Coming Up For Air - George Orwell - E-Book

Coming Up For Air E-Book

George Orwell

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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 premonitions of the impending war with images of an idyllic Thames-side Edwardian era childhood. The novel is pessimistic, with its view that speculative builders, commercialism and capitalism are killing the best of rural England, "everything cemented over", and there are great new external threats.
 

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COMING UP FOR AIR

By GEORGE ORWELL

 

‘He’s dead, but he won’t lie down’ Popular song

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cover design: Giancarlo Rossini

 Preface by Giancarlo Rossini

“Coming up for air" is a novel that cannot be seductive due to the setting, and the characterization of the characters: a dark British industrial suburb, polluted by the winds of war (the novel was written in 1938) corresponds, for mediocrity and rebelliousness to charm, to the main character, the first person narrator of the story; gray George Bowling is a middle-aged insurer, weighed down in body and spirit by a disappointing existence. It is as if Orwell had insisted on sculpting the deterioration and decay of the culture and conditions of his people by concentrating on the creation of a specter of paper that goes, negligent and aware, adrift. It is the book of the slovenliness and meanness of ambitions and Weltanschauung of the English (Western) petty bourgeoisie: he has the frankness to deny any positive connotation, and to soften, with satire, a perception of reality that I do not find it difficult to judge as decidedly honest and consistent with the future production of the author. Exceptionally interesting, in this regard, as we shall see, what Orwell writes about communism, fascism and National Socialism: considering his particular bitterness towards the tyranny and aberrations of totalitarian regimes, and the exceptional lucidity of his - I am about to adopt an annoying term, but immediately accessible and understandable - "direct contact", it is difficult to overlook its existence, and its particular "inconvenience", especially if one considers the time of writing and its peculiar political-social climate (it is a reporting to historians: it is a literary source, therefore minor;

 

The novel is structured in four parts, asymmetrically divided into 4 + 10 + 3 + 7 chapters. In the first part, the narrator introduces himself: George “Fatty” Bowling, brick red face, blue eyes; butter-colored hair. So overweight that he can only see the front half of his feet; he has a wife, Hilda, whom he stopped loving immediately after marrying her, and two children: Billy and Loria. The young are described as leeches; the wife, like a hare, however withered by boredom and by her intellectual mediocrity: she has an anxious and brooding look, but seems to meditate only on the troubles to cause for her husband, and on the new complaints to propose.

 

The Bowling family lives in a house identical to many others, in the industrial suburbs: in a dormitory area, made up of long rows of semi-detached houses, with the façade decorated with stucco, privet hedges as borders, the door colored green.

 

 

So, we accompany George in his childhood among the first, confused memories of the opposition between the British and the Boers, hints of anti-militarism, inexplicable "contingency" patriotism), the narration of the peaceful existence of his family, shopkeepers, and of its integration into the fabric social status of the country (two thousand inhabitants, a little more), an element emerges that explains much of the regretted culture: George was a passionate fisherman. He was an intelligent fisherman, who went fishing in any pond: in the New England he is living in, he can no longer fish anywhere. The fish are dead, the industry has won an infamous battle: men are denied the consolation of life in contact with nature (back then: they killed, and they kill, more sewage than fishermen: let's memorize it).

 

Fishing was an intense joy, the greatest of his life: he has no regrets for childhood, nor for cricket, nor for sweets: only for fishing. Civilization exhales its last breath: its symbol is the disappearance of the fish.

 

Then follows the memory of the first teenage love, Elsie, and of the First World War, spent more among the books than on the front line, due to an incomprehensible duty as guardian of the "west coast" (oh British men, beware Irish!). The symbolism adopted is quite understandable: in those years, both parents of the protagonist died of illness; dragging with it the root of the old world it knew, and the old balance. Bowling focuses on the narrative of post-war misery; of the first, hateful "commission" or "piecework" hires, announcement of today's "dogma of flexibility", of the tragic state of mind of each individual, victim of a relentless struggle, of the feeling of robbing one's neighbor, of the awareness of being able to lose your job at any moment.

 

Finally, he was fortunately hired as an insurer; he finds a wife, a fallen bourgeois, and realizes that after the wedding she becomes depressed and sloppy; in her eyes, she is a middle-class, which implicitly confirms her "class leap"; but in the new England, the small and middle bourgeoisie seem united by a depressing existence, orphaned of values ​​and points of reference other than economic well-being. A series of descriptions of bourgeois misery are excellent.

 

The former fisherman and former officer changes physical appearance just when he realizes that he is living to spit blood and guts, in exchange for a new pair of shoes for his brats: he feels old, and betrayed by life. He no longer believes in anything: he finds support and consolation by mythologizing the past. It is 1938.

 

In the third part, the novel assumes, to the gaze of the non-English contemporary, and therefore not necessarily interested in the epic of the early twentieth century petty bourgeois, another value; the narrator tells about the propaganda of his time, all centered on the opposition between democracy and fascism: the occasion is a conference in which he participates with his wife, as a spectator (obviously). Bowling is keen to point out that both Labor, Conservatives, Communists and Trotskyists speak of hatred; it seems to suggest that hatred is the only common denominator to parties and world views otherwise not at all analogous or similar. However, he internalizes the message: he does not deny the Hitlerian danger (but: he seems to have the same horror of the Stalinist regime: both are "executioners different from the past", and he goes to talk about it with an old scholar, Porteous. The latter considers the Nazi an adventurer, and evaluates him as an "ephemeral phenomenon": he tends to minimize, showing George how many tyrants history has already expressed, from classicism onwards. Culture has drugged the old master of ataraxia: who lives in a world where eternal truths never set, and is not interested in the affairs of men.

 

George finds no peace, and makes no sense. He physically sinks (while reiterating that he feels himself a “ghost” in various circumstances) in his past: returning to his childhood country (fourth part), alien to everyone: and now everything is alien to him. The journey seems to be able to be interpreted as an escape, but the grotesque outcome of the experience, as you will see, and the bitter and paradoxical epilogue affect our reading of the story. Which seems to seal the most bleak, irremediable, gloomy and apocalyptic that had been expressed up to this moment: the future has come true, and it is image, death, desolation, misery; and they do not deceive buildings, or industries; nature has folded, and the soul of men suffers: it is afraid to exist. And therefore, it attacks. Another war will remind men of what baseness they are capable of, and what horrors; new misery will create new fear, and only time and memory can correct these abominations. Maybe.

 

***

 

Orwell began writing this novel in 1938, when he discovered he was ill with tuberculosis: he resumed working on it as soon as his health conditions allowed him, during a stay in Marrakech prescribed by doctors.

 

It is a book that can constitute a clear and terrible document of Orwell's lucidity as an observer of reality: although weak in the analysis and criticism of the pre-war system, Edenized without ever convincing the reader, it is nevertheless satisfying as a satire and critique of the bourgeoisie, and appreciable in the courageous denunciation of the danger of authoritarian regimes, for different causes and reasons. Not a masterpiece, but an excellent viaticum for reading the works of the great English writer.

 

 

Part I

1

The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.

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. It was a beastly January morning, with a dirty yellowish-grey sky. Down below, out of the little square of bathroom window, I could see the ten yards by five of grass, with a privet hedge round it and a bare patch in the middle, that we call the back garden. There’s the same back garden, some privets, and same grass, behind every house in Ellesmere Road. Only difference, where there are no kids there’s no bare patch in the middle.

I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.

Making a mental note to buy razor-blades, I got into the bath and started soaping. I soaped my arms (I’ve got those kind of pudgy arms that are freckled up to the elbow) and then took the back-brush and soaped my shoulder-blades, which in the ordinary way I can’t reach. It’s a nuisance, but there are several parts of my body that I can’t reach nowadays. The truth is that I’m inclined to be a little bit on the fat side. I don’t mean that I’m like something in a sideshow at a fair. My weight isn’t much over fourteen stone, and last time I measured round my waist it was either forty-eight or forty-nine, I forget which. And I’m not what they call ‘disgustingly’ fat, I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped. Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. ‘Fatty’ they mostly call me. Fatty Bowling. George Bowling is my real name.

But at that moment I didn’t feel like the life and soul of the party. And it struck me that nowadays I nearly always do have a morose kind of feeling in the early mornings, although I sleep well and my digestion’s good. I knew what it was, of course, it was those bloody false teeth. The things were magnified by the water in the tumbler, and they were grinning at me like the teeth in a skull. It gives you a rotten feeling to have your gums meet, a sort of pinched-up, withered feeling like when you’ve bitten into a sour apple. Besides, say what you will, false teeth are a landmark. When your last natural tooth goes, the time when you can kid yourself that you’re a Hollywood sheik, is definitely at an end. And I was fat as well as forty-five. As I stood up to soap my crutch I had a look at my figure. It’s all rot about fat men being unable to see their feet, but it’s a fact that when I stand upright I can only see the front halves of mine. No woman, I thought as I worked the soap round my belly, will ever look twice at me again, unless she’s paid to. Not that at that moment I particularly wanted any woman to look twice at me.

But it struck me that this morning there were reasons why I ought to have been in a better mood. To begin with I wasn’t working today. The old car, in which I ‘cover’ my district (I ought to tell you that I’m in the insurance business. The Flying Salamander. Life, fire, burglary, twins, shipwreck, everything), was temporarily in dock, and though I’d got to look in at the London office to drop some papers, I was really taking the day off to go and fetch my new false teeth. And besides, there was another business that had been in and out of my mind for some time past. This was that I had seventeen quid which nobody else had heard about, nobody in the family, that is. It had happened this way. A chap in our firm, Mellors by name, had got hold of a book called Astrology applied to Horse-racing which proved that it’s all a question of influence of the planets on the colours the jockey is wearing. Well, in some race or other there was a mare called Corsair’s Bride, a complete outsider, but her jockey’s colour was green, which it seemed was just the colour for the planets that happened to be in the ascendant. Mellors, who was deeply bitten with this astrology business, was putting several quid on the horse and went down on his knees to me to do the same. In the end, chiefly to shut him up, I risked ten bob, though I don’t bet as a general rule. Sure enough Corsair’s Bride came home in a walk. I forget the exact odds, but my share worked out at seventeen quid. By a kind of instinct, rather queer, and probably indicating another landmark in my life, I just quietly put the money in the bank and said nothing to anybody. I’d never done anything of this kind before. A good husband and father would have spent it on a dress for Hilda (that’s my wife) and boots for the kids. But I’d been a good husband and father for fifteen years and I was beginning to get fed up with it.

After I’d soaped myself all over I felt better and lay down in the bath to think about my seventeen quid and what to spend it on. The alternatives, it seemed to me, were either a week- end with a woman or dribbling it quietly away on odds and ends such as cigars and double whiskies. I’d just turned on some more hot water and was thinking about women and cigars when there was a noise like a herd of buffaloes coming down the two steps that lead to the bathroom. It was the kids, of course. Two kids in a house the size of ours is like a quart of beer in a pint mug. There was a frantic stamping outside and then a yell of agony.

‘Dadda! I wanna come in!’

‘Well, you can’t. Clear out!’

‘But dadda! I wanna go somewhere!’

‘Go somewhere else, then. Hop it. I’m having my bath.’ ‘Dad-Da! I wanna go somewhere!’

No use! I knew the danger signal. The W.C. is in the bathroom, it would be, of course, in a house like ours. I hooked the plug out of the bath and got partially dry as quickly as I could. As I opened the door, little Billy, my youngest, aged seven, shot past me, dodging the smack which I aimed at his head. It was only when I was nearly dressed and looking for a tie that I discovered that my neck was still soapy.

It’s a rotten thing to have a soapy neck. It gives you a disgusting sticky feeling, and the queer thing is that, however carefully you sponge it away, when you’ve once discovered that your neck is soapy you feel sticky for the rest of the day. I went downstairs in a bad temper and ready to make myself disagreeable.

Our dining-room, like the other dining-rooms in Ellesmere Road, is a poky little place, fourteen feet by twelve, or maybe it’s twelve by ten, and the Japanese oak sideboard, with the two empty decanters and the silver egg-stand that Hilda’s mother gave us for a wedding present, doesn’t leave much room. Old Hilda was glooming behind the teapot, in her usual state of alarm and dismay because the News Chronicle had announced that the price of butter was going up, or something. She hadn’t lighted the gas-fire, and though the windows were shut it was beastly cold. I bent down and put a match to the fire, breathing rather loudly through my nose (bending always makes me puff and blow) as a kind of hint to Hilda. She gave me the little sidelong glance that she always gives me when she thinks I’m doing something extravagant.

Hilda is thirty-nine, and when I first knew her she looked just like a hare. So she does still, but she’s got very thin and rather wizened, with a perpetual brooding, worried look in her eyes, and when she’s more upset than usual she’s got a trick of humping her shoulders and folding her arms across her breast, like an old gypsy woman over her fire. She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. Only petty disasters, of course. As for wars, earthquakes, plagues, famines, and revolutions, she pays no attention to them. Butter is going up, and the gas-bill is enormous, and the kids’ boots are wearing out, and there’s another instalment due on the radio, that’s Hilda’s litany. She gets what I’ve finally decided is a definite pleasure out of rocking herself to and fro with her arms across her breast, and glooming at me, ‘But, George, it’s very serious! I don’t know what we’re going to do! I don’t know where the money’s coming from! You don’t seem to realize how serious it IS!’ and so on and so forth. It’s fixed firmly in her head that we shall end up in the workhouse. The funny thing is that if we ever do get to the workhouse Hilda won’t mind it a quarter as much as I shall, in fact she’ll probably rather enjoy the feeling of security.

The kids were downstairs already, having washed and dressed at lightning speed, as they always do when there’s no chance to keep anyone else out of the bathroom. When I got to the breakfast table they were having an argument which went to the tune of ‘Yes, you did!’ ‘No, I didn’t!’

‘Yes, you did!’ ‘No, I didn’t!’ and looked like going on for the rest of the morning, until I told them to cheese it. There are only the two of them, Billy, aged seven, and Lorna, aged eleven. It’s a peculiar feeling that I have towards the kids. A great deal of the time I can hardly stick the sight of them. As for their conversation, it’s just unbearable. They’re at that dreary bread-and-butter age when a kid’s mind revolves round things like rulers, pencil-boxes, and who got top marks in French. At other times, especially when they’re asleep, I have quite a different feeling. Sometimes I’ve stood over their cots, on summer evenings when it’s light, and watched them sleeping, with their round faces and their tow-coloured hair, several shades lighter than mine, and it’s given me that feeling you read about in the Bible when it says your bowels yearn. At such times I feel that I’m just a kind of dried-up seed-pod that doesn’t matter twopence and that my sole importance has been to bring these creatures into the world and feed them while they’re growing. But that’s only at moments. Most of the time my separate existence looks pretty important to me, I feel that there’s life in the old dog yet and plenty of good times ahead, and the notion of myself as a kind of tame dairy-cow for a lot of women and kids to chase up and down doesn’t appeal to me.

We didn’t talk much at breakfast. Hilda was in her ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do!’ mood, partly owing to the price of butter and partly because the Christmas holidays were nearly over and there was still five pounds owing on the school fees for last term. I ate my boiled egg and spread a piece of bread with Golden Crown marmalade. Hilda will persist in buying the stuff. It’s fivepence-halfpenny a pound, and the label tells you, in the smallest print the law allows, that it contains ‘a certain proportion of neutral fruit-juice’. This started me off, in the rather irritating way I have sometimes, talking about neutral fruit-trees, wondering what they looked like and what countries they grew in, until finally Hilda got angry. It’s not that she minds me chipping her, it’s only that in some obscure way she thinks it’s wicked to make jokes about anything you save money on.

I had a look at the paper, but there wasn’t much news. Down in Spain and over in China they were murdering one another as usual, a woman’s legs had been found in a railway waiting-room, and King Zog’s wedding was wavering in the balance. Finally, at about ten o’clock, rather earlier than I’d intended, I started out for town. The kids had gone off to play in the public gardens. It was a beastly raw morning. As I stepped out of the front door a nasty little gust of wind caught the soapy patch on my neck and made me suddenly feel that my clothes didn’t fit and that I was sticky all over.

2

Do you know the road I live in Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley? Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it.

You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses, the numbers in Ellesmere Road run to 212 and ours is 191, as much alike as council houses and generally uglier. The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue. At perhaps one house in fifty some anti-social type who’ll probably end in the workhouse has painted his front door blue instead of green.

That sticky feeling round my neck had put me into a demoralized kind of mood. It’s curious how it gets you down to have a sticky neck. It seems to take all the bounce out of you, like when you suddenly discover in a public place that the sole of one of your shoes is coming off. I had no illusions about myself that morning. It was almost as if I could stand at a distance and watch myself coming down the road, with my fat, red face and my false teeth and my vulgar clothes. A chap like me is incapable of looking like a gentleman. Even if you saw me at two hundred yards’ distance you’d know immediately, not, perhaps, that I was in the insurance business, but that I was some kind of tout or salesman. The clothes I was wearing were practically the uniform of the tribe. Grey herring-bone suit, a bit the worse for wear, blue overcoat costing fifty shillings, bowler hat, and no gloves. And I’ve got the look that’s peculiar to people who sell things on commission, a kind of coarse, brazen look. At my best moments, when I’ve got a new suit or when I’m smoking a cigar, I might pass for a bookie or a publican, and when things are very bad I might be touting vacuum cleaners, but at ordinary times you’d place me correctly. ‘Five to ten quid a week’, you’d say as soon as you saw me. Economically and socially I’m about at the average level of Ellesmere Road.

I had the street pretty much to myself. The men had bunked to catch the 8.21 and the women were fiddling with the gas-stoves. When you’ve time to look about you, and when you happen to be in the right mood, it’s a thing that makes you laugh inside to walk down these streets in the inner-outer suburbs and to think of the lives that go on there. Because, after all, what IS a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. There’s a lot of rot talked about the sufferings of the working class. I’m not so sorry for the proles myself. Did you ever know a navvy who lay awake thinking about the sack? The prole suffers physically, but he’s a free man when he isn’t working. But in every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s never free except when he’s fast asleep and dreaming that he’s got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him.

Of course, the basic trouble with people like us, I said to myself, is that we all imagine we’ve got something to lose. To begin with, nine-tenths of the people in Ellesmere Road are under the impression that they own their houses. Ellesmere Road, and the whole quarter surrounding it, until you get to the High Street, is part of a huge racket called the Hesperides Estate, the property of the Cheerful Credit Building Society. Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times. My own line, insurance, is a swindle, I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table. But the beauty of the building society swindles is that your victims think you’re doing them a kindness. You wallop them, and they lick your hand. I sometimes think I’d like to have the Hesperides Estate surmounted by an enormous statue to the god of building societies. It would be a queer sort of god. Among other things it would be bisexual. The top half would be a managing director and the bottom half would be a wife in the family way. In one hand it would carry an enormous key, the key of the workhouse, of course, and in the other, what do they call those things like French horns with presents coming out of them? a cornucopia, out of which would be pouring portable radios, life- insurance policies, false teeth, aspirins, French letters, and concrete garden rollers.

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. Also, and this was something which we really might have foreseen, though it gave us all a knock when we discovered it, the Cheerful Credit doesn’t always keep to its end of the bargain. When Ellesmere Road was built it gave on some open fields, nothing very wonderful, but good for the kids to play in, known as Platt’s Meadows. There was nothing in black and white, but it had always been understood that Platt’s Meadows weren’t to be built on. However, West Bletchley was a growing suburb, Rothwell’s jam factory had opened in ‘28 and the Anglo-American All-Steel Bicycle factory started in ‘33, and the population was increasing and rents were going up. I’ve never seen Sir Herbert Crum or any other of the big noises of the Cheerful Credit in the flesh, but in my mind’s eye I could see their mouths watering. Suddenly the builders arrived and houses began to go up on Platt’s Meadows. There was a howl of agony from the Hesperides, and a tenants’ defence association was set up. No use! Crum’s lawyers had knocked the stuffing out of us in five minutes, and Platt’s Meadows were built over. 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 bum-suckers. 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. Every one of those poor downtrodden bastards, sweating his guts out to pay twice the proper price for a brick doll’s house that’s called Belle Vue because there’s no view and the bell doesn’t ring, every one of those poor suckers would die on the field of battle to save his country from Bolshevism.

I turned down Walpole Road and got into the High Street. There’s a train to London at 10.14. I was just passing the Sixpenny Bazaar when I remembered the mental note I’d made that morning to buy a packet of razor-blades. When I got to the soap counter the floor-manager, or whatever his proper title is, was cursing the girl in charge there. Generally there aren’t many people in the Sixpenny at that hour of the morning. Sometimes if you go in just after opening-time you see all the girls lined up in a row and given their morning curse, just to get them into trim for the day. They say these big chain-stores have chaps with special powers of sarcasm and abuse who are sent from branch to branch to ginger the girls up. The floor-manager was an ugly little devil, under-sized, with very square shoulders and a spiky grey moustache. He’d just pounced on her about something, some mistake in the change evidently, and was going for her with a voice like a circular saw.

‘Ho, no! Course you couldn’t count it! Course you couldn’t. Too much trouble, that’d be. Ho, no!’

Before I could stop myself I’d caught the girl’s eye. It wasn’t so nice for her to have a fat middle-aged bloke with a red face looking on while she took her cursing. I turned away as quickly as I could and pretended to be interested in some stuff at the next counter, curtain rings or something. He was on to her again. He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly.

‘Course you couldn’t count it! Doesn’t matter to you if we’re two bob out. Doesn’t matter at all. What’s two bob to you? Couldn’t ask you to go to the trouble of counting it properly. Ho, no! Nothing matters here except your convenience. You don’t think about others, do you?’

This went on for about five minutes in a voice you could hear half across the shop. He kept turning away to make her think he’d finished with her and then darting back to have another go. As I edged a bit farther off I had a glance at them. The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway. She’d turned pale pink and she was wriggling, actually wriggling with pain. It was just the same as if he’d been cutting into her with a whip. The girls at the other counters were pretending not to hear. He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails, the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough. Do you notice how often they have under-sized men for these bullying jobs? He was sticking his face, moustaches and all, almost into hers so as to scream at her better. And the girl all pink and wriggling.

Finally he decided that he’d said enough and strutted off like an admiral on the quarter-deck, and I came up to the counter for my razor-blades. He knew I’d heard every word, and so did she, and both of them knew I knew they knew. But the worst of it was that for my benefit she’d got to pretend that nothing had happened and put on the standoffish keep-your-distance attitude that a shopgirl’s supposed to keep up with male customers. Had to act the grown-up young lady half a minute after I’d seen her cursed like a skivvy! Her face was still pink and her hands were trembling. I asked her for penny blades and she started fumbling in the threepenny tray. Then the little devil of a floor-manager turned our way and for a moment both of us thought he was coming back to begin again. The girl flinched like a dog that sees the whip. But she was looking at me out of the corner of her eye. I could see that because I’d seen her cursed she hated me like the devil. Queer!

I cleared out with my razor-blades. Why do they stand it? I was thinking. Pure funk, of course. One back-answer and you get the sack. It’s the same everywhere. I thought of the lad that sometimes serves me at the chain-store grocery we deal at. A great hefty lump of twenty, with cheeks like roses and enormous forearms, ought to be working in a blacksmith’s shop. And there he is in his white jacket, bent double across the counter, rubbing his hands together with his ‘Yes, sir! Very true, sir! Pleasant weather for the time of the year, sir! What can I have the pleasure of getting you today, sir?’ practically asking you to kick his bum. Orders, of course. The customer is always right. The thing you can see in his face is mortal dread that you might report him for impertinence and get him sacked. Besides, how’s he to know you aren’t one of the narks the company sends round? Fear! We swim in it. It’s our element. Everyone that isn’t scared stiff of losing his job is scared stiff of war, or Fascism, or Communism, or something. Jews sweating when they think of Hitler. It crossed my mind that that little bastard with the spiky moustache was probably a damn sight more scared for his job than the girl was. Probably got a family to support. And perhaps, who knows, at home he’s meek and mild, grows cucumbers in the back garden, lets his wife sit on him and the kids pull his moustache. And by the same token you never read about a Spanish Inquisitor or one of these higher-ups in the Russian Ogpu without being told that in private life he was such a good kind man, best of husbands and fathers, devoted to his tame canary, and so forth.

The girl at the soap counter was looking after me as I went out of the door. She’d have murdered me if she could. How she hated me because of what I’d seen! Much more than she hated the floor-manager.

 

3

There was a bombing plane flying low overhead. For a minute or two it seemed to be keeping pace with the train. Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me. One of them was reading the Mail and the other was reading the Express. I could see by their manner that they’d spotted me for one of their kind. Up at the other end of the carriage two lawyers’ clerks with black bags were keeping up a conversation full of legal baloney that was meant to impress the rest of us and show that they didn’t belong to the common herd.

I was watching the backs of the houses sliding past. The line from West Bletchley runs most of the way through slums, but it’s kind of peaceful, the glimpses you get of little backyards with bits of flowers stuck in boxes and the flat roofs where the women peg out the washing and the bird-cage on the wall. The great black bombing plane swayed a little in the air and zoomed ahead so that I couldn’t see it. I was sitting with my back to the engine. One of the commercials cocked his eye at it for just a second. I knew what he was thinking. For that matter it’s what everybody else is thinking. You don’t have to be a highbrow to think such thoughts nowadays. In two years’ time, one year’s time, what shall we be doing when we see one of those things? Making a dive for the cellar, wetting our bags with fright.

The commercial bloke put down his Daily Mail. ‘Templegate’s winner come in,’ he said.

The lawyers’ clerks were sprouting some learned rot about fee-simple and peppercorns. The other commercial felt in his waistcoat pocket and took out a bent Woodbine. He felt in the other pocket and then leaned across to me.

‘Got a match, Tubby?’

I felt for my matches. ‘Tubby’, you notice. That’s interesting, really. For about a couple of minutes I stopped thinking about bombs and began thinking about my figure as I’d studied it in my bath that morning.

It’s quite true I’m tubby, in fact my upper half is almost exactly the shape of a tub. But what’s interesting, I think, is that merely because you happen to be a little bit fat, almost anyone, even a total, stranger, will take it for granted to give you a nickname that’s an insulting comment on your personal appearance. Suppose a chap was a hunchback or had a squint or a hare-lip, would you give him a nickname to remind him of it? But every fat man’s labelled as a matter of course. I’m the type that people automatically slap on the back and punch in the ribs, and nearly all of them think I like it. I never go into the saloon bar of the Crown at Pudley (I pass that way once a week on business) without that ass Waters, who travels for the Seafoam Soap people but who’s more or less a permanency in the saloon bar of the Crown, prodding me in the ribs and singing out ‘Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling!’ which is a joke the bloody fools in the bar never get tired of. Waters has got a finger like a bar of iron. They all think a fat man doesn’t have any feelings.

The commercial took another of my matches, to pick his teeth with, and chucked the box back. The train whizzed on to an iron bridge. Down below I got a glimpse of a baker’s van and a long string of lorries loaded with cement. The queer thing, I was thinking, is that in a way they’re right about fat men. It’s a fact that a fat man, particularly a man who’s been fat from birth, from childhood, that’s to say, isn’t quite like other men. He goes through his life on a different plane, a sort of light-comedy plane, though in the case of blokes in side-shows at fairs, or in fact anyone over twenty stone, it isn’t so much light comedy as low farce. I’ve been both fat and thin in my life, and I know the difference fatness makes to your outlook. It kind of prevents you from taking things too hard. I doubt whether a man who’s never been anything but fat, a man who’s been called Fatty ever since he could walk, even knows of the existence of any really deep emotions. How could he? He’s got no experience of such things. He can’t ever be present at a tragic scene, because a scene where there’s a fat man present isn’t tragic, it’s comic. Just imagine a fat Hamlet, for instance! Or Oliver Hardy acting Romeo. Funnily enough I’d been thinking something of the kind only a few days earlier when I was reading a novel I’d got out of Boots. Wasted Passion, it was called. The chap in the story finds out that his girl has gone off with another chap. He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. I remember more or less how the passage went: