Coming up for Air, by George Orwell


And besides fishing there was reading.

I’ve exaggerated if I’ve given the impression that fishing was the ONLY thing I cared about. Fishing certainly came first, but reading was a good second. I must have been either ten or eleven when I started reading — reading voluntarily, I mean. At that age it’s like discovering a new world. I’m a considerable reader even now, in fact there aren’t many weeks in which I don’t get through a couple of novels. I’m what you might call the typical Boots Library subscriber, I always fall for the best-seller of the moment (The Good Companions, Bengal Lancer, Hatter’s Castle — I fell for every one of them), and I’ve been a member of the Left Book Club for a year or more. And in 1918, when I was twenty-five, I had a sort of debauch of reading that made a certain difference to my outlook. But nothing is ever like those first years when you suddenly discover that you can open a penny weekly paper and plunge straight into thieves’ kitchens and Chinese opium dens and Polynesian islands and the forests of Brazil.

It was from when I was eleven to when I was about sixteen that I got my biggest kick out of reading. At first it was always the boys’ penny weeklies — little thin papers with vile print and an illustration in three colours on the cover — and a bit later it was books. Sherlock Holmes, Dr Nikola, The Iron Pirate, Dracula, Raffles. And Nat Gould and Ranger Gull and a chap whose name I forget who wrote boxing stories almost as rapidly as Nat Gould wrote racing ones. I suppose if my parents had been a little better educated I’d have had ‘good’ books shoved down my throat, Dickens and Thackeray and so forth, and in fact they did drive us through Quentin Durward at school and Uncle Ezekiel sometimes tried to incite me to read Ruskin and Carlyle. But there were practically no books in our house. Father had never read a book in his life, except the Bible and Smiles’s Self Help, and I didn’t of my own accord read a ‘good’ book till much later. I’m not sorry it happened that way. I read the things I wanted to read, and I got more out of them than I ever got out of the stuff they taught me at school.

The old penny dreadfuls were already going out when I was a kid, and I can barely remember them, but there was a regular line of boys’ weeklies, some of which still exist. The Buffalo Bill stories have gone out, I think, and Nat Gould probably isn’t read any longer, but Nick Carter and Sexton Blake seem to be still the same as ever. The Gem and the Magnet, if I’m remembering rightly, started about 1905. The B.O.P. was still rather pi in those days, but Chums, which I think must have started about 1903, was splendid. Then there was an encyclopedia — I don’t remember its exact name — which was issued in penny numbers. It never seemed quite worth buying, but a boy at school used to give away back numbers sometimes. If I now know the length of the Mississippi or the difference between an octopus and a cuttle-fish or the exact composition of bell-metal, that’s where I learned it from.

Joe never read. He was one of those boys who can go through years of schooling and at the end of it are unable to read ten lines consecutively. The sight of print made him feel sick. I’ve seen him pick up one of my numbers of Chums, read a paragraph or two and then turn away with just the same movement of disgust as a horse when it smells stale hay. He tried to kick me out of reading, but Mother and Father, who had decided that I was ‘the clever one’, backed me up. They were rather proud that I showed a taste for ‘book-learning’, as they called it. But it was typical of both of them that they were vaguely upset by my reading things like Chums and the Union Jack, thought that I ought to read something ‘improving’ but didn’t know enough about books to be sure which books were ‘improving’. Finally Mother got hold of a second-hand copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which I didn’t read, though the illustrations weren’t half bad.

All through the winter of 1905 I spent a penny on Chums every week. I was following up their serial story, ‘Donovan the Dauntless’. Donovan the Dauntless was an explorer who was employed by an American millionaire to fetch incredible things from various corners of the earth. Sometimes it was diamonds the size of golf balls from the craters of volcanoes in Africa, sometimes it was petrified mammoths’ tusks from the frozen forests of Siberia, sometimes it was buried Inca treasures from the lost cities of Peru. Donovan went on a new journey every week, and he always made good. My favourite place for reading was the loft behind the yard. Except when Father was getting out fresh sacks of grain it was the quietest place in the house. There were huge piles of sacks to lie on, and a sort of plastery smell mixed up with the smell of sainfoin, and bunches of cobwebs in all the corners, and just over the place where I used to lie there was a hole in the ceiling and a lath sticking out of the plaster. I can feel the feeling of it now. A winter day, just warm enough to lie still. I’m lying on my belly with Chums open in front of me. A mouse runs up the side of a sack like a clockwork toy, then suddenly stops dead and watches me with his little eyes like tiny jet beads. I’m twelve years old, but I’m Donovan the Dauntless. Two thousand miles up the Amazon I’ve just pitched my tent, and the roots of the mysterious orchid that blooms once in a hundred years are safe in the tin box under my camp bed. In the forests all round Hopi-Hopi Indians, who paint their teeth scarlet and skin white men alive, are beating their war-drums. I’m watching the mouse and the mouse is watching me, and I can smell the dust and sainfoin and the cool plastery smell, and I’m up the Amazon, and it’s bliss, pure bliss.

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