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George Orwell > Coming up for Air > Part 2, Chapter 4

Coming up for Air

Part 2, Chapter 4

For the next seven years, from when I was eight to when I was
fifteen, what I chiefly remember is fishing.

Don't think that I did nothing else. It's only that when you look
back over a long period of time, certain things seem to swell up
till they overshadow everything else. I left Mother Howlett's and
went to the Grammar School, with a leather satchel and a black cap
with yellow stripes, and got my first bicycle and a long time
afterwards my first long trousers. My first bike was a fixed-
wheel--free-wheel bikes were very expensive then. When you went
downhill you put your feet up on the front rests and let the pedals
go whizzing round. That was one of the characteristic sights of
the early nineteen-hundreds--a boy sailing downhill with his head
back and his feet up in the air. I went to the Grammar School in
fear and trembling, because of the frightful tales Joe had told me
about old Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster, who was
certainly a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a
wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with
canes in it, which he'd sometimes take out and swish through the
air in a terrifying manner. But to my surprise I did rather well
at school. It had never occurred to me that I might be cleverer
than Joe, who was two years older than me and had bullied me ever
since he could walk. Actually Joe was an utter dunce, got the cane
about once a week, and stayed somewhere near the bottom of the
school till he was sixteen. My second term I took a prize in
arithmetic and another in some queer stuff that was mostly
concerned with pressed flowers and went by the name of Science, and
by the time I was fourteen Whiskers was talking about scholarships
and Reading University. Father, who had ambitions for Joe and me
in those days, was very anxious that I should go to 'college'.
There was an idea floating round that I was to be a schoolteacher
and Joe was to be an auctioneer.

But I haven't many memories connected with school. When I've mixed
with chaps from the upper classes, as I did during the war, I've
been struck by the fact that they never really get over that
frightful drilling they go through at public schools. Either it
flattens them out into half-wits or they spend the rest of their
lives kicking against it. It wasn't so with boys of our class, the
sons of shopkeepers and farmers. You went to the Grammar School
and you stayed there till you were sixteen, just to show that you
weren't a prole, but school was chiefly a place that you wanted to
get away from. You'd no sentiment of loyalty, no goofy feeling
about the old grey stones (and they WERE old, right enough, the
school had been founded by Cardinal Wolsey), and there was no Old
Boy's tie and not even a school song. You had your half-holidays
to yourself, because games weren't compulsory and as often as not
you cut them. We played football in braces, and though it was
considered proper to play cricket in a belt, you wore your ordinary
shirt and trousers. The only game I really cared about was the
stump cricket we used to play in the gravel yard during the break,
with a bat made out of a bit of packing case and a compo ball.

But I remember the smell of the big schoolroom, a smell of ink and
dust and boots, and the stone in the yard that had been a mounting
block and was used for sharpening knives on, and the little baker's
shop opposite where they sold a kind of Chelsea bun, twice the size
of the Chelsea buns you get nowadays, which were called Lardy
Busters and cost a halfpenny. I did all the things you do at
school. I carved my name on a desk and got the cane for it--you
were always caned for it if you were caught, but it was the
etiquette that you had to carve your name. And I got inky fingers
and bit my nails and made darts out of penholders and played
conkers and passed round dirty stories and learned to masturbate
and cheeked old Blowers, the English master, and bullied the life
out of little Willy Simeon, the undertaker's son, who was half-
witted and believed everything you told him. Our favourite trick
was to send him to shops to buy things that didn't exist. All the
old gags--the ha'porth of penny stamps, the rubber hammer, the
left-handed screwdriver, the pot of striped paint--poor Willy fell
for all of them. We had grand sport one afternoon, putting him in
a tub and telling him to lift himself up by the handles. He ended
up in an asylum, poor Willy. But it was in the holidays that one
really lived.

There were good things to do in those days. In winter we used to
borrow a couple of ferrets--Mother would never let Joe and me keep
them at home, 'nasty smelly things' she called them--and go round
the farms and ask leave to do a bit of ratting. Sometimes they let
us, sometimes they told us to hook it and said we were more trouble
than the rats. Later in winter we'd follow the threshing machine
and help kill the rats when they threshed the stacks. One winter,
1908 it must have been, the Thames flooded and then froze and there
was skating for weeks on end, and Harry Barnes broke his collar-
bone on the ice. In early spring we went after squirrels with
squailers, and later on we went birdnesting. We had a theory that
birds can't count and it's all right if you leave one egg, but we
were cruel little beasts and sometimes we'd just knock the nest
down and trample on the eggs or chicks. There was another game we
had when the toads were spawning. We used to catch toads, ram the
nozzle of a bicycle pump up their backsides, and blow them up till
they burst. That's what boys are like, I don't know why. In
summer we used to bike over the Burford Weir and bathe. Wally
Lovegrove, Sid's young cousin, was drowned in 1906. He got tangled
in the weeds at the bottom, and when the drag-hooks brought his
body to the surface his face was jet black.

But fishing was the real thing. We went many a time to old
Brewer's pool, and took tiny carp and tench out of it, and once a
whopping eel, and there were other cow-ponds that had fish in them
and were within walking distance on Saturday afternoons. But after
we got bicycles we started fishing in the Thames below Burford
Weir. It seemed more grown-up than fishing in cow-ponds. There
were no farmers chasing you away, and there are thumping fish in
the Thames--though, so far as I know, nobody's ever been known to
catch one.

It's queer, the feeling I had for fishing--and still have, really.
I can't call myself a fisherman. I've never in my life caught a
fish two feet long, and it's thirty years now since I've had a rod
in my hands. And yet when I look back the whole of my boyhood from
eight to fifteen seems to have revolved round the days when we went
fishing. Every detail has stuck clear in my memory. I can
remember individual days and individual fish, there isn't a cow-
pond or a backwater that I can't see a picture of if I shut my eyes
and think. I could write a book on the technique of fishing. When
we were kids we didn't have much in the way of tackle, it cost too
much and most of our threepence a week (which was the usual pocket-
money in those days) went on sweets and Lardy Busters. Very small
kids generally fish with a bent pin, which is too blunt to be much
use, but you can make a pretty good hook (though of course it's got
no barb) by bending a needle in a candle flame with a pair of
pliers. The farm lads knew how to plait horsehair so that it was
almost as good as gut, and you can take a small fish on a single
horsehair. Later we got to having two-shilling fishing-rods and
even reels of sorts. God, what hours I've spent gazing into
Wallace's window! Even the .410 guns and saloon pistols didn't
thrill me so much as the fishing tackle. And the copy of Gamage's
catalogue that I picked up somewhere, on a rubbish dump I think,
and studied as though it had been the Bible! Even now I could give
you all the details about gut-substitute and gimp and Limerick
hooks and priests and disgorgers and Nottingham reels and God knows
how many other technicalities.

Then there were the kinds of bait we used to use. In our shop
there were always plenty of mealworms, which were good but not very
good. Gentles were better. You had to beg them off old Gravitt,
the butcher, and the gang used to draw lots or do enamena-mina-mo
to decide who should go and ask, because Gravitt wasn't usually too
pleasant about it. He was a big, rough-faced old devil with a
voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when
speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would
give a jingle. You'd go in with an empty treacle-tin in your hand,
hang round till any customers had disappeared and then say very

'Please, Mr Gravitt, y'got any gentles today?'

Generally he'd roar out: 'What! Gentles! Gentles in my shop!
Ain't seen such a thing in years. Think I got blow-flies in my

He had, of course. They were everywhere. He used to deal with
them with a strip of leather on the end of a stick, with which he
could reach out to enormous distances and smack a fly into paste.
Sometimes you had to go away without any gentles, but as a rule
he'd shout after you just as you were going:

''Ere! Go round the backyard an' 'ave a look. P'raps you might
find one or two if you looked careful.'

You used to find them in little clusters everywhere. Gravitt's
backyard smelt like a battlefield. Butchers didn't have
refrigerators in those days. Gentles live longer if you keep them
in sawdust.

Wasp grubs are good, though it's hard to make them stick on the
hook, unless you bake them first. When someone found a wasps' nest
we'd go out at night and pour turpentine down it and plug up the
hole with mud. Next day the wasps would all be dead and you could
dig out the nest and take the grubs. Once something went wrong,
the turps missed the hole or something, and when we took the plug
out the wasps, which had been shut up all night, came out all
together with a zoom. We weren't very badly stung, but it was a
pity there was no one standing by with a stopwatch. Grasshoppers
are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick
them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on
the surface--'dapping', they call it. But you can never get more
than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which
are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace,
especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive,
so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it's a
ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

God knows how many other baits there were. Bread paste you make by
squeezing water through white bread in a rag. Then there are
cheese paste and honey paste and paste with aniseed in it. Boiled
wheat isn't bad for roach. Redworms are good for gudgeon. You
find them in very old manure heaps. And you also find another kind
of worm called a brandling, which is striped and smells like an
earwig, and which is very good bait for perch. Ordinary earthworms
are good for perch. You have to put them in moss to keep them
fresh and lively. If you try to keep them in earth they die.
Those brown flies you find on cowdung are pretty good for roach.
You can take a chub on a cherry, so they say, and I've seen a roach
taken with a currant out of a bun.

In those days, from the sixteenth of June (when the coarse-fishing
season starts) till midwinter I wasn't often without a tin of worms
or gentles in my pocket. I had some fights with Mother about it,
but in the end she gave in, fishing came off the list of forbidden
things and Father even gave me a two-shilling fishing-rod for
Christmas in 1903. Joe was barely fifteen when he started going
after girls, and from then on he seldom came out fishing, which he
said was a kid's game. But there were about half a dozen others
who were as mad on fishing as I was. Christ, those fishing days!
The hot sticky afternoons in the schoolroom when I've sprawled
across my desk, with old Blowers's voice grating away about
predicates and subjunctives and relative clauses, and all that's in
my mind is the backwater near Burford Weir and the green pool under
the willows with the dace gliding to and fro. And then the
terrific rush on bicycles after tea, to Chamford Hill and down to
the river to get in an hour's fishing before dark. The still
summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the
water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the
shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the
kind of passion with which you'd watch the black backs of the fish
swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that
one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got
too dark. And then it was always 'Let's have five minutes more',
and then 'Just five minutes more', until in the end you had to walk
your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling
round and you could be 'had up' for riding without a light. And
the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of
it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade,
and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally
catch something. At night you'd come home with filthy hands so
hungry that you'd eaten what was left of your bread paste, with
three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief. Mother
always refused to cook the fish I brought home. She would never
allow that river fish were edible, except trout and salmon. 'Nasty
muddy things', she called them. The fish I remember best of all
are the ones I didn't catch. Especially the monstrous fish you
always used to see when you went for a walk along the towpath on
Sunday afternoons and hadn't a rod with you. There was no fishing
on Sundays, even the Thames Conservancy Board didn't allow it. On
Sundays you had to go for what was called a 'nice walk' in your
thick black suit and the Eton collar that sawed your head off. It
was on a Sunday that I saw a pike a yard long asleep in shallow
water by the bank and nearly got him with a stone. And sometimes
in the green pools on the edge of the reeds you'd see a huge Thames
trout go sailing past. The trout grow to vast sizes in the Thames,
but they're practically never caught. They say that one of the
real Thames fishermen, the old bottle-nosed blokes that you see
muffled up in overcoats on camp-stools with twenty-foot roach-poles
at all seasons of the year, will willingly give up a year of his
life to catching a Thames trout. I don't blame them, I see their
point entirely, and still better I saw it then.

Of course other things were happening. I grew three inches in a
year, got my long trousers, won some prizes at school, went to
Confirmation classes, told dirty stories, took to reading, and had
crazes for white mice, fretwork, and postage stamps. But it's
always fishing that I remember. Summer days, and the flat water-
meadows and the blue hills in the distance, and the willows up the
backwater and the pools underneath like a kind of deep green glass.
Summer evenings, the fish breaking the water, the nightjars hawking
round your head, the smell of nightstocks and latakia. Don't
mistake what I'm talking about. It's not that I'm trying to put
across any of that poetry of childhood stuff. I know that's all
baloney. Old Porteous (a friend of mine, a retired schoolmaster,
I'll tell you about him later) is great on the poetry of childhood.
Sometimes he reads me stuff about it out of books. Wordsworth.
Lucy Gray. There was a time when meadow, grove, and all that.
Needless to say he's got no kids of his own. The truth is that
kids aren't in any way poetic, they're merely savage little
animals, except that no animal is a quarter as selfish. A boy
isn't interested in meadows, groves, and so forth. He never looks
at a landscape, doesn't give a damn for flowers, and unless they
affect him in some way, such as being good to eat, he doesn't know
one plant from another. Killing things--that's about as near to
poetry as a boy gets. And yet all the while there's that peculiar
intensity, the power of longing for things as you can't long when
you're grown up, and the feeling that time stretches out and out in
front of you and that whatever you're doing you could go on for

I was rather an ugly little boy, with butter-coloured hair which
was always cropped short except for a quiff in front. I don't
idealize my childhood, and unlike many people I've no wish to be
young again. Most of the things I used to care for would leave me
something more than cold. I don't care if I never see a cricket
ball again, and I wouldn't give you threepence for a hundredweight
of sweets. But I've still got, I've always had, that peculiar
feeling for fishing. You'll think it damned silly, no doubt, but
I've actually half a wish to go fishing even now, when I'm fat and
forty-five and got two kids and a house in the suburbs. Why?
Because in a manner of speaking I AM sentimental about my
childhood--not my own particular childhood, but the civilization
which I grew up in and which is now, I suppose, just about at its
last kick. And fishing is somehow typical of that civilization.
As soon as you think of fishing you think of things that don't
belong to the modern world. The very idea of sitting all day under
a willow tree beside a quiet pool--and being able to find a quiet
pool to sit beside--belongs to the time before the war, before the
radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler. There's a kind of
peacefulness even in the names of English coarse fish. Roach,
rudd, dace, bleak, barbel, bream, gudgeon, pike, chub, carp, tench.
They're solid kind of names. The people who made them up hadn't
heard of machine-guns, they didn't live in terror of the sack or
spend their time eating aspirins, going to the pictures, and
wondering how to keep out of the concentration camp.

Does anyone go fishing nowadays, I wonder? Anywhere within a
hundred miles of London there are no fish left to catch. A few
dismal fishing-clubs plant themselves in rows along the banks of
canals, and millionaires go trout-fishing in private waters round
Scotch hotels, a sort of snobbish game of catching hand-reared fish
with artificial flies. But who fishes in mill-streams or moats or
cow-ponds any longer? Where are the English coarse fish now? When
I was a kid every pond and stream had fish in it. Now all the
ponds are drained, and when the streams aren't poisoned with
chemicals from factories they're full of rusty tins and motor-bike

My best fishing-memory is about some fish that I never caught.
That's usual enough, I suppose.

When I was about fourteen Father did a good turn of some kind to
old Hodges, the caretaker at Binfield House. I forget what it was--
gave him some medicine that cured his fowls of the worms, or
something. Hodges was a crabby old devil, but he didn't forget a
good turn. One day a little while afterwards when he'd been down
to the shop to buy chicken-corn he met me outside the door and
stopped me in his surly way. He had a face like something carved
out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and
very long.

'Hey, young 'un! Fisherman, ain't you?'


'Thought you was. You listen, then. If so be you wanted to, you
could bring your line and have a try in that they pool up ahind the
Hall. There's plenty bream and jack in there. But don't you tell
no one as I told you. And don't you go for to bring any of them
other young whelps, or I'll beat the skin off their backs.'

Having said this he hobbled off with his sack of corn over his
shoulder, as though feeling that he'd said too much already. The
next Saturday afternoon I biked up to Binfield House with my
pockets full of worms and gentles, and looked for old Hodges at the
lodge. At that time Binfield House had already been empty for ten
or twenty years. Mr Farrel, the owner, couldn't afford to live in
it and either couldn't or wouldn't let it. He lived in London on
the rent of his farms and let the house and grounds go to the
devil. All the fences were green and rotting, the park was a mass
of nettles, the plantations were like a jungle, and even the
gardens had gone back to meadow, with only a few old gnarled rose-
bushes to show you where the beds had been. But it was a very
beautiful house, especially from a distance. It was a great white
place with colonnades and long-shaped windows, which had been
built, I suppose, about Queen Anne's time by someone who'd
travelled in Italy. If I went there now I'd probably get a certain
kick out of wandering round the general desolation and thinking
about the life that used to go on there, and the people who built
such places because they imagined that the good days would last for
ever. As a boy I didn't give either the house or the grounds a
second look. I dug out old Hodges, who'd just finished his dinner
and was a bit surly, and got him to show me the way down to the
pool. It was several hundred yards behind the house and completely
hidden in the beech woods, but it was a good-sized pool, almost a
lake, about a hundred and fifty yards across. It was astonishing,
and even at that age it astonished me, that there, a dozen miles
from Reading and not fifty from London, you could have such
solitude. You felt as much alone as if you'd been on the banks of
the Amazon. The pool was ringed completely round by the enormous
beech trees, which in one place came down to the edge and were
reflected in the water. On the other side there was a patch of
grass where there was a hollow with beds of wild peppermint, and up
at one end of the pool an old wooden boathouse was rotting among
the bulrushes.

The pool was swarming with bream, small ones, about four to six
inches long. Every now and again you'd see one of them turn half
over and gleam reddy brown under the water. There were pike there
too, and they must have been big ones. You never saw them, but
sometimes one that was basking among the weeds would turn over and
plunge with a splash that was like a brick being bunged into the
water. It was no use trying to catch them, though of course I
always tried every time I went there. I tried them with dace and
minnows I'd caught in the Thames and kept alive in a jam-jar, and
even with a spinner made out of a bit of tin. But they were gorged
with fish and wouldn't bite, and in any case they'd have broken any
tackle I possessed. I never came back from the pool without at
least a dozen small bream. Sometimes in the summer holidays I went
there for a whole day, with my fishing-rod and a copy of Chums or
the Union Jack or something, and a hunk of bread and cheese which
Mother had wrapped up for me. And I've fished for hours and then
lain in the grass hollow and read the Union Jack, and then the
smell of my bread paste and the plop of a fish jumping somewhere
would send me wild again, and I'd go back to the water and have
another go, and so on all through a summer's day. And the best of
all was to be alone, utterly alone, though the road wasn't a
quarter of a mile away. I was just old enough to know that it's
good to be alone occasionally. With the trees all round you it was
as though the pool belonged to you, and nothing ever stirred except
the fish ringing the water and the pigeons passing overhead. And
yet, in the two years or so that I went fishing there, how many
times did I really go, I wonder? Not more than a dozen. It was a
three-mile bike ride from home and took up a whole afternoon at
least. And sometimes other things turned up, and sometimes when
I'd meant to go it rained. You know the way things happen.

One afternoon the fish weren't biting and I began to explore at the
end of the pool farthest from Binfield House. There was a bit of
an overflow of water and the ground was boggy, and you had to fight
your way through a sort of jungle of blackberry bushes and rotten
boughs that had fallen off the trees. I struggled through it for
about fifty yards, and then suddenly there was a clearing and I
came to another pool which I had never known existed. It was a
small pool not more than twenty yards wide, and rather dark because
of the boughs that overhung it. But it was very clear water and
immensely deep. I could see ten or fifteen feet down into it. I
hung about for a bit, enjoying the dampness and the rotten boggy
smell, the way a boy does. And then I saw something that almost
made me jump out of my skin.

It was an enormous fish. I don't exaggerate when I say it was
enormous. It was almost the length of my arm. It glided across
the pool, deep under water, and then became a shadow and
disappeared into the darker water on the other side. I felt as if
a sword had gone through me. It was far the biggest fish I'd ever
seen, dead or alive. I stood there without breathing, and in a
moment another huge thick shape glided through the water, and then
another and then two more close together. The pool was full of
them. They were carp, I suppose. Just possibly they were bream or
tench, but more probably carp. Bream or tench wouldn't grow so
huge. I knew what had happened. At some time this pool had been
connected with the other, and then the stream had dried up and the
woods had closed round the small pool and it had just been
forgotten. It's a thing that happens occasionally. A pool gets
forgotten somehow, nobody fishes in it for years and decades and
the fish grow to monstrous sizes. The brutes that I was watching
might be a hundred years old. And not a soul in the world knew
about them except me. Very likely it was twenty years since anyone
had so much as looked at the pool, and probably even old Hodges and
Mr Farrel's bailiff had forgotten its existence.

Well, you can imagine what I felt. After a bit I couldn't even
bear the tantalization of watching. I hurried back to the other
pool and got my fishing things together. It was no use trying for
those colossal brutes with the tackle I had. They'd snap it as if
it had been a hair. And I couldn't go on fishing any longer for
the tiny bream. The sight of the big carp had given me a feeling
in my stomach almost as if I was going to be sick. I got on to my
bike and whizzed down the hill and home. It was a wonderful secret
for a boy to have. There was the dark pool hidden away in the
woods and the monstrous fish sailing round it--fish that had never
been fished for and would grab the first bait you offered them. It
was only a question of getting hold of a line strong enough to hold
them. Already I'd made all the arrangements. I'd buy the tackle
that would hold them if I had to steal the money out of the till.
Somehow, God knew how, I'd get hold of half a crown and buy a
length of silk salmon line and some thick gut or gimp and Number 5
hooks, and come back with cheese and gentles and paste and
mealworms and brandlings and grasshoppers and every mortal bait a
carp might look at. The very next Saturday afternoon I'd come back
and try for them.

But as it happened I never went back. One never does go back. I
never stole the money out of the till or bought the bit of salmon
line or had a try for those carp. Almost immediately afterwards
something turned up to prevent me, but if it hadn't been that it
would have been something else. It's the way things happen.

I know, of course, that you think I'm exaggerating about the size
of those fish. You think, probably, that they were just medium-
sized fish (a foot long, say) and that they've swollen gradually in
my memory. But it isn't so. People tell lies about the fish
they've caught and still more about the fish that are hooked and
get away, but I never caught any of these or even tried to catch
them, and I've no motive for lying. I tell you they were enormous.

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