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

Coming up for Air

Part 2, Chapter 2

Thursday was market day. Chaps with round red faces like pumpkins
and dirty smocks and huge boots covered with dry cow-dung, carrying
long hazel switches, used to drive their brutes into the market-
place early in the morning. For hours there'd be a terrific
hullabaloo: dogs barking, pigs squealing, chaps in tradesmen's vans
who wanted to get through the crush cracking their whips and
cursing, and everyone who had anything to do with the cattle
shouting and throwing sticks. The big noise was always when they
brought a bull to market. Even at that age it struck me that most
of the bulls were harmless law-abiding brutes that only wanted to
get to their stalls in peace, but a bull wouldn't have been
regarded as a bull if half the town hadn't had to turn out and
chase it. Sometimes some terrified brute, generally a half-grown
heifer, used to break loose and charge down a side street, and then
anyone who happened to be in the way would stand in the middle of
the road and swing his arms backwards like the sails of a windmill,
shouting, 'Woo! Woo!' This was supposed to have a kind of hypnotic
effect on an animal and certainly it did frighten them.

Half-way through the morning some of the farmers would come into
the shop and run samples of seed through their fingers. Actually
Father did very little business with the farmers, because he had no
delivery van and couldn't afford to give long credits. Mostly he
did a rather petty class of business, poultry food and fodder for
the tradesmen's horses and so forth. Old Brewer, of the Mill Farm,
who was a stingy old bastard with a grey chin-beard, used to stand
there for half an hour, fingering samples of chicken corn and
letting them drop into his pocket in an absent-minded manner, after
which, of course, he finally used to make off without buying
anything. In the evenings the pubs were full of drunken men. In
those days beer cost twopence a pint, and unlike the beer nowadays
it had some guts in it. All through the Boer War the recruiting
sergeant used to be in the four-ale bar of the George every
Thursday and Saturday night, dressed up to the nines and very free
with his money. Sometimes next morning you'd see him leading off
some great sheepish, red-faced lump of a farm lad who'd taken the
shilling when he was too drunk to see and found in the morning that
it would cost him twenty pounds to get out of it. People used to
stand in their doorways and shake their heads when they saw them go
past, almost as if it had been a funeral. 'Well now! Listed for a
soldier! Just think of it! A fine young fellow like that!' It
just shocked them. Listing for a soldier, in their eyes, was the
exact equivalent of a girl's going on the streets. Their attitude
to the war, and to the Army, was very curious. They had the good
old English notions that the red-coats are the scum of the earth
and anyone who joins the Army will die of drink and go straight to
hell, but at the same time they were good patriots, stuck Union
Jacks in their windows, and held it as an article of faith that the
English had never been beaten in battle and never could be. At
that time everyone, even the Nonconformists, used to sing
sentimental songs about the thin red line and the soldier boy who
died on the battlefield far away. These soldier boys always used
to die 'when the shot and shell were flying', I remember. It
puzzled me as a kid. Shot I could understand, but it produced a
queer picture in my mind to think of cockle-shells flying through
the air. When Mafeking was relieved the people nearly yelled the
roof off, and there were at any rate times when they believed the
tales about the Boers chucking babies into the air and skewering
them on their bayonets. Old Brewer got so fed up with the kids
yelling 'Krooger!' after him that towards the end of the war he
shaved his beard off. The people's attitude towards the Government
was really the same. They were all true-blue Englishmen and swore
that Vicky was the best queen that ever lived and foreigners were
dirt, but at the same time nobody ever thought of paying a tax, not
even a dog-licence, if there was any way of dodging it.

Before and after the war Lower Binfield was a Liberal constituency.
During the war there was a by-election which the Conservatives won.
I was too young to grasp what it was all about, I only knew that I
was a Conservative because I liked the blue streamers better than
the red ones, and I chiefly remember it because of a drunken man
who fell on his nose on the pavement outside the George. In the
general excitement nobody took any notice of him, and he lay there
for hours in the hot sun with his blood drying round him, and when
it dried it was purple. By the time the 1906 election came along I
was old enough to understand it, more or less, and this time I was
a Liberal because everybody else was. The people chased the
Conservative candidate half a mile and threw him into a pond full
of duckweed. People took politics seriously in those days. They
used to begin storing up rotten eggs weeks before an election.

Very early in life, when the Boer War broke out, I remember the big
row between Father and Uncle Ezekiel. Uncle Ezekiel had a little
boot-shop in one of the streets off the High Street, and also did
some cobbling. It was a small business and tended to get smaller,
which didn't matter greatly because Uncle Ezekiel wasn't married.
He was only a half-brother and much older than Father, twenty years
older at least, and for the fifteen years or so that I knew him he
always looked exactly the same. He was a fine-looking old chap,
rather tall, with white hair and the whitest whiskers I ever saw--
white as thistledown. He had a way of slapping his leather apron
and standing up very straight--a reaction from bending over the
last, I suppose--after which he'd bark his opinions straight in
your face, ending up with a sort of ghostly cackle. He was a real
old nineteenth-century Liberal, the kind that not only used to ask
you what Gladstone said in '78 but could tell you the answer, and
one of the very few people in Lower Binfield who stuck to the same
opinions all through the war. He was always denouncing Joe
Chamberlain and some gang of people that he referred to as 'the
Park Lane riff-raff'. I can hear him now, having one of his
arguments with Father. 'Them and their far-flung Empire! Can't
fling it too far for me. He-he-he!' And then Father's voice, a
quiet, worried, conscientious kind of voice, coming back at him
with the white man's burden and our dooty to the pore blacks whom
these here Boars treated something shameful. For a week or so
after Uncle Ezekiel gave it out that he was a pro-Boer and a Little
Englander they were hardly on speaking terms. They had another row
when the atrocity stories started. Father was very worried by the
tales he'd heard, and he tackled Uncle Ezekiel about it. Little
Englander or no, surely he couldn't think it right for these here
Boars to throw babies in the air and catch them on their bayonets,
even if they WERE only nigger babies? But Uncle Ezekiel just
laughed in his face. Father had got it all wrong! It wasn't the
Boars who threw babies in the air, it was the British soldiers!
He kept grabbing hold of me--I must have been about five--to
illustrate. 'Throw them in the air and skewer them like frogs, I
tell you! Same as I might throw this youngster here!' And then
he'd swing me up and almost let go of me, and I had a vivid picture
of myself flying through the air and landing plonk on the end of a

Father was quite different from Uncle Ezekiel. I don't know much
about my grandparents, they were dead before I was born, I only
know that my grandfather had been a cobbler and late in life he
married the widow of a seedsman, which was how we came to have the
shop. It was a job that didn't really suit Father, though he knew
the business inside out and was everlastingly working. Except on
Sunday and very occasionally on week-day evenings I never remember
him without meal on the backs of his hands and in the lines of his
face and in what was left of his hair. He'd married when he was in
his thirties and must have been nearly forty when I first remember
him. He was a small man, a sort of grey, quiet little man, always
in shirtsleeves and white apron and always dusty-looking because of
the meal. He had a round head, a blunt nose, a rather bushy
moustache, spectacles, and butter-coloured hair, the same colour
as mine, but he'd lost most of it and it was always mealy. My
grandfather had bettered himself a good deal by marrying the
seedsman's widow, and Father had been educated at Walton Grammar
School, where the farmers and the better-off tradesmen sent their
sons, whereas Uncle Ezekiel liked to boast that he'd never been to
school in his life and had taught himself to read by a tallow
candle after working hours. But he was a much quicker-witted man
than Father, he could argue with anybody, and he used to quote
Carlyle and Spencer by the yard. Father had a slow sort of mind,
he'd never taken to 'book-learning', as he called it, and his
English wasn't good. On Sunday afternoons, the only time when he
really took things easy, he'd settle down by the parlour fireplace
to have what he called a 'good read' at the Sunday paper. His
favourite paper was The People--Mother preferred the News of the
World, which she considered had more murders in it. I can see them
now. A Sunday afternoon--summer, of course, always summer--a smell
of roast pork and greens still floating in the air, and Mother on
one side of the fireplace, starting off to read the latest murder
but gradually falling asleep with her mouth open, and Father on the
other, in slippers and spectacles, working his way slowly through
the yards of smudgy print. And the soft feeling of summer all
round you, the geranium in the window, a starling cooing somewhere,
and myself under the table with the B.O.P., making believe that the
tablecloth is a tent. Afterwards, at tea, as he chewed his way
through the radishes and spring onions, Father would talk in a
ruminative kind of way about the stuff he'd been reading, the fires
and shipwrecks and scandals in high society, and these here new
flying machines and the chap (I notice that to this day he turns up
in the Sunday papers about once in three years) who was swallowed
by a whale in the Red Sea and taken out three days later, alive but
bleached white by the whale's gastric juice. Father was always a
bit sceptical of this story, and of the new flying machines,
otherwise he believed everything he read. Until 1909 no one in
Lower Binfield believed that human beings would ever learn to fly.
The official doctrine was that if God had meant us to fly He'd have
given us wings. Uncle Ezekiel couldn't help retorting that if God
had meant us to ride He'd have given us wheels, but even he didn't
believe in the new flying machines.

It was only on Sunday afternoons, and perhaps on the one evening a
week when he looked in at the George for a half-pint, that Father
turned his mind to such things. At other times he was always more
or less overwhelmed by business. There wasn't really such a lot to
do, but he seemed to be always busy, either in the loft behind the
yard, struggling about with sacks and bales, or in the kind of
dusty little cubby-hole behind the counter in the shop, adding
figures up in a notebook with a stump of pencil. He was a very
honest man and a very obliging man, very anxious to provide good
stuff and swindle nobody, which even in those days wasn't the best
way to get on in business. He would have been just the man for
some small official job, a postmaster, for instance, or station-
master of a country station. But he hadn't either the cheek and
enterprise to borrow money and expand the business, or the
imagination to think of new selling-lines. It was characteristic
of him that the only streak of imagination he ever showed, the
invention of a new seed mixture for cage-birds (Bowling's Mixture
it was called, and it was famous over a radius of nearly five
miles) was really due to Uncle Ezekiel. Uncle Ezekiel was a bit of
a bird-fancier and had quantities of goldfinches in his dark little
shop. It was his theory that cage-birds lose their colour because
of lack of variation in their diet. In the yard behind the shop
Father had a tiny plot of ground in which he used to grow about
twenty kinds of weed under wire-netting, and he used to dry them
and mix their seeds with ordinary canary seed. Jackie, the
bullfinch who hung in the shop-window, was supposed to be an
advertisement for Bowling's Mixture. Certainly, unlike most
bullfinches in cages, Jackie never turned black.

Mother was fat ever since I remember her. No doubt it's from her
that I inherit my pituitary deficiency, or whatever it is that
makes you get fat.

She was a largish woman, a bit taller than Father, with hair a good
deal fairer than his and a tendency to wear black dresses. But
except on Sundays I never remember her without an apron. It would
be an exaggeration, but not a very big one, to say that I never
remember her when she wasn't cooking. When you look back over a
long period you seem to see human beings always fixed in some
special place and some characteristic attitude. It seems to you
that they were always doing exactly the same thing. Well, just as
when I think of Father I remember him always behind the counter,
with his hair all mealy, adding up figures with a stump of pencil
which he moistens between his lips, and just as I remember Uncle
Ezekiel, with his ghostly white whiskers, straightening himself out
and slapping his leather apron, so when I think of Mother I
remember her at the kitchen table, with her forearms covered with
flour, rolling out a lump of dough.

You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days. A huge
place, rather dark and low, with a great beam across the ceiling
and a stone floor and cellars underneath. Everything enormous, or
so it seemed to me when I was a kid. A vast stone sink which
didn't have a tap but an iron pump, a dresser covering one wall and
going right up to the ceiling, a gigantic range which burned half a
ton a month and took God knows how long to blacklead. Mother at
the table rolling out a huge flap of dough. And myself crawling
round, messing about with bundles of firewood and lumps of coal and
tin beetle-traps (we had them in all the dark corners and they used
to be baited with beer) and now and again coming up to the table to
try and cadge a bit of food. Mother 'didn't hold with' eating
between meals. You generally got the same answer: 'Get along with
you, now! I'm not going to have you spoiling your dinner. Your
eye's bigger than your belly.' Very occasionally, however, she'd
cut you off a thin strip of candied peel.

I used to like to watch Mother rolling pastry. There's always a
fascination in watching anybody do a job which he really
understands. Watch a woman--a woman who really knows how to cook,
I mean--rolling dough. She's got a peculiar, solemn, indrawn air,
a satisfied kind of air, like a priestess celebrating a sacred
rite. And in her own mind, of course, that's exactly what she is.
Mother had thick, pink, strong forearms which were generally
mottled with flour. When she was cooking, all her movements were
wonderfully precise and firm. In her hands egg-whisks and mincers
and rolling-pins did exactly what they were meant to do. When you
saw her cooking you knew that she was in a world where she
belonged, among things she really understood. Except through the
Sunday papers and an occasional bit of gossip the outside world
didn't really exist for her. Although she read more easily than
Father, and unlike him used to read novelettes as well as
newspapers, she was unbelievably ignorant. I realized this even by
the time I was ten years old. She certainly couldn't have told you
whether Ireland was east or west of England, and I doubt whether
any time up to the outbreak of the Great War she could have told
you who was Prime Minister. Moreover she hadn't the smallest wish
to know such things. Later on when I read books about Eastern
countries where they practise polygamy, and the secret harems where
the women are locked up with black eunuchs mounting guard over
them, I used to think how shocked Mother would have been if she'd
heard of it. I can almost hear her voice--'Well, now! Shutting
their wives up like that! The IDEA!' Not that she'd have known
what a eunuch was. But in reality she lived her life in a space
that must have been as small and almost as private as the average
zenana. Even in our own house there were parts where she never set
foot. She never went into the loft behind the yard and very seldom
into the shop. I don't think I ever remember her serving a
customer. She wouldn't have known where any of the things were
kept, and until they were milled into flour she probably didn't
know the difference between wheat and oats. Why should she? The
shop was Father's business, it was 'the man's work', and even about
the money side of it she hadn't very much curiosity. Her job, 'the
woman's work', was to look after the house and the meals and the
laundry and the children. She'd have had a fit if she'd seen
Father or anyone else of the male sex trying to sew on a button for

So far as the meals and so forth went, ours was one of those houses
where everything goes like clockwork. Or no, not like clockwork,
which suggests something mechanical. It was more like some kind of
natural process. You knew that breakfast would be on the table
tomorrow morning in much the same way as you knew the sun would
rise. All through her life Mother went to bed at nine and got up
at five, and she'd have thought it vaguely wicked--sort of decadent
and foreign and aristocratic--to keep later hours. Although she
didn't mind paying Katie Simmons to take Joe and me out for walks,
she would never tolerate the idea of having a woman in to help with
the housework. It was her firm belief that a hired woman always
sweeps the dirt under the dresser. Our meals were always ready on
the tick. Enormous meals--boiled beef and dumplings, roast beef
and Yorkshire, boiled mutton and capers, pig's head, apple pie,
spotted dog, and jam roly-poly--with grace before and after. The
old ideas about bringing up children still held good, though they
were going out fast. In theory children were still thrashed and
put to bed on bread and water, and certainly you were liable to be
sent away from table if you made too much noise eating, or choked,
or refused something that was 'good for you', or 'answered back'.
In practice there wasn't much discipline in our family, and of the
two Mother was the firmer. Father, though he was always quoting
'Spare the rod and spoil the child', was really much too weak with
us, especially with Joe, who was a hard case from the start. He
was always 'going to' give Joe a good hiding, and he used to tell
us stories, which I now believe were lies, about the frightful
thrashings his own father used to give him with a leather strap,
but nothing ever came of it. By the time Joe was twelve he was too
strong for Mother to get him across her knee, and after that there
was no doing anything with him.

At that time it was still thought proper for parents to say 'don't'
to their children all day long. You'd often hear a man boasting
that he'd 'thrash the life out of' his son if he caught him
smoking, or stealing apples, or robbing a bird's nest. In some
families these thrashings actually took place. Old Lovegrove, the
saddler, caught his two sons, great lumps aged sixteen and fifteen,
smoking in the garden shed and walloped them so that you could hear
it all over the town. Lovegrove was a very heavy smoker. The
thrashings never seemed to have any effect, all boys stole apples,
robbed birds' nests, and learned to smoke sooner or later, but the
idea was still knocking around that children should be treated
rough. Practically everything worth doing was forbidden, in theory
anyway. According to Mother, everything that a boy ever wants to
do was 'dangerous'. Swimming was dangerous, climbing trees was
dangerous, and so were sliding, snowballing, hanging on behind
carts, using catapults and squailers, and even fishing. All
animals were dangerous, except Nailer, the two cats, and Jackie the
bullfinch. Every animal had its special recognized methods of
attacking you. Horses bit, bats got into your hair, earwigs got
into your ears, swans broke your leg with a blow of their wings,
bulls tossed you, and snakes 'stung'. All snakes stung, according
to Mother, and when I quoted the penny encyclopedia to the effect
that they didn't sting but bit, she only told me not to answer
back. Lizards, slow-worms, toads, frogs, and newts also stung.
All insects stung, except flies and blackbeetles. Practically all
kinds of food, except the food you had at meals, were either
poisonous or 'bad for you'. Raw potatoes were deadly poison, and
so were mushrooms unless you bought them at the greengrocer's. Raw
gooseberries gave you colic and raw raspberries gave you a skin-
rash. If you had a bath after a meal you died of cramp, if you cut
yourself between the thumb and forefinger you got lockjaw, and if
you washed your hands in the water eggs were boiled in you got
warts. Nearly everything in the shop was poisonous, which was why
Mother had put the gate in the doorway. Cowcake was poisonous, and
so was chicken corn, and so were mustard seed and Karswood poultry
spice. Sweets were bad for you and eating between meals was bad
for you, though curiously enough there were certain kinds of eating
between meals that Mother always allowed. When she was making plum
jam she used to let us eat the syrupy stuff that was skimmed off
the top, and we used to gorge ourselves with it till we were sick.
Although nearly everything in the world was either dangerous or
poisonous, there were certain things that had mysterious virtues.
Raw onions were a cure for almost everything. A stocking tied
round your neck was a cure for a sore throat. Sulphur in a dog's
drinking water acted as a tonic, and old Nailer's bowl behind the
back door always had a lump of sulphur in it which stayed there
year after year, never dissolving.

We used to have tea at six. By four Mother had generally finished
the housework, and between four and six she used to have a quiet
cup of tea and 'read her paper', as she called it. As a matter of
fact she didn't often read the newspaper except on Sundays. The
week-day papers only had the day's news, and it was only
occasionally that there was a murder. But the editors of the
Sunday papers had grasped that people don't really mind whether
their murders are up to date and when there was no new murder on
hand they'd hash up an old one, sometimes going as far back as Dr
Palmer and Mrs Manning. I think Mother thought of the world
outside Lower Binfleld chiefly as a place where murders were
committed. Murders had a terrible fascination for her, because, as
she often said, she just didn't know how people could BE so wicked.
Cutting their wives' throats, burying their fathers under cement
floors, throwing babies down wells! How anyone could DO such
things! The Jack the Ripper scare had happened about the time when
Father and Mother were married, and the big wooden shutters we used
to draw over the shop windows every night dated from then.
Shutters for shop windows were going out, most of the shops in the
High Street didn't have them, but Mother felt safe behind them.
All along, she said, she'd had a dreadful feeling that Jack the
Ripper was hiding in Lower Binfield. The Crippen case--but that
was years later, when I was almost grown up--upset her badly. I
can hear her voice now. 'Gutting his poor wife up and burying her
in the coal cellar! The IDEA! What I'd do to that man if I got
hold of him!' And curiously enough, when she thought of the
dreadful wickedness of that little American doctor who dismembered
his wife (and made a very neat job of it by taking all the bones
out and chucking the head into the sea, if I remember rightly) the
tears actually came into her eyes.

But what she mostly read on week-days was Hilda's Home Companion.
In those days it was part of the regular furnishing of any home
like ours, and as a matter of fact it still exists, though it's
been a bit crowded out by the more streamlined women's papers that
have come up since the war. I had a look at a copy only the other
day. It's changed, but less than most things. There are still the
same enormous serial stories that go on for six months (and it all
comes right in the end with orange blossoms to follow), and the
same Household Hints, and the same ads for sewing-machines and
remedies for bad legs. It's chiefly the print and the illustrations
that have changed. In those days the heroine had to look like an
egg-timer and now she has to look like a cylinder. Mother was a slow
reader and believed in getting her threepennyworth out of Hilda's
Home Companion. Sitting in the old yellow armchair beside the
hearth, with her feet on the iron fender and the little pot of
strong tea stewing on the hob, she'd work her way steadily from
cover to cover, right through the serial, the two short stories,
the Household Hints, the ads for Zam-Buk, and the answers to
correspondents. Hilda's Home Companion generally lasted her the
week out, and some weeks she didn't even finish it. Sometimes the
heat of the fire, or the buzzing of the bluebottles on summer
afternoons, would send her off into a doze, and at about a quarter
to six she'd wake up with a tremendous start, glance at the clock on
the mantelpiece, and then get into a stew because tea was going to
be late. But tea was never late.

In those days--till 1909, to be exact--Father could still afford an
errand boy, and he used to leave the shop to him and come in to tea
with the backs of his hands all mealy. Then Mother would stop
cutting slices of bread for a moment and say, 'If you'll give us
grace, Father', and Father, while we all bent our heads on our
chests, would mumble reverently, 'Fwat we bout to receive--Lord
make us truly thankful--Amen.' Later on, when Joe was a bit older,
it would be 'YOU give us grace today, Joe', and Joe would pipe it
out. Mother never said grace: it had to be someone of the male

There were always bluebottles buzzing on summer afternoons. Ours
wasn't a sanitary house, precious few houses in Lower Binfield
were. I suppose the town must have contained five hundred houses
and there certainly can't have been more than ten with bathrooms or
fifty with what we should now describe as a W.C. In summer our
backyard always smelt of dustbins. And all houses had insects in
them. We had blackbeetles in the wainscoting and crickets
somewhere behind the kitchen range, besides, of course, the meal-
worms in the shop. In those days even a house-proud woman like
Mother didn't see anything to object to in blackbeetles. They were
as much a part of the kitchen as the dresser or the rolling-pin.
But there were insects and insects. The houses in the bad street
behind the brewery, where Katie Simmons lived, were overrun by
bugs. Mother or any of the shopkeepers' wives would have died of
shame if they'd had bugs in the house. In fact it was considered
proper to say that you didn't even know a bug by sight.

The great blue flies used to come sailing into the larder and sit
longingly on the wire covers over the meat. 'Drat the flies!'
people used to say, but the flies were an act of God and apart from
meat-covers and fly-papers you couldn't do much about them. I said
a little while back that the first thing I remember is the smell of
sainfoin, but the smell of dustbins is also a pretty early memory.
When I think of Mother's kitchen, with the stone floor and the
beetle-traps and the steel fender and the blackleaded range, I
always seem to hear the bluebottles buzzing and smell the dustbin,
and also old Nailer, who carried a pretty powerful smell of dog.
And God knows there are worse smells and sounds. Which would you
sooner listen to, a bluebottle or a bombing plane?

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