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

Coming up for Air

Part 2, Chapter 1

The world I momentarily remembered when I saw King Zog's name on
the poster was so different from the world I live in now that you
might have a bit of difficulty in believing I ever belonged to it.

I suppose by this time you've got a kind of picture of me in your
mind--a fat middle-aged bloke with false teeth and a red face--and
subconsciously you've been imagining that I was just the same even
when I was in my cradle. But forty-five years is a long time, and
though some people don't change and develop, others do. I've
changed a great deal, and I've had my ups and downs, mostly ups.
It may seem queer, but my father would probably be rather proud of
me if he could see me now. He'd think it a wonderful thing that a
son of his should own a motor-car and live in a house with a
bathroom. Even now I'm a little above my origin, and at other
times I've touched levels that we should never have dreamed of in
those old days before the war.

Before the war! How long shall we go on saying that, I wonder?
How long before the answer will be 'Which war?' In my case the
never-never land that people are thinking of when they say 'before
the war' might almost be before the Boer War. I was born in '93,
and I can actually remember the outbreak of the Boer War, because
of the first-class row that Father and Uncle Ezekiel had about it.
I've several other memories that would date from about a year
earlier than that.

The very first thing I remember is the smell of sainfoin chaff.
You went up the stone passage that led from the kitchen to the
shop, and the smell of sainfoin got stronger all the way. Mother
had fixed a wooden gate in the doorway to prevent Joe and myself
(Joe was my elder brother) from getting into the shop. I can still
remember standing there clutching the bars, and the smell of
sainfoin mixed up with the damp plastery smell that belonged to the
passage. It wasn't till years later that I somehow managed to
crash the gate and get into the shop when nobody was there. A
mouse that had been having a go at one of the meal-bins suddenly
plopped out and ran between my feet. It was quite white with meal.
This must have happened when I was about six.

When you're very young you seem to suddenly become conscious of
things that have been under your nose for a long time past. The
things round about you swim into your mind one at a time, rather as
they do when you're waking from sleep. For instance, it was only
when I was nearly four that I suddenly realized that we owned a
dog. Nailer, his name was, an old white English terrier of the
breed that's gone out nowadays. I met him under the kitchen table
and in some way seemed to grasp, having only learnt it that moment,
that he belonged to us and that his name was Nailer. In the same
way, a bit earlier, I'd discovered that beyond the gate at the end
of the passage there was a place where the smell of sainfoin came
from. And the shop itself, with the huge scales and the wooden
measures and the tin shovel, and the white lettering on the window,
and the bullfinch in its cage--which you couldn't see very well
even from the pavement, because the window was always dusty--all
these things dropped into place in my mind one by one, like bits of
a jig-saw puzzle.

Time goes on, you get stronger on your legs, and by degrees you
begin to get a grasp of geography. I suppose Lower Binfield was
just like any other market town of about two thousand inhabitants.
It was in Oxfordshire--I keep saying WAS, you notice, though after
all the place still exists--about five miles from the Thames. It
lay in a bit of a valley, with a low ripple of hills between itself
and the Thames, and higher hills behind. On top of the hills there
were woods in sort of dim blue masses among which you could see a
great white house with a colonnade. This was Binfield House ('The
Hall', everybody called it), and the top of the hill was known as
Upper Binfield, though there was no village there and hadn't been
for a hundred years or more. I must have been nearly seven before
I noticed the existence of Binfield House. When you're very small
you don't look into the distance. But by that time I knew every
inch of the town, which was shaped roughly like a cross with the
market-place in the middle. Our shop was in the High Street a
little before you got to the market-place, and on the corner there
was Mrs Wheeler's sweet-shop where you spent a halfpenny when you
had one. Mother Wheeler was a dirty old witch and people suspected
her of sucking the bull's-eyes and putting them back in the bottle,
though this was never proved. Farther down there was the barber's
shop with the advert for Abdulla cigarettes--the one with the
Egyptian soldiers on it, and curiously enough they're using the
same advert to this day--and the rich boozy smell of bay rum and
latakia. Behind the houses you could see the chimneys of the
brewery. In the middle of the market-place there was the stone
horse-trough, and on top of the water there was always a fine film
of dust and chaff.

Before the war, and especially before the Boer War, it was summer
all the year round. I'm quite aware that that's a delusion. I'm
merely trying to tell you how things come back to me. If I shut my
eyes and think of Lower Binfield any time before I was, say, eight,
it's always in summer weather that I remember it. Either it's the
market-place at dinner-time, with a sort of sleepy dusty hush over
everything and the carrier's horse with his nose dug well into his
nose-bag, munching away, or it's a hot afternoon in the great green
juicy meadows round the town, or it's about dusk in the lane behind
the allotments, and there's a smell of pipe-tobacco and night-
stocks floating through the hedge. But in a sense I do remember
different seasons, because all my memories are bound up with things
to eat, which varied at different times of the year. Especially
the things you used to find in the hedges. In July there were
dewberries--but they're very rare--and the blackberries were
getting red enough to eat. In September there were sloes and
hazel-nuts. The best hazelnuts were always out of reach. Later on
there were beech-nuts and crab-apples. Then there were the kind of
minor foods that you used to eat when there was nothing better
going. Haws--but they're not much good--and hips, which have a
nice sharp taste if you clean the hairs out of them. Angelica is
good in early summer, especially when you're thirsty, and so are
the stems of various grasses. Then there's sorrel, which is good
with bread and butter, and pig-nuts, and a kind of wood shamrock
which has a sour taste. Even plantain seeds are better than
nothing when you're a long way from home and very hungry.

Joe was two years older than myself. When we were very small
Mother used to pay Katie Simmons eighteen pence a week to take us
out for walks in the afternoons. Katie's father worked in the
brewery and had fourteen children, so that the family were always
on the lookout for odd jobs. She was only twelve when Joe was
seven and I was five, and her mental level wasn't very different
from ours. She used to drag me by the arm and call me 'Baby', and
she had just enough authority over us to prevent us from being run
over by dogcarts or chased by bulls, but so far as conversation
went we were almost on equal terms. We used to go for long,
trailing kind of walks--always, of course, picking and eating
things all the way--down the lane past the allotments, across
Roper's Meadows, and down to the Mill Farm, where there was a pool
with newts and tiny carp in it (Joe and I used to go fishing there
when we were a bit older), and back by the Upper Binfield Road so
as to pass the sweet-shop that stood on the edge of the town. This
shop was in such a bad position that anyone who took it went
bankrupt, and to my own knowledge it was three times a sweet-shop,
once a grocer's, and once a bicycle-repair shop, but it had a
peculiar fascination for children. Even when we had no money, we'd
go that way so as to glue our noses against the window. Katie
wasn't in the least above sharing a farthing's worth of sweets and
quarrelling over her share. You could buy things worth having for
a farthing in those days. Most sweets were four ounces a penny,
and there was even some stuff called Paradise Mixture, mostly
broken sweets from other bottles, which was six. Then there were
Farthing Everlastings, which were a yard long and couldn't be
finished inside half an hour. Sugar mice and sugar pigs were eight
a penny, and so were liquorice pistols, popcorn was a halfpenny for
a large bag, and a prize packet which contained several different
kinds of sweets, a gold ring, and sometimes a whistle, was a penny.
You don't see prize packets nowadays. A whole lot of the kinds of
sweets we had in those days have gone out. There was a kind of
flat white sweet with mottoes printed on them, and also a kind of
sticky pink stuff in an oval matchwood box with a tiny tin spoon to
eat it with, which cost a halfpenny. Both of those have disappeared.
So have Caraway Comfits, and so have chocolate pipes and sugar
matches, and even Hundreds and Thousands you hardly ever see.
Hundreds and Thousands were a great standby when you'd only a
farthing. And what about Penny Monsters? Does one ever see a Penny
Monster nowadays? It was a huge bottle, holding more than a quart
of fizzy lemonade, all for a penny. That's another thing that the
war killed stone dead.

It always seems to be summer when I look back. I can feel the
grass round me as tall as myself, and the heat coming out of the
earth. And the dust in the lane, and the warm greeny light coming
through the hazel boughs. I can see the three of us trailing
along, eating stuff out of the hedge, with Katie dragging at my arm
and saying 'Come on, Baby!' and sometimes yelling ahead to Joe,
'Joe! You come back 'ere this minute! You'll catch it!' Joe was
a hefty boy with a big, lumpy sort of head and tremendous calves,
the kind of boy who's always doing something dangerous. At seven
he'd already got into short trousers, with the thick black
stockings drawn up over the knee and the great clumping boots that
boys had to wear in those days. I was still in frocks--a kind of
holland overall that Mother used to make for me. Katie used to
wear a dreadful ragged parody of a grown-up dress that descended
from sister to sister in her family. She had a ridiculous great
hat with her pigtails hanging down behind it, and a long, draggled
skirt which trailed on the ground, and button boots with the heels
trodden down. She was a tiny thing, not much taller than Joe, but
not bad at 'minding' children. In a family like that a child is
'minding' other children about as soon as it's weaned. At times
she'd try to be grown-up and ladylike, and she had a way of cutting
you short with a proverb, which to her mind was something
unanswerable. If you said 'Don't care', she'd answer immediately:

'Don't care was made to care,
Don't care was hung,
Don't care was put in a pot
And boiled till he was done.'

Or if you called her names it would be 'Hard words break no bones',
or, when you'd been boasting, 'Pride comes before a fall'. This
came very true one day when I was strutting along pretending to be
a soldier and fell into a cowpat. Her family lived in a filthy
little rat-hole of a place in the slummy street behind the brewery.
The place swarmed with children like a kind of vermin. The whole
family had managed to dodge going to school, which was fairly easy
to do in those days, and started running errands and doing other
odd jobs as soon as they could walk. One of the elder brothers got
a month for stealing turnips. She stopped taking us out for walks
a year later when Joe was eight and getting too tough for a girl to
handle. He'd discovered that in Katie's home they slept five in a
bed, and used to tease the life out of her about it.

Poor Katie! She had her first baby when she was fifteen. No one
knew who was the father, and probably Katie wasn't too certain
herself. Most people believe it was one of her brothers. The
workhouse people took the baby, and Katie went into service in
Walton. Some time afterwards she married a tinker, which even by
the standards of her family was a come-down. The last time I saw
her was in 1913. I was biking through Walton, and I passed some
dreadful wooden shacks beside the railway line, with fences round
them made out of barrel-staves, where the gypsies used to camp at
certain times of the year, when the police would let them. A
wrinkled-up hag of a woman, with her hair coming down and a smoky
face, looking at least fifty years old, came out of one of the huts
and began shaking out a rag mat. It was Katie, who must have been

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