“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968


Sunday, 6 April 2014

Coming Up For Air.

I'm not that much of a re-reader only rarely returning to a book no matter how much I have enjoyed it the first time around. There always seems to be so much other stuff to read. One exception to this, and a book that I have read many times, is George Orwell's Coming Up For Air.  The narrator and central character George Bowling is a fat forty-five year old insurance salesman living with his wife and two kids in a typical suburban semi. Mortgaged up to the hilt, trapped in the rat-race and with the constant fear of war and Fascism at the back of his mind George is not a happy man. A chance flashback sets him to reminiscing about his pre-First World War boyhood in the small Thames Valley market town of Lower Binfield. In his description of Edwardian small town England, of George's growing up and his obsession with fishing, the secret pool inhabited with giant carp, in all of this Orwell surpasses himself.
In the final third of the book George decides to take a few days off and re-discover his old home town after an absence of over twenty years. It will be like "coming up for air" he reckons. In what is I suspect   everyone's favourite part of the the book, George is driving toward Lower Binfield, approaching the crest of a hill from where he will be able to see the old town. The anticipation is palpable. He crests the hill only to find that Lower Binfield has gone, been subsumed by a vast industrial town, another Slough or Dagenham. George perseveres with his visit. Stays a few days. Drinks too much. The final straw is when he discoverers that the secret pool with the carp had been drained and used as a rubbish tip for a back to nature woodland garden development. And all the time there is the incessant backbeat of the coming war. The jackboots, the bombers overhead, rubber truncheons in the face.
George slinks back to his wife in the suburbs. He is not the most sympathetic of characters and in many ways the book is quite misogynistic but something about the wonderful descriptions of simple things draws me back again and again. Perhaps there is another, darker reason why I continue to return to Coming Up For Air. These days it's easy, listening to the chatter going on around you, all that stuff about house prices, all that personal aspiration, Waitrose, "lifestyle", it's easy to feel like you have been shipwrecked on an alien shore. I feel like that myself sometimes. In a strange way I find the fictional George Bowling somehow reassuring. He would understand. George reaches out from the pages and pats me on the arm just as he might if we were sitting together in the saloon bar. "Fuck it Old Chap". "Fuck it all". He rises to his feet. "Same again?"

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