Near the end of George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, 45 year-old insurance salesman George “Tubby” Bowling visits his old town of Lower Binfield. It’s 1938, and for the first time in years he returns and barely recognizes what he finds: a burgeoning factory town that has swallowed most all of what he remembers from before the war. He remembers a certain refuge of his, a pond with unnaturally large fish in the forested, long-empty adjacent town of Upper Binfield, and hopes to find it as tranquil and untouched as it had been 20 or so years ago.
That pond was a defining part of Bowling’s Edwardian childhood. Growing up the son of a seeds salesman and housewife, his days were characterized above all by an omnipresent, comforting sense of routine and continuity. He harbored no illusions about the overall roughness of pre-war country life (“people on the whole worked harder, lived less comfortably, and died more painfully”), but felt that people generally had a feeling of security, even when they weren’t secure.
Bowling’s return to his childhood sanctuary is spoiled when he comes across its replacement, the Upper Binfield Model Yacht Club, right in the center of a newly built upper-middle class suburb. He quickly meets one of its inhabitants, an older man whom he immediately assumes is a health-food nut. The man guides Bowling around the newly built Upper Binfield, explaining how they “live in the midst of Nature up here” and how the town’s architect had a wonderful ability to find “genuine Elizabethan beams in old farmhouses and buy them at ridiculous prices.” All the while, Bowling thinks to himself:
“Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’? You could see in your mind’s eye the awful gang of food-cranks and spook-hunters and simple-lifers with £1000 a year that lived there… Some of the houses made me wish I’d got a hand-grenade in my pocket.”
What Bowling senses is that the void left by the collapse of the old, pre-war world has led to bizarre, superficial attempts to recreate it. Those who could afford to moved into (or, rather, created) living spaces that incorporated elements of the old order into the new, all the way down to the building materials. Yet he recognizes that, divorced from the earlier economic and social contexts, these new communities are profoundly, offensively inauthentic.
Orwell is most well-known for 1984, and his warnings and predictions of what the future totalitarian state might resemble. But where 1984 represents Orwell’s fears of the future, Coming Up For Air describes the set of circumstances – the “ghastly flux” of faked-up Tudors and health food-nuts – that makes such a future possible. His insurance salesman reflects on:
“The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces… It’s all going to happen.”
Coming Up For Air contextualizes this futuristic vision (which could easily pass as a plot summary for Orwell’s yet-to-be-written novel) by placing it next to the vividly depicted past and present. In turn, the world of Big Brother and 2+2=5 takes on a clearer purpose: it is a grossly perverted incarnation of the continuity, stability, and routine that characterized the prewar era. It puts an end to the meaninglessness following the end of Bowling’s Edwardian childhood, replacing the insecurity of modern life with a warped, totalitarian certainty.
Orwell’s name is perhaps most often invoked in adjective form – a phrase or action is deemed “Orwellian,” sometimes as if the charge constitutes an argument in itself. This is largely a legacy of 1984, which has doubtlessly sharpened cultural vigilance against anything that may resemble Airstrip One. But by and large, such a world has never really come to pass.
Instead of transitioning quickly into a totalitarian world, Orwell’s descriptions of the “ghastly flux” have hardened and come to form the basis of modern life. Its chief reality, Bowling tells us, is an “everlasting, frantic struggle to sell things. With most people it takes the form of selling themselves – that’s to say, getting a job and keeping it.” Such modern jobs would naturally include:
“a bit of money coming rom somewhere… And the job, of course, would be “in business” – just what kind of job I didn’t know, but something high-up and important, something with a car and a telephone and if possible a secretary with a permanent wave.”
Though the trappings are a bit dated, Bowling’s ideal job corresponds depressingly closely to the kind of work many students will take up upon graduation. The promise of influence, a high salary, and of being in the center of things – such factors could easily and totally constitute the impetus behind modern students taking jobs at investment banking or consulting firms. And once these students actually arrive at their workplaces, the battle becomes solely to sell themselves – to the managing directors, the associates, to whomever. What other force could keep a brilliant 23 year-old glued to online spreadsheets for upwards of 80 hours a week?
Naturally accompanying that force is a perpetual sense of unease, if not abject fear. Bowling considers himself lucky to have gotten his altogether mind-numbing, middle-class job in insurance sales, but nevertheless cannot escape an omnipresent, “peculiar, ghastly feeling” that has seeped into modern life. A dependable way to keep employees working hard is to keep them in the dark as to whether or not they’re succeeding (hence large-percentage bonuses and two- and even one-year contracts); the inducement of anxiety is the modus operandi of the modern economic order.
From such a state of affairs, it ought to follow that either one continues with this mindset, assiduously selling himself as his life moves along, or grows mightily disillusioned. At one point, Bowling speaks with a young man antsy to battle the Nazis (a fight regarded as somewhat inevitable even in 1938), and senses that he finds himself “a bank clerk in a godless suburb, sitting behind the frosted window, entering figures in a ledger, counting piles of notes, bumsucking to the manager. Feels his life rotting away.”
77 years later, similar thoughts must be floating somewhere around the minds of young workers across the country. Bumsucking to the manager – what else does much modern work constitute? The predominant emotion in today’s workplace has become anxiety, and such a state of affairs, Orwell doubtlessly reckoned, cannot possibly endure for any substantial period of time.
But 1985 has come and passed, and the sordid, anxious state of affairs has hardened. And though Orwell felt the new world impermanent, he nevertheless provided clues as to why it’s endured, many of which lie in Bowling’s failed return to the pond of his childhood and scathing view of Upper Binfield’s attempt to physically recreate the old order.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, though lacking Orwell’s utter derision, catalogued similar trends in his 2001 book Bobos in Paradise, which detailed certain defining lifestyle features of the American upper classes. Evident in the American upper classes’ lifestyles, argues Brooks, is an underlying desire to look to the past for meaning, to return to the old world in order to escape the superficialities of the new. Their longing, he says:
“is evident in the way we try to construct our physical environment. Bobos surround themselves with remnants of the small, stable communities that radiate spiritual contentment… Shaker-inspired tables, rustic pine benches, distressed furniture, archaic farm implements, and on and on – each piece more nobly reactionary than the last.”
The upper classes’ unironically noble sense of reactionism is exactly what Orwell derides vis-à-vis Bowling’s disgusted reaction to the new Upper Binfield. As the rest of the country grows more and more anxious, the rich physically try to recreate the old world through the raiding of old farmhouses and building of “sham-Tudor colonies.” Orwell correctly realizes that their desire to escape the superficialities of modern life is manifested in a comically superficial manner.
But what really offends Orwell is the arrogance with which they construct their world. In the course of their conversation, the old man tells Bowling “numerous times” that “they were very exceptional people in Upper Binfield, quite different from Lower Binfield.” Whereas the middle and working classes toil in and experience the daily, maddening realities of modern life, the Upper Binfieldians insulate themselves in a farcically reconstructed version of the old continuity and consequently believe themselves genuinely better than the uncultured masses.
The real tragedy, suggests Orwell, is that by virtue of this cultural segregation, those at the apex of modern society tend to chalk the very real struggles of the population writ large to some sort of difference or deficiency of character, not circumstance. This tendency breeds callousness towards others in the very people in a position to help them, thereby exacerbating the inherent tenuousness of the lower classes’ day-to-day lives.
These trends are doubtlessly evident today in the United States. Wealthy Americans’ attempts to recreate an old order for stability’s sake go beyond Brooks’ descriptions of how they build their houses; they have startlingly lower divorce rates than their working class counterparts, for instance, and tend to cluster in suburbs with similarly intact families and exemplary schools and public services. In short, the upper- or upper-middle-class American life is often a picture of stability.
Such is not the case for America’s working classes, who find themselves at the mercy of profoundly anxiety-inducing economic and social realities, their modes of recourse declining by the hour. The demise of unions, the stagnation and even decline in real wages - can they not be traced back, on some level, to indifference on the part of America’s wealthier citizens? His ridicule of Upper Binfield-esque settlements aside, Orwell was keen to notice how cultural stability becomes a limited resource in modern times, and how it serves to open a massive rift in the greater societal dynamic.
He also found such a situation abhorrent and untenable, which is why he sensed that his epoch, with the Tudor houses and the omnipresent feeling of insecurity, would have to lead to something else; 1984 simply described a world that represented a worst-case, though depressingly likely scenario. Life was too devoid of meaning for too many people for it to continue on unabated.
But though his predictions of a future dystopia have never been and may never be realized, his epoch has become our epoch, the “ghastly flux” having gone on a fair bit longer than he must have anticipated. In his diagnosis of what he thought transitive ills, he may have stumbled upon some of the major issues which seem set to plague modern society for a long while coming.