On Prole Envy

In pre-war England, a “prole” is a member of the proletariat, sometimes disparagingly referred to as a “navvy” (unskilled manual labourer with no fixed employment). The protagonist of Coming Up for Air is an embittered lower-middle-class salary man living in Ellesemere Road, an inconsequential “inner-outer suburb” populated with people very much like himself. They’re neither working class (prole) nor bourgeoisie; they are stuck, uncomfortably, in the middle.

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 semi-detatched 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 the 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 asleep and dreaming that he’s got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him.

From Coming up for Air, by George Orwell (published 1950)

Published in: on October 16, 2012 at 6:46 am  Leave a Comment  

End of an Era

Orwell’s protagonist ponders the end of the Victorian era as seen – or not seen – by his parents:

Father was failing, and he didn’t know it. It was merely that times were very bad, trade seemed to dwindle and dwindle, his bills were harder and harder to meet. Thank God, he never even knew that he was ruined, never actually went bankrupt, because he died very suddenly […] at the beginning of 1915. To the end he believed that with thrift, hard work and fair dealing a man can’t go wrong. There must have been plenty of small shopkeepers who carried that belief not merely on to bankrupt deathbeds but even into the workhouse. Even Lovegrove the saddler, with cars and motor-vans staring him in the face, didn’t realise that he was as out of date as the rhinoceros. And Mother too – Mother never lived to know that the life she’d been brought up to, the life of a decent God-fearing shopkeeper’s daughter and a decent shopkeeper’s wife in the reign of good Queen Vic, was finished forever.  […] Father was worried and this and that was “aggravating,” but you carried on much the same as usual. The old English order of life couldn’t change. For ever and ever decent God-fearing women would cook Yorkshire pudding and apple dumplings on enormous coal ranges, wear woolen underclothes and sleep on feathers, make plum jam in July and pickles in October, and read Hilda’s Home Companion in the afternoons, with the flies buzzing round, in a sort of cosy little underworld of stewed tea, bad legs and happy endings. They were a bit shaken and sometimes a bit dispirited. But at least they never lived to know that everything they’d believed in was just so much junk.

From Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell (published 1950).

Published in: on July 5, 2010 at 9:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bombs Away

Just prior to the Blitz, a resident of Ellesmere Road in a small English town ponders the coming assault:

Funny how we keep on thinking about bombs. Of course there’s no question that it’s coming soon. You can tell how close it is by the cheer-up stuff they’re talking about in the newspapers. I was reading a piece in the News Chronicle the other day where it said that bombing planes can’t do any damage nowadays. The anti-aircraft guns have got so good that the bomber has to stay at twenty thousand feet. The chap thinks, you notice, that if an aeroplane’s high enough the bombs don’t reach the ground. Or more likely what he really meant was that they’ll miss Woolwich Arsenal and only hit places like Ellesmere Road.

From Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell (published 1950).

Published in: on July 2, 2010 at 9:25 am  Leave a Comment