Coming up for Air, by George Orwell

8

I wasn’t wounded till late in 1916.

We’d just come out of the trenches and were marching over a bit of road a mile or so back which was supposed to be safe, but which the Germans must have got the range of some time earlier. Suddenly they started putting a few shells over — it was heavy H.E. stuff, and they were only firing about one a minute. There was the usual zwee-e-e-e! and then BOOM! in a field somewhere over to the right. I think it was the third shell that got me. I knew as soon as I heard it coming that it had my name written on it. They say you always know. It didn’t say what an ordinary shell says. It said ‘I’m after you, you b — YOU, you b — YOU!’— all this in the space of about three seconds. And the last you was the explosion.

I felt as if an enormous hand made of air were sweeping me along. And presently I came down with a sort of burst, shattered feeling among a lot of old tin cans, splinters of wood, rusty barbed wire, turds, empty cartridge cases, and other muck in the ditch at the side of the road. When they’d hauled me out and cleaned some of the dirt off me they found that I wasn’t very badly hurt. It was only a lot of small shell-splinters that had lodged in one side of my bottom and down the backs of my legs. But luckily I’d broken a rib in falling, which made it just bad enough to get me back to England. I spent that winter in a hospital camp on the downs near Eastbourne.

Do you remember those war-time hospital camps? The long rows of wooden huts like chicken-houses stuck right on top of those beastly icy downs — the ‘south coast’, people used to call it, which made me wonder what the north coast could be like — where the wind seems to blow at you from all directions at once. And the droves of blokes in their pale-blue flannel suits and red ties, wandering up and down looking for a place out of the wind and never finding one. Sometimes the kids from the slap-up boys’ schools in Eastbourne used to be led round in crocodiles to hand out fags and peppermint creams to the ‘wounded Tommies’, as they called us. A pink-faced kid of about eight would walk up to a knot of wounded men sitting on the grass, split open a packet of Woodbines and solemnly hand one fag to each man, just like feeding the monkeys at the zoo. Anyone who was strong enough used to wander for miles over the downs in hopes of meeting girls. There were never enough girls to go round. In the valley below the camp there was a bit of a spinney, and long before dusk you’d see a couple glued against every tree, and sometimes, if it happened to be a thick tree, one on each side of it. My chief memory of that time is sitting against a gorse-bush in the freezing wind, with my fingers so cold I couldn’t bend them and the taste of a peppermint cream in my mouth. That’s a typical soldier’s memory. But I was getting away from a Tommy’s life, all the same. The C.O. had sent my name in for a commission a little before I was wounded. By this time they were desperate for officers and anyone who wasn’t actually illiterate could have a commission if he wanted one. I went straight from the hospital to an officers’ training camp near Colchester.

It’s very strange, the things the war did to people. It was less than three years since I’d been a spry young shop-assistant, bending over the counter in my white apron with ‘Yes, madam! Certainly, madam! AND the next order, madam?’ with a grocer’s life ahead of me and about as much notion of becoming an Army officer as of getting a knighthood. And here I was already, swaggering about in a gorblimey hat and a yellow collar and more or less keeping my end up among a crowd of other temporary gents and some who weren’t even temporary. And — this is really the point — not feeling it in any way strange. Nothing seemed strange in those days.

It was like an enormous machine that had got hold of you. You’d no sense of acting of your own free will, and at the same time no notion of trying to resist. If people didn’t have some such feeling as that, no war could last three months. The armies would just pack up and go home. Why had I joined the Army? Or the million other idiots who joined up before conscription came in? Partly for a lark and partly because of England my England and Britons never never and all that stuff. But how long did that last? Most of the chaps I knew had forgotten all about it long before they got as far as France. The men in the trenches weren’t patriotic, didn’t hate the Kaiser, didn’t care a damn about gallant little Belgium and the Germans raping nuns on tables (it was always ‘on tables’, as though that made it worse) in the streets of Brussels. On the other hand it didn’t occur to them to try and escape. The machine had got hold of you and it could do what it liked with you. It lifted you up and dumped you down among places and things you’d never dreamed of, and if it had dumped you down on the surface of the moon it wouldn’t have seemed particularly strange. The day I joined the Army the old life was finished. It was as though it didn’t concern me any longer. I wonder if you’d believe that from that day forward I only once went back to Lower Binfield, and that was to Mother’s funeral? It sounds incredible now, but it seemed natural enough at the time. Partly, I admit, it was on account of Elsie, whom, of course, I’d stopped writing to after two or three months. No doubt she’d picked up with someone else, but I didn’t want to meet her. Otherwise, perhaps, when I got a bit of leave I’d have gone down and seen Mother, who’d had fits when I joined the Army but would have been proud of a son in uniform.

Father died in 1915. I was in France at the time. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Father’s death hurts me more now than it did then. At the time it was just a bit of bad news which I accepted almost without interest, in the sort of empty-headed apathetic way in which one accepted everything in the trenches. I remember crawling into the doorway of the dugout to get enough light to read the letter, and I remember Mother’s tear-stains on the letter, and the aching feeling in my knees and the smell of mud. Father’s life-insurance policy had been mortgaged for most of its value, but there was a little money in the bank and Sarazins’ were going to buy up the stock and even pay some tiny amount for the good-will. Anyway, Mother had a bit over two hundred pounds, besides the furniture. She went for the time being to lodge with her cousin, the wife of a small-holder who was doing pretty well out of the war, near Doxley, a few miles the other side of Walton. It was only ‘for the time being’. There was a temporary feeling about everything. In the old days, which as a matter of fact were barely a year old, the whole thing would have been an appalling disaster. With Father dead, the shop sold and Mother with two hundred pounds in the world, you’d have seen stretching out in front of you a kind of fifteen-act tragedy, the last act being a pauper’s funeral. But now the war and the feeling of not being one’s own master overshadowed everything. People hardly thought in terms of things like bankruptcy and the workhouse any longer. This was the case even with Mother, who, God knows, had only very dim notions about the war. Besides, she was already dying, though neither of us knew it.

She came across to see me in the hospital at Eastbourne. It was over two years since I’d seen her, and her appearance gave me a bit of a shock. She seemed to have faded and somehow to have shrunken. Partly it was because by this time I was grown-up, I’d travelled, and everything looked smaller to me, but there was no question that she’d got thinner, and also yellower. She talked in the old rambling way about Aunt Martha (that was the cousin she was staying with), and the changes in Lower Binfield since the war, and all the boys who’d ‘gone’ (meaning joined the Army), and her indigestion which was ‘aggravating’, and poor Father’s tombstone and what a lovely corpse he made. It was the old talk, the talk I’d listened to for years, and yet somehow it was like a ghost talking. It didn’t concern me any longer. I’d known her as a great splendid protecting kind of creature, a bit like a ship’s figure-head and a bit like a broody hen, and after all she was only a little old woman in a black dress. Everything was changing and fading. That was the last time I saw her alive. I got the wire saying she was seriously ill when I was at the training school at Colchester, and put in for a week’s urgent leave immediately. But it was too late. She was dead by the time I got to Doxley. What she and everyone else had imagined to be indigestion was some kind of internal growth, and a sudden chill on the stomach put the final touch. The doctor tried to cheer me up by telling me that the growth was ‘benevolent’, which struck me as a queer thing to call it, seeing that it had killed her.

Well, we buried her next to Father, and that was my last glimpse of Lower Binfield. It had changed a lot, even in three years. Some of the shops were shut, some had different names over them. Nearly all the men I’d known as boys were gone, and some of them were dead. Sid Lovegrove was dead, killed on the Somme. Ginger Watson, the farm lad who’d belonged to the Black Hand years ago, the one who used to catch rabbits alive, was dead in Egypt. One of the chaps who’d worked with me at Grimmett’s had lost both legs. Old Lovegrove had shut up his shop and was living in a cottage near Walton on a tiny annuity. Old Grimmett, on the other hand, was doing well out of the war and had turned patriotic and was a member of the local board which tried conscientious objectors. The thing which more than anything else gave the town an empty, forlorn kind of look was that there were practically no horses left. Every horse worth taking had been commandeered long ago. The station fly still existed, but the brute that pulled it wouldn’t have been able to stand up if it hadn’t been for the shafts. For the hour or so that I was there before the funeral I wandered round the town, saying how d’you do to people and showing off my uniform. Luckily I didn’t run into Elsie. I saw all the changes, and yet it was as though I didn’t see them. My mind was on other things, chiefly the pleasure of being seen in my second-loot’s uniform, with my black armlet (a thing which looks rather smart on khaki) and my new whipcord breeches. I distinctly remember that I was still thinking about those whipcord breeches when we stood at the graveside. And then they chucked some earth on to the coffin and I suddenly realized what it means for your mother to be lying with seven feet of earth on top of her, and something kind of twitched behind my eyes and nose, but even then the whipcord breeches weren’t altogether out of my mind.

Don’t think I didn’t feel for Mother’s death. I did. I wasn’t in the trenches any longer, I could feel sorry for a death. But the thing I didn’t care a damn about, didn’t even grasp to be happening, was the passing-away of the old life I’d known. After the funeral, Aunt Martha, who was rather proud of having a ‘real officer’ for a nephew and would have made a splash of the funeral if I’d let her, went back to Doxley on the bus and I took the fly down to the station, to get the train to London and then to Colchester. We drove past the shop. No one had taken it since Father died. It was shut up and the window-pane was black with dust, and they’d burned the ‘S. Bowling’ off the signboard with a plumber’s blowflame. Well, there was the house where I’d been a child and a boy and a young man, where I’d crawled about the kitchen floor and smelt the sainfoin and read ‘Donovan the Dauntless’, where I’d done my homework for the Grammar School, mixed bread paste, mended bicycle punctures, and tried on my first high collar. It had been as permanent to me as the Pyramids, and now it would be just an accident if I ever set foot in it again. Father, Mother, Joe, the errand boys, old Nailer the terrier, Spot, the one that came after Nailer, Jackie the bullfinch, the cats, the mice in the loft — all gone, nothing left but dust. And I didn’t care a damn. I was sorry Mother was dead, I was even sorry Father was dead, but all the time my mind was on other things. I was a bit proud of being seen riding in a cab, a thing I hadn’t yet got used to, and I was thinking of the sit of my new whipcord breeches, and my nice smooth officer’s putties, so different from the gritty stuff the Tommies had to wear, and of the other chaps at Colchester and the sixty quid Mother had left and the beanos we’d have with it. Also I was thanking God that I hadn’t happened to run into Elsie.

The war did extraordinary things to people. And what was more extraordinary than the way it killed people was the way it sometimes didn’t kill them. It was like a great flood rushing you along to death, and suddenly it would shoot you up some backwater where you’d find yourself doing incredible and pointless things and drawing extra pay for them. There were labour battalions making roads across the desert that didn’t lead anywhere, there were chaps marooned on oceanic islands to look out for German cruisers which had been sunk years earlier, there were Ministries of this and that with armies of clerks and typists which went on existing years after their function had ended, by a kind of inertia. People were shoved into meaningless jobs and then forgotten by the authorities for years on end. This was what happened to myself, or very likely I wouldn’t be here. The whole sequence of events is rather interesting.

A little while after I was gazetted there was a call for officers of the A.S.C. As soon as the O.C. of the training camp heard that I knew something about the grocery trade (I didn’t let on that I’d actually been behind the counter) he told me to send my name in. That went through all right, and I was just about to leave for another training-school for A.S.C. officers somewhere in the Midlands when there was a demand for a young officer, with knowledge of the grocery trade, to act as some kind of secretary to Sir Joseph Cheam, who was a big noise in the A.S.C. God knows why they picked me out, but at any rate they did so. I’ve since thought that they probably mixed my name up with somebody else’s. Three days later I was saluting in Sir Joseph’s office. He was a lean, upright, rather handsome old boy with grizzled hair and a grave-looking nose which immediately impressed me. He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type, and might have been twin brother to the chap in the De Reszke advert, though in private life he was chairman of one of the big chain groceries and famous all over the world for something called the Cheam Wage-Cut System. He stopped writing as I came in and looked me over.

‘You a gentleman?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Good. Then perhaps we’ll get some work done.’

In about three minutes he’d wormed out of me that I had no secretarial experience, didn’t know shorthand, couldn’t use a typewriter, and had worked in a grocery at twenty-eight shillings a week. However, he said that I’d do, there were too many gentlemen in this damned Army and he’d been looking for somebody who could count beyond ten. I liked him and looked forward to working for him, but just at this moment the mysterious powers that seemed to be running the war drove us apart again. Something called the West Coast Defence Force was being formed, or rather was being talked about, and there was some vague idea of establishing dumps of rations and other stores at various points along the coast. Sir Joseph was supposed to be responsible for the dumps in the south- west corner of England. The day after I joined his office he sent me down to check over the stores at a place called Twelve Mile Dump, on the North Cornish Coast. Or rather my job was to find out whether any stores existed. Nobody seemed certain about this. I’d just got there and discovered that the stores consisted of eleven tins of bully beef when a wire arrived from the War Office telling me to take charge of the stores at Twelve Mile Dump and remain there till further notice. I wired back ‘No stores at Twelve Mile Dump.’ Too late. Next day came the official letter informing me that I was O.C. Twelve Mile Dump. And that’s really the end of the story. I remained O.C. Twelve Mile Dump for the rest of the war.

God knows what it was all about. It’s no use asking me what the West Coast Defence Force was or what it was supposed to do. Even at that time nobody pretended to know. In any case it didn’t exist. It was just a scheme that had floated through somebody’s mind — following on some vague rumour of a German invasion via Ireland, I suppose — and the food dumps which were supposed to exist all along the coast were also imaginary. The whole thing had existed for about three days, like a sort of bubble, and then had been forgotten, and I’d been forgotten with it. My eleven tins of bully beef had been left behind by some officers who had been there earlier on some other mysterious mission. They’d also left behind a very deaf old man called Private Lidgebird. What Lidgebird was supposed to be doing there I never discovered. I wonder whether you’ll believe that I remained guarding those eleven tins of bully beef from half-way through 1917 to the beginning of 1919? Probably you won’t, but it’s the truth. And at the time even that didn’t seem particularly strange. By 1918 one had simply got out of the habit of expecting things to happen in a reasonable manner.

Once a month they sent me an enormous official form calling upon me to state the number and condition of pick-axes, entrenching tools, coils of barbed wire, blankets, waterproof groundsheets, first-aid outfits, sheets of corrugated iron, and tins of plum and apple jam under my care. I just entered ‘nil’ against everything and sent the form back. Nothing ever happened. Up in London someone was quietly filing the forms, and sending out more forms, and filing those, and so on. It was the way things were happening. The mysterious higher-ups who were running the war had forgotten my existence. I didn’t jog their memory. I was up a backwater that didn’t lead anywhere, and after two years in France I wasn’t so burning with patriotism that I wanted to get out of it.

It was a lonely part of the coast where you never saw a soul except a few yokels who’d barely heard there was a war on. A quarter of a mile away, down a little hill, the sea boomed and surged over enormous flats of sand. Nine months of the year it rained, and the other three a raging wind blew off the Atlantic. There was nothing there except Private Lidgebird, myself, two Army huts — one of them a decentish two-roomed hut which I inhabited — and the eleven tins of bully beef. Lidgebird was a surly old devil and I could never get much out of him except the fact that he’d been a market gardener before he joined the Army. It was interesting to see how rapidly he was reverting to type. Even before I got to Twelve Mile Dump he’d dug a patch round one of the huts and started planting spuds, in the autumn he dug another patch till he’d got about half an acre under cultivation, at the beginning of 1918 he started keeping hens which had got to quite a number by the end of the summer, and towards the end of the year he suddenly produced a pig from God knows where. I don’t think it crossed his mind to wonder what the devil we were doing there, or what the West Coast Defence Force was and whether it actually existed. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that he’s there still, raising pigs and potatoes on the spot where Twelve Mile Dump used to be. I hope he is. Good luck to him.

Meanwhile I was doing something I’d never before had the chance to do as a full-time job — reading.

The officers who’d been there before had left a few books behind, mostly sevenpenny editions and nearly all of them the kind of tripe that people were reading in those days. Ian Hay and Sapper and the Craig Kennedy stories and so forth. But at some time or other somebody had been there who knew what books are worth reading and what are not. I myself, at the time, didn’t know anything of the kind. The only books I’d ever voluntarily read were detective stories and once in a way a smutty sex book. God knows I don’t set up to be a highbrow even now, but if you’d asked me THEN for the name of a ‘good’ book I’d have answered The Woman Thou Gavest Me, or (in memory of the vicar) Sesame and Lilies. In any case a ‘good’ book was a book one didn’t have any intention of reading. But there I was, in a job where there was less than nothing to do, with the sea booming on the beach and the rain streaming down the window-panes — and a whole row of books staring me in the face on the temporary shelf someone had rigged up against the wall of the hut. Naturally I started to read them from end to end, with, at the beginning, about as much attempt to discriminate as a pig working its way through a pail of garbage.

But in among them there were three or four books that were different from the others. No, you’ve got it wrong! Don’t run away with the idea that I suddenly discovered Marcel Proust or Henry James or somebody. I wouldn’t have read them even if I had. These books I’m speaking of weren’t in the least highbrow. But now and again it so happens that you strike a book which is exactly at the mental level you’ve reached at the moment, so much so that it seems to have been written especially for you. One of them was H. G. Wells’s The History of Mr Polly, in a cheap shilling edition which was falling to pieces. I wonder if you can imagine the effect it had upon me, to be brought up as I’d been brought up, the son of a shopkeeper in a country town, and then to come across a book like that? Another was Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street. It had been the scandal of the season a few years back, and I’d even heard vague rumours of it in Lower Binfield. Another was Conrad’s Victory, parts of which bored me. But books like that started you thinking. And there was a back number of some magazine with a blue cover which had a short story of D. H. Lawrence’s in it. I don’t remember the name of it. It was a story about a German conscript who shoves his sergeant-major over the edge of a fortification and then does a bunk and gets caught in his girl’s bedroom. It puzzled me a lot. I couldn’t make out what it was all about, and yet it left me with a vague feeling that I’d like to read some others like it.

Well, for several months I had an appetite for books that was almost like physical thirst. It was the first real go-in at reading that I’d had since my Dick Donovan days. At the beginning I had no idea how to set about getting hold of books. I thought the only way was to buy them. That’s interesting, I think. It shows you the difference upbringing makes. I suppose the children of the middle classes, the 500 pounds a year middle classes, know all about Mudie’s and the Times Book Club when they’re in their cradles. A bit later I learned of the existence of lending libraries and took out a subscription at Mudie’s and another at a library in Bristol. And what I read during the next year or so! Wells, Conrad, Kipling, Galsworthy, Barry Pain, W. W. Jacobs, Pett Ridge, Oliver Onions, Compton Mackenzie, H. Seton Merriman, Maurice Baring, Stephen McKenna, May Sinclair, Arnold Bennett, Anthony Hope, Elinor Glyn, O. Henry, Stephen Leacock, and even Silas Hocking and Jean Stratton Porter. How many of the names in that list are known to you, I wonder? Half the books that people took seriously in those days are forgotten now. But at the beginning I swallowed them all down like a whale that’s got in among a shoal of shrimps. I just revelled in them. After a bit, of course, I grew more highbrow and began to distinguish between tripe and not-tripe. I got hold of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and sort of half-enjoyed it, and I got a lot of kick out of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights. Wells was the author who made the biggest impression on me. I read George Moore’s Esther Waters and liked it, and I tried several of Hardy’s novels and always got stuck about half-way through. I even had a go at Ibsen, who left me with a vague impression that in Norway it’s always raining.

It was queer, really. Even at the time it struck me as queer. I was a second-loot with hardly any Cockney accent left, I could already distinguish between Arnold Bennett and Elinor Glyn, and yet it was only four years since I’d been slicing cheese behind the counter in my white apron and looking forward to the days when I’d be a master-grocer. If I tot up the account, I suppose I must admit that the war did me good as well as harm. At any rate that year of reading novels was the only real education, in the sense of book-learning, that I’ve ever had. It did certain things to my mind. It gave me an attitude, a kind of questioning attitude, which I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d gone through life in a normal sensible way. But — I wonder if you can understand this — the thing that really changed me, really made an impression on me, wasn’t so much the books I read as the rotten meaninglessness of the life I was leading.

It really was unspeakably meaningless, that time in 1918. Here I was, sitting beside the stove in an Army hut, reading novels, and a few hundred miles away in France the guns were roaring and droves of wretched children, wetting their bags with fright, were being driven into the machine-gun barrage like you’d shoot small coke into a furnace. I was one of the lucky ones. The higher-ups had taken their eye off me, and here I was in a snug little bolt-hole, drawing pay for a job that didn’t exist. At times I got into a panic and made sure they’d remember about me and dig me out, but it never happened. The official forms, on gritty grey paper, came in once a month, and I filled them up and sent them back, and more forms came in, and I filled them up and sent them back, and so it went on. The whole thing had about as much sense in it as a lunatic’s dream. The effect of all this, plus the books I was reading, was to leave me with a feeling of disbelief in everything.

I wasn’t the only one. The war was full of loose ends and forgotten corners. By this time literally millions of people were stuck up backwaters of one kind and another. Whole armies were rotting away on fronts that people had forgotten the names of. There were huge Ministries with hordes of clerks and typists all drawing two pounds a week and upwards for piling up mounds of paper. Moreover they knew perfectly well that all they were doing was to pile up mounds of paper. Nobody believed the atrocity stories and the gallant little Belgium stuff any longer. The soldiers thought the Germans were good fellows and hated the French like poison. Every junior officer looked on the General Staff as mental defectives. A sort of wave of disbelief was moving across England, and it even got as far as Twelve Mile Dump. It would be an exaggeration to say that the war turned people into highbrows, but it did turn them into nihilists for the time being. People who in a normal way would have gone through life with about as much tendency to think for themselves as a suet pudding were turned into Bolshies just by the war. What should I be now if it hadn’t been for the war? I don’t know, but something different from what I am. If the war didn’t happen to kill you it was bound to start you thinking. After that unspeakable idiotic mess you couldn’t go on regarding society as something eternal and unquestionable, like a pyramid. You knew it was just a balls-up.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79co/part2.8.html

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