Coming Up For Air

Part I


George Orwell

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:

David paced up and down the room, his hands pressed to his forehead. The news seemed to have stunned him. For a long time he could not believe it. Sheila untrue to him! It could not be! Suddenly realization rushed over him, and he saw the fact in all its stark horror. It was too much. He flung himself down in a paroxysm of weeping.

Anyway, it went something like that. And even at the time it started me thinking. There you have it, you see. That’s how people—some people—are expected to behave. But how about a chap like me? Suppose Hilda went off for a week-end with somebody else—not that I’d care a damn, in fact it would rather please me to find that she’d still got that much kick left in her—but suppose I did care, would I fling myself down in a paroxysm of weeping? Would anyone expect me to? You couldn’t, with a figure like mine. It would be downright obscene.

The train was running along an embankment. A little below us you could see the roofs of the houses stretching on and on, the little red roofs where the bombs are going to drop, a bit lighted up at this moment because a ray of sunshine was catching them. Funny how we keep on thinking about bombs. Of course there’s no question that it’s coming soon. You can tell how close it is by the cheer-up stuff they’re talking about it in the newspaper. I was reading a piece in the News Chronicle the other day where it said that bombing planes can’t do any damage nowadays. The anti-aircraft guns have got so good that the bomber has to stay at twenty thousand feet. The chap thinks, you notice, that if an aeroplane’s high enough the bombs don’t reach the ground. Or more likely what he really meant was that they’ll miss Woolwich Arsenal and only hit places like Ellesmere Road.

But taking it by and large, I thought, it’s not so bad to be fat. One thing about a fat man is that he’s always popular. There’s really no kind of company, from bookies to bishops, where a fat man doesn’t fit in and feel at home. As for women, fat men have more luck with them than people seem to think. It’s all bunk to imagine, as some people do, that a woman looks on a fat man as just a joke. The truth is that a woman doesn’t look on any man as a joke if he can kid her that he’s in love with her.

Mind you, I haven’t always been fat. I’ve been fat for eight or nine years, and I suppose I’ve developed most of the characteristics. But it’s also a fact that internally, mentally, I’m not altogether fat. No! Don’t mistake me. I’m not trying to put myself over as a kind of tender flower, the aching heart behind the smiling face and so forth. You couldn’t get on in the insurance business if you were anything like that. I’m vulgar, I’m insensitive, and I fit in with my environment. So long as anywhere in the world things are being sold on commission and livings are picked up by sheer brass and lack of finer feelings, chaps like me will be doing it. In almost all circumstances I’d manage to make a living—always a living and never a fortune—and even in war, revolution, plague, and famine I’d back myself to stay alive longer than most people. I’m that type. But also I’ve got something else inside me, chiefly a hangover from the past. I’ll tell you about that later. I’m fat, but I’m thin inside. Has it ever struck you that there’s a thin man inside every fat man, just as they say there’s a statue inside every block of stone?

The chap who’d borrowed my matches was having a good pick at his teeth over the Express.

‘Legs case don’t seem to get much forrader,’ he said.

‘They’ll never get ’im,’ said the other. ‘’Ow could you identify a pair of legs? They’re all the bleeding same, aren’t they?’

‘Might trace ’im through the piece of paper ’e wrapped ’em up in,’ said the first.

Down below you could see the roofs of the houses stretching on and on, twisting this way and that with the streets, but stretching on and on, like an enormous plain that you could have ridden over. Whichever way you cross London it’s twenty miles of houses almost without a break. Christ! how can the bombers miss us when they come? We’re just one great big bull’s-eye. And no warning, probably. Because who’s going to be such a bloody fool as to declare war nowadays? If I was Hitler I’d send my bombers across in the middle of a disarmament conference. Some quiet morning, when the clerks are streaming across London Bridge, and the canary’s singing, and the old woman’s pegging the bloomers on the line—zoom, whizz, plonk! Houses going up into the air, bloomers soaked with blood, canary singing on above the corpses.

Seems a pity somehow, I thought. I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations—on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.

But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year?

Coming Up For Air    |    Part I, 4

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