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George Orwell > Coming up for Air > Part 2, Chapter 7

Coming up for Air

Part 2, Chapter 7

That's all, really.

I've tried to tell you something about the world before the war,
the world I got a sniff of when I saw King Zog's name on the
poster, and the chances are that I've told you nothing. Either you
remember before the war and don't need to be told about it, or you
don't remember, and it's no use telling you. So far I've only
spoken about the things that happened to me before I was sixteen.
Up to that time things had gone pretty well with the family. It
was a bit before my sixteenth birthday that I began to get glimpses
of what people call 'real life', meaning unpleasantness.

About three days after I'd seen the big carp at Binfield House,
Father came in to tea looking very worried and even more grey and
mealy than usual. He ate his way solemnly through his tea and
didn't talk much. In those days he had a rather preoccupied way of
eating, and his moustache used to work up and down with a sidelong
movement, because he hadn't many back teeth left. I was just
getting up from table when he called me back.

'Wait a minute, George, my boy. I got suthing to say to you. Sit
down jest a minute. Mother, you heard what I got to say last

Mother, behind the huge brown teapot, folded her hands in her lap
and looked solemn. Father went on, speaking very seriously but
rather spoiling the effect by trying to deal with a crumb that
lodged somewhere in what was left of his back teeth:

'George, my boy, I got suthing to say to you. I been thinking it
over, and it's about time you left school. 'Fraid you'll have to
get to work now and start earning a bit to bring home to your
mother. I wrote to Mr Wicksey last night and told him as I should
have to take you away.'

Of course this was quite according to precedent--his writing to Mr
Wicksey before telling me, I mean. Parents in those days, as a
matter of course, always arranged everything over their children's

Father went on to make some rather mumbling and worried explanations.
He'd 'had bad times lately', things had 'been a bit difficult',
and the upshot was that Joe and I would have to start earning
our living. At that time I didn't either know or greatly
care whether the business was really in a bad way or not. I hadn't
even enough commercial instinct to see the reason why things were
'difficult'. The fact was that Father had been hit by competition.
Sarazins', the big retail seedsmen who had branches all over the
home counties, had stuck a tentacle into Lower Binfield. Six
months earlier they'd taken the lease of a shop in the market-place
and dolled it up until what with bright green paint, gilt
lettering, gardening tools painted red and green, and huge
advertisements for sweet peas, it hit you in the eye at a hundred
yards' distance. Sarazins', besides selling flower seeds,
described themselves as 'universal poultry and livestock
providers', and apart from wheat and oats and so forth they went in
for patent poultry mixtures, bird-seed done up in fancy packets,
dog-biscuits of all shapes and colours, medicines, embrocations,
and conditioning powders, and branched off into such things as rat-
traps, dog-chains, incubators, sanitary eggs, bird-nesting, bulbs,
weed-killer, insecticide, and even, in some branches, into what
they called a 'livestock department', meaning rabbits and day-old
chicks. Father, with his dusty old shop and his refusal to stock
new lines, couldn't compete with that kind of thing and didn't want
to. The tradesmen with their van-horses, and such of the farmers
as dealt with the retail seedsmen, fought shy of Sarazins', but
in six months they'd gathered in the petty gentry of the
neighbourhood, who in those days had carriages or dogcarts and
therefore horses. This meant a big loss of trade for Father and
the other corn merchant, Winkle. I didn't grasp any of this at the
time. I had a boy's attitude towards it all. I'd never taken any
interest in the business. I'd never or hardly ever served in the
shop, and when, as occasionally happened, Father wanted me to run
an errand or give a hand with something, such as hoisting sacks of
grain up to the loft or down again, I'd always dodged it whenever
possible. Boys in our class aren't such complete babies as public
schoolboys, they know that work is work and sixpence is sixpence,
but it seems natural for a boy to regard his father's business as a
bore. Up till that time fishing-rods, bicycles, fizzy lemonade,
and so forth had seemed to me a good deal more real than anything
that happened in the grown-up world.

Father had already spoken to old Grimmett, the grocer, who wanted a
smart lad and was willing to take me into the shop immediately.
Meanwhile Father was going to get rid of the errand boy, and Joe
was to come home and help with the shop till he got a regular job.
Joe had left school some time back and had been more or less
loafing ever since. Father had sometimes talked of 'getting him
into' the accounts department at the brewery, and earlier had even
had thoughts of making him into an auctioneer. Both were
completely hopeless because Joe, at seventeen, wrote a hand like a
ploughboy and couldn't repeat the multiplication table. At present
he was supposed to be 'learning the trade' at a big bicycle shop on
the outskirts of Walton. Tinkering with bicycles suited Joe, who,
like most half-wits, had a slight mechanical turn, but he was quite
incapable of working steadily and spent all his time loafing about
in greasy overalls, smoking Woodbines, getting into fights,
drinking (he's started that already), getting 'talked of' with one
girl after another, and sticking Father for money. Father was
worried, puzzled, and vaguely resentful. I can see him yet, with
the meal on his bald head, and the bit of grey hair over his ears,
and his spectacles and his grey moustache. He couldn't understand
what was happening to him. For years his profits had gone up,
slowly and steadily, ten pounds this year, twenty pounds that year,
and now suddenly they'd gone down with a bump. He couldn't
understand it. He'd inherited the business from his father, he'd
done an honest trade, worked hard, sold sound goods, swindled
nobody--and his profits were going down. He said a number of
times, between sucking at his teeth to get the crumb out, that
times were very bad, trade seemed very slack, he couldn't think
what had come over people, it wasn't as if the horses didn't have
to eat. Perhaps it was these here motors, he decided finally.
'Nasty smelly things!' Mother put in. She was a little worried,
and knew that she ought to be more so. Once or twice while Father
was talking there was a far-away look in her eyes and I could see
her lips moving. She was trying to decide whether it should be a
round of beef and carrots tomorrow or another leg of mutton.
Except when there was something in her own line that needed
foresight, such as buying linen or saucepans, she wasn't really
capable of thinking beyond tomorrow's meals. The shop was giving
trouble and Father was worried--that was about as far as she saw
into it. None of us had any grasp of what was happening. Father
had had a bad year and lost money, but was he really frightened by
the future? I don't think so. This was 1909, remember. He didn't
know what was happening to him, he wasn't capable of foreseeing
that these Sarazin people would systematically under-sell him, ruin
him, and eat him up. How could he? Things hadn't happened like
that when he was a young man. All he knew was that times were bad,
trade was very 'slack', very 'slow' (he kept repeating these
phrases), but probably things would 'look up presently'.

It would be nice if I could tell you that I was a great help to my
father in his time of trouble, suddenly proved myself a man, and
developed qualities which no one had suspected in me--and so on and
so forth, like the stuff you used to read in the uplift novels of
thirty years ago. Or alternatively I'd like to be able to record
that I bitterly resented having to leave school, my eager young
mind, yearning for knowledge and refinement, recoiled from the
soulless mechanical job into which they were thrusting me--and so
on and so forth, like the stuff you read in the uplift novels
today. Both would be complete bunkum. The truth is that I was
pleased and excited at the idea of going to work, especially when I
grasped that Old Grimmett was going to pay me real wages, twelve
shillings a week, of which I could keep four for myself. The big
carp at Binfield House, which had filled my mind for three days
past, faded right out of it. I'd no objection to leaving school a
few terms early. It generally happened the same way with boys at
our school. A boy was always 'going to' go to Reading University,
or study to be an engineer, or 'go into business' in London, or run
away to sea--and then suddenly, at two days' notice, he'd disappear
from school, and a fortnight later you'd meet him on a bicycle,
delivering vegetables. Within five minutes of Father telling me
that I should have to leave school I was wondering about the new
suit I should wear to go to work in. I instantly started demanding
a 'grown-up suit', with a kind of coat that was fashionable at that
time, a 'cutaway', I think it was called. Of course both Mother
and Father were scandalized and said they'd 'never heard of such a
thing'. For some reason that I've never fully fathomed, parents in
those days always tried to prevent their children wearing grown-up
clothes as long as possible. In every family there was a stand-up
fight before a boy had his first tall collars or a girl put her
hair up.

So the conversation veered away from Father's business troubles and
degenerated into a long, nagging kind of argument, with Father
gradually getting angry and repeating over and over--dropping an
aitch now and again, as he was apt to do when he got angry--'Well,
you can't 'ave it. Make up your mind to that--you can't 'ave it.'
So I didn't have my 'cutaway', but went to work for the first time
in a ready-made black suit and a broad collar in which I looked an
overgrown lout. Any distress I felt over the whole business really
arose from that. Joe was even more selfish about it. He was
furious at having to leave the bicycle shop, and for the short time
that he remained at home he merely loafed about, made a nuisance of
himself and was no help to Father whatever.

I worked in old Grimmett's shop for nearly six years. Grimmett was
a fine, upstanding, white-whiskered old chap, like a rather stouter
version of Uncle Ezekiel, and like Uncle Ezekiel a good Liberal.
But he was less of a firebrand and more respected in the town.
He'd trimmed his sails during the Boer War, he was a bitter enemy
of trade unions and once sacked an assistant for possessing a
photograph of Keir Hardie, and he was 'chapel'--in fact he was a
big noise, literally, in the Baptist Chapel, known locally as the
Tin Tab--whereas my family were 'church' and Uncle Ezekiel was an
infidel at that. Old Grimmett was a town councillor and an
official at the local Liberal Party. With his white whiskers, his
canting talk about liberty of conscience and the Grand Old Man, his
thumping bank balance, and the extempore prayers you could
sometimes hear him letting loose when you passed the Tin Tab, he
was a little like a legendary Nonconformist grocer in the story--
you've heard it, I expect:



'Have you sanded the sugar?'


'Have you watered the treacle?'


'Then come up to prayers.'

God knows how often I heard that story whispered in the shop. We
did actually start the day with a prayer before we put up the
shutters. Not that old Grimmett sanded the sugar. He knew that
that doesn't pay. But he was a sharp man in business, he did all
the high-class grocery trade of Lower Binfield and the country
round, and he had three assistants in the shop besides the errand
boy, the van-man, and his own daughter (he was a widower) who acted
as cashier. I was the errand boy for my first six months. Then
one of the assistants left to 'set up' in Reading and I moved into
the shop and wore my first white apron. I learned to tie a parcel,
pack a bag of currants, grind coffee, work the bacon-slicer, carve
ham, put an edge on a knife, sweep the floor, dust eggs without
breaking them, pass off an inferior article as a good one, clean a
window, judge a pound of cheese by eye, open a packing-case, whack
a slab of butter into shape, and--what was a good deal the hardest--
remember where the stock was kept. I haven't such detailed
memories of grocering as I have of fishing, but I remember a good
deal. To this day I know the trick of snapping a bit of string in
my fingers. If you put me in front of a bacon-slicer I could work
it better than I can a typewriter. I could spin you some pretty
fair technicalities about grades of China tea and what margarine is
made of and the average weight of eggs and the price of paper bags
per thousand.

Well, for more than five years that was me--an alert young chap
with a round, pink, snubby kind of face and butter-coloured hair
(no longer cut short but carefully greased and slicked back in what
people used to call a 'smarm'), hustling about behind the counter
in a white apron with a pencil behind my ear, tying up bags of
coffee like lightning and jockeying the customer along with 'Yes,
ma'am! Certainly, ma'am! AND the next order, ma'am!' in a voice
with just a trace of a Cockney accent. Old Grimmett worked us
pretty hard, it was an eleven-hour day except on Thursdays and
Sundays, and Christmas week was a nightmare. Yet it's a good time
to look back on. Don't think that I had no ambitions. I knew I
wasn't going to remain a grocer's assistant for ever, I was merely
'learning the trade'. Some time, somehow or other, there'd be
enough money for me to 'set up' on my own. That was how people
felt in those days. This was before the war, remember, and before
the slumps and before the dole. The world was big enough for
everyone. Anyone could 'set up in trade', there was always room
for another shop. And time was slipping on. 1909, 1910, 1911.
King Edward died and the papers came out with a black border round
the edge. Two cinemas opened in Walton. The cars got commoner on
the roads and cross-country motor-buses began to run. An
aeroplane--a flimsy, rickety-looking thing with a chap sitting in
the middle on a kind of chair--flew over Lower Binfield and the
whole town rushed out of their houses to yell at it. People began
to say rather vaguely that this here German Emperor was getting too
big for his boots and 'it' (meaning war with Germany) was 'coming
some time'. My wages went gradually up, until finally, just before
the war, they were twenty-eight shillings a week. I paid Mother
ten shillings a week for my board, and later, when times got worse,
fifteen shillings, and even that left me feeling richer than I've
felt since. I grew another inch, my moustache began to sprout, I
wore button boots and collars three inches high. In church on
Sundays, in my natty dark grey suit, with my bowler hat and black
dogskin gloves on the pew beside me, I looked the perfect gent, so
that Mother could hardly contain her pride in me. In between work
and 'walking out' on Thursdays, and thinking about clothes and
girls, I had fits of ambition and saw myself developing into a Big
Business Man like Lever or William Whiteley. Between sixteen and
eighteen I made serious efforts to 'improve my mind' and train
myself for a business career. I cured myself of dropping aitches
and got rid of most of my Cockney accent. (In the Thames Valley
the country accents were going out. Except for the farm lads,
nearly everyone who was born later than 1890 talked Cockney.) I
did a correspondence course with Littleburns' Commercial Academy,
learnt bookkeeping and business English, read solemnly through a
book of frightful blah called The Art of Salesmanship, and improved
my arithmetic and even my handwriting. When I was as old as
seventeen I've sat up late at night with my tongue hanging out of
my mouth, practising copperplate by the little oil-lamp on the
bedroom table. At times I read enormously, generally crime and
adventure stories, and sometimes paper-covered books which were
furtively passed round by the chaps at the shop and described as
'hot'. (They were translations of Maupassant and Paul de Kock.)
But when I was eighteen I suddenly turned highbrow, got a ticket
for the County Library, and began to stodge through books by Marie
Corelli and Hall Caine and Anthony Hope. It was at about that time
that I joined the Lower Binfield Reading Circle, which was run by
the vicar and met one evening a week all through the winter for
what was called 'literary discussion'. Under pressure from the
vicar I read bits of Sesame and Lilies and even had a go at

And time was slipping away. 1910, 1911, 1912. And Father's
business was going down--not slumping suddenly into the gutter, but
it was going down. Neither Father nor Mother was ever quite the
same after Joe ran away from home. This happened not long after I
went to work at Grimmett's.

Joe, at eighteen, had grown into an ugly ruffian. He was a hefty
chap, much bigger than the rest of the family, with tremendous
shoulders, a big head, and a sulky, lowering kind of face on which
he already had a respectable moustache. When he wasn't in the tap-
room of the George he was loafing in the shop doorway, with his
hands dug deep into his pockets, scowling at the people who passed,
except when they happened to be girls, as though he'd like to knock
them down. If anyone came into the shop he'd move aside just
enough to let them pass, and, without taking his hands out of his
pockets, yell over his shoulders 'Da-ad! Shop!' This was as near
as he ever got to helping. Father and Mother said despairingly
that they 'didn't know what to do with him', and he was costing the
devil of a lot with his drinking and endless smoking. Late one
night he walked out of the house and was never heard of again.
He'd prised open the till and taken all the money that was in it,
luckily not much, about eight pounds. That was enough to get him a
steerage passage to America. He'd always wanted to go to America,
and I think he probably did so, though we never knew for certain.
It made a bit of a scandal in the town. The official theory was
that Joe had bolted because he'd put a girl in the family way.
There was a girl named Sally Chivers who lived in the same street
as the Simmonses and was going to have a baby, and Joe had
certainly been with her, but so had about a dozen others, and
nobody knew whose baby it was. Mother and Father accepted the baby
theory and even, in private, used it to excuse their 'poor boy' for
stealing the eight pounds and running away. They weren't capable
of grasping that Joe had cleared out because he couldn't stand a
decent respectable life in a little country town and wanted a life
of loafing, fights, and women. We never heard of him again.
Perhaps he went utterly to the bad, perhaps he was killed in the
war, perhaps he merely didn't bother to write. Luckily the baby
was born dead, so there were no complications. As for the fact
that Joe had stolen the eight pounds, Mother and Father managed to
keep it a secret till they died. In their eyes it was a much worse
disgrace than Sally Chivers's baby.

The trouble over Joe aged Father a great deal. To lose Joe was
merely to cut a loss, but it hurt him and made him ashamed. From
that time forward his moustache was much greyer and he seemed to
have grown a lot smaller. Perhaps my memory of him as a little
grey man, with a round, lined, anxious face and dusty spectacles,
really dates from that time. By slow degrees he was getting more
and more involved in money worries and less and less interested in
other things. He talked less about politics and the Sunday papers,
and more about the badness of trade. Mother seemed to have shrunk
a little, too. In my childhood I'd known her as something vast and
overflowing, with her yellow hair and her beaming face and her
enormous bosom, a sort of great opulent creature like the figure-
head of a battleship. Now she'd got smaller and more anxious and
older than her years. She was less lordly in the kitchen, went in
more for neck of mutton, worried over the price of coal, and began
to use margarine, a thing which in the old days she'd never have
allowed into the house. After Joe had gone Father had to hire an
errand boy again, but from then on he employed very young boys whom
he only kept for a year or two and who couldn't lift heavy weights.
I sometimes lent him a hand when I was at home. I was too selfish
to do it regularly. I can still see him working his way slowly
across the yard, bent double and almost hidden under an enormous
sack, like a snail under its shell. The huge, monstrous sack,
weighing a hundred and fifty pounds, I suppose, pressing his neck
and shoulders almost to the ground, and the anxious, spectacled
face looking up from underneath it. In 1911 he ruptured himself
and had to spend weeks in hospital and hire a temporary manager
for the shop, which ate another hole in his capital. A small
shopkeeper going down the hill is a dreadful thing to watch, but it
isn't sudden and obvious like the fate of a working man who gets
the sack and promptly finds himself on the dole. It's just a
gradual chipping away of trade, with little ups and downs, a few
shillings to the bad here, a few sixpences to the good there.
Somebody who's dealt with you for years suddenly deserts and goes
to Sarazins'. Somebody else buys a dozen hens and gives you a
weekly order for corn. You can still keep going. You're still
'your own master', always a little more worried and a little
shabbier, with your capital shrinking all the time. You can go on
like that for years, for a lifetime if you're lucky. Uncle Ezekiel
died in 1911, leaving 120 pounds which must have made a lot of
difference to Father. It wasn't till 1913 that he had to mortgage
his life-insurance policy. That I didn't hear about at the time,
or I'd have understood what it meant. As it was I don't think I
ever got further than realizing that Father 'wasn't doing well',
trade was 'slack', there'd be a bit longer to wait before I had the
money to 'set up'. Like Father himself, I looked on the shop as
something permanent, and I was a bit inclined to be angry with him
for not managing things better. I wasn't capable of seeing, and
neither was he nor anyone else, that he was being slowly ruined,
that his business would never pick up again and if he lived to be
seventy he'd certainly end in the workhouse. Many a time I've
passed Sarazins' shop in the market-place and merely thought how
much I preferred their slick window-front to Father's dusty old
shop, with the 'S. Bowling' which you could hardly read, the
chipped white lettering, and the faded packets of bird-seed. It
didn't occur to me that Sarazins' were tapeworms who were eating
him alive. Sometimes I used to repeat to him some of the stuff
I'd been reading in my correspondence-course textbooks, about
salesmanship and modern methods. He never paid much attention.
He'd inherited an old-established business, he'd always worked
hard, done a fair trade, and supplied sound goods, and things would
look up presently. It's a fact that very few shopkeepers in those
days actually ended in the workhouse. With any luck you died with
a few pounds still your own. It was a race between death and
bankruptcy, and, thank God, death got Father first, and Mother too.

1911, 1912, 1913. I tell you it was a good time to be alive. It
was late in 1912, through the vicar's Reading Circle, that I first
met Elsie Waters. Till then, although, like all the rest of the
boys in the town, I'd gone out looking for girls and occasionally
managed to connect up with this girl or that and 'walk out' a few
Sunday afternoons, I'd never really had a girl of my own. It's a
queer business, that chasing of girls when you're about sixteen.
At some recognized part of the town the boys stroll up and down in
pairs, watching the girls, and the girls stroll up and down in
pairs, pretending not to notice the boys, and presently some kind
of contact is established and instead of twos they're trailing
along in fours, all four utterly speechless. The chief feature of
those walks--and it was worse the second time, when you went out
with the girl alone--was the ghastly failure to make any kind of
conversation. But Elsie Waters seemed different. The truth was
that I was growing up.

I don't want to tell the story of myself and Elsie Waters, even if
there was any story to tell. It's merely that she's part of the
picture, part of 'before the war'. Before the war it was always
summer--a delusion, as I've remarked before, but that's how I
remember it. the white dusty road stretching out between the
chestnut trees, the smell of night-stocks, the green pools under
the willows, the splash of Burford Weir--that's what I see when I
shut my eyes and think of 'before the war', and towards the end
Elsie Waters is part of it.

I don't know whether Elsie would be considered pretty now. She was
then. She was tall for a girl, about as tall as I am, with pale
gold, heavy kind of hair which she wore somehow plaited and coiled
round her head, and a delicate, curiously gentle face. She was one
of those girls that always look their best in black, especially the
very plain black dresses they made them wear in the drapery--she
worked at Lilywhite's, the drapers, though she came originally from
London. I suppose she would have been two years older than I was.

I'm grateful to Elsie, because she was the first person who taught
me to care about a woman. I don't mean women in general, I mean an
individual woman. I'd met her at the Reading Circle and hardly
noticed her, and then one day I went into Lilywhite's during
working hours, a thing I wouldn't normally have been able to do,
but as it happened we'd run out of butter muslin and old Grimmett
sent me to buy some. You know the atmosphere of a draper's shop.
It's something peculiarly feminine. There's a hushed feeling, a
subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the
wooden balls of change rolling to and fro. Elsie was leaning
against the counter, cutting off a length of cloth with the big
scissors. There was something about her black dress and the curve
of her breast against the counter--I can't describe it, something
curiously soft, curiously feminine. As soon as you saw her you
knew that you could take her in your arms and do what you wanted
with her. She was really deeply feminine, very gentle, very
submissive, the kind that would always do what a man told her,
though she wasn't either small or weak. She wasn't even stupid,
only rather silent and, at times, dreadfully refined. But in those
days I was rather refined myself.

We were living together for about a year. Of course in a town like
Lower Binfield you could only live together in a figurative sense.
Officially we were 'walking out', which was a recognized custom and
not quite the same as being engaged. There was a road that
branched off from the road to Upper Binfield and ran along under
the edge of the hills. There was a long stretch of it, nearly a
mile, that was quite straight and fringed with enormous horse-
chestnut trees, and on the grass at the side there was a footpath
under the boughs that was known as Lovers' Lane. We used to go
there on the May evenings, when the chestnuts were in blossom.
Then the short nights came on, and it was light for hours after
we'd left the shop. You know the feeling of a June evening. The
kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing
against your face like silk. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons we
went over Chamford Hill and down to the water-meadows along the
Thames. 1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the
rushing of the weir! It'll never come again. I don't mean that
1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the
feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the
feeling you've either had and don't need to be told about, or
haven't had and won't ever have the chance to learn.

It wasn't till late summer that we began what's called living
together. I'd been too shy and clumsy to begin, and too ignorant
to realize that there'd been others before me. One Sunday
afternoon we went into the beech woods round Upper Binfield. Up
there you could always be alone. I wanted her very badly, and I
knew quite well that she was only waiting for me to begin.
Something, I don't know what, put it into my head to go into the
grounds of Binfield House. Old Hodges, who was past seventy and
getting very crusty, was capable of turning us out, but he'd
probably be asleep on a Sunday afternoon. We slipped through a gap
in the fence and down the footpath between the beeches to the big
pool. It was four years or more since I'd been that way. Nothing
had changed. Still the utter solitude, the hidden feeling with the
great trees all round you, the old boat-house rotting among the
bulrushes. We lay down in the little grass hollow beside the wild
peppermint, and we were as much alone as if we'd been in Central
Africa. I'd kissed her God knows how many times, and then I'd got
up and was wandering about again. I wanted her very badly, and
wanted to take the plunge, only I was half-frightened. And
curiously enough there was another thought in my mind at the same
time. It suddenly struck me that for years I'd meant to come back
here and had never come. Now I was so near, it seemed a pity not
to go down to the other pool and have a look at the big carp. I
felt I'd kick myself afterwards if I missed the chance, in fact I
couldn't think why I hadn't been back before. The carp were stored
away in my mind, nobody knew about them except me, I was going to
catch them some time. Practically they were MY carp. I actually
started wandering along the bank in that direction, and then when
I'd gone about ten yards I turned back. It meant crashing your way
through a kind of jungle of brambles and rotten brushwood, and I
was dressed up in my Sunday best. Dark-grey suit, bowler hat,
button boots, and a collar that almost cut my ears off. That was
how people dressed for Sunday afternoon walks in those days. And I
wanted Elsie very badly. I went back and stood over her for a
moment. She was lying on the grass with her arm over her face, and
she didn't stir when she heard me come. In her black dress she
looked--I don't know how, kind of soft, kind of yielding, as though
her body was a kind of malleable stuff that you could do what you
liked with. She was mine and I could have her, this minute if I
wanted to. Suddenly I stopped being frightened, I chucked my hat
on to the grass (it bounced, I remember), knelt down, and took hold
of her. I can smell the wild peppermint yet. It was my first
time, but it wasn't hers, and we didn't make such a mess of it as
you might expect. So that was that. The big carp faded out of my
mind again, and in fact for years afterwards I hardly thought about

1913. 1914. The spring of 1914. First the blackthorn, then the
hawthorn, then the chestnuts in blossom. Sunday afternoons along
the towpath, and the wind rippling the beds of rushes so that they
swayed all together in great thick masses and looked somehow like a
woman's hair. The endless June evenings, the path under the
chestnut trees, an owl hooting somewhere and Elsie's body against
me. It was a hot July that year. How we sweated in the shop, and
how the cheese and the ground coffee smelt! And then the cool of
the evening outside, the smell of night-stocks and pipe-tobacco in
the lane behind the allotments, the soft dust underfoot, and the
nightjars hawking after the cockchafers.

Christ! What's the use of saying that one oughtn't to be sentimental
about 'before the war'? I AM sentimental about it. So are you if
you remember it. It's quite true that if you look back on any
special period of time you tend to remember the pleasant bits.
That's true even of the war. But it's also true that people then
had something that we haven't got now.

What? It was simply that they didn't think of the future as
something to be terrified of. It isn't that life was softer then
than now. Actually it was harsher. People on the whole worked
harder, lived less comfortably, and died more painfully. The farm
hands worked frightful hours for fourteen shillings a week and
ended up as worn-out cripples with a five-shilling old-age pension
and an occasional half-crown from the parish. And what was called
'respectable' poverty was even worse. When little Watson, a small
draper at the other end of the High Street, 'failed' after years of
struggling, his personal assets were L2 9s. 6d., and he died almost
immediately of what was called 'gastric trouble', but the doctor
let it out that it was starvation. Yet he'd clung to his frock
coat to the last. Old Crimp, the watchmaker's assistant, a skilled
workman who'd been at the job, man and boy, for fifty years, got
cataract and had to go into the workhouse. His grandchildren were
howling in the street when they took him away. His wife went out
charing, and by desperate efforts managed to send him a shilling a
week for pocket-money. You saw ghastly things happening sometimes.
Small businesses sliding down the hill, solid tradesmen turning
gradually into broken-down bankrupts, people dying by inches of
cancer and liver disease, drunken husbands signing the pledge every
Monday and breaking it every Saturday, girls ruined for life by an
illegitimate baby. The houses had no bathrooms, you broke the ice
in your basin on winter mornings, the back streets stank like the
devil in hot weather, and the churchyard was bang in the middle of
the town, so that you never went a day without remembering how
you'd got to end. And yet what was it that people had in those
days? A feeling of security, even when they weren't secure. More
exactly, it was a feeling of continuity. All of them knew they'd
got to die, and I suppose a few of them knew they were going to go
bankrupt, but what they didn't know was that the order of things
could change. Whatever might happen to themselves, things would go
on as they'd known them. I don't believe it made very much
difference that what's called religious belief was still prevalent
in those days. It's true that nearly everyone went to church, at
any rate in the country--Elsie and I still went to church as a
matter of course, even when we were living in what the vicar would
have called sin--and if you asked people whether they believed in a
life after death they generally answered that they did. But I've
never met anyone who gave me the impression of really believing in
a future life. I think that, at most, people believe in that kind
of thing in the same way as kids believe in Father Christmas. But
it's precisely in a settled period, a period when civilization
seems to stand on its four legs like an elephant, that such things
as a future life don't matter. It's easy enough to die if the
things you care about are going to survive. You've had your life,
you're getting tired, it's time to go underground--that's how
people used to see it. Individually they were finished, but their
way of life would continue. Their good and evil would remain good
and evil. They didn't feel the ground they stood on shifting under
their feet.

Father was failing, and he didn't know it. It was merely that
times were very bad, trade seemed to dwindle and dwindle, his bills
were harder and harder to meet. Thank God, he never even knew that
he was ruined, never actually went bankrupt, because he died very
suddenly (it was influenza that turned into pneumonia) at the
beginning of 1915. To the end he believed that with thrift, hard
work, and fair dealing a man can't go wrong. There must have been
plenty of small shopkeepers who carried that belief not merely on
to bankrupt deathbeds but even into the workhouse. Even Lovegrove
the saddler, with cars and motor-vans staring him in the face,
didn't realize that he was as out of date as the rhinoceros. And
Mother too--Mother never lived to know that the life she'd been
brought up to, the life of a decent God-fearing shopkeeper's
daughter and a decent God-fearing shopkeeper's wife in the reign
of good Queen Vic, was finished for ever. Times were difficult
and trade was bad, Father was worried and this and that was
'aggravating', but you carried on much the same as usual. The old
English order of life couldn't change. For ever and ever decent
God-fearing women would cook Yorkshire pudding and apple dumplings
on enormous coal ranges, wear woollen underclothes and sleep on
feathers, make plum jam in July and pickles in October, and read
Hilda's Home Companion in the afternoons, with the flies buzzing
round, in a sort of cosy little underworld of stewed tea, bad legs,
and happy endings. I don't say that either Father or Mother was
quite the same to the end. They were a bit shaken, and sometimes a
little dispirited. But at least they never lived to know that
everything they'd believed in was just so much junk. They lived at
the end of an epoch, when everything was dissolving into a sort of
ghastly flux, and they didn't know it. They thought it was
eternity. You couldn't blame them. That was what it felt like.

Then came the end of July, and even Lower Binfield grasped that
things were happening. For days there was tremendous vague
excitement and endless leading articles in the papers, which Father
actually brought in from the shop to read aloud to Mother. And
then suddenly the posters everywhere:


For several days (four days, wasn't it? I forget the exact dates)
there was a strange stifled feeling, a kind of waiting hush, like
the moment before a thunderstorm breaks, as though the whole of
England was silent and listening. It was very hot, I remember. In
the shop it was as though we couldn't work, though already everyone
in the neighbourhood who had five bob to spare was rushing in to
buy quantities of tinned stuff and flour and oatmeal. It was as if
we were too feverish to work, we only sweated and waited. In the
evenings people went down to the railway station and fought like
devils over the evening papers which arrived on the London train.
And then one afternoon a boy came rushing down the High Street with
an armful of papers, and people were coming into their doorways to
shout across the street. Everyone was shouting 'We've come in!
We've come in!' The boy grabbed a poster from his bundle and stuck
it on the shop-front opposite:


We rushed out on to the pavement, all three assistants, and
cheered. Everybody was cheering. Yes, cheering. But old
Grimmett, though he'd already done pretty well out of the war-
scare, still held on to a little of his Liberal principles, 'didn't
hold' with the war, and said it would be a bad business.

Two months later I was in the Army. Seven months later I was in

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