Coming Up for Air is a novel by George Orwell, first published in June 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II. It combines rumours of the impending war with images of an idyllic Thames-side Edwardian childhood. The novel is pessimistic — industrialism and capitalism have killed the best of Old England, and there are great, new external threats.
As a child, Orwell lived at Shiplake and Henley in the Thames Valley. He was the son of an Indian Civil Servant who was still in India, and he lived a genteel life with his mother and two sisters, though spending much of the year at boarding school at Eastbourne and later at Eton. He particularly enjoyed fishing and shooting rabbits with a neighbouring family.
In 1937, Orwell spent some months fighting in the Spanish Civil War and experienced modern warfare then, as well as being badly wounded.
Orwell was severely ill in 1938 and was advised to spend the winter in a warm climate. The novelist L. H. Myers anonymously gave £300 to enable this and Orwell went with his wife to North Africa where he stayed, in French Morocco, mainly in Marrakech, from September 1938 to March 1939. Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air while he was there and left the manuscript at his agent’s office within a few hours of arriving back in England on 30 March. It was published almost at once.
The themes of the book are nostalgia, the folly of trying to go back and recapture past glories and the easy way the dreams and aspirations of one’s youth can be smothered by the humdrum routine of work, marriage and getting old. It is written in the first person, with George Bowling, the forty-five-year-old protagonist, who reveals his life and experiences while undertaking a trip back to his boyhood home as an adult.
At the opening of the book, Bowling has a day off work to go to London to collect a new set of false teeth. A news-poster about the contemporary King Zog of Albania sets off thoughts of a biblical character Og, King of Bashan that he recalls from Sunday church as a child. Along with ‘some sound in the traffic or the smell of horse dung or something’ these thoughts trigger Bowling’s memory of his childhood as the son of an unambitious seed merchant in “Lower Binfield” near the River Thames. Bowling relates his life history, dwelling on how a lucky break during the First World War landed him in a comfortable job away from any action and provided contacts that helped him become a successful salesman.
Bowling is wondering what to do with a small sum of money that he has won on a horserace and which he has concealed from his wife and family. He and his wife attend a Left Book Club meeting where he is horrified by the hate shown by the anti-fascist speaker, and bemused by the Marxist ramblings of the communists who have attended the meeting. Fed up with this, he seeks his friend Old Porteous, the retired schoolmaster. He usually finds Porteous entertaining, but on this occasion his dry dead classics makes Bowling even more depressed.
Bowling decides to use the money on a ‘trip down memory lane’, to revisit the places of his childhood. He recalls a particular pond with huge fish in it which he had missed the chance to try and catch thirty years previously. He therefore plans to return to Lower Binfield but when he arrives, he finds the place unrecognisable. Eventually he locates the old pub where he is to stay, finding it much changed. His home has become a tea shop. Only the church and vicar appear the same, but he has a shock when he discovers an old girlfriend; In his eyes, she has been so ravaged by time, she is almost unrecognizable and is utterly voided of the qualities he once adored. She fails to recognize him at all. Bowling spends a good deal of time remembering the slow and painful decline of his fathers seed business—resulting from the nearby establishment of corporate competition. This painful memory seems to have sensitized him to—and given him a repugnance for; what he sees as the marching ravages of “Progress”. The final disappointment is to find that the estate where he used to fish has been built over, and the secluded and once hidden pond that contained the huge Carp he always intended to take on with his fishing rod, but never got around to, has become a rubbish dump. The social and material changes experienced by Bowling since childhood make his past seem distant. The concept of “you can’t go home again” hangs heavily over Bowling’s journey, as he realizes that many of his old haunts are gone or considerably changed from his younger years.
Throughout the adventure he receives reminders of impending war, and the threat of bombs becomes real when one lands accidentally on the town.
- George Bowling is a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman who dislikes his wife and children and would betray what few principles he has for a couple of pints or a good night out with a prostitute.
- Hilda Bowling, his wife, belonged to the poverty-striken officer class of an Anglo-Indian family who after marriage had settled-down into a depressed lifeless middle-aged frump.
- Old Porteus a retired public-school master whose whole life was lived in an atmosphere of Latin, Greek and cricket.