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19 March 2010

Sounds of the modern age in Orwell's Coming Up for Air

GEORGE ORWELL DESCRIBED the English as like a family with the wrong members in charge. George Bowling, a self-educated salesman who’s the central character of Coming Up for Air, is the kind of man Orwell thought should be in the driving seat, if only the barriers of class could be dismantled.

The clever, articulate Bowling is almost a prototype of the gathering class of technicians, draughtsmen and engineers which Orwell saw in the new towns and industries of 1930s south-east England, and to whom he believed socialists should appeal. But Bowling is fat and forty-five, and when he returns to his Thames Valley birthplace he doesn’t fit into the new world of tea shops and housing estates. Between Bowling’s nostalgic memories and dismay at the present Orwell draws a path which points towards the Two Minutes’ Hate of 1984.

The sound of a milk bar’s radio is the grit in the oyster for Bowling’s dislike of the machine age:

Behind the bright red counter a girl in a tall white cap was fiddling with an ice-box, and somewhere at the back a radio was playing, plonk-tiddle-tiddle-plonk, a kind of tinny sound [. . .] A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining.

Other modern noises disrupt the peacefulness of the Thames in Bowling’s home-town of Lower Binfield in Oxfordshire:

And the river was crammed with boats – rowing-boats, canoes, punts, motor-launches, full of young fools with next to nothing on, all of them screaming and shouting and most of them with a gramophone aboard as well. . . . After a bit I turned back. Couldn’t stand the noise of the gramophones any longer.

As with gramophones and radios, so with propaganda cranked out by a guest speaker at the Lower Binfield Left Book Club:

At the beginning I wasn’t exactly listening. The lecturer was rather a mean-looking little chap, but a good speaker. White face, very mobile mouth, and the rather grating voice that they get from constant speaking. Of course he was pitching into Hitler and the Nazis. I wasn’t particularly keen to hear what he was saying – get the same stuff in the News Chronicle every morning – but his voice came across to me as a kind of burr-burr-burr, with now and again a phrase that struck out and caught my attention.

‘Bestial atrocities. . . . Hideous outbursts of sadism. . . . Rubber truncheons. . . . Concentration camps. . . . Iniquitous persecution of the Jews. . . . Back to the Dark Ages. . . . European civilization. . . . Act before it is too late. . . . Indignation of all decent peoples. . . . Alliance of the democratic nations. . . . Firm stand. . . . Defence of democracy. . . . Democracy. . . . Fascism. . . . Democracy. . . . Fascism. . . . Democracy. . . .’

You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy.

The ideologue as player-piano reappears in the ‘duckspeak’ of 1984:

He turned a little sideways in his chair to drink his mug of coffee. At the table on his left the man with the strident voice was still talking remorselessly away. . . . What was slightly horrible, was that from the stream of sound that poured out of his mouth it was almost impossible to distinguish a single word. Just once Winston caught a phrase – ‘complete and final elimination of Goldsteinism’ – jerked out very rapidly and, as it seemed, all in one piece, like a line of type cast solid. For the rest it was just a noise, a quack-quack-quacking.

Then Bowling decides to listen in a different way:

I’d stopped listening to the actual words of the lecture. But there are more ways than one of listening. I shut my eyes for a moment. The effect of that was curious. I seemed to see the fellow much better when I could only hear his voice. . . . For about a second I was inside him, you might almost say I was him. At any rate, I felt what he was feeling.

I saw the vision that he was seeing. And it wasn’t at all the kind of vision that can be talked about. What he’s saying is merely that Hitler’s after us and we must all get together and have a good hate. Doesn’t go into details. Leaves it all respectable. But what he’s seeing is something quite different. It’s a picture of himself smashing people’s faces in with a spanner.

It takes a conscious effort to hear the truth hiding behind the duckspeak. Only in nature and a vanished way of life can you trust what you’re listening to:

In our church there were two men who led the singing, in fact they did so much of the singing that nobody else got much of a chance. One was Shooter, the fishmonger, and the other was old Wetherall, the joiner and undertaker. . . . Their voices were quite different, too. Shooter had a kind of desperate, agonized bellow, as though someone had a knife at his throat and he was just letting out his last yell for help. But Wetherall had a tremendous, churning, rumbling noise that happened deep down inside him, like enormous barrels being rolled to and fro underground. However much noise he let out, you always knew he’d got plenty more in reserve.

Wetherall can be his own man at church and among his neighbours, but Bowling and, later, Winston Smith have to find their inner truths while alone. The struggle to hear what’s true must be waged not only against propaganda but also the collective voice of fear and awe, the ‘roar of the human shingle’, to borrow the words of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Near the end of Coming Up for Air, an RAF aeroplane accidentally releases a bomb over Lower Binfield:

The bomb had dropped in a little side-street off the High Street, the one where Uncle Ezekiel used to have his shop. It wasn’t fifty yards from where the shop used to be. As I came round the corner I could hear voices murmuring ‘Oo-oo!’ – kind of awed noise, as if they were frightened and getting a big kick out of it.

It is this depersonalising sound which reappears at the end of the Two Minutes’ Hate, carried from Lower Binfield into a new civilisation as different and unnerving as that of the impassive stone heads glimpsed in the jungles of Burmese Days:

But the face of Big Brother seemed to persist for several seconds on the screen, as though the impact that it had made on everyone’s eyeballs was too vivid to wear off immediately. . . . At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of ‘B-B! . . . B-B!’—over and over again, very slowly, with a long pause between the first ‘B’ and the second-a heavy, murmurous sound, somehow curiously savage, in the background of which one seemed to hear the stamp of naked feet and the throbbing of tom-toms. For perhaps as much as thirty seconds they kept it up. It was a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise.