Coming Up For Air

Part III


George Orwell

WHEN I came home that evening I was still in doubt as to what I’d spend my seventeen quid on.

Hilda said she was going to the Left Book Club meeting. It seemed that there was a chap coming down from London to lecture, though needless to say Hilda didn’t know what the lecture was going to be about. I told her I’d go with her. In a general way I’m not much of a one for lectures, but the visions of war I’d had that morning, starting with the bomber flying over the train, had put me into a kind of thoughtful mood. After the usual argument we got the kids to bed early and cleared off in time for the lecture, which was billed for eight o’clock.

It was a misty kind of evening, and the hall was cold and not too well lighted. It’s a little wooden hall with a tin roof, the property of some Nonconformist sect or other, and you can hire it for ten bob. The usual crowd of fifteen or sixteen people had rolled up. On the front of the platform there was a yellow placard announcing that the lecture was on ‘The Menace of Fascism’. This didn’t altogether surprise me. Mr Witchett, who acts as chairman of these meetings and who in private life is something in an architect’s office, was taking the lecturer round, introducing him to everyone as Mr So-and-so (I forget his name) ‘the well-known anti-Fascist’, very much as you might call somebody ‘the well-known pianist’. The lecturer was a little chap of about forty, in a dark suit, with a bald head which he’d tried rather unsuccessfully to cover up with wisps of hair.

Meetings of this kind never start on time. There’s always a period of hanging about on the pretence that perhaps a few more people are going to turn up. It was about twenty-five past eight when Witchett tapped on the table and did his stuff. Witchett’s a mild-looking chap, with a pink, baby’s bottom kind of face that’s always covered in smiles. I believe he’s secretary of the local Liberal Party, and he’s also on the Parish Council and acts as M.C. at the magic lantern lectures for the Mothers’ Union. He’s what you might call a born chairman. When he tells you how delighted we all are to have Mr So-and-so on the platform tonight, you can see that he believes it. I never look at him without thinking that he’s probably a virgin. The little lecturer took out a wad of notes, chiefly newspaper cuttings, and pinned them down with his glass of water. Then he gave a quick lick at his lips and began to shoot.

Do you ever go to lectures, public meetings, and what-not?

When I go to one myself, there’s always a moment during the evening when I find myself thinking the same thought: Why the hell are we doing this? Why is it that people will turn out on a winter night for this kind of thing? I looked round the hall. I was sitting in the back row. I don’t ever remember going to any kind of public meeting when I didn’t sit in the back row if I could manage it. Hilda and the others had planked themselves in front, as usual. It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on. The little knot of us were sitting in the light round the platform, with about thirty rows of empty chairs behind us. And the seats of all the chairs were dusty. On the platform behind the lecturer there was a huge square thing draped in dust-cloths which might have been an enormous coffin under a pall. Actually it was a piano.

At the beginning I wasn’t exactly listening. The lecturer was rather a mean-looking little chap, but a good speaker. White face, very mobile mouth, and the rather grating voice that they get from constant speaking. Of course he was pitching into Hitler and the Nazis. I wasn’t particularly keen to hear what he was saying—get the same stuff in the News Chronicle every morning—but his voice came across to me as a kind of burr-burr-burr, with now and again a phrase that struck out and caught my attention.

‘Bestial atrocities. . . . Hideous outbursts of sadism. . . . Rubber truncheons. . . . Concentration camps. . . . Iniquitous persecution of the Jews. . . . Back to the Dark Ages. . . . European civilization. . . . Act before it is too late. . . . Indignation of all decent peoples. . . . Alliance of the democratic nations. . . . Firm stand. . . . Defence of democracy. . . . Democracy. . . . Fascism. . . . Democracy. . . . Fascism. . . . Democracy. . . .’

You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy. But somehow it interested me to watch him. A rather mean little man, with a white face and a bald head, standing on a platform, shooting out slogans. What’s he doing? Quite deliberately, and quite openly, he’s stirring up hatred. Doing his damnedest to make you hate certain foreigners called Fascists. It’s a queer thing, I thought, to be known as ‘Mr So-and-so, the well-known anti-Fascist’. A queer trade, anti-Fascism. This fellow, I suppose, makes his living by writing books against Hitler. But what did he do before Hitler came along? And what’ll he do if Hitler ever disappears? Same question applies to doctors, detectives, rat-catchers, and so forth, of course. But the grating voice went on and on, and another thought struck me. He means it. Not faking at all—feels every word he’s saying. He’s trying to work up hatred in the audience, but that’s nothing to the hatred he feels himself. Every slogan’s gospel truth to him. If you cut him open all you’d find inside would be Democracy-Fascism-Democracy. Interesting to know a chap like that in private life. But does he have a private life? Or does he only go round from platform to platform, working up hatred? Perhaps even his dreams are slogans.

As well as I could from the back row I had a look at the audience. I suppose, if you come to think of it, we people who’ll turn out on winter nights to sit in draughty halls listening to Left Book Club lectures (and I consider that I’m entitled to the ‘we’, seeing that I’d done it myself on this occasion) have a certain significance. We’re the West Bletchley revolutionaries. Doesn’t look hopeful at first sight. It struck me as I looked round the audience that only about half a dozen of them had really grasped what the lecturer was talking about, though by this time he’d been pitching into Hitler and the Nazis for over half an hour. It’s always like that with meetings of this kind. Invariably half the people come away without a notion of what it’s all about. In his chair beside the table Witchett was watching the lecturer with a delighted smile, and his face looked a little like a pink geranium. You could hear in advance the speech he’d make as soon as the lecturer sat down—same speech as he makes at the end of the magic lantern lecture in aid of trousers for the Melanesians: ‘Express our thanks—voicing the opinion of all of us—most interesting—give us all a lot to think about—most stimulating evening!’ In the front row Miss Minns was sitting very upright, with her head cocked a little on one side, like a bird. The lecturer had taken a sheet of paper from under the tumbler and was reading out statistics about the German suicide-rate. You could see by the look of Miss Minns’s long thin neck that she wasn’t feeling happy. Was this improving her mind, or wasn’t it? If only she could make out what it was all about! The other two were sitting there like lumps of pudding. Next to them a little woman with red hair was knitting a jumper. One plain, two purl, drop one, and knit two together. The lecturer was describing how the Nazis chop people’s heads off for treason and sometimes the executioner makes a bosh shot. There was one other woman in the audience, a girl with dark hair, one of the teachers at the Council School. Unlike the other she was really listening, sitting forward with her big round eyes fixed on the lecturer and her mouth a little bit open, drinking it all in.

Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type. Been in the Labour Party since the year dot. Lives given up to the movement. Twenty years of being blacklisted by employers, and another ten of badgering the Council to do something about the slums. Suddenly everything’s changed, the old Labour Party stuff doesn’t matter any longer. Find themselves pitchforked into foreign politics—Hitler, Stalin, bombs, machine-guns, rubber truncheons, Rome-Berlin axis, Popular Front, anti-Comintern pact. Can’t make head or tail of it. Immediately in front of me the local Communist Party branch were sitting. All three of them very young. One of them’s got money and is something in the Hesperides Estate Company, in fact I believe he’s old Crum’s nephew. Another’s a clerk at one of the banks. He cashes cheques for me occasionally. A nice boy, with a round, very young, eager face, blue eyes like a baby, and hair so fair that you’d think he peroxided it. He only looks about seventeen, though I suppose he’s twenty. He was wearing a cheap blue suit and a bright blue tie that went with his hair. Next to these three another Communist was sitting. But this one, it seems, is a different kind of Communist and not-quite, because he’s what they call a Trotskyist. The others have got a down on him. He’s even younger, a very thin, very dark, nervous-looking boy. Clever face. Jew, of course. These four were taking the lecture quite differently from the others. You knew they’d be on their feet the moment question-time started. You could see them kind of twitching already. And the little Trotskyist working himself from side to side on his bum in his anxiety to get in ahead of the others.

I’d stopped listening to the actual words of the lecture. But there are more ways than one of listening. I shut my eyes for a moment. The effect of that was curious. I seemed to see the fellow much better when I could only hear his voice.

It was a voice that sounded as if it could go on for a fortnight without stopping. It’s a ghastly thing, really, to have a sort of human barrel-organ shooting propaganda at you by the hour. The same thing over and over again. Hate, hate, hate. Let’s all get together and have a good hate. Over and over. It gives you the feeling that something has got inside your skull and is hammering down on your brain. But for a moment, with my eyes shut, I managed to turn the tables on him. I got inside his skull. It was a peculiar sensation. For about a second I was inside him, you might almost say I was him. At any rate, I felt what he was feeling.

I saw the vision that he was seeing. And it wasn’t at all the kind of vision that can be talked about. What he’s saying is merely that Hitler’s after us and we must all get together and have a good hate. Doesn’t go into details. Leaves it all respectable. But what he’s seeing is something quite different. It’s a picture of himself smashing people’s faces in with a spanner. Fascist faces, of course. I know that’s what he was seeing. It was what I saw myself for the second or two that I was inside him. Smash! Right in the middle! The bones cave in like an eggshell and what was a face a minute ago is just a great big blob of strawberry jam. Smash! There goes another! That’s what’s in his mind, waking and sleeping, and the more he thinks of it the more he likes it. And it’s all O.K. because the smashed faces belong to Fascists. You could hear all that in the tone of his voice.

But why? Likeliest explanation, because he’s scared. Every thinking person nowadays is stiff with fright. This is merely a chap who’s got sufficient foresight to be a little more frightened than the others. Hitler’s after us! Quick! Let’s all grab a spanner and get together, and perhaps if we smash in enough faces they won’t smash ours. Gang up, choose your Leader. Hitler’s black and Stalin’s white. But it might just as well be the other way about, because in the little chap’s mind both Hitler and Stalin are the same. Both mean spanners and smashed faces.

War! I started thinking about it again. It’s coming soon, that’s certain. But who’s afraid of war? That’s to say, who’s afraid of the bombs and the machine-guns? ‘You are’, you say. Yes, I am, and so’s anybody who’s ever seen them. But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke. It’s all going to happen. Or isn’t it? Some days I know it’s impossible, other days I know it’s inevitable. That night, at any rate, I knew it was going to happen. It was all in the sound of the little lecturer’s voice.

So perhaps after all there is a significance in this mingy little crowd that’ll turn out on a winter night to listen to a lecture of this kind. Or at any rate in the five or six who can grasp what it’s all about. They’re simply the outposts of an enormous army. They’re the long-sighted ones, the first rats to spot that the ship is sinking. Quick, quick! The Fascists are coming! Spanners ready, boys! Smash others or they’ll smash you. So terrified of the future that we’re jumping straight into it like a rabbit diving down a boa-constrictor’s throat.

And what’ll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England? The truth is it probably won’t make the slightest difference. As for the lecturer and those four Communists in the audience, yes, it’ll make plenty of difference to them. They’ll be smashing faces, or having their own smashed, according to who’s winning. But the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as usual. And yet it frightens me—I tell you it frightens me. I’d just started to wonder why when the lecturer stopped and sat down.

There was the usual hollow little sound of clapping that you get when there are only about fifteen people in the audience, and then old Witchett said his piece, and before you could say Jack Robinson the four Communists were on their feet together. They had a good dog-fight that went on for about ten minutes, full of a lot of stuff that nobody else understood, such as dialectical materialism and the destiny of the proletariat and what Lenin said in 1918. Then the lecturer, who’d had a drink of water, stood up and gave a summing-up that made the Trotskyist wriggle about on his chair but pleased the other three, and the dog-fight went on unofficially for a bit longer. Nobody else did any talking. Hilda and the others had cleared off the moment the lecture ended. Probably they were afraid there was going to be a collection to pay for the hire of the hall. The little woman with red hair was staying to finish her row. You could hear her counting her stitches in a whisper while the others argued. And Witchett sat and beamed at whoever happened to be speaking, and you could see him thinking how interesting it all was and making mental notes, and the girl with black hair looked from one to the other with her mouth a little open, and the old Labour man, looking rather like a seal with his droopy moustache and his overcoat up to his ears, sat looking up at them, wondering what the hell it was all about. And finally I got up and began to put on my overcoat.

The dog-fight had turned into a private row between the little Trotskyist and the boy with fair hair. They were arguing about whether you ought to join the Army if war broke out. As I edged my way along the row of chairs to get out, the fair-haired one appealed to me.

‘Mr Bowling! Look here. If war broke out and we had the chance to smash Fascism once and for all, wouldn’t you fight? If you were young, I mean.’

I suppose he thinks I’m about sixty.

‘You bet I wouldn’t,’ I said. ‘I had enough to go on with last time.’

‘But to smash Fascism!’

‘Oh, b— Fascism! There’s been enough smashing done already, if you ask me.’

The little Trotskyist chips in with social-patriotism and betrayal of the workers, but the others cut him short:

‘But you’re thinking of 1914. That was just an ordinary imperialist war. This time it’s different. Look here. When you hear about what’s going on in Germany, and the concentration camps and the Nazis beating people up with rubber truncheons and making the Jews spit in each other’s faces—doesn’t it make your blood boil?’

They’re always going on about your blood boiling. Just the same phrase during the war, I remember.

‘I went off the boil in 1916,’ I told him. ‘And so’ll you when you know what a trench smells like.’

And then all of a sudden I seemed to see him. It was as if I hadn’t properly seen him till that moment.

A very young eager face, might have belonged to a good-looking schoolboy, with blue eyes and tow-coloured hair, gazing into mine, and for a moment actually he’d got tears in his eyes! Felt as strongly as all that about the German Jews! But as a matter of fact I knew just what he felt. He’s a hefty lad, probably plays rugger for the bank. Got brains, too. And here he is, a bank clerk in a godless suburb, sitting behind the frosted window, entering figures in a ledger, counting piles of notes, bumsucking to the manager. Feels his life rotting away. And all the while, over in Europe, the big stuff’s happening. Shells bursting over the trenches and waves of infantry charging through the drifts of smoke. Probably some of his pals are fighting in Spain. Of course he’s spoiling for a war. How can you blame him? For a moment I had a peculiar feeling that he was my son, which in point of years he might have been. And I thought of that sweltering hot day in August when the newsboy stuck up the poster ENGLAND DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY, and we all rushed out on to the pavement in our white aprons and cheered.

‘Listen son,’ I said, ‘you’ve got it all wrong. In 1914 we thought it was going to be a glorious business. Well, it wasn’t. It was just a bloody mess. If it comes again, you keep out of it. Why should you get your body plugged full of lead? Keep it for some girl. You think war’s all heroism and V.C. charges, but I tell you it isn’t like that. You don’t have bayonet-charges nowadays, and when you do it isn’t like you imagine. You don’t feel like a hero. All you know is that you’ve had no sleep for three days, and stink like a polecat, you’re pissing your bags with fright, and your hands are so cold you can’t hold your rifle. But that doesn’t matter a damn, either. It’s the things that happen afterwards.’

Makes no impression of course. They just think you’re out of date. Might as well stand at the door of a knocking-shop handing out tracts.

The people were beginning to clear off. Witchett was taking the lecturer home. The three Communists and the little Jew went up the road together, and they were going at it again with proletarian solidarity and dialectic of the dialectic and what Trotsky said in 1917. They’re all the same, really. It was a damp, still, very black night. The lamps seemed to hang in the darkness like stars and didn’t light the road. In the distance you could hear the trains booming along the High Street. I wanted a drink, but it was nearly ten and the nearest pub was half a mile away. Besides, I wanted somebody to talk to, the way you can’t talk in a pub. It was funny how my brain had been on the go all day. Partly the result of not working, of course, and partly of the new false teeth, which had kind of freshened me up. All day I’d been brooding on the future and the past. I wanted to talk about the bad time that’s either coming or isn’t coming, the slogans and the coloured shirts and the streamlined men from eastern Europe who are going to knock old England cock-eyed. Hopeless trying to talk to Hilda. Suddenly it occurred to me to go and look up old Porteous, who’s a pal of mine and keeps late hours.

Porteous is a retired public-school master. He lives in rooms, which luckily are in the lower half of the house, in the old part of the town, near the church. He’s a bachelor, of course. You can’t imagine that kind married. Lives all alone with his books and his pipe and has a woman in to do for him. He’s a learned kind of chap, with his Greek and Latin and poetry and all that. I suppose that if the local Left Book Club branch represents Progress, old Porteous stands for Culture. Neither of them cuts much ice in West Bletchley.

The light was burning in the little room where old Porteous sits reading till all hours of the night. As I tapped on the front door he came strolling out as usual, with his pipe between his teeth and his fingers in a book to keep the place. He’s rather a striking looking chap, very tall, with curly grey hair and a thin, dreamy kind of face that’s a bit discoloured but might almost belong to a boy, though he must be nearly sixty. It’s funny how some of these public-school and university chaps manage to look like boys till their dying day. It’s something in their movements. Old Porteous has got a way of strolling up and down, with that handsome head of his, with the grey curls, held a little back that makes you feel that all the while he’s dreaming about some poem or other and isn’t conscious of what’s going on round him. You can’t look at him without seeing the way he’s lived written all over him. Public School, Oxford, and then back to his old school as a master. Whole life lived in an atmosphere of Latin, Greek, and cricket. He’s got all the mannerisms. Always wears an old Harris tweed jacket and old grey flannel bags which he likes you to call ‘disgraceful’, smokes a pipe and looks down on cigarettes, and though he sits up half the night I bet he has a cold bath every morning. I suppose from his point of view I’m a bit of a bounder. I haven’t been to a public school, I don’t know any Latin and don’t even want to. He tells me sometimes that it’s a pity I’m ‘insensible to beauty’, which I suppose is a polite way of saying that I’ve got no education. All the same I like him. He’s very hospitable in the right kind of way, always ready to have you in and talk at all hours, and always got drinks handy. When you live in a house like ours, more or less infested by women and kids, it does you good to get out of it sometimes into a bachelor atmosphere, a kind of book-pipe-fire atmosphere. And the classy Oxford feeling of nothing mattering except books and poetry and Greek statues, and nothing worth mentioning having happened since the Goths sacked Rome—sometimes that’s a comfort too.

He shoved me into the old leather armchair by the fire and dished out whisky and soda. I’ve never seen his sitting-room when it wasn’t dim with pipe-smoke. The ceiling is almost black. It’s a smallish room and, except for the door and the window and the space over the fireplace, the walls are covered with books from the floor right up to the ceiling. On the mantelpiece there are all the things you’d expect. A row of old briar pipes, all filthy, a few Greek silver coins, a tobacco jar with the arms of old Porteous’s college on it, and a little earthenware lamp which he told me he dug up on some mountain in Sicily. Over the mantelpiece there are photos of Greek statues. There’s a big one in the middle, of a woman with wings and no head who looks as if she was stepping out to catch a bus. I remember how shocked old Porteous was when the first time I saw it, not knowing any better, I asked him why they didn’t stick a head on it.

Porteous started refilling his pipe from the jar on the mantelpiece.

‘That intolerable woman upstairs has purchased a wireless set,’ he said. ‘I had been hoping to live the rest of my life out of the sound of those things. I suppose there is nothing one can do? Do you happen to know the legal position?’

I told him there was nothing one could do. I rather like the Oxfordy way he says ‘intolerable’, and it tickles me, in 1938, to find someone objecting to having a radio in the house. Porteous was strolling up and down in his usual dreamy way, with his hands in his coat pockets and his pipe between his teeth, and almost instantly he’d begun talking about some law against musical instruments that was passed in Athens in the time of Pericles. It’s always that way with old Porteous. All his talk is about things that happened centuries ago. Whatever you start off with it always comes back to statues and poetry and the Greeks and Romans. If you mention the Queen Mary he’d start telling you about Phoenician triremes. He never reads a modern book, refuses to know their names, never looks at any newspaper except The Times, and takes a pride in telling you that he’s never been to the pictures. Except for a few poets like Keats and Wordsworth he thinks the modern world—and from his point of view the modern world is the last two thousand years—just oughtn’t to have happened.

I’m part of the modern world myself, but I like to hear him talk. He’ll stroll round the shelves and haul out first one book and then another, and now and again he’ll read you a piece between little puffs of smoke, generally having to translate it from the Latin or something as he goes. It’s all kind of peaceful, kind of mellow. All a little like a school-master, and yet it soothes you, somehow. While you listen you aren’t in the same world as trains and gas bills and insurance companies. It’s all temples and olive trees, and peacocks and elephants, and chaps in the arena with their nets and tridents, and winged lions and eunuchs and galleys and catapults, and generals in brass armour galloping their horses over the soldiers’ shields. It’s funny that he ever cottoned on to a chap like me. But it’s one of the advantages of being fat that you can fit into almost any society. Besides we meet on common ground when it comes to dirty stories. They’re the one modern thing he cares about, though, as he’s always reminding me, they aren’t modern. He’s rather old-maidish about it, always tells a story in a veiled kind of way. Sometimes he’ll pick out some Latin poet and translate a smutty rhyme, leaving a lot to your imagination, or he’ll drop hints about the private lives of the Roman emperors and the things that went on in the temples of Ashtaroth. They seem to have been a bad lot, those Greeks and Romans. Old Porteous has got photographs of wall-paintings somewhere in Italy that would make your hair curl.

When I’m fed up with business and home life it’s often done me a lot of good to go and have a talk with Porteous. But tonight it didn’t seem to. My mind was still running on the same lines as it had been all day. Just as I’d done with the Left Book Club lecturer, I didn’t exactly listen to what Porreous was saying, only to the sound of his voice. But whereas the lecturer’s voice had got under my skin, old Porteous’s didn’t. It was too peaceful, too Oxfordy. Finally, when he was in the middle of saying something, I chipped in and said:

‘Tell me, Porteous, what do you think of Hitler?’

Old Porteous was leaning in his lanky, graceful kind of way with his elbows on the mantelpiece and a foot on the fender. He was so surprised that he almost took his pipe out of his mouth.

‘Hitler? This German person? My dear fellow! I don’t think of him.’

‘But the trouble is he’s going to bloody well make us think about him before he’s finished.’

Old Porteous shies a bit at the world ‘bloody’, which he doesn’t like, though of course it’s part of his pose never to be shocked. He begins walking up and down again, puffing out smoke.

‘I see no reason for paying any attention to him. A mere adventurer. These people come and go. Ephemeral, purely ephemeral.’

I’m not certain what the word ‘ephemeral’ means, but I stick to my point:

‘I think you’ve got it wrong. Old Hitler’s something different. So’s Joe Stalin. They aren’t like these chaps in the old days who crucified people and chopped their heads off and so forth, just for the fun of it. They’re after something quite new—something that’s never been heard of before.’

‘My dear fellow! There is nothing new under the sun.’

Of course that’s a favourite saying of old Porteous’s. He won’t hear of the existence of anything new. As soon as you tell him about anything that’s happening nowadays he says that exactly the same thing happened in the reign of King So-and-so. Even if you bring up things like aeroplanes he tells you that they probably had them in Crete, or Mycenae, or wherever it was. I tried to explain to him what I’d felt while the little bloke was lecturing and the kind of vision I’d had of the bad time that’s coming, but he wouldn’t listen. Merely repeated that there’s nothing new under the sun. Finally he hauls a book out of the shelves and reads me a passage about some Greek tyrant back in the B.C.s who certainly might have been Hitler’s twin brother.

The argument went on for a bit. All day I’d been wanting to talk to somebody about this business. It’s funny. I’m not a fool, but I’m not a highbrow either, and God knows at normal times I don’t have many interests that you wouldn’t expect a middle-aged seven-pound-a-weeker with two kids to have. And yet I’ve enough sense to see that the old life we’re used to is being sawn off at the roots. I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. And I’m not even exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me. Ordinary chaps that I meet everywhere, chaps I run across in pubs, bus drivers, and travelling salesmen for hardware firms, have got a feeling that the world’s gone wrong. They can feel things cracking and collapsing under their feet. And yet here’s this learned chap, who’s lived all his life with books and soaked himself in history till it’s running out of his pores, and he can’t even see that things are changing. Doesn’t think Hitler matters. Refuses to believe there’s another war coming. In any case, as he didn’t fight in the last war, it doesn’t enter much into his thoughts—he thinks it was a poor show compared with the siege of Troy. Doesn’t see why one should bother about the slogans and the loudspeakers and the coloured shirts. What intelligent person would pay any attention to such things? he always says. Hitler and Stalin will pass away, but something which old Porteous calls ‘the eternal verities’ won’t pass away. This, of course, is simply another way of saying that things will always go on exactly as he’s known them. For ever and ever, cultivated Oxford blokes will stroll up and down studies full of books, quoting Latin tags and smoking good tobacco out of jars with coats of arms on them. Really it was no use talking to him. I’d have got more change out of the lad with tow-coloured hair. By degrees the conversation twisted off, as it always does, to things that happened B.C. Then it worked round to poetry. Finally old Porteous drags another book out of the shelves and begins reading Keat’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (or maybe it was a skylark—I forget).

So far as I’m concerned a little poetry goes a long way. But it’s a curious fact that I rather like hearing old Porteous reading it aloud. There’s no question that he reads well. He’s got the habit, of course—used to reading to classes of boys. He’ll lean up against something in his lounging way, with his pipe between his teeth and little jets of smoke coming out, and his voice goes kind of solemn and rises and falls with the line. You can see that it moves him in some way. I don’t know what poetry is or what it’s supposed to do. I imagine it has a kind of nervous effect on some people like music has on others. When he’s reading I don’t actually listen, that’s to say I don’t take in the words, but sometimes the sound of it brings a kind of peaceful feeling into my mind. On the whole I like it. But somehow tonight it didn’t work. It was as if a cold draught had blown into the room. I just felt that this was all bunk. Poetry! What is it? Just a voice, a bit of an eddy in the air. And Gosh! what use would that be against machine-guns?

I watched him leaning up against the bookshelf. Funny, these public-school chaps. Schoolboys all their days. Whole life revolving round the old school and their bits of Latin and Greek and poetry. And suddenly I remembered that almost the first time I was here with Porteous he’d read me the very same poem. Read it in just the same way, and his voice quivered when he got to the same bit—the bit about magic casements, or something. And a curious thought struck me. He’s dead. He’s a ghost. All people like that are dead.

It struck me that perhaps a lot of the people you see walking about are dead. We say that a man’s dead when his heart stops and not before. It seems a bit arbitrary. After all, parts of your body don’t stop working—hair goes on growing for years, for instance. Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the power to take in a new idea. Old Porteous is like that. Wonderfully learned, wonderfully good taste—but he’s not capable of change. Just says the same things and thinks the same thoughts over and over again. There are a lot of people like that. Dead minds, stopped inside. Just keep moving backwards and forwards on the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.

Old Porteous’s mind, I thought, probably stopped working at about the time of the Russo-Japanese War. And it’s a ghastly thing that nearly all the decent people, the people who don’t want to go round smashing faces in with spanners, are like that. They’re decent, but their minds have stopped. They can’t defend themselves against what’s coming to them, because they can’t see it, even when it’s under their noses. They think that England will never change and that England’s the whole world. Can’t grasp that it’s just a left-over, a tiny corner that the bombs happen to have missed. But what about the new kind of men from eastern Europe, the streamlined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets? They’re on our track. Not long before they catch up with us. No Marquess of Queensbury rules for those boys. And all the decent people are paralysed. Dead men and live gorillas. Doesn’t seem to be anything between.

I cleared out about half an hour later, having completely failed to convince old Porteous that Hitler matters. I was still thinking the same thoughts as I walked home through the shivery streets. The trains had stopped running. The house was all dark and Hilda was asleep. I dropped my false teeth into the glass of water in the bathroom, got into my pyjamas, and prised Hilda over to the other side of the bed. She rolled over without waking, and the kind of hump between her shoulders was towards me. It’s funny, the tremendous gloom that sometimes gets hold of you late at night. At that moment the destiny of Europe seemed to me more important than the rent and the kids’ school-bills and the work I’d have to do tomorrow. For anyone who has to earn his living such thoughts are just plain foolishness. But they didn’t move out of my mind. Still the vision of the coloured shirts and the machine-guns rattling. The last thing I remember wondering before I fell asleep was why the hell a chap like me should care.

Coming Up For Air    |    Part III, 2

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