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George Orwell > Coming up for Air > Part 2, Chapter 3

Coming up for Air

Part 2, Chapter 3

Joe started going to Walton Grammar School two years before I did.
Neither us went there till we were nine. It meant a four-mile bike
ride morning and evening, and Mother was scared of allowing us
among the traffic, which by that time included a very few motor-

For several years we went to the dame-school kept by old Mrs
Howlett. Most of the shopkeepers' children went there, to save
them from the shame and come-down of going to the board school,
though everyone knew that Mother Howlett was an old imposter and
worse than useless as a teacher. She was over seventy, she was
very deaf, she could hardly see through her spectacles, and all she
owned in the way of equipment was a cane, a blackboard, a few dog-
eared grammar books, and a couple of dozen smelly slates. She
could just manage the girls, but the boys simply laughed at her and
played truant as often as they felt like it. Once there was a
frightful scandal cause a boy put his hand up a girl's dress, a
thing I didn't understand at the time. Mother Howlett succeeded in
hushing it up. When you did something particularly bad her formula
was 'I'll tell your father', and on very rare occasions she did so.
But we were quite sharp enough to see that she daren't do it too
often, and even when she let out at you with the cane she was so
old and clumsy that it was easy to dodge.

Joe was only eight when he got in with a tough gang of boys who
called themselves the Black Hand. The leader was Sid Lovegrove,
the saddler's younger son, who was about thirteen, and there were
two other shopkeepers' sons, an errand boy from the brewery, and
two farm lads who sometimes managed to cut work and go off with
the gang for a couple of hours. The farm lads were great lumps
bursting out of corduroy breeches, with very broad accents and
rather looked down on by the rest of the gang, but they were
tolerated because they knew twice as much about animals as any of
the others. One of them, nicknamed Ginger, would even catch a
rabbit in his hands occasionally. If he saw one lying in the grass
he used to fling himself on it like a spread-eagle. There was a
big social distinction between the shopkeepers' sons and the sons
of labourers and farm-hands, but the local boys didn't usually pay
much attention to it till they were about sixteen. The gang had a
secret password and an 'ordeal' which included cutting your finger
and eating an earthworm, and they gave themselves out to be
frightful desperadoes. Certainly they managed to make a nuisance
of themselves, broke windows chased cows, tore the knockers off
doors, and stole fruit by the hundredweight. Sometimes in winter
they managed to borrow a couple of ferrets and go ratting, when the
farmers would let them. They all had catapults and squailers, and
they were always saving up to buy a saloon pistol, which in those
days cost five shillings, but the savings never amounted to more
than about threepence. In summer they used to go fishing and bird-
nesting. When Joe was at Mrs Howlett's he used to cut school at
least once a week, and even at the Grammar School he managed it
about once a fortnight. There was a boy at the Grammar School, an
auctioneer's son, who could copy any handwriting and for a penny
he'd forge a letter from your mother saying you'd been ill
yesterday. Of course I was wild to join the Black Hand, but Joe
always choked me off and said they didn't want any blasted kids
hanging round.

It was the thought of going fishing that really appealed to me. At
eight years old I hadn't yet been fishing, except with a penny net,
with which you can sometimes catch a stickleback. Mother was
always terrified of letting us go anywhere near water. She
'forbade' fishing, in the way in which parents in those days
'forbade' almost everything, and I hadn't yet grasped that grownups
can't see round corners. But the thought of fishing sent me wild
with excitement. Many a time I'd been past the pool at the Mill
Farm and watched the small carp basking on the surface, and
sometimes under the willow tree at the corner a great diamond-
shaped carp that to my eyes looked enormous--six inches long, I
suppose--would suddenly rise to the surface, gulp down a grub, and
sink again. I'd spent hours gluing my nose against the window of
Wallace's in the High Street, where fishing tackle and guns and
bicycles were sold. I used to lie awake on summer mornings
thinking of the tales Joe had told me about fishing, how you mixed
bread paste, how your float gives a bob and plunges under and you
feel the rod bending and the fish tugging at the line. Is it any
use talking about it, I wonder--the sort of fairy light that fish
and fishing tackle have in a kid's eyes? Some kids feel the same
about guns and shooting, some feel it about motor-bikes or
aeroplanes or horses. It's not a thing that you can explain or
rationalize, it's merely magic. One morning--it was in June and I
must have been eight--I knew that Joe was going to cut school and
go out fishing, and I made up my mind to follow. In some way Joe
guessed what I was thinking about, and he started on me while we
were dressing.

'Now then, young George! Don't you get thinking you're coming with
the gang today. You stay back home.'

'No, I didn't. I didn't think nothing about it.'

'Yes, you did! You thought you were coming with the gang.'

'No, I didn't!'

'Yes, you did!'

'No, I didn't!'

'Yes, you did! You stay back home. We don't want any bloody kids

Joe had just learned the word 'bloody' and was always using it.
Father overheard him once and swore that he'd thrash the life out
of Joe, but as usual he didn't do so. After breakfast Joe started
off on his bike, with his satchel and his Grammar School cap, five
minutes early as he always did when he meant to cut school, and
when it was time for me to leave for Mother Howlett's I sneaked off
and hid in the lane behind the allotments. I knew the gang were
going to the pond at the Mill Farm, and I was going to follow them
if they murdered me for it. Probably they'd give me a hiding, and
probably I wouldn't get home to dinner, and then Mother would know
that I'd cut school and I'd get another hiding, but I didn't care.
I was just desperate to go fishing with the gang. I was cunning,
too. I allowed Joe plenty of time to make a circuit round and get
to the Mill Farm by road, and then I followed down the lane and
skirted round the meadows on the far side of the hedge, so as to
get almost to the pond before the gang saw me. It was a wonderful
June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a
breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great
green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And
it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round
me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild
roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting
overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses
of the woods round Upper Binfield. And I didn't give a damn for
any of it. All I was thinking of was the green pool and the carp
and the gang with their hooks and lines and bread paste. It was as
though they were in paradise and I'd got to join them. Presently I
managed to sneak up on them--four of them, Joe and Sid Lovegrove
and the errand boy and another shopkeeper's son, Harry Barnes I
think his name was.

Joe turned and saw me. 'Christ!' he said. 'It's the kid.' He
walked up to me like a tom-cat that's going to start a fight. 'Now
then, you! What'd I tell you? You get back 'ome double quick.'

Both Joe and I were inclined to drop our aitches if we were at all
excited. I backed away from him.

'I'm not going back 'ome.'

'Yes you are.'

'Clip his ear, Joe,' said Sid. 'We don't want no kids along.'

'ARE you going back 'ome?' said Joe.


'Righto, my boy! Right-HO!'

Then he started on me. The next minute he was chasing me round,
catching me one clip after another. But I didn't run away from the
pool, I ran in circles. Presently he'd caught me and got me down,
and then he knelt on my upper arms and began screwing my ears,
which was his favourite torture and one I couldn't stand. I was
blubbing by this time, but still I wouldn't give in and promise to
go home. I wanted to stay and go fishing with the gang. And
suddenly the others swung round in my favour and told Joe to get up
off my chest and let me stay if I wanted to. So I stayed after

The others had some hooks and lines and floats and a lump of bread
paste in a rag, and we all cut ourselves willow switches from the
tree at the corner of the pool. The farmhouse was only about two
hundred yards away, and you had to keep out of sight because old
Brewer was very down on fishing. Not that it made any difference
to him, he only used the pool for watering his cattle, but he hated
boys. The others were still jealous of me and kept telling me to
get out of the light and reminding me that I was only a kid and
knew nothing about fishing. They said that I was making such a
noise I'd scare all the fish away, though actually I was making
about half as much noise as anyone else there. Finally they
wouldn't let me sit beside them and sent me to another part of the
pool where the water was shallower and there wasn't so much shade.
They said a kid like me was sure to keep splashing the water and
frighten the fish away. It was a rotten part of the pool, a part
where no fish would ordinarily come. I knew that. I seemed to
know by a kind of instinct the places where a fish would lie.
Still, I was fishing at last. I was sitting on the grass bank with
the rod in my hands, with the flies buzzing round, and the smell of
wild peppermint fit to knock you down, watching the red float on
the green water, and I was happy as a tinker although the tear-
marks mixed up with dirt were still all over my face.

Lord knows how long we sat there. The morning stretched out and
out, and the sun got higher and higher, and nobody had a bite. It
was a hot still day, too clear for fishing. The floats lay on the
water with never a quiver. You could see deep down into the water
as though you were looking into a kind of dark green glass. Out in
the middle of the pool you could see the fish lying just under the
surface, sunning themselves, and sometimes in the weeds near the
side a newt would come gliding upwards and rest there with his
fingers on the weeds and his nose just out of the water. But the
fish weren't biting. The others kept shouting that they'd got a
nibble, but it was always a lie. And the time stretched out and
out and it got hotter and hotter, and the flies ate you alive, and
the wild peppermint under the bank smelt like Mother Wheeler's
sweet-shop. I was getting hungrier and hungrier, all the more
because I didn't know for certain where my dinner was coming from.
But I sat as still as a mouse and never took my eyes off the float.
The others had given me a lump of bait about the size of a marble,
telling me that would have to do for me, but for a long time I
didn't even dare to re-bait my hook, because every time I pulled my
line up they swore I was making enough noise to frighten every fish
within five miles.

I suppose we must have been there about two hours when suddenly my
float gave a quiver. I knew it was a fish. It must have been a
fish that was just passing accidentally and saw my bait. There's
no mistaking the movement your float gives when it's a real bite.
It's quite different from the way it moves when you twitch your
line accidentally. The next moment it gave a sharp bob and almost
went under. I couldn't hold myself in any longer. I yelled to the

'I've got a bite!'

'Rats!' yelled Sid Lovegrove instantly.

But the next moment there wasn't any doubt about it. The float
dived straight down, I could still see it under the water, kind of
dim red, and I felt the rod tighten in my hand. Christ, that
feeling! The line jerking and straining and a fish on the other
end of it! The others saw my rod bending, and the next moment
they'd all flung their rods down and rushed round to me. I gave a
terrific haul and the fish--a great huge silvery fish--came flying
up through the air. The same moment all of us gave a yell of
agony. The fish had slipped off the hook and fallen into the wild
peppermint under the bank. But he'd fallen into shallow water
where he couldn't turn over, and for perhaps a second he lay there
on his side helpless. Joe flung himself into the water, splashing
us all over, and grabbed him in both hands. 'I got 'im!' he
yelled. The next moment he'd flung the fish on to the grass and we
were all kneeling round it. How we gloated! The poor dying brute
flapped up and down and his scales glistened all the colours of the
rainbow. It was a huge carp, seven inches long at least, and must
have weighed a quarter of a pound. How we shouted to see him! But
the next moment it was as though a shadow had fallen across us. We
looked up, and there was old Brewer standing over us, with his tall
billycock hat--one of those hats they used to wear that were a
cross between a top hat and a bowler--and his cowhide gaiters and a
thick hazel stick in his hand.

We suddenly cowered like partridges when there's a hawk overhead.
He looked from one to other of us. He had a wicked old mouth with
no teeth in it, and since he'd shaved his beard off his chin looked
like a nutcracker.

'What are you boys doing here?' he said.

There wasn't much doubt about what we were doing. Nobody answered.

'I'll learn 'ee come fishing in my pool!' he suddenly roared, and
the next moment he was on us, whacking out in all directions.

The Black Hand broke and fled. We left all the rods behind and
also the fish. Old Brewer chased us half across the meadow. His
legs were stiff and he couldn't move fast, but he got in some good
swipes before we were out of his reach. We left him in the middle
of the field, yelling after us that he knew all our names and was
going to tell our fathers. I'd been at the back and most of the
wallops had landed on me. I had some nasty red weals on the calves
of my legs when we got to the other side of the hedge.

I spent the rest of the day with the gang. They hadn't made up
their mind whether I was really a member yet, but for the time
being they tolerated me. The errand boy, who'd had the morning off
on some lying pretext or other, had to go back to the brewery. The
rest of us went for a long, meandering, scrounging kind of walk,
the sort of walk that boys go for when they're away from home all
day, and especially when they're away without permission. It was
the first real boy's walk I'd had, quite different from the walks
we used to go with Katie Simmons. We had our dinner in a dry ditch
on the edge of the town, full of rusty cans and wild fennel. The
others gave me bits of their dinner, and Sid Lovegrove had a penny,
so someone fetched a Penny Monster which we had between us. It was
very hot, and the fennel smelt very strong, and the gas of the
Penny Monster made us belch. Afterwards we wandered up the dusty
white road to Upper Binfield, the first time I'd been that way, I
believe, and into the beech woods with the carpets of dead leaves
and the great smooth trunks that soar up into the sky so that the
birds in the upper branches look like dots. You could go wherever
you liked in the woods in those days. Binfield House, was shut up,
they didn't preserve the pheasants any longer, and at the worst
you'd only meet a carter with a load of wood. There was a tree
that had been sawn down, and the rings of the trunk looked like a
target, and we had shots at it with stones. Then the others had
shots at birds with their catapults, and Sid Lovegrove swore he'd
hit a chaffinch and it had stuck in a fork in the tree. Joe said
he was lying, and they argued and almost fought. Then we went down
into a chalk hollow full of beds of dead leaves and shouted to hear
the echo. Someone shouted a dirty word, and then we said over all
the dirty words we knew, and the others jeered at me because I only
knew three. Sid Lovegrove said he knew how babies were born and it
was just the same as rabbits except that the baby came out of the
woman's navel. Harry Barnes started to carve the word ---- on a
beech tree, but got fed up with it after the first two letters.
Then we went round by the lodge of Binfield House. There was a
rumour that somewhere in the grounds there was a pond with enormous
fish in it, but no one ever dared go inside because old Hodges, the
lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker, was 'down' on boys.
He was digging in his vegetable garden by the lodge when we passed.
We cheeked him over the fence until he chased us off, and then we
went down to the Walton Road and cheeked the carters, keeping on
the other side of the hedge so that they couldn't reach us with
their whips. Beside the Walton Road there was a place that had
been a quarry and then a rubbish dump, and finally had got
overgrown with blackberry bushes. There were great mounds of rusty
old tin cans and bicycle frames and saucepans with holes in them
and broken bottles with weeds growing all over them, and we spent
nearly an hour and got ourselves filthy from head to foot routing
out iron fence posts, because Harry Barnes swore that the
blacksmith in Lower Binfield would pay sixpence a hundredweight for
old iron. Then Joe found a late thrush's nest with half-fledged
chicks in it in a blackberry bush. After a lot of argument about
what to do with them we took the chicks out, had shots at them with
stones, and finally stamped on them. There were four of them, and
we each had one to stamp on. It was getting on towards tea-time
now. We knew that old Brewer would be as good as his word and
there was a hiding ahead of us, but we were getting too hungry to
stay out much longer. Finally we trailed home, with one more row
on the way, because when we were passing the allotments we saw a
rat and chased it with sticks, and old Bennet the station-master,
who worked at his allotment every night and was very proud of it,
came after us in a tearing rage because we'd trampled on his onion-

I'd walked ten miles and I wasn't tired. All day I'd trailed after
the gang and tried to do everything they did, and they'd called me
'the kid' and snubbed me as much as they could, but I'd more or
less kept my end up. I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a
feeling you can't know about unless you've had it--but if you're a
man you'll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn't a kid any
longer, I was a boy at last. And it's a wonderful thing to be a
boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can't catch you, and to chase
rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout
dirty words. It's a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of
knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it's all bound up with
breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot
sweaty feeling of one's clothes, the smell of fennel and wild
peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump,
the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the
stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the
line--it was all part of it. Thank God I'm a man, because no woman
ever has that feeling.

Sure enough, old Brewer had sent round and told everybody. Father
looked very glum, fetched a strap out of the shop, and said he was
going to 'thrash the life out of' Joe. But Joe struggled and
yelled and kicked, and in the end Father didn't get in more than a
couple of whacks at him. However, he got a caning from the
headmaster of the Grammar School next day. I tried to struggle
too, but I was small enough for Mother to get me across her knee,
and she gave me what-for with the strap. So I'd had three hidings
that day, one from Joe, one from old Brewer, and one from Mother.
Next day the gang decided that I wasn't really a member yet and
that I'd got to go through the 'ordeal' (a word they'd got out of
the Red Indian stories) after all. They were very strict in
insisting that you had to bite the worm before you swallowed it.
Moreover, because I was the youngest and they were jealous of me
for being the only one to catch anything, they all made out
afterwards that the fish I'd caught wasn't really a big one. In a
general way the tendency of fish, when people talk about them, is
to get bigger and bigger, but this one got smaller and smaller,
until to hear the others talk you'd have thought it was no bigger
than a minnow.

But it didn't matter. I'd been fishing. I'd seen the float dive
under the water and felt the fish tugging at the line, and however
many lies they told they couldn't take that away from me.

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