By Chris Hopkins
Here’s Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, for another ‘literary food’ blog for Heritage Open Days. But be warned: Chris says this one is perhaps not best enjoyed with a meal.
George Orwell’s just pre-war novel Coming Up for Air (1939) opens with this striking if unusual sentence: ‘The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth’ (Penguin edition, p.5). We then have to read on for another one-hundred-and-nineteen pages before the first-person narrator, George Bowling, tells us what the idea is! He is going to revisit the country village where he grew up, Lower Binfield, not with his wife and children, but on his own, one day when he can take a day of work without them knowing (he has secretly won seventeen pounds on a horse and has been pondering what to spend it on). To be fair, the intervening one-hundred-and-nineteen pages have been usefully occupied with George reflecting on his life so far, and on the next war which he is convinced will be coming soon (he thinks it is probably most likely in 1941). George wants to go back to Lower Binfield because he has been thinking that it represents life as it was before 1914, before he went to the trenches, before he lived in a city suburb, before he became a life-insurance salesman, before, he became, in his own words, ‘fat and forty-five’, before, he thinks, the modern world began.
Before he finally tells the reader about his idea, though, he has a number of present-day experiences which seem to feed into it. Which takes us back to the false teeth (much commoner then in younger people because of the lack of dental care, and because fluoride toothpaste was not invented and marketed until the mid-nineteen-fifties). George has chosen a ‘cheap American dentist’ in London to make him his new false teeth, but arrives early to be fitted with the new set, and decides to fill the time with some food and a coffee. It is not normally the kind of place he goes to (he prefers a pub), but George goes into a modern ‘milk-bar’ and orders a coffee and a couple of frankfurters:
I bit into one of my frankfurters, and – Christ!
I can’t honestly say I’d expected the thing to have a pleasant taste. I’d expected it to taste of nothing, like the roll. But this – well, it was quite an experience. Let me try and describe it to you.
The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren’t much of a fit. I had to do a kind of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly – pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste […] It was fish. A sausage, something calling itself a frankfurter, was filled with fish! I got straight up and walked out without touching my coffee. God knows what that would have tasted of.George Orwell, Coming Up for Air, pp. 18-19
Orwell, as so often, is brilliant at using quite ordinary but carefully chosen words and precise rhythms to create the physical detail of George’s disgusting experience, of making the reader identify with what a modern food manufacturer might call the ‘mouth-feel’ of the frankfurter (though not one they would want to create – for an introductory definition of the word and idea, see Mouthfeel – Wikipedia). But more than that, Orwell turns the physical sensation of the frankfurter into something which both literally and symbolically stands for George for everything which he has concluded is wrong with modern life and the modern world:
It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else (p.20).
The sense that the alleged sausage tastes of fish is especially significant for George because for him a quintessentially pre-modern activity in Lower Binfield was fishing – an authentic experience of his boyhood – which he recreates in his memory with a roll-call of the fish which populated its pools (now he fears all drained or polluted):
Roach, rudd, dace, bleak, barbel, bream, gudgeon, pike, chub, carp, tench. They are solid kind of names. The people who made them up hadn’t heard of machine-guns … .George Orwell, Coming Up for Air, p.54
George has not been fishing since he was sixteen in Lower Binfield. He tried once during the First Word War in a forgotten pond full of fish, but his platoon was ordered to move before he could actually fish, and he tried once on holiday, but failed to convince his wife, Hilda, either that he actually knows how to fish, or that the outlay on a fishing-rod is justified. ‘Fat men of forty-five can’t go fishing’, he concludes pessimistically (p. 164).
It might seem that George’s world view is a simple one: past good, present bad. Actually, though, he is more complex that that, and so is this novel. He knows very well that many things in Lower Binfield were bad: the boys’ cruelty to birds and animals, rural poverty and over-crowding, girls pregnant at the age of fifteen, probably through incest, his parents’ shop going bust, even the horrors of the Boer War, precursors to worse to come. He also quite likes his new false teeth at times, they cheer him up, and they are surely, in developed form, a modern innovation. If you haven’t read Coming Up for Air, I recommend it, not least for the way in which Orwell’s prose makes something quite ordinary, an everyday object, a food-item, a frankfurter, and tasting itself, into a fascinating symbol and experience of the modern world (even though I’m not convinced that frankfurters, or fast-food, and being ‘streamlined’, and fascism, are quite as much the same modern experience as that prose makes you feel they are!).
Follow this link for a frankfurter experience.