George Orwell. That man was a visionary and a beautiful satirist. In honour of Orwell Day, here’s a section of Coming up for Air which had me in stiches at the same time as thinking, “yeah. They really ought to teach this in schools. We’d all be so much wiser.” It’s wonderful rant over the woes of the middle classes:
“I had the street pretty much to myself. The men had bunked to catch the 8.21 and the women were fiddling with the gas-stoves. When you’ve time to look about you, and when you happen to be in the right mood, it’s a thing that makes you laugh inside to walk down these streets in the inner-outer suburbs and to think of the lives that go on there. Because, after all, what IS a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. There’s a lot of rot talked about the sufferings of the working class. I’m not so sorry for the proles myself. Did you ever know a navvy who lay awake thinking about the sack? The prole suffers physically, but he’s a free man when he isn’t working. But in every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s NEVER free except when he’s fast asleep and dreaming that he’s got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him.
Of course, the basic trouble with people like us, I said to myself, is that we all imagine we’ve got something to lose. To begin with, nine-tenths of the people in Ellesmere Road are under the impression that they own their houses. Ellesmere Road, and the whole quarter surrounding it, until you get to the High Street, is part of a huge racket called the Hesperides Estate, the property of the Cheerful Credit Building Society. Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times. My own line, insurance, is a swindle, I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table. But the beauty of the building society swindles is that your victims think you’re doing them a kindness. You wallop them, and they lick your hand. I sometimes think I’d like to have the Hesperides Estate surmounted by an enormous statue to the god of building societies. It would be a queer sort of god. Among other things it would be bisexual. The top half would be a managing director and the bottom half would be a wife in the family way. In one hand it would carry an enormous key–the key of the workhouse, of course–and in the other–what do they call those things like French horns with presents coming out of them?–a cornucopia, out of which would be pouring portable radios, life- insurance policies, false teeth, aspirins, French letters, and concrete garden rollers.
As a matter of fact, in Ellesmere Road we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them. They’re not freehold, only leasehold. They’re priced at five-fifty, payable over a period of sixteen years, and they’re a class of house, which, if you bought them for cash down, would cost round about three-eighty. That represents a profit of a hundred and seventy for the Cheerful Credit, but needless to say that Cheerful Credit makes a lot more out of it than that. Three-eighty includes the builder’s profit, but the Cheerful Credit, under the name of Wilson & Bloom, builds the houses itself and scoops the builder’s profit. All it has to pay for is the materials. But it also scoops the profit on the materials, because under the name of Brookes & Scatterby it sells itself the bricks, tiles, doors, window-frames, sand, cement, and, I think, glass. And it wouldn’t altogether surprise me to learn that under yet another alias it sells itself the timber to make the doors and window-frames. Also–and this was something which we
really might have foreseen, though it gave us all a knock when we discovered it–the Cheerful Credit doesn’t always keep to its end of the bargain. When Ellesmere Road was built it gave on some open fields–nothing very wonderful, but good for the kids to play in– known as Platt’s Meadows. There was nothing in black and white, but it had always been understood that Platt’s Meadows weren’t to be built on. However, West Bletchley was a growing suburb, Rothwell’s jam factory had opened in ’28 and the Anglo-American-All-Steel Bicycle factory started in ’33, and the population was increasing and rents were going up. I’ve never seen Sir Herbert Crum or any other of the big noises of the Cheerful Credit in the flesh, but in my mind’s eye I could see their mouths watering. Suddenly the builders arrived and houses began to go up on Platt’s Meadows. There was a howl of agony from the Hesperides, and a tenants’ defence association was set up. No use! Crum’s lawyers had knocked the stuffing out of us in five minutes, and Platt’s Meadows were built over. But the really subtle swindle, the one that makes me feel old Crum deserved his baronetcy, is the mental one. Merely because of the illusion that we own our houses and have what’s called ‘a stake in the country’, we poor saps in the Hesperides, and in all such places, are turned into Crum’s devoted slaves for ever. We’re all respectable householders–that’s to say Tories, yes-men, and bumsuckers. Daren’t kill the goose that lays the gilded eggs! And the fact that actually we aren’t householders, that we’re all in the middle of paying for our houses and eaten up with the ghastly fear that something might happen before we’ve made the last payment, merely increases the effect. We’re all bought, and what’s more we’re bought with our own money. Every one of those poor downtrodden bastards, sweating his guts out to pay twice the proper price for a brick doll’s house that’s called Belle Vue because there’s no view and the bell doesn’t ring–every one of those poor suckers would die on the field of battle to save his country from Bolshevism.”
I’m fairly sure he wrote this with Letchworth Garden City in mind (he lived near the town at the time). It is a great view of the commuter belt in general but the fact that the properties are leasehold and the similarity to what is now the (still powerful)Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation made me think, “hah”. It also makes it both funnier and more apt in view of all of the Tory chatter over planning recently, holding Letchworth up to the nation as a planner’s wet dream. Oh, and then there’s the fact that I read a story in the Guardian yesterday calling for a return to the 1930s solution to the Great Depression: house building and home ownership on a grand scale.
Basically, I think the entire book should be required reading for everyone every seven years so we can get some perspective from this funny little man’s midlife crisis. As a story, it’s not the best ever written but as a journey, it’s wonderful. If Coming Up For Air was on the syllabus, instead of Animal Farm and 1984, the Establishment would have genuine cause to worry. It’s the little things that trap us, in the end.