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George Orwell > Coming up for Air > Part 1, Chapter 3

Coming up for Air

Part 1, Chapter 3

There was a bombing plane flying low overhead. For a minute or two
it seemed to be keeping pace with the train. Two vulgar kind of
blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest
type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me. One
of them was reading the Mail and the other was reading the Express.
I could see by their manner that they'd spotted me for one of their
kind. Up at the other end of the carriage two lawyers' clerks with
black bags were keeping up a conversation full of legal baloney
that was meant to impress the rest of us and show that they didn't
belong to the common herd.

I was watching the backs of the houses sliding past. The line from
West Bletchley runs most of the way through slums, but it's kind of
peaceful, the glimpses you get of little backyards with bits of
flowers stuck in boxes and the flat roofs where the women peg out
the washing and the bird-cage on the wall. The great black bombing
plane swayed a little in the air and zoomed ahead so that I
couldn't see it. I was sitting with my back to the engine. One of
the commercials cocked his eye at it for just a second. I knew
what he was thinking. For that matter it's what everybody else is
thinking. You don't have to be a highbrow to think such thoughts
nowadays. In two years' time, one year's time, what shall we be
doing when we see one of those things? Making a dive for the
cellar, wetting our bags with fright.

The commercial bloke put down his Daily Mail.

'Templegate's winner come in,' he said.

The lawyers' clerks were sprouting some learned rot about fee-
simple and peppercorns. The other commercial felt in his waistcoat
pocket and took out a bent Woodbine. He felt in the other pocket
and then leaned across to me.

'Got a match, Tubby?'

I felt for my matches. 'Tubby', you notice. That's interesting,
really. For about a couple of minutes I stopped thinking about
bombs and began thinking about my figure as I'd studied it in my
bath that morning.

It's quite true I'm tubby, in fact my upper half is almost exactly
the shape of a tub. But what's interesting, I think, is that
merely because you happen to be a little bit fat, almost anyone,
even a total, stranger, will take it for granted to give you a
nickname that's an insulting comment on your personal appearance.
Suppose a chap was a hunchback or had a squint or a hare-lip--would
you give him a nickname to remind him of it? But every fat man's
labelled as a matter of course. I'm the type that people
automatically slap on the back and punch in the ribs, and nearly
all of them think I like it. I never go into the saloon bar of the
Crown at Pudley (I pass that way once a week on business) without
that ass Waters, who travels for the Seafoam Soap people but who's
more or less a permanency in the saloon bar of the Crown, prodding
me in the ribs and singing out 'Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom
Bowling!' which is a joke the bloody fools in the bar never get
tired of. Waters has got a finger like a bar of iron. They all
think a fat man doesn't have any feelings.

The commercial took another of my matches, to pick his teeth with,
and chucked the box back. The train whizzed on to an iron bridge.
Down below I got a glimpse of a baker's van and a long string of
lorries loaded with cement. The queer thing, I was thinking, is
that in a way they're right about fat men. It's a fact that a fat
man, particularly a man who's been fat from birth--from childhood,
that's to say--isn't quite like other men. He goes through his
life on a different plane, a sort of light-comedy plane, though in
the case of blokes in side-shows at fairs, or in fact anyone over
twenty stone, it isn't so much light comedy as low farce. I've
been both fat and thin in my life, and I know the difference
fatness makes to your outlook. It kind of prevents you from taking
things too hard. I doubt whether a man who's never been anything
but fat, a man who's been called Fatty ever since he could walk,
even knows of the existence of any really deep emotions. How could
he? He's got no experience of such things. He can't ever be
present at a tragic scene, because a scene where there's a fat man
present isn't tragic, it's comic. Just imagine a fat Hamlet, for
instance! Or Oliver Hardy acting Romeo. Funnily enough I'd been
thinking something of the kind only a few days earlier when I was
reading a novel I'd got out of Boots. Wasted Passion, it was
called. The chap in the story finds out that his girl has gone off
with another chap. He's one of these chaps you read about in
novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private
income. I remember more or less how the passage went:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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