Coming up for Air, by George Orwell

Part IV

1

I came towards Lower Binfield over Chamford Hill. There are four roads into Lower Binfield, and it would have been more direct to go through Walton. But I’d wanted to come over Chamford Hill, the way we used to go when we biked home from fishing in the Thames. When you get just past the crown of the hill the trees open out and you can see Lower Binfield lying in the valley below you.

It’s a queer experience to go over a bit of country you haven’t seen in twenty years. You remember it in great detail, and you remember it all wrong. All the distances are different, and the landmarks seem to have moved about. You keep feeling, surely this hill used to be a lot steeper — surely that turning was on the other side of the road? And on the other hand you’ll have memories which are perfectly accurate, but which only belong to one particular occasion. You’ll remember, for instance, a corner of a field, on a wet day in winter, with the grass so green that it’s almost blue, and a rotten gatepost covered with lichen and a cow standing in the grass and looking at you. And you’ll go back after twenty years and be surprised because the cow isn’t standing in the same place and looking at you with the same expression.

As I drove up Chamford Hill I realized that the picture I’d had of it in my mind was almost entirely imaginary. But it was a fact that certain things had changed. The road was tarmac, whereas in the old days it used to be macadam (I remember the bumpy feeling of it under the bike), and it seemed to have got a lot wider. And there were far less trees. In the old days there used to be huge beeches growing in the hedgerows, and in places their boughs met across the road and made a kind of arch. Now they were all gone. I’d nearly got to the top of the hill when I came on something which was certainly new. To the right of the road there was a whole lot of fake-picturesque houses, with overhanging eaves and rose pergolas and what-not. You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them. And at the entrance to one of the private roads there was a huge white board which said:

THE KENNELS

PEDIGREE SEALYHAM PUPS

DOGS BOARDED

Surely THAT usen’t to be there?

I thought for a moment. Yes, I remembered! Where those houses stood there used to be a little oak plantation, and the trees grew too close together, so that they were very tall and thin, and in spring the ground underneath them used to be smothered in anemones. Certainly there were never any houses as far out of the town as this.

I got to the top of the hill. Another minute and Lower Binfield would be in sight. Lower Binfield! Why should I pretend I wasn’t excited? At the very thought of seeing it again an extraordinary feeling that started in my guts crept upwards and did something to my heart. Five seconds more and I’d be seeing it. Yes, here we are! I declutched, trod on the foot-brake, and — Jesus!

Oh, yes, I know you knew what was coming. But I didn’t. You can say I was a bloody fool not to expect it, and so I was. But it hadn’t even occurred to me.

The first question was, where WAS Lower Binfield?

I don’t mean that it had been demolished. It had merely been swallowed. The thing I was looking down at was a good-sized manufacturing town. I remember — Gosh, how I remember! and in this case I don’t think my memory is far out — what Lower Binfield used to look like from the top of Chamford Hill. I suppose the High Street was about a quarter of a mile long, and except for a few outlying houses the town was roughly the shape of a cross. The chief landmarks were the church tower and the chimney of the brewery. At this moment I couldn’t distinguish either of them. All I could see was an enormous river of brand-new houses which flowed along the valley in both directions and half-way up the hills on either side. Over to the right there were what looked like several acres of bright red roofs all exactly alike. A big Council housing estate, by the look of it.

But where was Lower Binfield? Where was the town I used to know? It might have been anywhere. All I knew was that it was buried somewhere in the middle of that sea of bricks. Of the five or six factory chimneys that I could see, I couldn’t even make a guess at which belonged to the brewery. Towards the eastern end of the town there were two enormous factories of glass and concrete. That accounts for the growth of the town, I thought, as I began to take it in. It occurred to me that the population of this place (it used to be about two thousand in the old days) must be a good twenty-five thousand. The only thing that hadn’t changed, seemingly, was Binfield House. It wasn’t much more than a dot at that distance, but you could see it on the hillside opposite, with the beech trees round it, and the town hadn’t climbed that high. As I looked a fleet of black bombing planes came over the hill and zoomed across the town.

I shoved the clutch in and started slowly down the hill. The houses had climbed half-way up it. You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same. But a little before I got to the houses I stopped again. On the left of the road there was something else that was quite new. The cemetery. I stopped opposite the lych- gate to have a look at it.

It was enormous, twenty acres, I should think. There’s always a kind of jumped-up unhomelike look about a new cemetery, with its raw gravel paths and its rough green sods, and the machine-made marble angels that look like something off a wedding-cake. But what chiefly struck me at the moment was that in the old days this place hadn’t existed. There was no separate cemetery then, only the churchyard. I could vaguely remember the farmer these fields used to belong to — Blackett, his name was, and he was a dairy- farmer. And somehow the raw look of the place brought it home to me how things have changed. It wasn’t only that the town had grown so vast that they needed twenty acres to dump their corpses in. It was their putting the cemetery out here, on the edge of the town. Have you noticed that they always do that nowadays? Every new town puts its cemetery on the outskirts. Shove it away — keep it out of sight! Can’t bear to be reminded of death. Even the tombstones tell you the same story. They never say that the chap underneath them ‘died’, it’s always ‘passed away’ or ‘fell asleep’. It wasn’t so in the old days. We had our churchyard plumb in the middle of the town, you passed it every day, you saw the spot where your grandfather was lying and where some day you were going to lie yourself. We didn’t mind looking at the dead. In hot weather, I admit, we also had to smell them, because some of the family vaults weren’t too well sealed.

I let the car run down the hill slowly. Queer! You can’t imagine how queer! All the way down the hill I was seeing ghosts, chiefly the ghosts of hedges and trees and cows. It was as if I was looking at two worlds at once, a kind of thin bubble of the thing that used to be, with the thing that actually existed shining through it. There’s the field where the bull chased Ginger Rodgers! And there’s the place where the horse-mushrooms used to grow! But there weren’t any fields or any bulls or any mushrooms. It was houses, houses everywhere, little raw red houses with their grubby window-curtains and their scraps of back-garden that hadn’t anything in them except a patch of rank grass or a few larkspurs struggling among the weeds. And blokes walking up and down, and women shaking out mats, and snotty-nosed kids playing along the pavement. All strangers! They’d all come crowding in while my back was turned. And yet it was they who’d have looked on me as a stranger, they didn’t know anything about the old Lower Binfield, they’d never heard of Shooter and Wetherall, or Mr Grimmett and Uncle Ezekiel, and cared less, you bet.

It’s funny how quickly one adjusts. I suppose it was five minutes since I’d halted at the top of the hill, actually a bit out of breath at the thought of seeing Lower Binfield again. And already I’d got used to the idea that Lower Binfield had been swallowed up and buried like the lost cities of Peru. I braced up and faced it. After all, what else do you expect? Towns have got to grow, people have got to live somewhere. Besides, the old town hadn’t been annihilated. Somewhere or other it still existed, though it had houses round it instead of fields. In a few minutes I’d be seeing it again, the church and the brewery chimney and Father’s shop- window and the horse-trough in the market-place. I got to the bottom of the hill, and the road forked. I took the left-hand turning, and a minute later I was lost.

I could remember nothing. I couldn’t even remember whether it was hereabouts that the town used to begin. All I knew was that in the old days this street hadn’t existed. For hundreds of yards I was running along it — a rather mean, shabby kind of street, with the houses giving straight on the pavement and here and there a corner grocery or a dingy little pub — and wondering where the hell it led to. Finally I pulled up beside a woman in a dirty apron and no hat who was walking down the pavement. I stuck my head out of the window.

‘Beg pardon — can you tell me the way to the market-place?’

She ‘couldn’t tell’. Answered in an accent you could cut with a spade. Lancashire. There’s lots of them in the south of England now. Overflow from the distressed areas. Then I saw a bloke in overalls with a bag of tools coming along and tried again. This time I got the answer in Cockney, but he had to think for a moment.

‘Market-place? Market-place? Lessee, now. Oh — you mean the OLE Market?’

I supposed I did mean the Old Market.

‘Oh, well — you take the right ‘and turning —’

It was a long way. Miles, it seemed to me, though really it wasn’t a mile. Houses, shops, cinemas, chapels, football grounds — new, all new. Again I had that feeling of a kind of enemy invasion having happened behind my back. All these people flooding in from Lancashire and the London suburbs, planting themselves down in this beastly chaos, not even bothering to know the chief landmarks of the town by name. But I grasped presently why what we used to call the market-place was now known as the Old Market. There was a big square, though you couldn’t properly call it a square, because it was no particular shape, in the middle of the new town, with traffic-lights and a huge bronze statue of a lion worrying an eagle — the war-memorial, I suppose. And the newness of everything! The raw, mean look! Do you know the look of these new towns that have suddenly swelled up like balloons in the last few years, Hayes, Slough, Dagenham, and so forth? The kind of chilliness, the bright red brick everywhere, the temporary-looking shop-windows full of cut-price chocolates and radio parts. It was just like that. But suddenly I swung into a street with older houses. Gosh! The High Street!

After all my memory hadn’t played tricks on me. I knew every inch of it now. Another couple of hundred yards and I’d be in the market-place. The old shop was down the other end of the High Street. I’d go there after lunch — I was going to put up at the George. And every inch a memory! I knew all the shops, though all the names had changed, and the stuff they dealt in had mostly changed as well. There’s Lovegrove’s! And there’s Todd’s! And a big dark shop with beams and dormer windows. Used to be Lilywhite’s the draper’s, where Elsie used to work. And Grimmett’s! Still a grocer’s apparently. Now for the horse-trough in the market-place. There was another car ahead of me and I couldn’t see.

It turned aside as we got into the market-place. The horse-trough was gone.

There was an A.A. man on traffic-duty where it used to stand. He gave a glance at the car, saw that it hadn’t the A.A. sign, and decided not to salute.

I turned the corner and ran down to the George. The horse-trough being gone had thrown me out to such an extent that I hadn’t even looked to see whether the brewery chimney was still standing. The George had altered too, all except the name. The front had been dolled up till it looked like one of those riverside hotels, and the sign was different. It was curious that although till that moment I hadn’t thought of it once in twenty years, I suddenly found that I could remember every detail of the old sign, which had swung there ever since I could remember. It was a crude kind of picture, with St George on a very thin horse trampling on a very fat dragon, and in the corner, though it was cracked and faded, you could read the little signature, ‘Wm. Sandford, Painter & Carpenter’. The new sign was kind of artistic-looking. You could see it had been painted by a real artist. St George looked a regular pansy. The cobbled yard, where the farmers’ traps used to stand and the drunks used to puke on Saturday nights, had been enlarged to about three times its size and concreted over, with garages all round it. I backed the car into one of the garages and got out.

One thing I’ve noticed about the human mind is that it goes in jerks. There’s no emotion that stays by you for any length of time. During the last quarter of an hour I’d had what you could fairly describe as a shock. I’d felt it almost like a sock in the guts when I stopped at the top of Chamford Hill and suddenly realized that Lower Binfield had vanished, and there’d been another little stab when I saw the horse-trough was gone. I’d driven through the streets with a gloomy, Ichabod kind of feeling. But as I stepped out of the car and hitched my trilby hat on to my head I suddenly felt that it didn’t matter a damn. It was such a lovely sunny day, and the hotel yard had a kind of summery look, with its flowers in green tubs and what-not. Besides, I was hungry and looking forward to a spot of lunch.

I strolled into the hotel with a consequential kind of air, with the boots, who’d already nipped out to meet me, following with the suitcase. I felt pretty prosperous, and probably I looked it. A solid business man, you’d have said, at any rate if you hadn’t seen the car. I was glad I’d come in my new suit — blue flannel with a thin white stripe, which suits my style. It has what the tailor calls a ‘reducing effect’. I believe that day I could have passed for a stockbroker. And say what you like it’s a very pleasant thing, on a June day when the sun’s shining on the pink geraniums in the window-boxes, to walk into a nice country hotel with roast lamb and mint sauce ahead of you. Not that it’s any treat to me to stay in hotels, Lord knows I see all too much of them — but ninety- nine times out of a hundred it’s those godless ‘family and commercial’ hotels, like Rowbottom’s, where I was supposed to be staying at present, the kind of places where you pay five bob for bed and breakfast, and the sheets are always damp and the bath taps never work. The George had got so smart I wouldn’t have known it. In the old days it had hardly been a hotel, only a pub, though it had a room or two to let and used to do a farmers’ lunch (roast beef and Yorkshire, suet dumpling and Stilton cheese) on market days. It all seemed different except for the public bar, which I got a glimpse of as I went past, and which looked the same as ever. I went up a passage with a soft carpet, and hunting prints and copper warming-pans and such-like junk hanging on the walls. And dimly I could remember the passage as it used to be, the hollowed- out flags underfoot, and the smell of plaster mixed up with the smell of beer. A smart-looking young woman, with frizzed hair and a black dress, who I suppose was the clerk or something, took my name at the office.

‘You wish for a room, sir? Certainly, sir. What name shall I put down, sir?’

I paused. After all, this was my big moment. She’d be pretty sure to know the name. It isn’t common, and there are a lot of us in the churchyard. We were one of the old Lower Binfield families, the Bowlings of Lower Binfield. And though in a way it’s painful to be recognized, I’d been rather looking forward to it.

‘Bowling,’ I said very distinctly. ‘Mr George Bowling.’

‘Bowling, sir. B-O-A— oh! B-O-W? Yes, sir. And you are coming from London, sir?’

No response. Nothing registered. She’d never heard of me. Never heard of George Bowling, son of Samuel Bowling — Samuel Bowling who, damn it! had had his half-pint in this same pub every Saturday for over thirty years.

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