Coming Up for Air

After The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s next book was Homage to Catalonia, which was about the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, he published the novel Coming Up for Air, a first person narrative covering a few days in the life, and many years in the memories of George Bowling. Bowling is a 45 year old insurance representative, living in a London suburb. He lives on commission, he travels, he tries to enjoy life. The story is about Bowling’s decision to play hooky – from work and from his family – for about a week to visit the once-rural, once-small village where he grew up before the first World War. The story is the story of his life.

Bowling is reasonably, or perhaps unreasonably happy with his life. He is fat, he has lost his teeth, he has become stuck in lower management, his wife is horrid, his kids are no joy. He sees himself as surviving. The term he uses is “getting on” which meant doing ok. He takes satisfaction from small pleasures. He seems to represent Orwell’s vision of the lower middle-class English white collar worker of the 1930’s. In telling his story, Orwell creates a social history of the middle class. Bowling’s father was an independent feed and seed merchant in a small village, and Bowling has fond memories of his mother’s work in the kitchen at the end of the Victorian age. Bowling had a free childhood, wandering the lanes and meadows, fishing in small ponds and canals. His memories are not wholly idyllic. His father is run out of business when a national firm sets up business. George provides an acid assessment of life for the small merchants of the age – if they were lucky they died before they went bankrupt and had to go to the workhouse (poorhouse). George left school at 16 and went to work for a grocer. He enlisted in the Army in World War I, and after service in France, was posted to a Coastal Watch function. After the war, he tried to make it as a travelling salesman on commission, eventually joining the insurance company. He marries a woman whose family were in the colonial service in India. It seemed like a good idea, but she is daughter of the real middle class, domineering, insecure, snobbish, and selfish. She nags him constantly, and he hides from her neediness in the petty evasions of the middle class man – a little gambling, some drinking, the odd bit on the side. Bowling did not enjoy a particularly good education and his main intellectual inspirations are from popular, rather than literary fiction, H.G. Wells rather than G.B. Shaw. His philosophy owes more to common sense than the classics.
He thinks he is realistic about his childhood, but there is a nostalgia for the freedom he enjoyed as a child. His thought are occupied with the war, which he expects by 1941. He has a sense of being carried by forces out of his control. He has a sense of the falseness of official language – a concern that foreshadows his later work. He knows he is too old and unfit to fight. He seems almost indifferent to the outcome – he expects society to be much the same whoever wins. In passages that look forward to Nineteen Eight-Four, he dread what will happen after the war – the rise of a numbing totalitarian state, the loss of freedom and privacy.
His visit to his old village is demoralizing. Some new factories have opened – the town is booming, but this means that no one remembers his family, and that old fields have become suburbs. The village is near an airbase, and he constantly notices bombers on training missions. He tries to fish in the old canal, and finds the place full of motor boats for day-tripping tourists.
The story has obvious political and cultural dimensions. Orwell explores the source of the appeal of nature and nostalgia in British culture, and the loyalty of the middle class to fragments of individuality and freedom. Bowling is well aware of the consumer traps of middle-class life – who is making money off his efforts to maintain a middle-class status in life, but he is content to be getting on. The middle classes come off unexpectedly well. Orwell writes with an understanding of the cultural forces that conspire to make the middle class insecure and loyal to the class that signs the pay cheque. He writes with a deep respect for the Bowling’s attachments to the places and people that inhabit his memory, his appetite for life, and his tenacious spirit.
Orwell’s fiction, apart from Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, has been compared unfavorably to his essays, which is unfortunate. The narrative structure is a controlled, coherent stream of consciousness – a hearty common sense version of modernism. His concern with memory, freedom and experience is almost existentialist, but he does not affect the same sense of decadence and boredom that infects the post-war French existentialist writers.


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