101, as Winston realises to his mounting, and decisively self-defeating terror. He becomes a sort of lab-rat himself when brought face-to-face with his caged nemesis; the grim experiment is controlled in such a way that he must give in, yielding up the last vestige of his autonomous humanity in a feral, animal reflex of self-preservation. “Do it to Julia!” shrieks Winston, betraying his one true love. And look at the way he is released by that action in the novel’s vertiginous prose: “He was falling backwards, into enormous depths, away from the rats. He was still strapped in the chair, but he had fallen through the floor, through the walls of the building, through the earth, through the oceans, through the atmosphere, into outer space, into the gulf between the stars.” He is giddy with escape. Yet, of course, it’s the final nail in the coffin for him. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, you don’t get away at the 11th hour.

Independently of the book’s narrative logic, it seems appropriate, inevitable even, that Orwell should have arrived at this dead-end destination.

When we survey the work, we see a pattern of individuals attempting to get away from forces that threaten to overwhelm them – and which, to a greater or lesser degree, finally do so. The word ‘escape’, and the desire for escape, crop up repeatedly. When we survey the life, it’s possible to see Eric Blair himself as something of an escape-artist – he adopted a pseudonym, altered his accent, trying to pass himself off as belonging to a lower social class, and embedded himself in a wide range of character-altering experiences. He was famously “down and out”, frequently off and about. He started life in India, grew up in Oxfordshire, spent formative years in Burma, slummed it in Paris, fought in Spain and ended up on that Hebridean island.

Yet he was no dilettante escapist. If he was restless, he was also driven. He avoided the traps of conformity but at the same time he rushed towards sticky situations. In his biography, Bernard Crick reminds us of Orwell’s untiring work ethic: “He could only see a holiday as a chance to begin a different kind of work.” Orwell’s “adventures”, if we are tempted to see his peripatetic course through life in that light, aren’t opportunities to cut loose, they are the means by which he reflects more intently on the subject at hand, and the subject at hand becomes more bound up with the idea of escape itself as he continues writing, or so I’d argue.

Before turning to Coming Up For Air, let me briefly trace that pattern through the preceding works of fiction.

In his debut novel Burmese Days (1934), the keynote is stasis. John Flory can’t stand his vaguely dissolute ex-pat life in Burma anymore but also can’t face the prospect of a return to England. His only hope rests in the visiting young English-woman Elizabeth Lackersteen, equally lacking in prospects, who soon compounds Flory’s sense of futility, her final rejection of him resulting in suicide. I leave it to others to trace the ways in which Orwell’s experience of working for the Indian Police in Burma fed into Burmese Days but that episode in his life is characterised, both Bernard Crick and DJ Taylor note, as a catalyst for personal and political revolt: ‘Five years as the servant of an oppressive system had left him with a ‘bad conscience’. As a result he felt he had to escape, not just from Imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man.” [Crick]

It’s worth noting how Orwell gravitates towards atmospheres of extreme constraint in the two key essays that his time in Burma subsequently gave rise to – A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant. In A Hanging (1931), the narrator describes in cool detail the inexorable process by which a Hindu prisoner is led out of his cage and walked across to the gallows to meet his end. In Shooting an Elephant (1936), the police-officer in Moulmein who narrates the story heads off in pursuit of an elephant that has escaped and comes face-to-face with his own powerlessness. Like his target he too is cornered: “Suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

That final equation can of course seem very pat, even implausible – it’s a bit like suggesting, as Shakespeare has Henry IV do, that no one has it tougher than the king, a line that sweeps a lot of the injustice of subjugation under the carpet. At the same time, though, we see Orwell dwelling on, and drawing creative sustenance from, a dichotomy between the natural world, in which elephants will roam wild when seized by an attack of “muste” – and the imperalist machine on the other side: a man-made system, which reduces its masters to the status of caged animals.

In A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), the unhappy heroine Dorothy drops out of society, suffering some form of psycho-sexual catalysm. She flees the thankless servitude of life with her rector father and the unwanted attentions of a middle-aged local and by degrees gets lowered into the gutter, brushing through several of the locales that Orwell himself visited during his journalistic forays among the dispossessed – Trafalgar Square at night, scuzzy London lodgings, the hop-fields of Kent: degrading situations, yet eye-opening ones too. When Dorothy is eventually “rescued”, and brought back into the suffocating fold of Knype Hill, Suffolk, her father asks her what possessed her: “What made you take it into your head to run away like that?” he said. “I told you, Father – I lost my memory.” “Hm,” said the Rector; and Dorothy saw that he did not believe her, never would believe her, and that on many and many a future occasion, when he was in a less agreeable mood than at present, that escapade would be brought up against her.” “Escapade” has the ring of a children’s story to it there – Dorothy’s short-lived liberation from her old world will be belittled and boxed away by the very language used to describe it – as a sort of reckless, foolhardy adventure.

Orwell disowned A Clergyman’s Daughter – not a “good bad novel”, just a bad novel, in his opinion. One reason why one might agree with him is that Dorothy’s journey has an underlying aimlessness about it. That might be quite true-to-life – indeed the most nakedly true-to-life chapter in the book, the Trafalgar Square episode, is aimless to a fault, intent on capturing every detail going. It’s one damned thing after another. Yes, Dorothy escapes – but she immediately lacks the wherewithal, financial and emotional, to escape TO somewhere in particular – a series of things happen to her, and then she’s back where she started. She is passive: “She merely saw, as an animal sees, without speculation and almost without consciousness… The confused din of voices, the hooting of horns and the scream of the trams grinding on their gritty rails – flowed through her head provoking purely physical responses. She had no words, nor any conception of the purpose of such things as words, nor any consciousness of time or place, or of her own body or even of her own existence… Who was she? She turned the question over in her mind, and found that she had not the dimmest notion of who she was; except that, watching the people and horses passing, she grasped that she was a human being and not a horse.” And later: “She had no plan, absolutely no plan whatever.”

In Orwell’s next two novels – there is a far greater sense of an inner mission; the protagonists are actively striving to get away from it all. And have an idea where they’re headed.

Gordon Comstock, the anti-social anti-hero of Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is obsessed with the idea of escaping the ghastly go-getting world of wage-slavery. Again and again he plots the path to freedom via the rocky rubble of penury. “He saw that now or never was the time to escape. He had got to get out of it – out of the money-world, irrevocably, before he was too far involved.” Or again, “Somehow, sooner or later, he was going to escape from it”. And so on. Orwell sustains a note of sour comedy at Comstock’s expense because the struggling artist is stuck. Occasionally the blindingly obvious flashes before him: “He grasped, as though it were a new discovery, that you do not escape from money merely by being moneyless.  On the contrary, you are the hopeless slave of money until you have enough of it to live on.”

For all his folly, Comstock’s doomed one-man crusade against the forces of capitalism – and determination to dodge the man-trap of marriage – have an impressive rigour to them. Comstock has a quasi-political programme, and he’s prepared to lay down his life for it. His long-suffering girlfriend Rosemary observes that “It was not only from money but from life itself that he was turning away.” Yet that death-wish has a life-force about it. He decides, in a fanciful idealistic way, to be sure, that if he can cut loose from all conventional codes, then salvation awaits him on earth, in the metropolis that sprawls around him. He can make a heaven of the urban Hades of London: “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… It comforted him somehow to think of the smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness where you could lose yourself for ever.”

There’s a direct echo of that “huge graceless wilderness” in Coming Up For Air, which you could read as a companion novel to Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with Comstock – who kicks against marriage only finally to be caught by it – segueing into the bowler-hatted figure of George Bowling, the hen-pecked wage-slave of Comstock’s worst fears. On a train-journey into town to get his new false teeth, Bowling surveys the mass of London – and achieves a rare inner moment of calm and lyrical rhapsody: “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.” Here for a fleeting instant is an impression of the industrial machine as an entity so vast and variegated it attains the quality of a benign natural environment.

An illusion, of course – to use one of Bowling’s regular refains. In contrast to Comstock, Bowling wants to escape this dense urban landscape for a few days, leaving wife, kids and the dread of imminent world war behind him for a spot of modest relaxation back in his hometown of Lower Binfield, beside the fondly remembered fish-ponds of his early youth. Where Comstock hankers after impurity, Bowling craves a now-distant purity. Where Comstock wants to burrow downwards into the abyss – Bowling wants to paddle upwards to find the ether.

Just as with Comstock, though, the escape-impulse has at its core something simple, brutal, animal, involuntary. There is a physical revulsion at modern life and a yearning for something less oppressive. As it plays out, this urge acquires complex ramifications. In Coming Up For Air, in particular, I’d argue that Orwell achieves a degree of sophistication in following his protagonist’s conservative-minded bid for freedom, his minor odyssey into known territory, that can too easily be glanced over. 

Let’s break down Bowling’s humble break-out plans into bullet-points. He wants to escape from a number of things that would make sense to the man in the street: 1) He wants to escape from his wife and family commitments 2) He wants to get away from the rat-race and the anxious financial concerns of the Thirties that afflict all working-men, not only married ones. 3) He wants to flee suburbia and what it represents, a kind of “mental squalor”, as he puts it and 4) He wants to get away from thoughts of Hitler and the world war he knows is just around the corner.

What does he want to escape to? Well, 1) he wants to escape to the countryside, and the traditional English market-town he grew up in 2) he wants to find a route back into the past, so that whatever has changed  (and he’s not so naïve as to assume nothing will have changed), he will regain a vivid sense of what once was and 3) he wants to attain mental tranquility which will be some substitute for the pleasures of the flesh he can no longer count upon.

Broadly speaking that is what he is running away from, and what he’s aiming at. The bleak comedy of the novel, as bleak as Keep the Asphidistra Flying, is that the over-run nature of what greets him crushes even his most modest hopes. He knew that what he was escaping “From” could only be evaded for a short while – but whether it’s the bombing planes flying overhead, the cold glares of women, or the premature summons home on account of a misunderstood wireless announcement – the holiday from those grim modern realities is cut short. Furthermore what he has reached out for recedes from him the closer he gets: the countryside has been paved over, his beloved fish-pond is a rubbish-tip,  the past – as O’Brien will later tell Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four – doesn’t exist and his state of mind becomes more restive. The noise infuriates him, the blank indifference to him upsets him, and he comes to regard himself as unreal – a ghost haunting the old places. Upon his return to West Bletchley, he wonders why he has made the trip, whether he has even made it at all. “Gosh! Did I even understand myself? The whole thing seemed to be fading out of my mind. Why had I gone to Lower Binfield? HAD I gone there?”

Coming Up For Air is bit like a shaggy dog-story – it‘s all build-up and no punch line, the last lines are a shrug of the shoulder, a rueful anti-climax. Except that’s it a dark kind of non-joke – rather like digging a tunnel that leads you straight back to your prison cell. There isn’t any air – Bowling laments, in general. And that image of asphixiation rings true to where the novel takes us: Bowling hemmed in on all sides.

What I want to explore, though, is the fact that the novel does takes him and us on a journey – from England as a series of details and impressions to a cluster of ideas.

The frustrations that Bowling encounters meet not only with an amusing line in exasperation but also a notable mood of ambivalence. What’s more, layered as the narrative is with the advantage of hindsight, Bowling reveals that in his heart of hearts he knew he was headed for disappointment. He may be bluff but he’s not a buffoon. You could argue that subconsciously he set out to escape towards the very thing he was ostensibly escaping from. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith will receive a shock that is no shock, a surprise that is no surprise, when he meets O’Brien in the Ministry of Love. “You know this, Winston,” said O’Brien. “Don’t deceive yourself. You did know it – you have always known it. Yes, he saw now, he had always known it.” In Coming Up For Air, there’s the straightforward surface reading of Bowling as the chap who wants to get away from it all – then there’s the latent reading of him as the man who wants to confront the worst there is. It’s often described as a semi-autobiographical novel – because of the connections between Bowling’s Oxfordshire upbringing and the author’s. DJ Taylor remarks in his biography “Orwell’s trick in his previous novels had been to project various aspects of himself on to characters with whom he cannot quite wholeheartedly be identified. Coming Up For Air is the most ingenious, and arguably the most effective, of these projections.” But it’s that process of confrontation, and self-confrontation, the holiday that is no holiday, that I think is the most telling point of comparison.

Bowling himself rationalises that the reason he has gone back to Lower Binfield is to re-acquire a feeling of peace, the better to prepare him for the inevitable war. “It wasn’t that I wanted to watch my navel.  I only wanted to get my nerve back before the bad times begin. Wherever we’re going, we’re going downwards.  Into the grave, into the cesspool – no knowing.” In outline, what he has done is stand at the graveside of the rural England he knew and loved, to bid it farewell and turn to face a future that threatens to bury him – and his kind.

Where can the sustenance necessary for survival come from, though? From nature? Or from man? From the countryside – or his fellow countrymen?

There should be no disbelieving the rapture that Bowling feels in the presence of nature – rapture recalled as a child, and rapture re-experienced as an adult. It’s a rapture we know Orwell experienced in his own childhood, and the book is imbued with the writer’s fondness for flora and fauna – and fishing. Yet Bowling guards against sentimentalising it. He remembers how he used to feel about it – and how he used to feel about it is described in terms that emphasise its unreality.

When Bowling describes the forgotten fish pond, brimming with monstrous carp, he encountered as a boy behind old Binfield House he says: “It was astonishing, and even at that age it astonished me, that there, a dozen miles from Reading and not fifty from London, you could have such solitude.  You felt as much alone as if you’d been on the banks of the Amazon.”  That allusion to the Amazon gets picked up and fleshed out later when he recalls the adventure stories that engrossed him as a child: “I’m twelve years old, but I’m Donovan the Dauntless.  Two thousand miles up the Amazon I’ve just pitched my tent, and the roots of the mysterious orchid that blooms once in a hundred years are safe in the tin box under my camp bed…” The natural world, upon those first encounters, is exotic, unblemished, as dreamy as fiction, and the solitude it promises allows for a boundless freedom.

But Bowling the man cannot and could not get back to that state, and has learned that to embrace nature in older age with the same enthusiasm of early youth is to render yourself suspect. When he encounters the cranky old man at the ruined pool area beside Binfield House, he identifies the mentality immediately: “I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast.” Those treating nature as a refuge can turn it into something as bad as a refuse-area – a dinky, cute, bogus environment. And it’s worth here turning a backward glance to Dorothy’s ecstatic embrace of nature in an early mocking passage of A Clergyman’s Daughter: “All the rites of summer, the warmth of the earth, the song of birds, the fume of cows, the droning of countless bees, mingling and ascending like the smoke of ever-burning altars. Therefore with angels and archangels! She began to pray, and for a moment she prayed ardently, blissfully forgetting herself in the joy of her worship. Then, less than a minute later, she discovered that she was kissing the frond of the fennel that was still against her face. She checked herself instantly, and drew back… She admonished herself. None of that, Dorothy! No nature-worship, please! Her father had warned her against nature-worship. A disgusting modern-fad.” One of the few moments, one suspects, when Orwell might have sympathized with the unlovely rector.

To return to Coming Up For Air: even at the moment that Bowling is bending down to pick up a primrose, the impulse that finally decides him on going back to Lower Binfield, he tells us that he’s no wilting violet about such things. “I’m not soppy about “the country”.  I was brought up a damn sight too near to it for that.  I don’t want to stop people living in towns, or in suburbs for that matter.  Let ‘em live where they like.  And I’m not suggesting that the whole of humanity could spend the whole of their lives wandering round picking primroses and so forth. I know perfectly well that we’ve got to work.  It’s only because chaps are coughing their lungs out in mines and girls are hammering at typewriters that anyone ever has time to pick a flower.” He assesses his primrose-plucking with a political cast of mind – and that phrase and sentiment are ones that readers of The Road to Wigan Pier will swiftly recognise.

The attitude to nature in Coming Up For Air is more hard-headed than it is even in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith dreams of what he calls the Golden Country, characterised as a world of fecundity and sexual possibility: “The landscape that he was looking at recurred so often in his dreams that he was never fully certain whether or not he had seen it in the real world.” Winston and Julia do find the Golden Country, after a fashion; and if you look at the instructions Julia gives Winston – a 30-minute train-ride from Paddington, you’re potentially in the same terrain as Lower Binfield – which is a filtered version of the world that Orwell grew up in, around Henley-upon-Thames and Shiplake.

That’s not the world though that awaits the grown-up, married-with-kids Bowling, who sneers with dismay during his first attempt to go fishing: “I got out of the car and walked. Ah!  A knot of little red and white bungalows had sprung up beside the road.  Might have expected it, of course.  And there seemed to be a lot of cars standing about.  As I got nearer the river I came into the sound – yes, plonk-tiddle-tiddle-plonk! – yes, the sound of gramophones. I rounded the bend and came in sight of the towpath.  Christ! Another jolt.  The place was black with people.  And where the water-meadows used to be – tea-houses, penny-in-the-slot machines, sweet kiosks, and chaps selling Walls’ Ice-Cream.  Might as well have been at Margate.” 

There’s no “elsewhere” for Bowling to escape to, and he’s not alone. As Juliet Gardiner’s new book The Thirties: An Intimate History makes plain, the decade saw a newfound appetite for exploration and leisure-trips among the ordinary English, as travel by car became less of an elite luxury. But the idea of escape was being undermined by the relative ease of escape, not to mention the sprawl of modern housing developments. If everyone yearns for the same solitary retreat, what you get is a maddening crowd. It’s instructive I think at this point to take a quick detour into the world of the obvious precursor to Coming Up For Air, namely The History of Mr Polly, written in 1910 by HG Wells.

Like Bowling, Alfred Polly got hooked on adventure stories as a boy, and developed a passion for the natural world: “He would sneak out on moonless winter nights and stare up at the stars, and afterwards find it difficult to tell his father where he had been.” Inhabiting roughly the same restrictive lower-middle class range as Bowling, he has got married, is discontented, bitter, now a middle-aged small-town shopkeeper; quite far into the book, after a farcically hideous attempt to commit suicide he heads off into the wilds of the English countryside to become a tramp. At the risk of putting the two novels into unfair competition, I’d say there’s something far more interesting about the dead-end direction that Orwell’s novel takes, while the first-person narrative allows for a less condescending form of comedy, and Bowling, albeit an archetype, has a greater degree of interiority. Where Polly cuts free, and following a rather Dickensian turn of low-life events, finds a new life,  Bowling is more  conscious of his constraints than ever at the end.

The book is at once narrower, tighter – and yet imbued with an understanding of the broader picture, the world-stage upon which little George Bowling goes about his business. Coming Up For Air of course was written in Morocco, in the wake of Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War – which, famously, marked the turning point in his mission as a writer – “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” How does the novel fit into that? Because I think Orwell is asking, along with Bowling: if there is no escape, what resources does the individual have to resist with? Is there something called a national character that can come into play, at some level? Through the emblematic figure of Bowling, Orwell’s isn’t just capturing the process of rediscovering a particular local landscape, he’s seeing England anew from the outside. Bowling tells us that his stay in Lower Binfield taught him this: “It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got at the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries…” England, then, is not going to be immune much longer to the barbarities of the continent and “abroad”.

Bowling is filled with foreboding – and yet there does seem to be compensation. It’s there in the reference to Gracie Fields’ droll popular song on the title page of the book, He’s Dead but He Won’t Lie Down. And it’s there in the final line, which has that comic, shoulder-shrugging insouciance – avoiding the obvious temptation of a finale rising to a pitch of hysterical unhappiness. It’s that laissez-faire attitude which Bowling has suggested he rather despises in his fellow citizens but acknowledges in himself that allows a streak of optimism to course through the book’s disillusion.

In an article written during the war in 1944, entitled The English People, Orwell wrote: “The English are great lovers of flowers, gardening and ‘nature’ but this is merely a part of their vague aspiration towards an agricultural life. In the main they see no objection to ‘ribbon development’ or to the filth and chaos of the industrial towns. They see nothing wrong in scattering the woods with paper bags and filling every pool and stream with tin cans and bicycle frames.” Orwell is here reflecting on the tendency of the English to turn their green and pleasant land into a pig-sty exactly as Bowling does in Coming Up For Air. Is that a betrayal of their country – though – or in a perverse way an expression of an enduring spirit?

The English People was itself a partial rehash of elements from his better known 1941 pamphlet The Lion and the Unicorn, in which the oft-quoted line appears: “There is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature.”

Those distinct details – red pillar-boxes, smoky towns – are so generalised as to be almost ungraspable – they boil down to the vaguest of ingredients. Likewise, the national character is held up in an ostensibly unflattering light – a foreign observer, Orwell suggests, might decide that “a profound almost unconscious patrotism and an inability to think logically are the abiding features of the English character.”

Yet there’s something subtly admiring about this: England’s saving grace may be that subliminal attitude, that herd-instinct that Bowling briefly surfaces to inspect and rail against, before plunging back down into it again – at its best it’s a murky current of benign tolerance, a sort of stoical thoughtlessness. It’s a cast of mind, or mindlessness, that endures whatever war, destruction and progress throw at it.

“The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities,” Orwell writes. “The power-worship which is the new religion of Europe, and which has infected the English intelligentsia, has never touched the common people.” Writing Bowling helps him burrow deeper into that popular culture, I think, which cuts across all classes, even if the intelligentsia waft disdainfully above it. These thoughts aren’t articulated in so many words in Coming Up For Air but they’re intimated, groped for, anticipated. And it’s possible that they can’t finally be exactly articulated. To systematize them would be, to follow Orwell’s argument, profoundly unEnglish. In his Proustian moment of reverie on the Strand, Bowling is propelled back into a golden age of Empire circa 1900 – an impossibly ordered place where the sun always shone – “Vicky’s at Windsor, God’s in heaven, Christ’s on the cross, Jonah’s in the whale.” He leaves Lower Binfield with none of that to fall back on, and yet it’s hard not to think that he’s the stronger for it.

“However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time”, Orwell will go on to write of England’s influence in The Lion and The Unicorn. “The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.”

The Lion and the Unicorn expresses frustration with the political apathy of the English yet part of Orwell is seduced by the sleep-walker aspect of his countrymen. In that pamphlet Orwell talks about the country’s “emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis.” The line that stands out for me is the following: “The nation is bound together by an invisible chain.” Bound together. There’s no escaping that chain. Bowling certainly can’t. Yet that bond, however much it chafes, might also, paradoxically, act as a guarantor of national liberty. That which cannot be escaped holds forth the possible means, in other words, of escaping the greater peril.

Why does this apparently unremarkable tale of a nondescript middle-class middle-aged man fleeing suburbia for the countryside of his youth have the power to make us think, and feel, keenly about the confining set-up of modern life? There are resonances today that bring us closer towards it – the state of the economy for one – but the elegiac quality most keenly felt today is perhaps for something that isn’t even mourned in the novel. In 1939, Orwell and Bowling could rely on that invisible chain‘s unifying force, to some extent. In England now, can we still count on that shackled sense of collective identity? I wonder.

One thought on “Coming Up For Air revisited

  1. Outsanding piece on CUFA. The last part has interested me especially, probably because I’m not English -more of a Catalan as a matter of fact. The disappareance of the sense of community among the English people, is due to immigration high rates? Is the author suggesting that? If not, what is causing it?


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