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Book review: Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

‘The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth,’ so declares George Bowling, the anti-hero of George Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air. And so, on this suitably tragi-comic note begins a novel which lays the foundations for Orwell’s subsequent masterpieces Animal Farm and 1984.

With his fat, ruddy complexion and sometimes crude mannerisms, Bowling is an archetype of the lower middle class – a travelling salesman, good at his job and living a life of seeming respectability even if that life is based largely on credit. In Bowling the reader detects a composite of Orwellian characters, part Comstock, part Winston and even part Flory.

Money is always a preoccupation for Orwell. George and Hilda Bowling replete with two children, though minus an aspidistra, are scraping by in suburbia – just. Orwell’s depiction of the family’s attempt to keep their heads above water - especially his analysis of the mortgage racket – was just as relevant in 1939 as it is today. The Bowlings, it is implied, are fighting a losing battle.

It is typical of the author to paint a gloomy picture of life just above the bread line – somewhat of an Orwell leitmotif. Bowling might not be educated in the conventional meaning of the word, but he’s nobody’s fool. The reader identifies with his sense of futility. The Bowlings merely exist. They don’t live. George and Hilda have been thrown together. That George let’s slip that he has fantasised about killing his wife is a typically macabre touch from an author who knew a thing or two about ‘the English murder.’

Domestic torpidity aside, it’s the pervading sense of fear, of impending and inevitable doom which leaves an indelible mark on the mind. Written between 1938-39 while Orwell was convalescing in Morocco, Bowling’s fatalism is infectious – more so because like Winston Smith he seems to be the only person alive who knows what’s around the corner: bombs, barbed wire, propaganda, secret police and truncheons, a world turned upside down.

Returning – escaping - to his childhood village of Lower Binfield (Orwell’s Shiplake) is a masterstroke on behalf of the author. Thus, Orwell is in his element describing a lost England as Bowling’s reminisces transport the reader back to a time before motor cars and even aeroplanes had been invented. Description of life in this Edwardian idyll is lovingly and tenderly described. Though Bowling yearns for this vanished past with its securities, its knowability – the sense of belonging within a pastoral order, Orwell ensures his character does not wallow in sentimentality.

Upon realising that Lower Binfield has changed beyond all recognition, Bowling is surprised but not necessarily saddened. Change is in the air and ’Fatty Bowling’ is shrewd enough to recognise as much. The village of his childhood has transformed into a sprawling industrial town, a place where individuality has been replaced with homogeneity, mainly in the shape of housing estates which have encroached into the surrounding countryside, erasing the fields (but not the memories) where the young Bowling roamed.

Again, the reader is struck by the modernity of Orwell’s vision. Coming Up for Air might just as well have been written in 2022.

Inevitably, Bowling’s quest to turn back the clock must and will end in failure. The sense of one age ending and a new one beginning is clear and irresistible. Especially symbolic is the narrator’s desire to take up fishing once more – his favourite boyhood pursuit and an activity last engaged in 30 years ago before wives, children and mortgages arrived. Pure pathos it is when Bowling stumbles upon a secret childhood pool intent to fish its waters thereby fulfilling a childhood ambition.

For what greets him is the ultimate anti-climax and George is forced to give up his trip down memory lane – a stranger in a now alien landscape. In Bowling’s sojourn Orwell seems to be suggesting that it is quite natural to yearn for simpler times, that nostalgia is a perfectly understandable human emotion while advising that our notions of the past can sometimes be inaccurate, wildly so. Change might be inevitable, but change can be negative as well as positive.

George Bowling might wish to escape his domestic prison and even more the cataclysmic change he senses will occur any day, but it’s a futile quest. In fact, the world of 1939 stands at the edge of a precipice: ‘There’s no escape,’ says Bowling toward the end of the novel. ‘Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-smashing along with the others. But there’s no way out. It’s just something that’s got to happen.’

Re-reading this curiously under-valued Orwell novel after a 30-year gap is a revelation. With its mixture of bathos and fatalism Coming Up For Air is an intoxicating brew – far subtler than might be realised at first glance. It’s a lament for lost innocence and an epitaph for a lost world of certainty. ‘Look out, this is what you stand to lose.’ That might be one summary of the book. There are many others.

Wow. I could go on and on, Coming Up for Air is a novel so rich in suggestion. Overshadowed by 1984 and Animal Farm, it would be no exaggeration to suggest here is a book every bit as valuable as its more celebrated siblings.