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on 10 February 2010
What always strikes me about Orwell's writing is the amount of meaning he imbues into such apparently simple language. More than anything this book is utterly readable, but while being easy to read you constantly have the feeling that you are learning a lot - and I mean that in a good way. After reading a single chapter about an episode in a character's past, you come out feeling like you have learnt more about that period in history than from all other reading, general knowledge and long-forgotten lessons put together.

Coming Up For Air isn't about telling a story, or even about creating a character (which it does spectacularly well), it's a state-of-the-nation piece that draws you right in - letting you know with exquisite detail and real atmosphere what life was like in home counties England from the turn of the century, through the Great War and it's aftermath, up to the looming inevitability of the horrors of WW2. Seeing life through the eyes George Bowling - a shopkeeper's son turned soldier turned unhappily married insurance salesman living in the outer suburbs - provides a generally original viewpoint on the times. History is very rarely told from the perspective of the lower-middle class, and it makes for an interesting angle.

Something else which struck me is the accuracy of foresight displayed by Orwell when it comes to predictions about the second world war. I had to constantly check the publication date to confirm that it was indeed written in 1939. The way he describes many of the events yet to come is incredibly prescient - more so, maybe, than in 1984, although you can see some of those ideas forming here. You can also see why, with the gentle pace of the story, and a central character that won't be sympathetic to all readers, CUFA is not top of most people's list of Orwell's most famous classics. It is, however, a gem - the winning way he has of dealing with the greatest of themes with the lightest of linguistic touches makes for a really absorbing read.
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on 12 August 2010
If you only read the apocalyptic misery of 1984 or the gut-wrenching descriptions of extreme squalor in Down and Out in Paris and London and A Clergyman's Daughter, you would probably have little hesitation in describing George Orwell as a cheerless writer. He certainly has an impressive faculty for depicting human suffering in graphic detail but, from the evidence of this book, that is clearly not all that he does.

There is more, much more, to Orwell than gloom. In Coming up for Air we are treated to sunny passages of a happier, funnier Orwell. This book is truly sublime.

The chief protagonist, George Bowling, is a fat, middle-aged bloke who is trapped in a life he loathes with a nagging wife from whom he cannot escape. He longs for the joys of his country childhood when he enjoyed simple pleasures like walking through beautiful English fields and woods and indulged in the thing that gave him more pleasure than any other: fishing. All the while he is worried that everything he holds sacred is about to be destroyed forever by yet another pointless war not long since he has survived active service in World War I.

The powers of description displayed by Orwell in painting vivid pictures of the landscape of Bowling's childhood are truly breathtaking. In these one can see that Orwell is being autobiographical.

Writing in the first person, Orwell brings out emotions in Bowling which all of us are sometimes guilty of possessing. Who can truthfully say that they have never felt like Bowling and wanted to escape the stifling drudgery of modern living, however briefly?

If you haven't already done so, do yourself a favour and read a copy of this charming novel. Like its title, reading it feels like coming up for air.
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on 15 July 2001
I doubt if 1% or the people who've read "1984" or "Animal Farm" have read this novel. This is sad indeed, as it's a fine novel in its own right, not just a book to be read for Orwell completists. The narrator, George Bowling, is an ordinary, pretty decent middle England sort of character, trapped in a lifeless marriage and nostalgic for days gone past. To try to recapture better days, he revisits his home town - but things don't go as planned... The plot of the book is sparse, with much of the text being George's recollections of old times and people, and his observations about British (or should that be English) life in the 1930s. Orwell's powers of observation were never sharper than here, and in the narrator, he created one of his few memorable fictional characters. And there's humour too. It is interesting to compare this novel with some popular books of the late 50s and early 60s such as "Hurry on Down" and "Saturday Night & Sunday Morning". I found myself wondering whether Orwell was the spiritual father of the Angry Young Men.
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on 22 April 2006
Orwell captures the spirit of a generation here. His central character sees salvation in returning to the happy environment of his youth, and with it some escape from a wretched existence. Yet, he finds nothing but change and is disillusioned by the experience. It's a novel that explores the theme of the modern world and a changing society. We often feel that in the present fast-moving world we have a monopoly on complaining about the world of the future. Orwell demonstrate's that unease about changing towns, cities, and nations has existed for as long as people have lived in communities.
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on 4 July 2002
...of a life that Orwell as an individual was never really a part of, making it all the more a masterpiece.
This is definately a must-read piece literature for the modern youth who, without the understanding of the past will never learn to overcome the barriers that were faced in the described periods [~1900-1938] (e.g. ignorance to the fallacy of war being fun and beneficial, and the inability of youths to understand that overweight people or those over 30 are actually human too etc., which can be overcome simply by reading Bowling's chillingly sad contrasts of being young and old, thin and fat etc.). The novel also really encapsulates the early-20th century transitions that occured socially and geographically in semi-rural England; the whole rags-and-rich-sole to riches-and-no-sole industrialisational process which seemingly struck, as well as themes which have nothing to do with the setting in particular - aging, social acceptance and the dead-endness of 'modern' married/white collar life in particular. Mature readers will surely be able to relate to Bowling in his disgruntled approach to change, as the change is from something that he loves to something that he hates, but as he describes - the new people of Lower Binfield have no concept of pre-ww1 Lower Binfield and so don't really care about what he has to say, and so he is resigned to accept that he is merely a relic of the past, a 'ghost', as Orwell puts it.
Apart from this exquisite narrative of the transitions in the period, Orwell is also extremely witty with his writing, whilst still being very readable for any lay-man. He uses the title 'Coming Up For Air' to describe Bowling's situation; currently being underwater and suffocating in his current lifestyle and feeling an inner desire to breathe again by 'coming up for air' (by going back to his youth, where he was free to breathe). In the same way he compares the situation to being under a great heap of garbage and trying to come up for air.
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on 6 March 2000
This book has long been a great personal favourite. It is fashionable to talk down Orwell as a novelist and to concentrate on the essays and journalism. Well, most of his less well-known novels do not really work. But this one does. It brilliantly invokes national anxiety on the eve of the Second World War, and also, in a long retrospective, life in ordinary upper-working/lower-middle class Edwardian England before the horrors of 1914-18 were in sight. And in tracing the decline of historic shops and townscapes, and the rise of the east midlands new towns, and sets out how we got from one to the other.
George Bowling, the book's narrator, is finely drawn: pathetic, doomed, but eternally resilient and resigned. he gives the book a delightful comedy which drives it across its political landscapes.
And all is in Orwell's finest informal, elegant prose.
A real treat.
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VINE VOICEon 10 May 2011
"Coming Up For Air" is perhaps one of the finest novels I've read about yearning for the past, and the reality of finding a return to nostalgic haunts something of a disappointment. First published in 1939 - just before the outbreak of war - the book retains a comtemporary feel that is almost disturbing in places, such are the resonances Orwell achieves with modern times.

Fat, forty-five and fed up with his lot, George Bowling yearns for the simpler pleasures of his youth, and through a vivid recollection of those times in early 20th century England (worth reading for that alone) - eventually returns to the location he remembers so well. No surprise that it's something of a disappointment - but Orwell weaves not only an interesting and darkly humorous story about nostalgia - but also a rather grim vision of what the future will be like. And he was pretty much spot on.

The feel of the book is very modern for something written at the end of the thirties, and once again proves that our own generation simply doesn't have the monopoly on angst-ridden questions and frustrations with modern living. A brilliant read - and the hard-nosed nostalgia portrayed by the central character is amongst the finest evocations of times past that you are likely to read.
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on 16 August 2011
Compared to Orwell's more celebrated works, such as Animal Farm and 1984, Coming Up for Air receives comparatively little attention or critical acclaim. That's a pity, because this is unquestionably one of his finest works. All the usual Orwellian themes are here - the constraints of social class and the inability to change personal circumstance for the better, the alienation of the individual in an increasingly insensible world, the loss of the 'old ways' and a yearning for a return to more compassionate values, physical decay and death mirroring social disintergration. Orwell is like a latter-day Thomas Hardy. Unlike Keep the Aspidistra Flying or 1984, where the protagonist feels strongly autobiographical in every sense, in Coming Up for Air, the story is carried by plump, middle-aged, travelling salesman George Bowling. While his characterization may not be as wholly convincing as Orwell's more autobiographical characters, his concerns are very much the usual stamping ground. And like 1984, Orwell casts a prescient eye over the near future where democracy is threatened by totalitarianism, this time in the rising threat of Stalin and Hitler and the onset of WWII. Coming Up for Air is less polemical than other Orwell works, and perhaps easier to read for that. The narrative, with the occasional dabs of wry humour - George's self-deprecation at his growing unattractiveness to the opposite sex, for example, and the slightly comical obsession with carp fishing, mixed with quite profound social comment, is classic Orwell through and through. Orwell is up there with the very finest British writers and the only regrettable fact of Orwell's career is he spent much of writing journalism, political tracts and essays and left us with comparatively few novels.
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on 30 July 2006
George Bowling,middle-aged, pot- bellied and unhappily married with two children, goes through a mid-life crisis which takes him back to Lower Binfield where he grew up. He discovers that the place had been modernised beyond recognition;there was no point in returning to his boyhood past and the futility of Coming Up For Air- when there isn't any air!

Although there is little to the story-line,Orwell compensates with a well-written novel with an ability to engage a readers interest through the clarity and wicked humour in his writing.
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on 7 February 2013
Orwell is a master and once I turned the first couple of pages I remembered why. This evocatation of a time now well past has so many resonences with the childhood that I had in the 50s and 60s. He writes so well that, even though we were separated by half the country and half a century of time, I could sense that we had shared experience. The love of the countryside and all that is in it is juxtaposed with a desire to kill small animals. The fascination with life yet the desire to capture it is there too. Throughout is the gathering cloud of war made all the more chilling because the storm of the previous war has only just gone by. There are some awful insights into the sexual politics of marriage in the early part of the 20th century. It was my second visit to the book and I was very pleased I'd gone back to it.
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