Does anyone who isn’t dead from the neck up doubt that there’s a bad time coming?
We don’t even know what it’ll be, and yet we know it’s coming.
Perhaps a war, perhaps a slump—no knowing, except that it’ll be something bad.
Wherever we’re going, we’re going downwards.
ORWELL'S COMING UP FOR AIR
But what about the new kind of men from eastern Europe,
the streamlined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets?
They’re on our track. Not long before they catch up with us.
...And all the decent people are paralysed.
Coming Up For Air - published in 1939 when Orwell was thirty-six years old - is his seventh book. It was mainly written in Marrakech, Morocco where he was recuperating after a tuberculosis attack incurred after finishing Homage to Catalonia. It was written after his eyes had been opened to the truth behind feudalism, imperialism, fascisim, capitalism, communism and every other kind of totalitarianism disguising itself as socialism. As with all his books, Coming Up For Air was Orwell's attempt to combine his love of writing with his mission to inform. Here are some excerpts that readers will probably enjoy as they are examples of Orwell's wit and his ability to say it like it is (and will be): ~ Jackie Jura
Part 1, Chapter 2:
...As a matter of fact, in Ellesmere Road we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them. They’re not freehold, only leasehold. They’re priced at five-fifty, payable over a period of sixteen years, and they’re a class of house, which, if you bought them for cash down, would cost round about three-eighty. That represents a profit of a hundred and seventy for the Cheerful Credit, but needless to say that Cheerful Credit makes a lot more out of it than that. Three-eighty includes the builder’s profit, but the Cheerful Credit, under the name of Wilson & Bloom, builds the houses itself and scoops the builder’s profit. All it has to pay for is the materials. But it also scoops the profit on the materials, because under the name of Brookes & Scatterby it sells itself the bricks, tiles, doors, window-frames, sand, cement, and, I think, glass. And it wouldn’t altogether surprise me to learn that under yet another alias it sells itself the timber to make the doors and window-frames...
But the really subtle swindle, the one that makes me feel old Crum deserved his baronetcy, is the mental one. Merely because of the illusion that we own our houses and have what’s called ‘a stake in the country’, we poor saps in the Hesperides, and in all such places, are turned into Crum’s devoted slaves for ever. We’re all respectable householders—that’s to say Tories, yes-men, and bumsuckers. Daren’t kill the goose that lays the gilded eggs! And the fact that actually we aren’t householders, that we’re all in the middle of paying for our houses and eaten up with the ghastly fear that something might happen before we’ve made the last payment, merely increases the effect. We’re all bought, and what’s more we’re bought with our own money...
Part 1, Chapter 4:
...I was walking westward up the Strand, and though it was coldish I went slowly to get the pleasure of my cigar. The usual crowd that you can hardly fight your way through was streaming up the pavement, all of them with that insane fixed expression on their faces that people have in London streets, and there was the usual jam of traffic with the great red buses nosing their way between the cars, and the engines roaring and horns tooting. Enough noise to waken the dead, but not to waken this lot, I thought. I felt as if I was the only person awake in a city of sleep-walkers. That’s an illusion, of course. When you walk through a crowd of strangers it’s next door to impossible not to imagine that they’re all waxworks, but probably they’re thinking just the same about you. And this kind of prophetic feeling that keeps coming over me nowadays, the feeling that war’s just round the corner and that war’s the end of all things, isn’t peculiar to me. We’ve all got it, more or less. I suppose even among the people passing at that moment there must have been chaps who were seeing mental pictures of the shellbursts and the mud. Whatever thought you think there’s always a million people thinking it at the same moment. But that was how I felt. We’re all on the burning deck and nobody knows it except me. I looked at the dumb-bell faces streaming past. h. Not a notion of what’s coming to them. It was as if I’d got X-rays in my eyes and could see the skeletons walking...
Part 3, Chapter 1
...War! I started thinking about it again. It's coming soon, that's certain. But who's afraid of war? That's to say, who's afraid of the bombs and the machine-guns? 'You are', you say. Yes, I am, and so's anybody who's ever seen them. But it isn't the war that matters, it's the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke. It’s all going to happen. Or isn’t it? Some days I know it’s impossible, other days I know it’s inevitable...
...The argument went on for a bit. All day I’d been wanting to talk to somebody about this business. It’s funny. I’m not a fool, but I’m not a highbrow either, and God knows at normal times I don’t have many interests that you wouldn’t expect a middle-aged seven-pound-a-weeker with two kids to have. And yet I’ve enough sense to see that the old life we’re used to is being sawn off at the roots. I can feel it happening. 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. And I’m not even exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me. Ordinary chaps that I meet everywhere, chaps I run across in pubs, bus drivers, and travelling salesmen for hardware firms, have got a feeling that the world’s gone wrong. They can feel things cracking and collapsing under their feet...
...It struck me that perhaps a lot of the people you see walking about are dead. We say that a man’s dead when his heart stops and not before. It seems a bit arbitrary. After all, parts of your body don’t stop working—hair goes on growing for years, for instance. Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea. Old Porteous is like that. Wonderfully learned, wonderfully good taste—but he’s not capable of change. Just says the same things and thinks the same thoughts over and over again. There are a lot of people like that. Dead minds, stopped inside. Just keep moving backwards and forwards on the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.
Old Porteous’s mind, I thought, probably stopped working at about the time of the Russo-Japanese War. And it’s a ghastly thing that nearly all the decent people, the people who don’t want to go round smashing faces in with spanners, are like that. They’re decent, but their minds have stopped. They can’t defend themselves against what’s coming to them, because they can’t see it, even when it’s under their noses. They think that England will never change and that England’s the whole world. Can’t grasp that it’s just a left-over, a tiny corner that the bombs happen to have missed. But what about the new kind of men from eastern Europe, the streamlined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets? They’re on our track. Not long before they catch up with us. No Marquess of Queensbury rules for those boys. And all the decent people are paralysed. Dead men and live gorillas. Doesn’t seem to be anything between...
Part 3, Chapter 2
...And the next war coming over the horizon, 1941, they say. Three more circles of the sun, and then we whizz straight into it. The bombs diving down on you like black cigars, and the streamlined bullets streaming from the Bren machine-guns. Not that that worries me particularly. I’m too old to fight. There’ll be air-raids, of course, but they won’t hit everybody. Besides, even if that kind of danger exists, it doesn’t really enter into one’s thoughts beforehand. As I’ve said several times already, I’m not frightened of the war, only the after-war. And even that isn’t likely to affect me personally. Because who’d bother about a chap like me? I’m too fat to be a political suspect. No one would bump me off or cosh me with a rubber truncheon. I’m the ordinary middling kind that moves on when the policeman tells him. As for Hilda and the kids, they’d probably never notice the difference. And yet it frightens me. The barbed wire! The slogans! The enormous faces! The cork-lined cellars where the executioner plugs you from behind! For that matter it frightens other chaps who are intellectually a good deal dumber than I am. But why! Because it means good-bye to this thing I’ve been telling you about, this special feeling inside you. Call it peace, if you like. But when I say peace I don’t mean absence of war, I mean peace, a feeling in your guts. And it’s gone for ever if the rubber truncheon boys get hold of us...
...A week in Lower Binfield, with no Hilda, no kids, no Flying Salamander, no Ellesmere Road, no rumpus bout the hire-purchase payments, no noise of traffic driving you silly--just a week of loafing round and listening to the quietness?...
...But it wasn’t that I wanted to watch my navel. I only wanted to get my nerve back before the bad times begin. Because does anyone who isn’t dead from the neck up doubt that there’s a bad time coming? We don’t even know what it’ll be, and yet we know it’s coming. Perhaps a war, perhaps a slump—no knowing, except that it’ll be something bad. Wherever we’re going, we’re going downwards. Into the grave, into the cesspool—no knowing. And you can’t face that kind of thing unless you’ve got the right feeling inside you. There’s something that’s gone out of us in these twenty years since the war. It’s a kind of vital juice that we’ve squirted away until there’s nothing left. All this rushing to and fro! Everlasting scramble for a bit of cash. Everlasting din of buses, bombs, radios, telephone bells. Nerves worn all to bits, empty places in our bones where the marrow ought to be...
Part 3, Chapter 3
...Well, I’d done it. I was on the forbidden ground. It was true that five miles farther on, if I wanted to, I could turn to the left again and get back to Westerham. But for the moment I was headed westward. Strictly speaking I was in flight. And what was curious, I was no sooner on the Oxford road than I felt perfectly certain that they knew all about it. When I say they I mean all the people who wouldn’t approve of a trip of this kind and who’d have stopped me if they could—which, I suppose, would include pretty well everybody.
What was more, I actually had a feeling that they were after me already. The whole lot of them! All the people who couldn’t understand why a middle-aged man with false teeth should sneak away for a quiet week in the place where he spent his boyhood. And all the mean-minded bastards who could understand only too well, and who’d raise heaven and earth to prevent it. They were all on my track. It was as if a huge army were streaming up the road behind me. I seemed to see them in my mind’s eye. Hilda was in front, of course, with the kids tagging after her, and Mrs Wheeler driving her forward with a grim, vindictive expression, and Miss Minns rushing along in the rear, with her pince-nez slipping down and a look of distress on her face, like the hen that gets left behind when the others have got hold of the bacon rind. And Sir Herbert Crum and the higher-ups of the Flying Salamander in their Rolls-Royces and Hispano-Suizas. And all the chaps at the office, and all the poor down-trodden pen-pushers from Ellesmere Road and from all such other roads, some of them wheeling prams and mowing-machines and concrete garden-rollers, some of them chugging along in little Austin Sevens. And all the soul-savers and Nosey Parkers, the people whom you’ve never seen but who rule your destiny all the same, the Home Secretary, Scotland Yard, the Temperance League, the Bank of England, Lord Beaverbrook, Hitler and Stalin on a tandem bicycle, the bench of Bishops, Mussolini, the Pope—they were all of them after me. I could almost hear them shouting:
‘There’s a chap who thinks he’s going to escape! There’s a chap who says he won’t be streamlined! He’s going back to Lower Binfield! After him! Stop him!’
It’s queer. The impression was so strong that I actually took a peep through the little window at the back of the car to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Guilty conscience, I suppose. But there was nobody. Only the dusty white road and the long line of the elms dwindling out behind me.
I trod on the gas and the old car rattled into the thirties. A few minutes later I was past the Westerham turning. So that was that. I’d burnt my boats. This was the idea which, in a dim sort of way, had begun to form itself in my mind the day I got my new false teeth.
Part 4, Chapter 6
...I’ll tell you what my stay in Lower Binfield had taught me, and it was this. It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got at 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...
...Illusion! Baloney! It doesn’t matter how many of them there are, they’re all for it. The bad times are coming, and the streamlined men are coming too. What’s coming afterwards I don’t know, it hardly even interests me. I only know that if there’s anything you care a curse about, better say good-bye to it now, because everything you’ve ever known is going down, down, into the muck, with the machine-guns rattling all the time.
But when I got back to the suburb my mood suddenly changed...Nothing's real in Ellesmere Road except gas bills, school fees, boiled cabbage, and the office on Monday...
ORWELL THE FAMILY MAN (with excerpts from Coming Up For Air)
ORWELL TRIBUTE SONG (reader Peter was reading Coming Up For Air when he came upon Orwell Today)
ORWELL'S CUFA ON STAGE (review of 'Coming Up for Air'). Mar 29, 2005
CUFA GEORGE IS ORWELL (reader Ed thinks the main character in Coming Up for Air is George Orwell)
Reader Laurence sends test questions for 'Coming Up for Air'
GENESIS OF COMING UP FOR AIR (reader Laurence about background to CUFA & was there a sequel & where is the manuscript kept?)
ORWELL'S OTHER BOOKS
HOMAGE TO ORWELL (Jackie Jura visits Orwell's boyhood homes)
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