Much glee in the media over Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s assertion that he and his wife (joint income well over £100,000) were feeling the pinch and had stopped shopping with Ocado. One reads all the time that it’s the middle classes and pensioners who are suffering most. While musing on this knotty problem my mind was searching for a quote from George Orwell to the effect that only those who ‘think they own their houses’ lie awake at night worrying while the prole (his term) sleeps peacefully. And so I read Coming Up For Air again.
Set in 1938, published in 1939, the novel is a first person narration by George Bowling. Fat, forty five, married with two children, he is trapped in the suburbs by his job and his family. Bowling grew up before the First World War in a quiet market town where it seemed as if life would go on in the same way for ever. He had a country boyhood of scrumping and fishing, went to the grammar school, was brighter than most but had to leave early when his father’s seed merchant’s business started to fail; the first sign of changing times. Then, like most young men of his age, it was off to the trenches until he was wounded and found himself in a ridiculous sinecure of a job guarding non-existent supplies. This meant he could spend a whole year reading, which accounts for him being more thoughtful than most men of his type.
After the war he lands a job in insurance and settles down to be ‘a £5 to £10 pound a week man’ with a car, school fees and a mortgage round his neck. Feeling that war is approaching he has a sudden urge to return to the scenes of his childhood and go fishing. Predictably, the world he knew has disappeared under houses and he doesn’t know a soul. So, having tried coming up for air he comes down again to the wife and kids and the sure knowledge that the world will soon be one of bombs, rubber truncheons, the spanner in the face, the slogans, the food queues.
It’s a strange book, more a vehicle for ideas than a novel and often repetitive and meandering. Yet I’ve read it several times and it’s my favourite of his novels. Perhaps it’s the unsentimental yet touching picture of pre-war English life, safe and secure, which is so attractive. This reminds one that Orwell was in many ways deeply conservative and old fashioned. Bowling is a bit of a cad yet rather likeable, if not quite convincing as a portrait of a lower middle class bloke who’s not very happy. Luckily for us, where England was concerned Orwell was wrong about everything except the food queues. On the whole I prefer his non fiction. Not Homage to Catalonia but The Road to Wigan Pier; the essays in Inside the Whale rather than Down and Out in Paris and London. I’m a great admirer and the best biography, IMO, is still Bernard Crick’s.
Orwell appears in one of the questions in this fun Back to School quiz from the Guardian. It’s all about school stories!