Coming Up for Air (1939) by George Orwell

By JF
The author of this novel, George Orwell, most famously known for his satires on society in Animal Farm and 1984, here composes what can be interpreted as the preliminary text in a trilogy which serves as a worthy political antecedent to these two great, significant literary pieces. Often overlooked by many, Coming Up for Air is effectively a social document echoing Orwell’s socialist views marvellously, and tells the story of George Bowling, a middle-aged, slightly overweight man of Ellesmere Road who lives with his wife, Hilda, and their two children. The novel opens with George travelling to London on his day off to collect a new set of false teeth and wondering what to do with the seventeen pounds he has won on a horserace. George is a very ordinary man in a safe insurance job, however, he struggles to get to terms with the contemporary world. He is undoubtedly fearful of the future as he gets the sense that war is approaching, foreseeing food queues, soldiers, tyranny and despotism. He is tired of this fake, distorted world, commenting that he’d ‘bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of’, and resultantly he looks for solitude in recounting memories of life before the First World War in his boyhood home of Lower Binfield.
Ideas relating to Orwellian socialism are prevalent throughout, for instance, at the very beginning George feels trapped on Ellesmere Road, most notably by Sir Hubert Crum and his ironically named Cheerful Credit Building Society who deceive the inhabitants in to thinking they own their houses. George, in a rather funny way, envisages ‘an enormous statue to the god of building societies’, with the top half being ‘a managing director’ and the bottom half being ‘a wife in the family way’, emphasising how the upper classes rule over the working class proletariat in this society.
In fact, Orwell once stated that Britain was ‘the most class-ridden society under the sun’, and his concerns in connection to the class structure can be most clearly seen in George’s temperament. Influenced by his previous works such as The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell evidently promotes the idea that socialism should fundamentally be about common decency and fairness for all, something which was clearly not apparent in 1930s Britain. Similarly, in the novel George attends a Left Book Club meeting on fascism, clearly drawing parallels with Orwell and the publishing group which strived to exert far-left influence between 1936 and 1948.
After introducing the Bowlings and the world they live in, a poster relating to King Zog’s marriage postponement is what ultimately causes George to his remember Og, the King of Bashan, which he recalls from Sunday church as a child. This results in a string of memories from his childhood, and readers are immediately transported to Lower Binfield, George’s own little Garden of Eden. He remembers how ‘it was summer all the year round’, his father’s seed business, his mother’s cooking, his ‘walking out’ with Elsie Flowers, working at Grimmett’s grocery store, but in particular he recalls his love for fishing, which becomes a major theme. This is of vital importance to Orwell as he believed that ‘by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies, and…toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable’. Childhood for George is ‘a kind of a strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing’, and consequently we can relate to him in the sense that we are all nostalgic at times as we want to try and recapture past glories from our childhood.
Nonetheless, Orwell perfectly illustrates that sooner or later youth gets smothered by mundane, unvarying routines of work, marriage and children. For example, George always intends to return to Binfield House to catch the enormous carp he remembered seeing as a child, however, he goes on to comment that in this world ‘There’s time for everything except the things worth doing’. George eventually enlists for the army and is injured in 1916, however, it is only after twenty five years that he decides to return to Lower Binfield to find that almost everything he once knew has changed and is now unrecognisable.
George’s past memories now resemble a ‘sea of bricks’, a ‘continuous row’ of new houses with ‘the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps’. George also realises that the cemetery has moved out of the village to the outskirts, which had a rather ‘unhomelike look’. Elsie Flowers’ ‘deeply feminine’ look had disappeared and she was now ‘a fat old woman muddling about a frowzy little shop’, the village pub had been modernised, but most important to George is the fact that the pond at Binfield House where he saw the huge carp had now become a rubbish dump. Consequently, George is now completely lost in this world as his last piece of home has been ravaged by the times, indicating how this process of ‘coming up for air’ has not worked for his character.
The Sunday Times reviewer on this novel comments that Coming Up for Air is ‘Very funny, as well as invigoratingly realistic’, which is certainly not fully true. Ironic humour plays a significant role, however, ‘Very funny’ is a misinterpretation. Overall, the story’s real worth is in the evocation of the past in comparison with the contemporary world in which George lives, and how society has completely changed over time due to the effects of war. One area that Orwell could have improved was gender, however. Hilda and her friends are rather two-dimensional to say the least, but in light of this the novel’s reputation should not be tarnished. Orwell is remembered most for Animal Farm and 1984, however, this novel as a realist commentary on contemporary society and politics must not be underestimated, with many of the Orwellian themes and ideas still being applicable in the world we live in today.

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