Coming Up For Air

Part II


George Orwell

THURSDAY was market day. Chaps with round red faces like pumpkins and dirty smocks and huge boots covered with dry cow-dung, carrying long hazel switches, used to drive their brutes into the market-place early in the morning. For hours there’d be a terrific hullabaloo: dogs barking, pigs squealing, chaps in tradesmen’s vans who wanted to get through the crush cracking their whips and cursing, and everyone who had anything to do with the cattle shouting and throwing sticks. The big noise was always when they brought a bull to market. Even at that age it struck me that most of the bulls were harmless law-abiding brutes that only wanted to get to their stalls in peace, but a bull wouldn’t have been regarded as a bull if half the town hadn’t had to turn out and chase it. Sometimes some terrified brute, generally a half-grown heifer, used to break loose and charge down a side street, and then anyone who happened to be in the way would stand in the middle of the road and swing his arms backwards like the sails of a windmill, shouting, ‘Woo! Woo!’ This was supposed to have a kind of hypnotic effect on an animal and certainly it did frighten them.

Half-way through the morning some of the farmers would come into the shop and run samples of seed through their fingers. Actually Father did very little business with the farmers, because he had no delivery van and couldn’t afford to give long credits. Mostly he did a rather petty class of business, poultry food and fodder for the tradesmen’s horses and so forth. Old Brewer, of the Mill Farm, who was a stingy old bastard with a grey chin-beard, used to stand there for half an hour, fingering samples of chicken corn and letting them drop into his pocket in an absent-minded manner, after which, of course, he finally used to make off without buying anything. In the evenings the pubs were full of drunken men. In those days beer cost twopence a pint, and unlike the beer nowadays it had some guts in it. All through the Boer War the recruiting sergeant used to be in the four-ale bar of the George every Thursday and Saturday night, dressed up to the nines and very free with his money. Sometimes next morning you’d see him leading off some great sheepish, red-faced lump of a farm lad who’d taken the shilling when he was too drunk to see and found in the morning that it would cost him twenty pounds to get out of it. People used to stand in their doorways and shake their heads when they saw them go past, almost as if it had been a funeral. ‘Well now! Listed for a soldier! Just think of it! A fine young fellow like that!’ It just shocked them. Listing for a soldier, in their eyes, was the exact equivalent of a girl’s going on the streets. Their attitude to the war, and to the Army, was very curious. They had the good old English notions that the red-coats are the scum of the earth and anyone who joins the Army will die of drink and go straight to hell, but at the same time they were good patriots, stuck Union Jacks in their windows, and held it as an article of faith that the English had never been beaten in battle and never could be. At that time everyone, even the Nonconformists, used to sing sentimental songs about the thin red line and the soldier boy who died on the battlefield far away. These soldier boys always used to die ‘when the shot and shell were flying’, I remember. It puzzled me as a kid. Shot I could understand, but it produced a queer picture in my mind to think of cockle-shells flying through the air. When Mafeking was relieved the people nearly yelled the roof off, and there were at any rate times when they believed the tales about the Boers chucking babies into the air and skewering them on their bayonets. Old Brewer got so fed up with the kids yelling ‘Krooger!’ after him that towards the end of the war he shaved his beard off. The people’s attitude towards the Government was really the same. They were all true-blue Englishmen and swore that Vicky was the best queen that ever lived and foreigners were dirt, but at the same time nobody ever thought of paying a tax, not even a dog-licence, if there was any way of dodging it.

Before and after the war Lower Binfield was a Liberal constituency. During the war there was a by-election which the Conservatives won. I was too young to grasp what it was all about, I only knew that I was a Conservative because I liked the blue streamers better than the red ones, and I chiefly remember it because of a drunken man who fell on his nose on the pavement outside the George. In the general excitement nobody took any notice of him, and he lay there for hours in the hot sun with his blood drying round him, and when it dried it was purple. By the time the 1906 election came along I was old enough to understand it, more or less, and this time I was a Liberal because everybody else was. The people chased the Conservative candidate half a mile and threw him into a pond full of duckweed. People took politics seriously in those days. They used to begin storing up rotten eggs weeks before an election.

Very early in life, when the Boer War broke out, I remember the big row between Father and Uncle Ezekiel. Uncle Ezekiel had a little boot-shop in one of the streets off the High Street, and also did some cobbling. It was a small business and tended to get smaller, which didn’t matter greatly because Uncle Ezekiel wasn’t married. He was only a half-brother and much older than Father, twenty years older at least, and for the fifteen years or so that I knew him he always looked exactly the same. He was a fine-looking old chap, rather tall, with white hair and the whitest whiskers I ever saw—white as thistledown. He had a way of slapping his leather apron and standing up very straight—a reaction from bending over the last, I suppose—after which he’d bark his opinions straight in your face, ending up with a sort of ghostly cackle. He was a real old nineteenth-century Liberal, the kind that not only used to ask you what Gladstone said in ’78 but could tell you the answer, and one of the very few people in Lower Binfield who stuck to the same opinions all through the war. He was always denouncing Joe Chamberlain and some gang of people that he referred to as ‘the Park Lane riff-raff’. I can hear him now, having one of his arguments with Father. ‘Them and their far-flung Empire! Can’t fling it too far for me. He-he-he!’ And then Father’s voice, a quiet, worried, conscientious kind of voice, coming back at him with the white man’s burden and our dooty to the pore blacks whom these here Boars treated something shameful. For a week or so after Uncle Ezekiel gave it out that he was a pro-Boer and a Little Englander they were hardly on speaking terms. They had another row when the atrocity stories started. Father was very worried by the tales he’d heard, and he tackled Uncle Ezekiel about it. Little Englander or no, surely he couldn’t think it right for these here Boars to throw babies in the air and catch them on their bayonets, even if they were only nigger babies? But Uncle Ezekiel just laughed in his face. Father had got it all wrong! It wasn’t the Boars who threw babies in the air, it was the British soldiers! He kept grabbing hold of me—I must have been about five—to illustrate. ‘Throw them in the air and skewer them like frogs, I tell you! Same as I might throw this youngster here!’ And then he’d swing me up and almost let go of me, and I had a vivid picture of myself flying through the air and landing plonk on the end of a bayonet.

Father was quite different from Uncle Ezekiel. I don’t know much about my grandparents, they were dead before I was born, I only know that my grandfather had been a cobbler and late in life he married the widow of a seedsman, which was how we came to have the shop. It was a job that didn’t really suit Father, though he knew the business inside out and was everlastingly working. Except on Sunday and very occasionally on week-day evenings I never remember him without meal on the backs of his hands and in the lines of his face and in what was left of his hair. He’d married when he was in his thirties and must have been nearly forty when I first remember him. He was a small man, a sort of grey, quiet little man, always in shirtsleeves and white apron and always dusty-looking because of the meal. He had a round head, a blunt nose, a rather bushy moustache, spectacles, and butter-coloured hair, the same colour as mine, but he’d lost most of it and it was always mealy. My grandfather had bettered himself a good deal by marrying the seedsman’s widow, and Father had been educated at Walton Grammar School, where the farmers and the better-off tradesmen sent their sons, whereas Uncle Ezekiel liked to boast that he’d never been to school in his life and had taught himself to read by a tallow candle after working hours. But he was a much quicker-witted man than Father, he could argue with anybody, and he used to quote Carlyle and Spencer by the yard. Father had a slow sort of mind, he’d never taken to ‘book-learning’, as he called it, and his English wasn’t good. On Sunday afternoons, the only time when he really took things easy, he’d settle down by the parlour fireplace to have what he called a ‘good read’ at the Sunday paper. His favourite paper was The People—Mother preferred the News of the World, which she considered had more murders in it. I can see them now. A Sunday afternoon—summer, of course, always summer—a smell of roast pork and greens still floating in the air, and Mother on one side of the fireplace, starting off to read the latest murder but gradually falling asleep with her mouth open, and Father on the other, in slippers and spectacles, working his way slowly through the yards of smudgy print. And the soft feeling of summer all round you, the geranium in the window, a starling cooing somewhere, and myself under the table with the B.O.P., making believe that the tablecloth is a tent. Afterwards, at tea, as he chewed his way through the radishes and spring onions, Father would talk in a ruminative kind of way about the stuff he’d been reading, the fires and shipwrecks and scandals in high society, and these here new flying machines and the chap (I notice that to this day he turns up in the Sunday papers about once in three years) who was swallowed by a whale in the Red Sea and taken out three days later, alive but bleached white by the whale’s gastric juice. Father was always a bit sceptical of this story, and of the new flying machines, otherwise he believed everything he read. Until 1909 no one in Lower Binfield believed that human beings would ever learn to fly. The official doctrine was that if God had meant us to fly He’d have given us wings. Uncle Ezekiel couldn’t help retorting that if God had meant us to ride He’d have given us wheels, but even he didn’t believe in the new flying machines.

It was only on Sunday afternoons, and perhaps on the one evening a week when he looked in at the George for a half-pint, that Father turned his mind to such things. At other times he was always more or less overwhelmed by business. There wasn’t really such a lot to do, but he seemed to be always busy, either in the loft behind the yard, struggling about with sacks and bales, or in the kind of dusty little cubby-hole behind the counter in the shop, adding figures up in a notebook with a stump of pencil. He was a very honest man and a very obliging man, very anxious to provide good stuff and swindle nobody, which even in those days wasn’t the best way to get on in business. He would have been just the man for some small official job, a postmaster, for instance, or station-master of a country station. But he hadn’t either the cheek and enterprise to borrow money and expand the business, or the imagination to think of new selling-lines. It was characteristic of him that the only streak of imagination he ever showed, the invention of a new seed mixture for cage-birds (Bowling’s Mixture it was called, and it was famous over a radius of nearly five miles) was really due to Uncle Ezekiel. Uncle Ezekiel was a bit of a bird-fancier and had quantities of goldfinches in his dark little shop. It was his theory that cage-birds lose their colour because of lack of variation in their diet. In the yard behind the shop Father had a tiny plot of ground in which he used to grow about twenty kinds of weed under wire-netting, and he used to dry them and mix their seeds with ordinary canary seed. Jackie, the bullfinch who hung in the shop-window, was supposed to be an advertisement for Bowling’s Mixture. Certainly, unlike most bullfinches in cages, Jackie never turned black.

Mother was fat ever since I remember her. No doubt it’s from her that I inherit my pituitary deficiency, or whatever it is that makes you get fat.

She was a largish woman, a bit taller than Father, with hair a good deal fairer than his and a tendency to wear black dresses. But except on Sundays I never remember her without an apron. It would be an exaggeration, but not a very big one, to say that I never remember her when she wasn’t cooking. When you look back over a long period you seem to see human beings always fixed in some special place and some characteristic attitude. It seems to you that they were always doing exactly the same thing. Well, just as when I think of Father I remember him always behind the counter, with his hair all mealy, adding up figures with a stump of pencil which he moistens between his lips, and just as I remember Uncle Ezekiel, with his ghostly white whiskers, straightening himself out and slapping his leather apron, so when I think of Mother I remember her at the kitchen table, with her forearms covered with flour, rolling out a lump of dough.

You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days. A huge place, rather dark and low, with a great beam across the ceiling and a stone floor and cellars underneath. Everything enormous, or so it seemed to me when I was a kid. A vast stone sink which didn’t have a tap but an iron pump, a dresser covering one wall and going right up to the ceiling, a gigantic range which burned half a ton a month and took God knows how long to blacklead. Mother at the table rolling out a huge flap of dough. And myself crawling round, messing about with bundles of firewood and lumps of coal and tin beetle-traps (we had them in all the dark corners and they used to be baited with beer) and now and again coming up to the table to try and cadge a bit of food. Mother ‘didn’t hold with’ eating between meals. You generally got the same answer: ‘Get along with you, now! I’m not going to have you spoiling your dinner. Your eye’s bigger than your belly.’ Very occasionally, however, she’d cut you off a thin strip of candied peel.

I used to like to watch Mother rolling pastry. There’s always a fascination in watching anybody do a job which he really understands. Watch a woman—a woman who really knows how to cook, I mean—rolling dough. She’s got a peculiar, solemn, indrawn air, a satisfied kind of air, like a priestess celebrating a sacred rite. And in her own mind, of course, that’s exactly what she is. Mother had thick, pink, strong forearms which were generally mottled with flour. When she was cooking, all her movements were wonderfully precise and firm. In her hands egg-whisks and mincers and rolling-pins did exactly what they were meant to do. When you saw her cooking you knew that she was in a world where she belonged, among things she really understood. Except through the Sunday papers and an occasional bit of gossip the outside world didn’t really exist for her. Although she read more easily than Father, and unlike him used to read novelettes as well as newspapers, she was unbelievably ignorant. I realized this even by the time I was ten years old. She certainly couldn’t have told you whether Ireland was east or west of England, and I doubt whether any time up to the outbreak of the Great War she could have told you who was Prime Minister. Moreover she hadn’t the smallest wish to know such things. Later on when I read books about Eastern countries where they practise polygamy, and the secret harems where the women are locked up with black eunuchs mounting guard over them, I used to think how shocked Mother would have been if she’d heard of it. I can almost hear her voice—’Well, now! Shutting their wives up like that! The idea!’ Not that she’d have known what a eunuch was. But in reality she lived her life in a space that must have been as small and almost as private as the average zenana. Even in our own house there were parts where she never set foot. She never went into the loft behind the yard and very seldom into the shop. I don’t think I ever remember her serving a customer. She wouldn’t have known where any of the things were kept, and until they were milled into flour she probably didn’t know the difference between wheat and oats. Why should she? The shop was Father’s business, it was ‘the man’s work’, and even about the money side of it she hadn’t very much curiosity. Her job, ‘the woman’s work’, was to look after the house and the meals and the laundry and the children. She’d have had a fit if she’d seen Father or anyone else of the male sex trying to sew on a button for himself.

So far as the meals and so forth went, ours was one of those houses where everything goes like clockwork. Or no, not like clockwork, which suggests something mechanical. It was more like some kind of natural process. You knew that breakfast would be on the table tomorrow morning in much the same way as you knew the sun would rise. All through her life Mother went to bed at nine and got up at five, and she’d have thought it vaguely wicked—sort of decadent and foreign and aristocratic—to keep later hours. Although she didn’t mind paying Katie Simmons to take Joe and me out for walks, she would never tolerate the idea of having a woman in to help with the housework. It was her firm belief that a hired woman always sweeps the dirt under the dresser. Our meals were always ready on the tick. Enormous meals—boiled beef and dumplings, roast beef and Yorkshire, boiled mutton and capers, pig’s head, apple pie, spotted dog, and jam roly-poly—with grace before and after. The old ideas about bringing up children still held good, though they were going out fast. In theory children were still thrashed and put to bed on bread and water, and certainly you were liable to be sent away from table if you made too much noise eating, or choked, or refused something that was ‘good for you’, or ‘answered back’. In practice there wasn’t much discipline in our family, and of the two Mother was the firmer. Father, though he was always quoting ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’, was really much too weak with us, especially with Joe, who was a hard case from the start. He was always ‘going to’ give Joe a good hiding, and he used to tell us stories, which I now believe were lies, about the frightful thrashings his own father used to give him with a leather strap, but nothing ever came of it. By the time Joe was twelve he was too strong for Mother to get him across her knee, and after that there was no doing anything with him.

At that time it was still thought proper for parents to say ‘don’t’ to their children all day long. You’d often hear a man boasting that he’d ‘thrash the life out of’ his son if he caught him smoking, or stealing apples, or robbing a bird’s nest. In some families these thrashings actually took place. Old Lovegrove, the saddler, caught his two sons, great lumps aged sixteen and fifteen, smoking in the garden shed and walloped them so that you could hear it all over the town. Lovegrove was a very heavy smoker. The thrashings never seemed to have any effect, all boys stole apples, robbed birds’ nests, and learned to smoke sooner or later, but the idea was still knocking around that children should be treated rough. Practically everything worth doing was forbidden, in theory anyway. According to Mother, everything that a boy ever wants to do was ‘dangerous’. Swimming was dangerous, climbing trees was dangerous, and so were sliding, snowballing, hanging on behind carts, using catapults and squailers, and even fishing. All animals were dangerous, except Nailer, the two cats, and Jackie the bullfinch. Every animal had its special recognized methods of attacking you. Horses bit, bats got into your hair, earwigs got into your ears, swans broke your leg with a blow of their wings, bulls tossed you, and snakes ‘stung’. All snakes stung, according to Mother, and when I quoted the penny encyclopedia to the effect that they didn’t sting but bit, she only told me not to answer back. Lizards, slow-worms, toads, frogs, and newts also stung. All insects stung, except flies and blackbeetles. Practically all kinds of food, except the food you had at meals, were either poisonous or ‘bad for you’. Raw potatoes were deadly poison, and so were mushrooms unless you bought them at the greengrocer’s. Raw gooseberries gave you colic and raw raspberries gave you a skin-rash. If you had a bath after a meal you died of cramp, if you cut yourself between the thumb and forefinger you got lockjaw, and if you washed your hands in the water eggs were boiled in you got warts. Nearly everything in the shop was poisonous, which was why Mother had put the gate in the doorway. Cowcake was poisonous, and so was chicken corn, and so were mustard seed and Karswood poultry spice. Sweets were bad for you and eating between meals was bad for you, though curiously enough there were certain kinds of eating between meals that Mother always allowed. When she was making plum jam she used to let us eat the syrupy stuff that was skimmed off the top, and we used to gorge ourselves with it till we were sick. Although nearly everything in the world was either dangerous or poisonous, there were certain things that had mysterious virtues. Raw onions were a cure for almost everything. A stocking tied round your neck was a cure for a sore throat. Sulphur in a dog’s drinking water acted as a tonic, and old Nailer’s bowl behind the back door always had a lump of sulphur in it which stayed there year after year, never dissolving.

We used to have tea at six. By four Mother had generally finished the housework, and between four and six she used to have a quiet cup of tea and ‘read her paper’, as she called it. As a matter of fact she didn’t often read the newspaper except on Sundays. The week-day papers only had the day’s news, and it was only occasionally that there was a murder. But the editors of the Sunday papers had grasped that people don’t really mind whether their murders are up to date and when there was no new murder on hand they’d hash up an old one, sometimes going as far back as Dr Palmer and Mrs Manning. I think Mother thought of the world outside Lower Binfleld chiefly as a place where murders were committed. Murders had a terrible fascination for her, because, as she often said, she just didn’t know how people could be so wicked. Cutting their wives’ throats, burying their fathers under cement floors, throwing babies down wells! How anyone could do such things! The Jack the Ripper scare had happened about the time when Father and Mother were married, and the big wooden shutters we used to draw over the shop windows every night dated from then. Shutters for shop windows were going out, most of the shops in the High Street didn’t have them, but Mother felt safe behind them. All along, she said, she’d had a dreadful feeling that Jack the Ripper was hiding in Lower Binfield. The Crippen case—but that was years later, when I was almost grown up—upset her badly. I can hear her voice now. ‘Gutting his poor wife up and burying her in the coal cellar! The Idea! What I’d do to that man if I got hold of him!’ And curiously enough, when she thought of the dreadful wickedness of that little American doctor who dismembered his wife (and made a very neat job of it by taking all the bones out and chucking the head into the sea, if I remember rightly) the tears actually came into her eyes.

But what she mostly read on week-days was Hilda’s Home Companion. In those days it was part of the regular furnishing of any home like ours, and as a matter of fact it still exists, though it’s been a bit crowded out by the more streamlined women’s papers that have come up since the war. I had a look at a copy only the other day. It’s changed, but less than most things. There are still the same enormous serial stories that go on for six months (and it all comes right in the end with orange blossoms to follow), and the same Household Hints, and the same ads for sewing-machines and remedies for bad legs. It’s chiefly the print and the illustrations that have changed. In those days the heroine had to look like an egg-timer and now she has to look like a cylinder. Mother was a slow reader and believed in getting her threepennyworth out of Hilda’s Home Companion. Sitting in the old yellow armchair beside the hearth, with her feet on the iron fender and the little pot of strong tea stewing on the hob, she’d work her way steadily from cover to cover, right through the serial, the two short stories, the Household Hints, the ads for Zam-Buk, and the answers to correspondents. Hilda’s Home Companion generally lasted her the week out, and some weeks she didn’t even finish it. Sometimes the heat of the fire, or the buzzing of the bluebottles on summer afternoons, would send her off into a doze, and at about a quarter to six she’d wake up with a tremendous start, glance at the clock on the mantelpiece, and then get into a stew because tea was going to be late. But tea was never late.

In those days—till 1909, to be exact—Father could still afford an errand boy, and he used to leave the shop to him and come in to tea with the backs of his hands all mealy. Then Mother would stop cutting slices of bread for a moment and say, ‘If you’ll give us grace, Father’, and Father, while we all bent our heads on our chests, would mumble reverently, ‘Fwat we bout to receive—Lord make us truly thankful—Amen.’ Later on, when Joe was a bit older, it would be ‘You give us grace today, Joe’, and Joe would pipe it out. Mother never said grace: it had to be someone of the male sex.

There were always bluebottles buzzing on summer afternoons. Ours wasn’t a sanitary house, precious few houses in Lower Binfield were. I suppose the town must have contained five hundred houses and there certainly can’t have been more than ten with bathrooms or fifty with what we should now describe as a W.C. In summer our backyard always smelt of dustbins. And all houses had insects in them. We had blackbeetles in the wainscoting and crickets somewhere behind the kitchen range, besides, of course, the meal-worms in the shop. In those days even a house-proud woman like Mother didn’t see anything to object to in blackbeetles. They were as much a part of the kitchen as the dresser or the rolling-pin. But there were insects and insects. The houses in the bad street behind the brewery, where Katie Simmons lived, were overrun by bugs. Mother or any of the shopkeepers’ wives would have died of shame if they’d had bugs in the house. In fact it was considered proper to say that you didn’t even know a bug by sight.

The great blue flies used to come sailing into the larder and sit longingly on the wire covers over the meat. ‘Drat the flies!’ people used to say, but the flies were an act of God and apart from meat-covers and fly-papers you couldn’t do much about them. I said a little while back that the first thing I remember is the smell of sainfoin, but the smell of dustbins is also a pretty early memory. When I think of Mother’s kitchen, with the stone floor and the beetle-traps and the steel fender and the blackleaded range, I always seem to hear the bluebottles buzzing and smell the dustbin, and also old Nailer, who carried a pretty powerful smell of dog. And God knows there are worse smells and sounds. Which would you sooner listen to, a bluebottle or a bombing plane?

Coming Up For Air    |    Part II, 3

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