Coming Up For Air


So, whilst on holiday and happily reading George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air I, like Orwell’s anti-hero George Bowling, happened to catch sight of myself in the bathroom mirror; a horrifying experience that I will not repeat lightly…

…I am grateful that, unlike Bowling, such teeth as I have, are my own and my waist size remains what it was forty years ago. It is what is going on above the waistline that worries me. I appear to have something inflatable (and inflated) inside my belly and someone has seen fit to give me tits. Why? What the hell am I supposed to do with them? And my head is too big for my body. When did that happen? I don’t remember ever noticing it before, but having seen it now, I cannot unsee it. It is an inescapable fact and, I suppose, must always have been so. (Skulls do not continue to grow in adulthood, do they?) I cannot believe that somebody stole into my middle aged sleep and swapped my normal size head for this bloody great thing. It is a sad revelation that I have gone right through adult life, blithely unaware of the fact that I have an oversized head. People must hate sitting behind me in the cinema.

Unlike Bowling, I do not have a rosy-glowed yearning to return to where I grew up: in truth I have barely moved more than five miles away from it. In my youth, the estate on which I was raised seemed vast, but in the scheme of things it is really quite small. I have no idea how many houses there are, but it does not come close to some of the massive sprawling estates that feature in so many documentaries highlighting the problems of urban deprivation and lawlessness. As I child I saw no deprivation. I saw hardship, but that was just normal. I saw lawlessness, but most of that involved climbing over the off-licence gate and ‘liberating’ empty bottles in order that they could be re-returned for the deposit. Leaving school I would often go with my friend to his house. We were given the choice of two fillings for our teatime sandwiches: salt or sugar. I realise now that that was because there was nothing else available, but it never occurred to me then. What did occur to me then, was that sugar sandwiches were the greatest thing ever.

The estate was built between the wars. A council estate of sturdy, red brick houses, each with a front and a back garden and each with its very own front gate. We had a pond with goldfish and a shed with mice. My dad used to grow chrysanthemums. In the late summer the garden was a swaying ocean of brown paper bags, which he fixed with rubber bands over the flower heads in order to keep the earwigs out. I have no idea why it was so important to keep the earwigs out of the chrysanthemums, but I do remember that my grandma would still not have them in the house in case they harboured any of the weaponised little blighters.

The streets were narrow – there were no cars – and made ideal cricket pitches in the summer. For the rest of year we played football across them, each having our goal on opposite grass verges, each meticulously cleared of the white dog-dirt which no dog ever seems to produce now. In my memory the street was always full of kids playing (except when The Monkees were on) on bikes and scooters, on strap-on roller skates and handmade carts and, failing all else, somebody’s dad’s wheelbarrow. Everything was close by: school, shops, church and pub were all on the estate. Only a trip to the doctors or the dentist involved anything approaching a walk.  Night times were filled with the constant roar of the ever-airborne Vulcan bombers with their nuclear cargos. And I remember the air-raid sirens being tested once a month. The time and date was always published in the local newspaper to prevent those who remembered when they were last used in earnest from locking themselves in the coal bunker with a flask of lukewarm tea, two slices of mucky bread and last week’s Titbits.

One thing I am always struck by when looking back, is how close to the war it all was. Fourteen years until I was born, but as a country we were still recovering: both my grandfathers were still suffering. Harold Macmillan had said that we had never had it so good. I suppose that having lived through two World Wars, a General Strike and the Great Depression, it was natural that expectations were not that high.  Somehow the rest of the world moved on whilst we lived as if rationing continued. Our way of reminding ourselves what we had given up in order to defeat tyranny, or our bloody-minded way of reminding the rest of the world?

Try as I might, I can remember little of what went on in my life from Monday to Friday; my memories are all of weekends. Saturday morning was The ABC Minors – I can still sing you the theme tune if you wish to hear it. A tanner to get in: cartoons, a long film, a short film and a serial. Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry, and Flash Gordon. Every now and then they played a newsreel and the air was thick with thrown sandwiches and lemonade. It was impossible to sit through the boring bits without feeling the sting of a pipe-blown dried pea thwacking into the back of your head. (Is it still possible to buy pea-shooters? Is it still possible to buy dried peas?) On your birthday you could go on stage before the show began and collect your ABC minors badge, free entry for the following week and a packet of crisps that, had sell-by dates then existed, would probably have expired during the war. My favourite bits were the old silent comedy shorts and the flickering black and white cartoons. I liked Felix the cat the best, and I can still sing that theme tune too.  Saturday teatime was pig’s fry and gravy whilst watching the football results on the black and white Rentaset TV,which had a huge magnifying glass affixed to the front so that the picture was big enough to see all the way from the settee.

Sunday breakfast was always a full fried affair, whilst lunch was always a roast. Teatime was salad with ham hock, little cubes of cheese, tinned pink salmon and one of those pork pies with a boiled egg running through the middle. Sunday teatime was also the only pudding of the week: tinned fruit salad with tinned sterilised cream. Occasionally we got the more expensive tinned fruit cocktail. This contained a handful of flaccid pale green grapes and usually meant that we were having evaporated milk instead of cream. I realise now that I do not so much remember the past as smell and taste it. I am like a nostalgia snake, catching the past on my flickering tongue…

And then I look back into the bathroom mirror and I am once again the freshly-showered creature that, whichever way you choose to dress it up, looks uncannily like a bald orang utan.

I am of an age when everything – bowel, bladder, balance, judgement – becomes less reliable. Ensuring the cleanliness of underwear ceases to be in anticipation of luck being in, and becomes a manifestation of the fear that it might be well and truly out. Fortunately I am not like George Bowling: I am not breaking in a new set of false teeth for a start; I am not a raging misogynist; I am not living my life on the threshold of a global nightmare, desperate to find comfort in the unattainable once-upon-a-time. Although it’s good to remember it sometimes, I do not want to relive yesterday. There is no going back. I’m quite happy with today thank you very much. What I’d really like is for my tomorrows to be the kind of yesterdays that my children and grandchildren look back on with joy. And I’d like them all to remember that I was not too bad really. In my own strangely-shaped kind of a way…