A shortened and adapted version of Chapter 4 from The Road to Brighton Pier, written in 2011.
‘You’re looking for the identity of the South and the South East?’ says Andy, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Henley in the 2010 general election, ‘I think you’ll struggle.’
Andy works for a research institute that consults with councils on commissioning private companies to work in public healthcare. I’m meeting him in the staffroom of Oxford Brooks University in order to prepare for my visit to Henley. The drive here has taken me five hours – five hours in a hearing aid beige coloured Toyota Starlet that was built in 1984 and is only held together with love and rust. Today is the hottest day of the year and, as usual, the Starlet’s engine had been overheating. The only way to cool it down had been to turn the heating on full blast and I couldn’t roll down the windows because the glass always came out of the runners.
Andy, well groomed and neat, wears a smart suit that’s slightly too big for him. I sit opposite looking like I’ve just been rescued from the sea. My sweaty, crumpled appearance is causing him some concern.
‘Are you OK?’ he asks.
‘Oh yes,’ I say, ‘please carry on.’
‘Well, the thing about the North is, the identity up there is often a reaction to the South. It’s like the Scottish approach to England. The identity in the South East is not very strong because there’s more mobility here – people move around more. I’m originally from London and moving to Oxfordshire for me just wasn’t a change. If I’d moved from London to Rochdale, I’d have probably noticed more of a difference. I’d have stuck out more. What I’m always impressed with round here is that there’s no real fear of foreigners – by foreigners I mean people like me who’ve moved into this area. People are relaxed and very friendly. If you go to somewhere like Yorkshire, there’s a sense of being an outsider.’
I ask him what I can expect from my visit to Henley.
‘It’s not as posh as it might seem,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of money in Henley, a lot of rich people, but there’s also an awful lot of ordinary people. There is this group – I call them the Sunday Times graduates – they read the Sunday Times and vote Conservative and drive VW Golfs and move up to a BMW because they think that’s what they should be doing. But actually, if you scrape beneath the surface, those people, being graduates and having had an education, have more progressive views than they would probably like to admit to.’
This unwillingness to admit to progressive views is reflected in the politics of the area. Henley is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. Boris Johnson was MP for Henley, so was Michael Heseltine. I give Andy a quote from Orwell’s book, Coming Up For Air: ‘By the time the 1906 election came along I was old enough to understand it, more or less, and this time I was a liberal because everyone else was. The people chased the Conservative candidate half a mile and threw him into a pond full of duckweed. People took politics seriously in those days. They used to begin storing up rotten eggs weeks before an election.’
‘1906 is the one election that the Liberals won in Henley,’ Andy says, ‘good old Philip Morrell.’
When I arrive in the town, I notice that there are other similarities with Coming Up For Air: ‘I suppose the High Street was about a quarter of a mile long, and except for a few outlying houses the town was roughly the shape of a cross. The chief landmarks were the church tower and the chimney of the brewery.’
These words are from George Bowling, the main character in the book. He’s an average man with an average job who returns to his childhood home, Lower Binfield, to see how it’s changed in the twenty-five years since he’s been away. Written in 1938, Coming Up For Air is full of nostalgia for a lost Edwardian age and a sadness that the world will change forever after the forthcoming Second World War.
Orwell’s own Edwardian childhood was spent in Henley and the neighbouring Lower Shiplake and it’s clear that this background served as material for the book. Unlike George Bowling however, Orwell never returned to this area after he left for Burma in 1921 – he wrote Coming Up For Air while staying in Morocco, so he couldn’t have known exactly how much the town had changed.
Henley is right on the border of Berkshire. Oxfordshire starts at the Thames which runs past the bottom of the main street and the hotel where I’m staying is next to the bridge. I park The Starlet between a black Audi TT and a Porsche in the car park before checking in. I got a cheap, last minute deal on a room here that under normal circumstances would have cost £190 a night. The room is large, tasteful and well-equipped but probably not worth that much money. There may be a doily under the tea and coffee making facilities and a full range of brand-name toiletries in the en-suite, but the carpet is still cheap and worn and covered in stains.
I unpack my laptop and check my emails. There’s one from a woman who lives in one of Orwell’s two childhood homes in Henley:
I have received your letter regarding your book about George Orwell. I’m afraid that I can be of little help to you, having only recently moved to the house and the area I’m not very informed on either.
Best wishes for your book.
It’s polite and civilised but the message couldn’t be clearer: get lost.
It’s lunchtime when I leave the hotel and walk up Henley’s main street. All the men here seem to have side partings and wear their shirts tucked into their trousers. They stride around the town purposefully, dressed in well-pressed clothes, some in ties, many in suits, despite the weather. The women wear big sunglasses and designer summer dresses. They sit outside branded cafes drinking coffees out of tiny cups or on benches in the churchyard or by the river scrolling their phones and cultivating an air of aloofness.
The library has no information on Orwell, neither does Tourist Information in the town hall at the top of the main street. The only reference I can find is one sentence in a promotional booklet about the famous people connected with the area. Orwell’s face is shown alongside Philip Schofield, Paul Daniels and Rodney Bewes.
Instead I try Jonkers, the rare bookshop on the main street. It was established in 1906 so Orwell would have known it.
Inside, the walls are made up of mahogany bookcases with leather bound volumes behind glass windows. In the centre of the room is a hat-stand with a deerstalker hanging off it. I’m not going to be allowed to ask questions or browse in a shop like this. A lady with a silk blouse and glasses around her neck materialises next to me.
‘Can I help you?’
‘I’m interested in George Orwell.’
‘I’ve got a fabulous, fabulous, first edition of Nineteen Eighty Four. It’s six and half thousand pounds.’
‘Have you got anything else?’
‘The Road To Wigan Pier? That’s one hundred and fifty pounds.’
She takes me into the back room to look at it. It’s the left book club edition with the orange cover – the branding that meant it was cheap enough to be affordable for the working classes. It’s in excellent condition. The pages are yellowing but it’s not dog-eared and it has that musty, woody smell to it. Either this book has never been read or there’s a special chemical aroma that they use to spray on the stock in shops like this.
‘Can I come back in a bit? I want to have a cup of tea and think about it,’ I say to the lady.
‘Of course.’ Then she gives me a knowing smile as I leave the shop. ‘Enjoy your cup of tea,’ she says.
I walk along a back street, by the brewery building. George Bowling described these streets as ‘slummy’ but now they’ve been rebuilt as luxury apartments. They have names like ‘The Malthouse’ and ‘Brakspear Mews’ and sit behind high iron gates on roads with signs that say ‘Private’ or ‘No Admittance to The General Public’.
Three miles south of Henley, past the polo club and golf course, is the village of Lower Shiplake where Orwell’s second childhood home is situated. It’s here that he spent much of his childhood and, like Henley, I recognise lots of it from Coming Up For Air. Even the name of the book’s fictional town, Lower Binfield, seems to be made up from real places – the Lower from Lower Shiplake, the Binfield from the neighbouring Binfield Heath.
George Bowling says: ‘It lay in a bit of a valley, with a low ripple of hills between itself and the Thames, and higher hills behind. On top of the hills there were woods in sort of dim blue masses among which you could see a great white house with a colonnade.’
I see the rippling hills, the higher hills, the woods in dim blue masses and the great white house – several great white houses, in fact. It’s difficult to know which one he means specifically.
Just like George Bowling, I walk round the graveyard of Shiplake/Binfield church. I see the headstones of Orwell’s contemporaries – people he would have met, people he would have known. Knowing how closely he stuck to the facts, I’m looking for names from the book: Gravitt the butcher; Winkle the seedsman; Trew the landlord; Mrs Wheeler from the sweet-shop; Grimmett the grocer; Shooter and Weatherall the competitive choristers. I see none of them. The names may be different but there’s no doubt that the people who inspired these characters are here somewhere.
I’m inside the church looking for another reference from the book, a brass effigy of Sir Roderick Bone, when a family arrive for a wedding rehearsal. I lurk around the edges of the church until a man in an RAF uniform breaks off from the group and comes over. He says ‘hello’, clearly meaning: ‘goodbye’ and then waits silently between me and the exit.
I take The Starlet into Lower Shiplake to find Station Road and Rose Lawn, the house where Orwell lived as a boy.
George Bowling says: ‘To the right of the road there was a whole lot of fake-picturesque houses, with overhanging eaves and rose pergolas and what-not. You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony. With private roads leading up to them.’
Most of the houses are hidden behind high privet hedges, fences and gates. The house names on the stone gateposts are tastefully pseudo-rural – Charnbrook and Longacre and Maybury Lodge and Silverleas. There’s nothing to prove with these names, the average house price here is more than double the national average – the people who live in Lower Shiplake are completely at ease with their affluence. The cars reflect this too; rather than BMWs and self-consciously flashy sports cars there are dark coloured Mercedes and Jaguars and a fleet of silver VW Golfs for the wives. The only vehicles that are vaguely comparable to mine are tradesmen’s vans – of which there are plenty.
It’s difficult to find somewhere to park. Many of the junctions off Station Road lead to private roads and the driveways are so wide and long that they’re easily mistaken for side streets. More than once I turn into one only to be halted by an eight-foot wooden fence or a set of iron gates.
After ten minutes of haphazard three point turns and reversing manoeuvres, I park The Starlet halfway down Mill Lane. Immediately, a lumpy middle-aged lady comes crunching down a gravel drive. She’s got rusty coloured hair and holds her arms at her sides bent at the elbow so that her wrists are floppy. With her straight back and jerky way of walking she looks like a stop-motion animation of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
‘Excuse me, would you mind moving your car?’ she says to me. Her voice is clean and clipped without a trace of an accent. It’s direct, detached and cold.
‘You’re obstructing our drive somewhat,’ she says. ‘Thank you so much.’
She’s awfully polite, terribly civilised but the message couldn’t be clearer: get lost. I’m a good twenty yards away from her drive; I’m not obstructing anything unless she’s expecting her husband to come home from work in a hovercraft.
I don’t say this. Instead, I surprise myself by answering in a broad Yorkshire accent: ‘Aye, I’ll just shove me car further oop t’road.’
George Bowling says: ‘Answered in an accent you could cut with a spade.’
What happened there? That voice wasn’t mine. Undoubtedly, I do have an accent but it’s not that thick – I answered like a professional Yorkshireman, one of those brusque, no-nonsense, plain speaking bullies whose entire personalities seem to be defined by the geographical location of their birth.
I think I know what happened. I recognise a familiar feeling – a feeling that I suspect is familiar to most northerners from a working-class background: a sense that this place is closed off to me and I’m away from my own kind. As much as I’ve tried to suppress this feeling, my subconscious won’t let me. My artificial accent was a gut instinct, a reaction to being excluded.
I park my car further up the road and walk to the village shop. It has shelves of plants outside and a community notice board in a green wooden display advertising a Charity Polo Day; two sets of dog sitting services; piano tuition; information on how to avoid receiving junk mail; a tree surgeon and hedge trimming service called ‘Tree-mendous’ and Henley Ladies Badminton Club. ‘We are looking for new players to join our club’ the printed sheet says. Then, handwritten between the words ‘new’ and ‘players’, someone has added: ‘EXPERIENCED ONLY.’
Over the level-crossing, past the station, the road bends to the left and widens. The lines of trees muffle any noises from the outside world. All I can hear are the birds singing and all I can smell are the flowers in the artfully manicured gardens. The houses here have gables and pillars and balconies and turrets. There are double garages and porches and shaped hedges and mock-tudor frontages. Bolney Road is ‘Private’; Basmore Lane is for ‘Residents’ vehicles only’; Fellmongers Farm is protected by ‘Fierce Dogs’.
If Orwell came from this world – if it meant so much to him that he wrote Coming Up For Air as a tribute – then he clearly wasn’t the person I thought he was. How could I possibly identify with someone from this environment?
I walk up towards Rose Lawn, Orwell’s childhood home, and I hope that it’ll be smaller and more welcoming than the others I’ve seen here. I want it to represent the Orwell I believe in.
George Bowling says: ‘Oh, yes, I know you knew what was coming. But I didn’t. You can say that I was a bloody fool not to expect it, and so I was.’
I stand outside Rose Lawn and from behind the eight-foot wooden gates I can just see the gabled roof and mock-tudor frontage. The only difference from the rest of the houses on the street is the For Sale sign embedded in the high privet hedge.
George Orwell was one of them.
On the drive from Lower Shiplake back to Henley, I’m an angry, stubborn Yorkshireman. In queues of traffic I don’t let anyone out of junctions. On narrow roads I take the aggressive line past parked cars, forcing the Jaguars and Audis and Landrovers to wait. I reap the all the benefits that come with having an old and battered car like The Starlet – nobody messes with you because they’ve got so much more to lose.
I pull into the hotel car park and inflate my flattened vowels before making a phone call.
‘Hello. I’d like to book an appointment to view a house, please.’
‘Which property are you interested in?’ The Estate Agent asks in her clipped, efficient, accentless voice.
‘Rose Lawn on Station Road, Lower Shiplake.’
‘Are you interested in buying the property?’
‘It’s speculative at the moment. I spotted the house on the market and as I’m in Henley tomorrow, I thought I’d have a look.’
She takes my name and number then asks me if I’m interested in other properties in this kind of price range.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘What’s Rose Lawn listed at?’
‘It’s one million, two hundred and fifty thousand pounds,’ she says casually.
‘Yes, that’s fine,’ I say, slightly less casually.
‘Would one o’clock tomorrow be suitable to view the property?’
‘See you tomorrow then.’
The next morning I spend a lot of time worrying about how I’m going to appear as though I’m the sort of person who can afford to buy a £1,250,000 house. I iron the few clothes I’ve brought with me. I tuck my shirt in and give myself a side parting. I trim my beard to try and give the impression that I could be Richard Branson’s younger brother. I even take out the sheets of safety information and room service menus from the leather case provided by the hotel and consider using the empty folder as a filofax.
George Bowling says: ‘I felt pretty prosperous, and probably I looked it. A solid business man you’d have said, at any rate if you hadn’t seen the car.’
I take The Starlet to Binfield Heath, well away from Rose Lawn. There’s a restaurant there called Orwells. The menu offers Slow Poached Yattendon Pheasant Egg, Roast Torbay Plaice Fillet, Potted Aylesbury Duck Rillette and Pan Seared Brixham Sea Trout. In the car park is a classic E-Type Jag next to a shining silver Triumph convertible. This restaurant, this Orwell, belongs to them. I carry my battered and reliable version of Orwell with me in The Starlet and park next to the E-Type. It looks ridiculous to see these three vehicles alongside each other – their Orwell against mine.
The estate agent is already outside Rose Lawn when I arrive. She’s a few years older than me and is wearing a grey woolen dress with shoulder length hair that’s straight and bell shaped; obviously tied back until fairly recently. Her huge BMW is beached on the narrow strip of driveway up against the eight-foot wooden gates. I’m lucky, she’s too distracted to tell me to get lost.
‘Good to meet you. I can’t get this gate open. It doesn’t want to go.’
Further down the road I spot a familiar figure coming towards us; a woman with rusty coloured hair and arms bent at the elbows. She’s walking jerkily, like a stop-motion animation Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Starlet is a safe distance away but I’m wearing the same clothes as yesterday.
‘It’s a lovely house, it’s a lovely house – got huge potential,’ says the estate agent as she fiddles with the control for the gate, wipes clean the sensor and aims it in different directions. ‘Oh no, how annoying. Sorry about this.’
A car pulls up onto the pavement and a woman in sweatpants and baggy T-shirt gets out. She has a foreign accent, perhaps Italian: ‘Nobboddy’s in. Maybe, you want to move back your car?’
The estate agent reverses her whale, the Italian woman presses the control and the gates open. I go through before the Tyrannosaurus Rex spots me.
‘Was that the owner?’ I ask the estate agent as we walk up the white gravel path towards the house.
‘No, I think it’s the cleaner. Now, I’m going to leave you here at the front door while I go round the back to let you in. You should always walk in through the front door of a house. There’s something about the ten-second rule. More often than not, people know straight away.’
She disappears round the back and I’m left waiting at George Orwell’s front door.
The house sits solidly in the centre of the plot of land as though it owns it. The building is boxy, a collection of squares stacked together with a steep triangular roof at one side. The upper half is painted white with wooden beams picked out in black and there are two narrow balconies above the front door on the side.
The estate agent opens the wooden door and lets me into an oak paneled entrance hall with stone floors and a barometer on the wall. It’s like a small stately home.
‘I see why you wanted me to come in the front door now,’ I say.
‘Yes, it’s got lots of character hasn’t it? Just imagine the Christmas decorations.’ She opens up her clipboard. ‘Apparently, this is the oldest house in Shiplake. I haven’t been given an exact date and this sounds like estate agents talk, but we’ve been told by the owner that George Orwell grew up here.’
‘Ah, that’s what brings me here,’ I say. ‘I wasn’t really anticipating looking around anywhere but I was in the area and I noticed that it was on the market. It relates to the project I’m working on so I thought I’d come and have a look round.’
The estate agent’s face darkens and she changes her grip on her clipboard as if she’s about to wield it like a mace. ‘So, are you interested in buying it at all?’
‘Oh, of course, yeah, absolutely. I’ve been spending a lot of time down in Cornwall recently, I love the out of the way feeling you get down there. I’m after the same thing, just with accessibility to London.’
I think I’ve made it past the ten second mark. The estate agent starts telling me about the timetables to London from Shiplake station as we walk through the hall and into the main downstairs room that’s been split into two. The first is a reception room with antique furniture and wooden cabinets; the second, a lounge with long sofas arranged in a semi-circle around a fireplace with a marble surround and a gilt-framed mirror above it.
‘Those low, leaded glass windows – they’re original. It shows it’s been looked after. I think the husband is quite house proud. He’s Iranian and they have properties in London and, I think, Monaco. That’s where they’re moving to. They used this house for the purposes of education – both of their children went to local private schools and are just finishing Uni at Oxford.’
I ask her what the people are like in Shiplake.
‘There’s quite a community feel. I’ve sold a number of properties in Shiplake to Shiplake people – they stay. They don’t consider themselves part of Henley because they’re away from all the tourists and that side of things. It’s a lovely, lovely area. The majority of houses in Shiplake are big, there are no little Victorian terraces here, they are all big, substantial houses.’
There are doors everywhere coming off the hallway. I attempt to be assertive and purposeful by opening one at random. I’m faced with a drum kit.
‘That’s the cupboard under the stairs,’ the estate agent tells me.
There’s also a large study, a kitchen, a breakfast room and a gigantic utility room leading onto a separate structure that looks like a high roofed greenhouse.
‘That’s the orangery,’ the estate agent says.
I don’t know what an orangery is so I nod and stroke my beard – the kind of beard I imagine Richard Branson’s younger brother might have.
The garden isn’t big but there’s a patio and a lush lawn bordered by thick hedges and trees. It’s ‘lovely and secluded’.
As we stalk around the upstairs rooms, she tells me how much character everything has and how versatile it is, what potential it’s got. When responding, I use the word ‘property’ a lot – I know estate agents like the word ‘property’ as opposed to ‘home’. I also keep any personal details vague, talking about an anonymous ‘partner’ as though it might be Madonna or Princess Stephanie of Monaco.
I try to imagine what it must have been like for Orwell here, try to imagine him running up the stairs or playing in the garden or one of the bedrooms or the orangery. Of the places I’ve visited so far, I should feel closest to Orwell here.
George Bowling says: ‘I don’t know what you ought to feel, but I’ll tell you what I did feel, and that was nothing.’
Maybe it’s because it wasn’t Orwell that lived here; it was a young Eric Blair. Maybe it’s because this Rose Lawn is so different from the house that he knew.
‘Do you know how much work it’s had done on it over the years?’ I ask the estate agent.
‘I’m no historian as far as houses are concerned so I wouldn’t like to give you exact details. I think the old front door would have been facing the gate at the end of the reception room and there are a few inner doors that have changed, you can tell from the coving. All the rooms have got little bays going through to the window, they’re extensions, I would have thought, from the original. Over time, it’s had an assortment of things added to it. It was probably a three-roomed house upstairs and they’ve put all the extra bathrooms on at some point – and the balconies. They overhang the three main rooms downstairs so I’d imagine those extra bits have all been added later.’
The three bedrooms upstairs all have en-suites and there are side rooms added to the main areas. I’m so immersed in the role of eccentric millionaire that I might end up putting in an offer in for this house.
‘So you’re doing a life study of George Orwell?’ The estate agent asks. ‘Are you a historian or an English scholar?’
‘No, I’m writing a book about the south of England and Orwell’s a big influence. He had quite an interesting background – I always thought he was quite a strong socialist and sympathetic to the working class but he came from, well, from here.’
‘Yes, a very privileged background,’ she says.
As we walk back downstairs, I’m very conscious that all I’ve done is say how impressive and great everything is – I’m not used to this kind of luxury. I need to find something to pick fault with. Anything. I can’t see any radiators. ‘Is there no central heating?’ I say. She raises an eyebrow and points me towards the ornately carved wooden panels underneath the windows. After that, she thinks I’m obsessed with heating systems so most of the rest of the tour is taken up with a detailed explanation of how the boiler functions.
When she’s locked up and we’re back in the driveway I ask if she’s had many other viewings.
‘It’s had a lot of interest. It would be an ideal bed and breakfast really, because you’ve got three self-contained bed and breakfast suites. You’d be amazed at how many people in Henley rent out their property, particularly during regatta. You’d get seven rowers in one of those bedrooms – and believe me, they do.’
I tell her that I’ll discuss things with my ‘partner’, maybe come back for another viewing together. Then we both thank each other and I leave.
By tidying up my appearance and speaking assertively, I managed to convince an estate agent that I’m rich enough to fit in here. It makes me wonder how many of the other people I’ve seen in Henley are doing the same thing – how many of them are hiding their ‘progressive views’.
I walk down Station Road and into the fields around the Thames. Here I find the thing I couldn’t in Rose Lawn: a sense of Orwell. The landscape can’t have changed much, I’m sure he’d still recognise it. These are the meadows he lazed in, the rivers he fished in, the woods he played in – it’s this Shiplake that Orwell was nostalgic for, not the privileged lifestyle that came with a home like Rose Lawn. In Coming Up For Air George Bowling was the son of a seed merchant who was always on the verge of bankruptcy; he wasn’t someone who’d move to an area purely so that their children could go to a good school. He made his fishing bait out of bread paste and cut his rod from a willow tree – now there are signs along the river that say: ‘Private Fishing. Shiplake and Binfield Heath Angling Club. NO DAY TICKETS’.
I’m used to wilder countryside than this; moorland and crags and sheep-filled fields criss-crossed with drystone walls – a landscape that’s just wild enough to be vaguely threatening. The scenery around Henley is pretty rather than rugged, safe rather than savage. Here you’re protected from the real world inside a little pocket of cosy tranquillity. It reminds me of what Orwell said in another book, Homage To Catalonia:
‘Southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, The New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway cuttings smothered in wild-flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar square, the red buses, the blue policemen – all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.’
At the end of Coming Up For Air, what does Orwell do to the town of Lower Binfield, the fictionalised Henley and Shiplake?
He drops a bomb on it.
Back at Orwells restaurant, the E-Type Jag and the silver Triumph convertible have gone from the car park but The Starlet still remains and it’s shining brightly in the sun.