Originally published in 1939, this nostalgic book looks back on life before the First World War, regretting much that had altered since, and all that had been lost through the enthusiastic embrace (or perhaps the unsought imposition) of technological and scientific progress.
Much of England's rural landscape was inevitably degraded in its transition to a more urbanised and industrialised society, and here the many losses are remembered: woods chopped down in order to build more houses, ponds drained of water and fish, and rivers polluted by factory waste. And it is not just the vanished environments which are lamented, but also the pastimes they encouraged, and the opportunities for solitude they provided. And what did the modern world provide in return? It seems a whole range of bland and inadequate products: tasteless beer, inedible food, and mock-heritage housing estates.
Coming Up for Air is told in the first person, giving the memories, thoughts and experiences of George Bowling. But it seemed easy to forget about George, and to feel instead that this was an appeal direct from the author, a call to a contemporary audience to remember how life used to be, an urging of his readers to look around and make an assessment of whether modern life could really be considered an improvement.
Even if progress had eased the harsh living conditions of the past, it had also brought change, noise, and constant activity. In its wake opportunities for solitude and stillness had gone, and more importantly, the security of living in a stable and fathomable world had gone as well. The importance of the individual had been diminished, and everyone seemed to just accept it, as though progress had induced a blandness in people too. Orwell seems keen to awaken everyone from what he clearly considered to be an unthinking conformity.
His character George conforms as well, but not unthinkingly. He lives an ordinary life in a London suburb, but he has an awareness of what has been lost, and a prescience about what is coming. At 45 years of age he knows that his best days are behind him, for he is now overweight and his teeth are all gone (a decrepitude presented as perhaps inevitable with modern living, as none of the characters in this story fare well physically). George is almost an observer on his own life, and one thing he notices is that he is always busy, but never busy doing the things he enjoys. His wife nags and his children always need new things, so that his family is presented as a burden rather than a joy. They seem only a responsibility imposed on him by the need to live a respectable life.
So modern life is rubbish, but most people are too blind to realise this, and George, who is aware of it, is powerless to do anything about it.
George dreams of escaping - of metaphorically coming up for air. Initially he escapes in his mind, by dwelling in detail on memories of a childhood spent in the small village of Lower Binfield, not far from Reading, and particularly on the days he spent fishing. Fishing becomes a metaphor for the way life used to be, the antithesis of war; bombs and bombers seem metaphors for the future. It isn't just the destruction of the looming war that concerns George, but what may follow: even less freedom and even more conformity. Eventually it occurs to George to escape in person, and he leaves his home in London for a short holiday in the village of his childhood.
I think there is an acknowledgement that this portrayal of the past is partially sentimental in George's observation that it was always summer before the war, or at least that is how he recalls it, with the grey days and the bleak moments filtered out. I felt some sympathy with the frustration directed at the products of the modern world, for every purchase these days seems a gamble and it difficult to accept the wastefulness of technological products which are designed to fail. And yet as passionate as Orwell seems about the pre-industrial rural life (or equivalently, the life portrayed by Geraint Goodwin in The Heyday in the Blood), it is difficult to feel convinced, aware that it would be impossible to trade access to refrigeration, and internal bathrooms, and the convenience of the supermarket, for the way of living they describe.