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Essay: George Orwell’s ‘Coming Up for Air’ / Philip Larkin’s poetry

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: June 16, 2021*
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  • George Orwell’s ‘Coming Up for Air’ / Philip Larkin’s poetry
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George Orwell’s ‘Coming Up for Air’ and much of Philip Larkin’s poetry observe and share comparable features of our often less-than-precise connection with the past and how it influences our attitude towards the present and future.

Orwell’s central character in ‘Coming Up for Air’, George Bowling, finds it difficult to engage with a monotonous, dehumanised modern life style in 1938 and shows his fear of the inevitable coming hardships in Britain when war with Hitler arrives. He takes refuge in his unattainable and highly romanticised account of the past (“the past doesn’t merely come back to you, you’re actually in the past.” (CUFA p.27)). While Bowling is “alternately proud and contemptuous…alternately nostalgic and cynical about the past…” (Hunter) he is primarily overly nostalgic for the “good old days” (CUFA p.18). The sight of a poster at the train station evokes powerful and uncontrollable feelings of nostalgia in Bowling as he very happily remembers his childhood memories and, is keen to escape the present. “King Zog’s name…had started memories in me” (CUFA p.27). Unlike ‘Coming Up for Air’, the voice of Larkin in much of his poetry is often very unenthusiastic about aspects of the past and is, at most, mildly nostalgic in some of his poems. In ‘Dockery and Son’, Larkin is pessimistic about his own uneventful life as he finds out that a peer at university had secretly had a child, “Only a numbness registered the shock //Of finding out how much had gone of life, //How widely from the others.” (Dockery and Son). While both writers are nostalgic, Larkin tends to be more negative than Orwell, finding faults with himself that stretch back decades.

Frank Kermode, in “the Sense of an Ending” (1967) shows the significance of peripeteia and argues that it is the unexpected and often irrelevant but inspiring moments in life that force us to re-evaluate our view of the bond between the past, the present and our consciousness of the future. Peripeteia recurs several times throughout ‘Coming Up for Air’. “You’ll remember for an 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 in lichen…” (CUFA p.175) These seemingly insignificant memories often provoke something deeper and show that our memories are likely to become absorbent to incidents that may not affect us at the time, but will affect our perspective when subconsciously recalled in the future, “you remember that piece of orange peel you saw in the gutter thirteen years ago?” (CUFA p.100) Larkin’s voice in much of his work is largely “autobiographical” (Motion) and reflects his views about the importance of time, memory and individual perspectives. In ‘Reference Back’ Larkin signifies the importance of peripeteia as the narrator remembers listening to a record whilst his mother expresses her less deeply held opinions: “that was a pretty one” (Reference Back). This moment is identical to Orwell’s orange peel or “King Zog[‘s]” awakening. Larkin’s narrator expresses his distaste towards his mother’s comments as he believes she fails to understand the true meaning behind the music. For Larkin, jazz has for years evoked a range of emotional responses throughout his life; his mother has not experienced such a high level of involvement. “I shall, I suppose, always remember how// The flock of notes those antique negroes blew// Out of Chicago air…” (Reference Back) Larkin goes onto reflect on how as humans we find it difficult to conceptualise “long perspectives” (Reference Back). The narrator learns that we constantly need to re-asses our views of the past, the present and the future. Orwell tends to be similarly reflective; when he arrives at Lower Binfield on his secret visit, he understands that the village has inevitably moved on, and that his naive hope of reliving his past was foolish.

Kermode also puts emphasis on the idea that our memories and our past begin to hold more significance as we age and as a result of that, our futures start to diminish. This is certainly true of Orwell, who feels that he has no future in a world soon to be dominated by fascism. Larkin also reflects Kermode’s idea that we constantly re-visit our past unintentionally because we slowly become more aware of the inevitable end of life, “Till then I see what’s really always there: // Un-resting death, a whole day nearer now, // Making all thought impossible but how // And where and when I shall myself die.” (Aubade). Kermode believes that as humans, we desire “the moment of existence to belong, to be related to a beginning and an end” (Kermode) and we gain this through reflecting on our previous experiences and memories.

In ‘Coming Up for Air’, Orwell mourns over a nostalgic and idealised view of England that he desperately seeks but knows will never return. Bowling worries that we will confront a perilous and miserable future of war and obliteration, “All this rushing to and fro! Everlasting scramble for a bit of cash! There’s something gone out of us in these twenty years since war…there’s a bad time coming.” (CUFA p.168). However, Orwell understands that too much contemplative nostalgia inhibits us from directing our drives on the important concerns impacting society in both the present and the future. Much like Orwell, Larkin also grieves over a short-lived and similarly simpler lifestyle, but in a more personal and less political manner. Larkin’s ‘present’ (1950/60s England) offers an existential routine to suit the youth, but Larkin wants to be able to reject this as an individual who desires to be able to withdraw and live a quiet, introverted and conservative life.

For both writers, the evocative memories of their early lives have been hurled into relief by the imminence of war. Orwell cautions his supposedly naïve readers of the profound changes that will affect society, both physically and culturally, due to the dreaded Second World War. The pastoral, simple world he grew up in and romanticises in his novel is now “…doomed by the relentless movement of vast, unforeseen forces” (Shelden). For Orwell, the present is a suburban “prison, with cells all in a row”, (CUFA p.31) while the future is distressingly dystopian. He believes that “the war had jerked me out of the old life I’d known” (CUFA p.151). Wain argues that Bowling’s belief that “retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable” is unrealistic due to an ever-changing society. While both writers feel negatively about the present, they subtly remind the reader of the risks of taking an incredibly romantic view of a long-lost landscape. Their recollections are clearly persuaded by their multifaceted approaches towards the present. Motion argues that while ‘Going, Going’ is “nostalgic, it is involved with the drama of the present”, and that nostalgia should not reduce the view of tackling direct issues.

In the loss of the world that was simple, sincere and pleasing, it is not just the fading of a rural paradise that Larkin and Orwell mourn. Instead it is a lost world of youth and vitality which held the chance of sexual success. In this regard, Larkin has been cynical towards contemporary society to the degree that he does not want children or a relationship (“Children were especially threatening” Motion, p.119). Bowling has a family, but seems to spend much energy trying to release himself from their demands and gain the existential space that Larkin adores so much. For both Larkin and Bowling, it seems as though families and children play no part in their outlook; a tranquil life that they envision reconstructing for themselves from their memories of the past.

Larkin and Orwell express how their perception of the world has changed and also demonstrate how their view of people has also been altered by the modern society they despise. Larkin’s poem ‘Breadfruit’ can be seen to resonate the tone and mood of Orwell’s voice in ‘Coming Up for Air’. Larkin writes about how mature men fantasise over their youth, and their dreams of what might have been, had they not, as they believe, been confined into loveless suburban marriages, “Old men who sit and dream// Of naked native girls who bring breadfruit” (Breadfruit). Larkin’s image of family hell in ‘Breadfruit’ almost directly describes George Bowling’s bourgeois existence in suburban West Bletchley. We follow his journey from an ardent boy who joined “the tennis club” to meet girls, to a man who ends up with a “mortgaged semi…with nippers…having to scheme with money; illness; age.” (Breadfruit). Both writers acknowledge that the wives of men such as Bowling are far from being like the women that Larkin is infatuated with in ‘Breadfruit’, and are instead more like Bowling’s wife, Hilda. Orwell describes her as being without “any joy in life…with all that ghastly glooming about money…” and that their children are “a ball and fetter”. Both writers seem to share the view that, post or pre-war, suburban life has negatively affected them and their unrealistic and youthful perception of others. Bowling’s getaway to Lower Binfield, where he grew up is, metaphorically speaking, “Coming up for Air”, making him believe that he may be able to overcome miserable suburban domesticity. However, he soon realises that this gasp of air is merely a brief adjournment of life.

Both writers firmly believe that the de-personalised, cheap and extravagant actuality of modern society is the result of over-industrialisation and money-grabbing capitalist greed. Crick argues that Orwell believed “industrialism and capitalism have killed the best of old England.” Orwell expresses his belief, by looking back, that society has been altered from its original rustic loveliness. Yet George Bowling must maintain capitalism as he is imprisoned by playing his part in “the beauty of the Building-Society swindle” (CUFA p.11) which exploits the gullible public into thinking that “you’re doing them a kindness” (CUFA p.11). Orwell glooms at how society has transformed from simple to technological. In ‘Church Going’, Larkin’s pessimistic views are fixated on the nostalgic notion that churches and country roads have been destroyed by the modernisation and industrialisation of England, “A shape less recognisable each week, // A purpose more obscure. I wonder who // Will be the last, the very last, to seek // This place for what it was” (Church Going). “It floats free of a particular historical moment to become the landscape of a nebulous golden age” (Motion). Both writers recognise that change is rarely positive.

Larkin and Orwell show no religious faith yet see the protection of churches as a powerful symbol of an innocent and hoping past. Orwell writes that “church” was an unspoken but fully accepted part of life in a community despite the fact that “you never understood it…but you knew it to be in some way necessary” (CUFA p.26) to feel secure and content with what we already have. Bowling was never interested in church when he was younger as he believed it had a “sweet, dusty, musty smell that’s like the smell of death and life mixed up together.” (CUFA pg.) However, when Bowling looks back at the past, his unenthusiastic views of church are seen as significant as he is able to reflect. Larkin holds similar views in his poem ‘Church Going’.

For both, as the present is barely acceptable, the past symbolises liberty and minimalism. While, mentally, George Bowling can fly free, in reality all he can do to regain any individual pride, is to attempt a feeble existential getaway from familiarity, knowing that he is longsuffering to failure and a life of discouraging monotony: of “gas bills, school-fees, boiled cabbage and the office on Monday” (CUFA p.189). The past helps both writers remember their lives before, and acts as a comfort zone in the ever-changing world. In Larkin’s and Orwell’s view, modern society is too difficult to deal with as they cannot keep up with the demands of the present, much like how Bowling can’t keep up with change. Bowling understands that the modern world emboldens individuality, but he also battles to find a place in it. His imaginings of independence (“take that you bastard!”) are drawn from traditional stereotypes, which implies a mocking disinterest. He recognises the desirability and the accessibility of freedom, but, ultimately, seems to have understood that he cannot take part in it. Motion argues that “He stopped seeing the conflict as something that must be resolved, and regarded it instead as the means of self-definition” (Motion p.317).

Both Orwell and Larkin analyse the ways in which our memories alter, and in doing so modify our viewpoints of the past to permit us to endure with the present and what the future entails. Orwell’s lengthy recollections in ‘Coming Up for Air’ signify “a glow…a lyrical celebration…a golden world; …the more complicated his adult life became, the more he yearned for the simple, lost pleasures of his childhood” (Shelden). This insinuates glamorizing, or perhaps oblivious development, on Orwell’s part; “it was summer all year round” (CUFA, p.14). Yet he confesses unreservedly, “…I’m quite aware that that’s a delusion” (CUFA, p.30). However, in the oddly titled Larkin poem “I Remember, I Remember”, Larkin admits to having no heartfelt memories of his primary days in Coventry, “where my childhood was unspent”. He experienced few delusions. While he conveys no personally positive remembrances of the past, over-all he believes that the “old days” were more desirable.

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