Coming up for Air, by George Orwell

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 humbly:

‘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 shop?’

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 ever.

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 tyres.

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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 20:48