Coming up for Air, by George Orwell

9

The war had jerked me out of the old life I’d known, but in the queer period that came afterwards I forgot it almost completely.

I know that in a sense one never forgets anything. You remember that piece of orange-peel you saw in the gutter thirteen years ago, and that coloured poster of Torquay that you once got a glimpse of in a railway waiting-room. But I’m speaking of a different kind of memory. In a sense I remembered the old life in Lower Binfield. I remembered my fishing-rod and the smell of sainfoin and Mother behind the brown teapot and Jackie the bullfinch and the horse- trough in the market-place. But none of it was alive in my mind any longer. It was something far away, something that I’d finished with. It would never have occurred to me that some day I might want to go back to it.

It was a queer time, those years just after the war, almost queerer than the war itself, though people don’t remember it so vividly. In a rather different form the sense of disbelieving in everything was stronger than ever. Millions of men had suddenly been kicked out of the Army to find that the country they’d fought for didn’t want them, and Lloyd George and his pals were giving the works to any illusions that still existed. Bands of ex-service men marched up and down rattling collection boxes, masked women were singing in the streets, and chaps in officers’ tunics were grinding barrel- organs. Everybody in England seemed to be scrambling for jobs, myself included. But I came off luckier than most. I got a small wound-gratuity, and what with that and the bit of money I’d put aside during the last year of war (not having had much opportunity to spend it), I came out of the Army with no less than three hundred and fifty quid. It’s rather interesting, I think, to notice my reaction. Here I was, with quite enough money to do the thing I’d been brought up to do and the thing I’d dreamed of for years — that is, start a shop. I had plenty of capital. If you bide your time and keep your eyes open you can run across quite nice little businesses for three hundred and fifty quid. And yet, if you’ll believe me, the idea never occurred to me. I not only didn’t make any move towards starting a shop, but it wasn’t till years later, about 1925 in fact, that it even crossed my mind that I might have done so. The fact was that I’d passed right out of the shopkeeping orbit. That was what the Army did to you. It turned you into an imitation gentleman and gave you a fixed idea that there’d always be a bit of money coming from somewhere. If you’d suggested to me then, in 1919, that I ought to start a shop — a tobacco and sweet shop, say, or a general store in some god- forsaken village — I’d just have laughed. I’d worn pips on my shoulder, and my social standards had risen. At the same time I didn’t share the delusion, which was pretty common among ex- officers, that I could spend the rest of my life drinking pink gin. I knew I’d got to have a job. 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. During the last year or so of war a lot of us had had visions like that. The chap who’d been a shop walker saw himself as a travelling salesman, and the chap who’d been a travelling salesman saw himself as a managing director. It was the effect of Army life, the effect of wearing pips and having a cheque-book and calling the evening meal dinner. All the while there’d been an idea floating round — and this applied to the men in the ranks as well as the officers — that when we came out of the Army there’d be jobs waiting for us that would bring in at least as much as our Army pay. Of course, if ideas like that didn’t circulate, no war would ever be fought.

Well, I didn’t get that job. It seemed that nobody was anxious to pay me 2,000 pounds a year for sitting among streamlined office furniture and dictating letters to a platinum blonde. I was discovering what three-quarters of the blokes who’d been officers were discovering — that from a financial point of view we’d been better off in the Army than we were ever likely to be again. We’d suddenly changed from gentlemen holding His Majesty’s commission into miserable out-of-works whom nobody wanted. My ideas soon sank from two thousand a year to three or four pounds a week. But even jobs of the three or four pounds a week kind didn’t seem to exist. Every mortal job was filled already, either by men who’d been a few years too old to fight, or by boys who’d been a few months too young. The poor bastards who’d happened to be born between 1890 and 1900 were left out in the cold. And still it never occurred to me to go back to the grocering business. Probably I could have got a job as a grocer’s assistant; old Grimmett, if he was still alive and in business (I wasn’t in touch with Lower Binfield and didn’t know), would have given me good refs. But I’d passed into a different orbit. Even if my social ideas hadn’t risen, I could hardly have imagined, after what I’d seen and learned, going back to the old safe existence behind the counter. I wanted to be travelling about and pulling down the big dough. Chiefly I wanted to be a travelling salesman, which I knew would suit me.

But there were no jobs for travelling salesmen — that’s to say, jobs with a salary attached. What there were, however, were on- commission jobs. That racket was just beginning on a big, scale. It’s a beautifully simple method of increasing your sales and advertising your stuff without taking any risks, and it always flourishes when times are bad. They keep you on a string by hinting that perhaps there’ll be a salaried job going in three months’ time, and when you get fed up there’s always some other poor devil ready to take over. Naturally it wasn’t long before I had an on-commission job, in fact I had quite a number in rapid succession. Thank God, I never came down to peddling vacuum- cleaners, or dictionaries. But I travelled in cutlery, in soap- powder, in a line of patent corkscrews, tin-openers, and similar gadgets, and finally in a line of office accessories — paper-clips, carbon paper, typewriter ribbons, and so forth. I didn’t do so badly either. I’m the type that CAN sell things on commission. I’ve got the temperament and I’ve got the manner. But I never came anywhere near making a decent living. You can’t, in jobs like that — and, of course, you aren’t meant to.

I had about a year of it altogether. It was a queer time. The cross-country journeys, the godless places you fetched up in, suburbs of Midland towns that you’d never hear of in a hundred normal lifetimes. The ghastly bed-and-breakfast houses where the sheets always smell faintly of slops and the fried egg at breakfast has a yolk paler than a lemon. And the other poor devils of salesmen that you’re always meeting, middle-aged fathers of families in moth-eaten overcoats and bowler hats, who honestly believe that sooner or later trade will turn the corner and they’ll jack their earnings up to five quid a week. And the traipsing from shop to shop, and the arguments with shopkeepers who don’t want to listen, and the standing back and making yourself small when a customer comes in. Don’t think that it worried me particularly. To some chaps that kind of life is torture. There are chaps who can’t even walk into a shop and open their bag of samples without screwing themselves up as though they were going over the top. But I’m not like that. I’m tough, I can talk people into buying things they don’t want, and even if they slam the door in my face it doesn’t bother me. Selling things on commission is actually what I like doing, provided I can see my way to making a bit of dough out of it. I don’t know whether I learned much in that year, but I unlearned a good deal. It knocked the Army nonsense out of me, and it drove into the back of my head the notions that I’d picked up during the idle year when I was reading novels. I don’t think I read a single book, barring detective stories, all the time I was on the road. I wasn’t a highbrow any longer. I was down among the realities of modern life. And what are the realities of modern life? Well, the chief one 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. I suppose there hasn’t been a single month since the war, in any trade you care to name, in which there weren’t more men than jobs. It’s brought a peculiar, ghastly feeling into life. It’s like on a sinking ship when there are nineteen survivors and fourteen lifebelts. But is there anything particularly modern in that, you say? Has it anything to do with the war? Well, it feels as if it had. That feeling that you’ve got to be everlastingly fighting and hustling, that you’ll never get anything unless you grab it from somebody else, that there’s always somebody after your job, the next month or the month after they’ll be reducing staff and it’s you that’ll get the bird — THAT, I swear, didn’t exist in the old life before the war.

But meanwhile I wasn’t badly off. I was earning a bit and I’d still got plenty of money in the bank, nearly two hundred quid, and I wasn’t frightened for the future. I knew that sooner or later I’d get a regular job. And sure enough, after about a year, by a stroke of luck it happened. I say by a stroke of luck, but the fact is that I was bound to fall on my feet. I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level. So long as there are any jobs at all I’ll back myself to get one.

It happened when I was peddling paper-clips and typewriter ribbons. I’d just dodged into a huge block of offices in Fleet Street, a building which canvassers weren’t allowed into, as a matter of fact, but I’d managed to give the lift attendant the impression that my bag of samples was merely an attache case. I was walking along one of the corridors looking for the offices of a small toothpaste firm that I’d been recommended to try, when I saw that some very big bug was coming down the corridor in the other direction. I knew immediately that it was a big bug. You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away. When he got nearly up to me I saw that it was Sir Joseph Cheam. He was in civvies, of course, but I had no difficulty in recognizing him. I suppose he’d been there for some business conference or other. A couple of clerks, or secretaries, or something, were following after him, not actually holding up his train, because he wasn’t wearing one, but you somehow felt that that was what they were doing. Of course I dodged aside instantly. But curiously enough he recognized me, though he hadn’t seen me for years. To my surprise he stopped and spoke to me.

‘Hullo, you! I’ve seen you somewhere before. What’s your name? It’s on the tip of my tongue.’

‘Bowling, sir. Used to be in the A.S.C.’

‘Of course. The boy that said he wasn’t a gentleman. What are you doing here?’

I might have told him I was selling typewriter ribbons, and there perhaps the whole thing would have ended. But I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally — a feeling that I might make something out of this if I handled it properly. I said instead:

‘Well, sir, as a matter of fact I’m looking for a job.’

‘A job, eh? Hm. Not so easy, nowadays.’

He looked me up and down for a second. The two train-bearers had kind of wafted themselves a little distance away. I saw his rather good-looking old face, with the heavy grey eyebrows and the intelligent nose, looking me over and realized that he’d decided to help me. It’s queer, the power of these rich men. He’d been marching past me in his power and glory, with his underlings after him, and then on some whim or other he’d turned aside like an emperor suddenly chucking a coin to a beggar.

‘So you want a job? What can you do?’

Again the inspiration. No use, with a bloke like this, cracking up your own merits. Stick to the truth. I said: ‘Nothing, sir. But I want a job as a travelling salesman.’

‘Salesman? Hm. Not sure that I’ve got anything for you at present. Let’s see.’

He pursed his lips up. For a moment, half a minute perhaps, he was thinking quite deeply. It was curious. Even at the time I realized that it was curious. This important old bloke, who was probably worth at least half a million, was actually taking thought on my behalf. I’d deflected him from his path and wasted at least three minutes of his time, all because of a chance remark I’d happened to make years earlier. I’d stuck in his memory and therefore he was willing to take the tiny bit of trouble that was needed to find me a job. I dare say the same day he gave twenty clerks the sack. Finally he said:

‘How’d you like to go into an insurance firm? Always fairly safe, you know. People have got to have insurance, same as they’ve got to eat.’

Of course I jumped at the idea of going into an insurance firm. Sir Joseph was ‘interested’ in the Flying Salamander. God knows how many companies he was ‘interested’ in. One of the underlings wafted himself forward with a scribbling-pad, and there and then, with the gold stylo out of his waistcoat pocket, Sir Joseph scribbled me a note to some higher-up in the Flying Salamander. Then I thanked him, and he marched on, and I sneaked off in the other direction, and we never saw one another again.

Well, I got the job, and, as I said earlier, the job got me. I’ve been with the Flying Salamander close on eighteen years. I started off in the office, but now I’m what’s known as an Inspector, or, when there’s reason to sound particularly impressive, a Representative. A couple of days a week I’m working in the district office, and the rest of the time I’m travelling around, interviewing clients whose names have been sent in by the local agents, making assessments of shops and other property, and now and again snapping up a few orders on my own account. I earn round about seven quid a week. And properly speaking that’s the end of my story.

When I look back I realize that my active life, if I ever had one, ended when I was sixteen. Everything that really matters to me had happened before that date. But in a manner of speaking things were still happening — the war, for instance — up to the time when I got the job with the Flying Salamander. After that — well, they say that happy people have no histories, and neither do the blokes who work in insurance offices. From that day forward there was nothing in my life that you could properly describe as an event, except that about two and a half years later, at the beginning of ‘23, I got married.

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