Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 256 pages; 2001.
George Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air in 1939, a decade before his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s a strange, beguiling and quite humorous novel, but there’s a dark undertone that sums up the time period in which it was written, as Britain hovered on the edge of war.
The story, which is commonly thought to be thinly veiled autobiography, is narrated by George Bowling, a 45-year-old married man with two children who’s bored with his life as an insurance salesman. He lives in the “inner-outer suburbs” in one of those streets that looks like every other, comprising a long, long row of “little semi-detached houses as much like council houses but generally uglier”. He’s just had a new set of false teeth fitted and his waistline is expanding at an alarming rate. Hmmm, sounds charming, doesn’t he?
With the country on the brink of war and bombing planes flying low overhead, George retreats into the world of nostalgia and spends most of the novel recalling his semi-idyllic childhood in a village outside of London. He gets so lost in this reverie, where he no longer has to worry about the 9-to-5 treadmill and his dreary commute, that he hits upon an idea: he’ll take a secret holiday, sans kids and wife, to the village he grew up in to soak up that wonderful, happy atmosphere once again. But in the heat of the moment he forgets one important thing: the march of progress and its impact on the rural way of life he longs to revisit so keenly. What he finds when he arrives isn’t quite what he expected…
If nothing else, Coming Up for Air pays homage to English country life at the turn of the 19th century and the ways in which little boys grew up, carefree and obsessed by egg-collecting, fishing and other wildlife pursuits, before the horrors of the First World War changed things forever.
But the most interesting aspect of this novel is seeing the seeds of Nineteen Eighty-Four buried in the narrative. For instance, before George escapes to the village of his childhood, he’s fearful of the current political climate — “Hitler, Stalin, bombs, machine-guns, rubber truncheons, Rome-Berlin axis, Popular Front, anti-Comintern pact” — even though he believes no one else is much bothered.
I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think.
When he attends a lecture in the local hall with his wife and her female companions (remember, this is in the days before TV and such lectures were common entertainment), he feels slightly detached from the speaker who, predictably, pitches “into Hitler and the Nazis”. But for anyone who’s read Nineteen Eighty-Four the following sounds very much like the germ of the idea of the “two minutes hate”:
A rather mean little man, with a white face and a bald-head, standing on a platform, shooting out slogans. Whats he doing? Quite deliberately, and quite openly, he’s stirring up hatred. […] He means it. Not faking at all — feels every word he’s saying. He’s trying to work up hatred in the audience, but that’s nothing to the hatred he feels himself. Every slogan’s gospel truth to him. If you cut him open all you’d find inside would be Democracy-Fascism-Democracy.
But the book’s not entirely humourless, because even if the narrator’s not exactly likable, he does have a habit of taking the mickey out of himself and others. Here he describes the audience members at the lecture:
…a little woman with red hair was knitting a jumper. One plain, two purl, drop one and knit two together. The lecturer was describing how the Nazis chop people’s heads off for treason and sometimes the executioner makes a bosh shot. There was another woman in the audience, a girl with dark hair, one of the teachers at the School Council, really listening, sitting forward with her big round eyes fixed on the lecturer and her mouth a little bit open, drinking it all in.
On the whole, though, this is a rather pessimistic novel about a man trying to come to terms with a lost Edwardian childhood while a war with Germany looms large on the horizon.