So, I’ve read my first book of 2022: George Orwell’s, Coming up for Air, and boy, was it a ride! One has to look beyond Orwell’s most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm, and get into the weeds with some of his lesser-known works to find the real Orwell. This book has been described as an account of a man trying to recapture the lost innocence of his childhood. My main takeaway is that the more things change the more they stay the same. But it is more complicated than that of course. It is more like: you can never go home again.
George Bowling is being smothered in a middle-class existence, mired in a loveless marriage on the eve of WWII. He takes a week off and travels to his hometown in Lower Binfield, only to discover that it is no longer there. It has been completely engulfed by urban sprawl.
I love the first line of the novel, “The idea really came to me the day I got I got my new false teeth.” The idea to travel back to his childhood home of Lower Binfield, that is.
George Bowling was the product of shop keepers who struggled to keep their business alive as he describes in this passage: “It’s a fact that very few shopkeepers in those days actually ended in the workhouse. With any luck, you died with a few pounds still your own. It was a race between death and bankruptcy, and, thank God, death got Father first, and mother too.”
He details the banal middle-class existence as only Orwell can, interweaving some heavy commentary on the horrors of war and the disgusting nature of human beings they can sometime exhibit as this example of a discussion of the Boer War between two of George Bowling’s relatives readily shows: “…surely he couldn’t think it right for these here Boers to throw babies in the air and catch them on their bayonets, even if they were only, nigger babies?” “Uncle Ezekiel just laughed in his face. Father had it all wrong! It wasn’t the Boers who threw the babies in the air, it was the British soldiers!”
In this book, Orwell refers to several wars, The Boer War, WWI, and the pending WWII. More on war: “It was unspeakably meaningless, that time in 1918. Here I was sitting beside the stove in an army hut …when a few hundred miles away in France the guns were roaring and droves of wretched children, wetting their bags with fright, were being driven into the machine gun barrage like you’d shoot small coke into a furnace. …It was a lunatic’s dream….if the war didn’t kill you, it was bound to start you thinking.”
There was a scene in Lower Binfield, when Geroge went back to visit, where an RAF bomber making a practice run accidentally drops a bomb on the village killing three people. Thinking it was the Germans and expecting a second bomb to drop Orwell describes the following surreal scene: “And then I saw an extraordinary sight. At the other end of the market-place the High Street rises a little. And down this little hill, a herd of pigs was galloping, a sort of huge flood of pig-faces. The next moment, of course, I saw what it was. It wasn’t pigs at all, it was only the schoolchildren in their gas masks.”
George Bowling’s visit to Lower Binfield taught him one thing: “It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got in 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. The bombs, the food-queues, the rubber truncheons, the barbed wire, the coloured shirts, the slogans, the enormous faces, the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. It’s all going to happen. I know it -at any rate – I knew it then. There’s no escape. 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.”
Lest you think it was all doom and gloom, not so. There was quite a lot of humor injected into the novel. Dark humor. This novel, is, after all, satire.