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George Orwell > Coming up for Air > Part 1, Chapter 2

Coming up for Air

Part 1, Chapter 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 bumsuckers. 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

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 'ere 'cept 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 fore-
arms, 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-

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