Orwell's cast of mind was pacifism based on opposition to the Popular Front policy of the Communists,
which he saw as yet another racket - to lure the democracies into a war against Fascism,
a war that he thought would not defeat Fascism but simply bring it to Britain.


Both he and Eileen were firmly in the anti-war camp...
They decided that the English people, given a voice, would not want a war either...
He signed several ILP anti-war manifestos, one asserting
'the need for resisting political censorship and the suppression of truth'.
In this frame of his mind his new novel was taking shape.
~ Inside George Orwell, by Gordon Bowker

Dear Jackie,

Where can I learn about background information to Orwell's novel, "Coming Up For Air"? Also, was there any kind of sequel, and where is the manuscript kept?

Thanks for your interest.

Laurence Alter

Greetings Laurence,

You can learn a little bit about Coming Up For Air by going to the ORWELL'S OTHER BOOKS section of my website and reading the intro and the excerpts. Upon re-reading them just now I see how amazingly pertinent its sentiments are for today as we wait for the next "terrorist" attack the governments of the free world tell us daily is coming not "if" but "when". And in the meantime the police are hitting the streets* like black-booted thugs just itching to fire their taser guns and rubber bullets and other high-tech so-called "non-lethal" weapons against innocent citizens in the name of "keeping people safe".

Here's Orwell, talking through George Bowling, the main character of Coming Up For Air:

"...The world weíre 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. Itís all going to happen. Or isnít it? Some days I know itís impossible, other days I know itís inevitable..."

"The bad times are coming, and the streamlined men are coming too. Whatís coming afterwards I donít know, it hardly even interests me. I only know that if thereís anything you care a curse about, better say good-bye to it now, because everything youíve ever known is going down, down, into the muck, with the machine-guns rattling all the time..."

Orwell wrote Coming Up For Air during the six months he spent in Morocco after being released from a sanatorium south of London where he'd spent six months after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. He'd had a rough year in 1937 after spending six months in Spain, getting shot through the neck, then returning home to England to fix up his little house in Wallington, and writing Homage to Catalonia which was rejected. You can read details of the lung hemorrhage he suffered in Wallington and his hospilization in my essay INDIA, ORWELL, JFK & CHINA.

For information on Orwell's life surrounding Coming Up For Air and everything else I recommend you read biographies including INSIDE GEORGE ORWELL, by Gordon Bowker. The following excerpts are taken from Chapter 12, pages 236 to 252:

"...It was evident to Orwell, as to many others, that war with Germany was now brewing. After Spain he saw that a war against Fascism would be followed inevitably by a war against Soviet Communism, which he also regarded as Fascistic. Desmond Young, who got to know him around this time, remembered Orwell saying to him that this was 'only the first act of a tragedy that would be played not in two acts but in three'. Already he saw clearly the enemy beyond Hitler, the enemy he would depict with such savage irony in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Homage to Catalonia was published at the end of April 1938. Orwell was hoping for a good sale and wide coverage. In the event, Warburg printed 1,500 copies but sold only 800. The remainder was not finally sold until after Orwell's death...

Just before Homage to Catalonia appeared, after a week in bed with bronchitis, he began coughing up blood...Laurence O'Shaughnessy saw him and had him transferred immediately by ambulance to Preston Hall Village, a British Legion sanatorium, near Maidstone in Kent, where he was consultant thoracic surgeon. He was admitted on 17 March... He was ordered to rest and refrain even from 'literary research' for three months. It was particularly galling for Orwell, who already had another novel in mind. In december he had outlined the idea to Moore: 'It will be about a man who is having a holiday and trying to make a temporary escape from his responsibilities, public and private. The title I thought of is "Coming Up For Air." Escaping from reality, of course, is just what he found so unacceptable and difficult to understand in Henry Miller, the fatalist who himself advocated living like Jonah, 'inside the whale'. Orwell clearly wanted to explore this tendency in himself, a tendency already explored in a less political context in the 'escapes' of Dorothy Hare and Gordon Comstock. But the man who most needed air was George Orwell, the man whose lungs were refusing to work for him.

Two and a half months after his admission he was still unable to get the novel started. Eileen told Leonard Moore that 'the book seethes in his head and he is very anxious to get on with it', but surrounded by movement and noise it was not easy to work. She told Lydia Jackson it was a novel 'about a man with a couple of impossible children and a nagging wife'. His hope was to escape from the shadowland of European politics into sunlit uplands of literature, but he knew that was not possible. As he told Jack Common in May, 'The rest...has made me keen to get started...though when I came here I had been thinking that what with Hitler, Stalin & the rest of them the day of novel-writing was over. As it is if I start it in August I daresay I'll have to finish it in the concentration camp.' The novel he was writing was somehow different, a first-person narrative with past, present and future ponderings mimicking the mind's reflective movements and Orwell's own attempt to see a way through the chaos of the times providing a political commentary. But he could not hope to do any serious work until the summer and would not be able to let Gollancz have the book until Christmas at the earliest. Meanwhile he killed time doing crossword puzzles and worrying about the state of his garden.

He felt a bit isolated in a private room, but was able to mix a little with other patients and receive visitors. Once a fortnight Eileen took the tortuous journey from Wallington to Maidstone (two buses to London, a trip across the city and a train down to Kent and back)...

One visitor who intrigued him was John Sceats, a contributor to Controversy, whose articles Orwell admired. They spent a day together discussing Homage to Catalonia, and the prospect of war with Germany. To Sceats Orwell seemed defeatist on the question of war, feeling that Fascism within would be the main problem, and the need to oppose it through secret political activity and the use of clandestine presses. The fact that his visitor had once worked as an insurance salesman gave Orwell the occupation of the central character in his new novel. Even though he was unable to get down to serious work, the character of 'Tubby' George Bowling was obviously evolving...

In June he joined the Independent Labour Party. That warrior cast of mind which had urged him to fight in Spain had been supplanted by a pacifism based on opposition to the Popular Front policy of the Communists, which he saw as yet another racket - to lure the democracies into a war against Fascism, a war that he thought would not defeat Fascism but simply bring it to Britain. The ILP served no moneyed interest and he found its vision of socialism closer to his own than that of any other party. But he was in no mood or condition to accept an invitation to attend the Eton Collegers Dinner held on 7 July at the Park Lane Hotel. King-Farlow and members of his Election, saluted their sick schoolfellow afterwards, sending him the menu, signed by all present, bearing the slogan, 'Homage to Blair'. It was a kind recognition of his latest work by the erstwhile readers of College Days.

When finally allowed to do a little writing he reviewed Assignment in Utopia by Eugene Lyons who had spent several years in the USSR witnessing starvation in the Ukraine**, the Five-Year Plan and the all-pervading power of the secret police. 'The system that Mr Lyons describes,' he wrote, 'does not seem to be very different from Fascism.' All real power was in the hands of the few, the proletariat 'reduced to a status resembling serfdom'. 'The GPU are everywhere, everyone lives in constant terror of denunciation, freedom of speech and of the press are obliterated to an extent we can hardly imagine.' There were periodic waves of terror, 'liquidations' of whole peoples, idiotic show trials, betrayals of parents by their children, while the invisible Stalin was worshipped like a Roman Emperor. Here too one was expected to accept unquestiningly all prounoucements by the omniscient and omnipotent ruler. If 2+2=5 (the slogan for the Soviet Five-Year Plan) so be it. Lyons had interviewed the dictator and, like Wells, found him 'human, simple and likeable.' But, observed the old College cynic, Al Capone was a good husband and father, and the Brides in the Bath murderer was deeply loved by his first wife. Lyon's description of a totalitarian state was a foreshadow of the fictional state Orwell himself created out of the nightmre of Spain which would consume him until the end of his life. It was one that would be glimpsed also in his next novel. By the end of June he was able to report to Leonard Moore that he had completed a sketch of it, and also a pamphlet on pacificism.

He was to remain in the sanatorium for five and a half months, by which time he had gained nine pounds. That summer it was decided that he needed to go abroad, 'somewhere south' to convalesce for the coming winter. He asked Yvonne Davet, a French woman who was translating Homage to Catalonia, to help find him a place beside the Mediterranean, and suggested to Common that he might like to have the Wallington cottage rent-free in return for looking after the animals - thirty chickens and two goats - and George's lovingly tended garden.

The idea of the south of France was dropped when Laurence suggested Morocco, which, according to a French colleague, would be both equable and dry, the perfect place for a man in his condition. The only snag was that their money had again run out. Their plight came to the ears of L. H. Myers who arranged with Max Plowman to send them an anonymous gift of 300 pounds to cover their expenses. Myers was a wealthy Marxist who readily gave away his money (from a sense of guilt, according to Orwell). He never knew the source of this money but happily accepted it on the understanding that it be regarded as a loan...

Just before leaving for Morocco Orwell began a Domestic Diary, mostly nature notes following the tradition of Gilbert White and W. H. Hudson, which he kept up throughout his time in Africa and on his return to Wallington. They reveal his love of lists, of detail, of how things work and his encyclopaedic knowledge of flora and fauna. His old teacher Mr Sillar's enthusiasm had produced a more-than-enthusiastic disciple.

When Orwell left England, there was always the hope of escaping to a better future. On 3 September he and Eileen sailed from Tilbury tourist class on the SS Stratheden. It was Orwell's second voyage out through the Bay of Biscay and he must have looked with some amusement on the colonials and their memsahibs heading East to take up the white man's burden. On the passenger list he had designated himself 'Profession - Novelist', while Eileen had written 'Profession - Nil'. He had taken a patent seasickness remedy which he was pleased to find worked, and, according to Eileen, 'walked around the boat with a seraphic smile watching people being sick & insisted on my going to the "Ladies' Cabin" to report on disasters there'.

On board the Stratheden he had a strange reunion. Tony Hyams, his old pupil from Frays College, was also a passenger, travelling with his mother to the Sudan where his father was in government service. He spotted Mr Blair standing alone on the deck one day and went up to say hello. Orwell was quite pleased to see him but seemed preoccupied. He told Hyams that, having fought in Spain, he was now terrified that, passing through Spanish Morocco to reach Marrakech he might be arrested and end up in a concentration camp. The terror inspired in Catalonia obviously lingered.

From Gibraltar they went by boat to Tangier, and next day ran the Spanish guantlet into French Morocco without incident. The following day they arrived in Marrakech...

The day after they arrived, Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich to discuss Hitler's demand to incorporate the Sudetenland into his Third Reich. Orwell noted the lack of interest in the local papers and the refusal to believe that war was likely. 'The whole thing seems to me so utterly meaningless,' he told Common, 'that I think I shall just concentrate on remaining alive.' At that moment his lungs must have seemed a greater threat to his health than the Wehrmacht or the menacing prospect of a Fascist Britain. However, letters from England spoke of war fever -- air raid shelters being built, gas masks being issued, and pro- and anti-war demonstratons in London. Both he and Eileen were firmly in the anti-war camp. Eileen thought that had they been at home George would probably have landed in jail, but they were strangely supportive of the Conservative Prime Minister. Eileen wrote to her sister-in-law Marjorie, 'It's very odd to feel that Chamberlain is our only hope, but I do believe he doesn't want war either at the moment & certainly the man has courage.' They decided that the English people, given a voice, would not want a war either, but would fight if a war was declared.

They were finding Marrakech not much to their liking - interesting but dreadful to live in...

In their temporary villa, Orwell worked on his novel, kept up his diary and wrote regularly to his parents and friends...With the sales of Homage to Catalonia so poor, he faced the prospect of returning with little more than 50 pounds to his name and a debt of 300 pounds.

War to him was a nightmare prospect, not only because he had a vision of Fascism and the concentration camp descending on England, but also saw his writing plans for the coming thirty years under threat. A sense of isolation and defeatism threatened to overwhelm him. He and Eileen planned to survive if possible if only to 'add to the number of sane people'***. He signed several ILP anti-war manifestos, one asserting 'the need for resisting political censorship and the suppression of truth'. In this frame of his mind his new novel was taking shape - 'Tubby' Bowling was articulating his pacifist sentiments and seeking comfort in memories of the England of his childhood...

Writing Coming Up For Air focused his mind on his childhood, and he discovered how very retentive a memory he had. He told Jack Common, 'It's suddenly revealed to me a big subject which I'd never really touched before and haven't time to work out now.' Reflecting a fortnight later on his family and idyllic days in Henley and Shiplake****, he had conceived the idea for a further novel, in fact a trilogy. 'I have been bitten with the desire to write a Saga. I don't know that in a novelist this is not the sign of premature senile decay, but I have the idea for an enormous novel in three parts which would take about five years to write'. Since he thought himself incapable of perpetuating the Blair line, at least he could leave some trace behind by enshrining his family history in a novel - yet another reason not to want a European war...

However, with the left baying for a Popular Front war 'in defence of democracy', and Chamberlain, having bought time at Munich, now slowly gearing up to confront Hitler, the outlook for peace looked uncertain. In the New Year he wrote, in some secrecy, to Herbert Read, the anarchist, suggesting that, in anticipation of this, they should organise a clandestine press to ensure that a dissenting voice could continue to be heard once the totalitarian darkness descended.

George Kopp, in Paris and free at last, got a letter to them which can only have intensified Orwell's nightmares. Kopp described in detail his eighteen months in prison, how he had been isolated, beaten and left in a dark room overrun by rats. When he refused to sign papers admitting collaboration with Franco and implicating others, his Communist gaolers had attempted to poison him, and then to work him to death. He was released finally when Belgian trade unions put pressure on the Republican Government through the Belgian embassy, but his health was shattered and he had lost seven stone. By now, however, the Francoists were winning the Spanish war, the power of the Communists and NKVD was reduced, and Barcelona was a shambles. The 'war for democracy' in Spain was about to be lost.

In the New Year a draft of Coming Up For Air was completed, and he and Eileen left for a week's break at Taddert in the Atlas Mountains. He was very struck by the Berbers who lived there...

Their plan was to return directly to England by boat from Casablanca at the end of March (thereby avoding the Spanish territory), then find a house somewhere a little warmer and further south than Wallington. Dorset was the preferred choice, no doubt reflecting his prevailing mood of nostalgia and urge to write a family saga. With his father's life approaching its end, how better to get back to his Blair roots than to live in the county of his paternal ancestors? His novel was almost finished, and as usual he thought it good only in parts. Now his mind turned homewards - to the flowers, the ruhbarb...

On 28 March 1939 they sailed from Casablanca on board the SS Yasukunimaru, a Japanese liner bound for London from Yokohama. The weather was good and he hardly needed his seasickness pills. Arriving in London, the first thing he did was deliver to Moore the manuscript of Coming Up For Air, which Eileen had typed just before they left. One thing about it made him rather proud - there was not a single semi-colon in it. It was an unnecessary stop, he had decided, and had to be banished. He was still unhappy about Gollancz. 'If he tries to bugger me abt I think I shall leave him,' he had told Common..

The novel he had left with Moore reflected the state of mind in which Orwell faced the prospect of war. Many of the acute fears he felt at this time permeate Coming Up For Air - a repetition of 1914 and the abolition of truth, the bombing of towns and the threat of the concentration camp. Isolation in Morocco had distanced him from the daily ebb and flow of news and the prevailing air of crisis which would have engulfed him in England. Apart from events and yet part of them, he was able to achieve a novel that was both highly personal and yet politically and socially perceptive at the same time. Its first person narrator is his self-reflective alter ego and social commentator rolled into one. As he himself said of fiction-writers, 'By their subject-matter ye shall know them.'

He hoped it would offend Gollancz, with its sneers at young Communists and its guyng of Left Book Club meetings, even if it meant losing the 100 pound advance on acceptance specified in his contract. But neither the sneers nor the satirical jibes put off the publisher who paid up promptly and put the novel on his list for publication in June. If A Clergyman's Daughter was the Orwell novel most influenced by Joyce, Coming Up For Air is more suggestive of Proust...More obviously it is a novel in Wellsian vein, the tale of a 'little man' trying to make sense of the modern world - 'Wells watered down'. Orwell called it.

George Bowling (a surname borrowed from the old folk song about Tom Bowling or perhaps from Smollett's Roderick Random) is, like all Orwell's protagonists, trapped in a soul-destroying routine and champing to get free. The action begins with Orwell's usual chronological precision. 'I remember the morning well. At about a quarter to eight I'd nipped out of bed and got into the bathroom just in time to shut the kids out.' He has been fitted with his first set of false teeth and feels that his life is already more than half over. A newspaper headline and a whiff of horse dung arouse memories and stir longings, and soon George is set upon rediscovering the Golden Age of his past. A win at the races tempts him into truancy - a lie to his wife, an illicit trip to the small town where he grew up, with its memories of boyhood adventures in a bygone age. He is also in search of Katie Simmons, the love of his youth and the idyllic countryside where he played, but above all the hidden pool where he dreamed one day of fishing for a massive and elusive pike. There again is the Laurentian reverie, recalling his first taste of sex with Katie out in the open fields. Here, in Orwell's memorable phrase, is his 'thin man struggling to get out' of the fat insurance salesman. Not only is Bowling fat but unattractive in many other ways - worn down by a loveless marriage, the expense of a family, children who despise him, a man henpecked by a colourless money-obsessed wife and her carping mother. Of course, his journey is doomed - the small town had been engulfed by suburbia and his woodland paradise infested with fruit juice-drinking, sandal-wearing, nudist vegetarians, and Garden City cranks. The Golden Age is done for, Katie, his childhood sweetheart, is now a worn out middle-aged drab and the secret pool with its giant pike, the symbolic centre of his childhood fantasy, turned into a rubbish dump. The horrors of mass society have overwhelmed the holy places and Doomsday threatens in the form of Hitler, Stalin and their streamlined battalions, dedicaterd to ruling through terror, the distrotion of the truth and the elimination of the past. George returns to his bourgeois prison to face again his nagging wife and unlovable children. The Paradise Gained was no more than a sad illusion.

Coming Up For Air was published on 12 June, 1939. Gollancz ('that Stalinist publisher', Orwell now called him) is said to have disapproved of it politically, but published it nevertheless - perhaps to deflect accusations of prejudice against a dissident leftist, and perhaps because he saw in its singularly oracular quality a book that would strike a chord with readers. If so, his judgement was sound. It proved to be a novel of the moment, catching the mood of nervious tension widespread during that uncertain summer of 1939, and the feeling that an old world, already fading over the past two decades, was about to pass away for ever. The Times Literary Supplment made it a Recommended Novel of the Week, highlighting a passage that had clearly touched the imagination of its anonymous critic:

  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 queses and the secret police
   and the loud-speakers telling you what to think...There are
  millions of others like me...They can feel things cracking
    and collapsing unde their feet.

The reviewer noted that the book's indirect, 'conversatonal and slangy' style, which made it so readable, carried not just a narrative but a running commentary on the state of the world. The author seemed to be saying that the old way of story-telling was over and readers must nerve themselves for the bad times ahead. There was also applause from The Times, heralding it as the answer to 'one of the age's puzzles' - 'the cult of the "little man"...

Two weeks after his book appeared his father's conditon worsened, and Orwell went home to Southwold to be with him. On June 25, George's thirty-sixth birthday, Richard was close to death. That day, the Sunday Times carried a review of his novel. At the very last it must have seemed that an erring son had somehow redeemed himself. In a letter to Moore he gave a touching account of the old man's end:

  I was with the poor old man for the last week of his life, and then there
  was the funeral etc., etc., all terribly upsetting and depressing. However,
  he was 82 and had been very active till he was over 80, so he had
  had a good life, and I am very glad that latterly he had not been so
  disappointed in me as before. Curiously enough his last moment of
  consciousness was hearing that review I had in the Sunday Times. He
  heard about it and wanted to see it, and my sister took it in and read it
  to him, and a little later he lost consciousness for the last time...

After attending his father's funeral, he returned to Wallington and again opened a diary. He wanted to plot the slow but inevitable approach of war from a careful reading of the press and weekly reviews...In July he recorded the build up to the Danzig crisis, fighting in Manchuria, agitation for Churchill to be allowed into the Cabinet, British and German overtures to Russia and the call up of reservists. ..." [end quoting from INSIDE GEORGE ORWELL by Gordon Bowker]

I hope that adequately answers your questions regarding background information on Coming Up For Air, and the saga Orwell was planning as a sequel (provided war didn't interrupt him).

The corrected proof of Coming Up For Air is in the Orwell Archive at the University College of London and is also viewable in microfilm by Peter Davison at Microform Academic Publishers.

Thanks for your interest in my website and the wonderful works of George Orwell.

~ Jackie Jura

The George Orwell Archive at University College of London and George Orwell Microfilm Collection

21.Crimestop and 7.Systems of Thought and TERROR BILL IS TERROR and ***32.Enemies of the Party and 37.We Are the Dead and ANIMAL FARM DOGS

* State of Emergency declared in SE Georgia, Atlanta Journal, May 22, 2004
Governor Sonny Perdue has declared a state of emergency in six Georgia coastal counties beginning Monday as a security precaution for the G8 summit. Citing, among other reasons, the "potential danger to the persons and property of this state from unlawful assemblages, threats of violence and otherwise," the executive order creates a unified public safety command for the summit, set to take place June 8-10 on Sea Island. The order, signed by Perdue on May 7, does not provide additional money or change criminal laws in Chatham, Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn and Camden counties. But the action, which could last through June 20, will align the Georgia Army National Guard, state law enforcement and public health agencies under one office, potentially reducing the response time in the event of terrorist strikes or disruptive protests, said Harold Melton, Perdue's executive counsel. The last time a governor used such an order was during the 1996 Olympics, he said. G-8 protesters said declaring a state of emergency was an overreaction and would not stop demonstrators from exercising their rights. "I don't care if it goes to martial law," said William Pleasant, who's planning a protest in Savannah's Forsyth Park. "This is still a constitutional democracy. My friends and I will write and speak and perform."



Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

email: orwelltoday@gmail.com
website: www.orwelltoday.com