The Sound of the Suburbs: Orwell, Bowling and the Estates in Coming Up for Air

Simon Goulding

<1> At its heart Coming Up for Air (1938) is a novel of suburbia. Yet, as with any such novel with a basic theme there are other attitudes and concerns that emerge through the text. It is a novel about a series of enclosed personal spaces in which the characters internalise their anxieties, frustrations and feelings; imprisoned in psychological and subconscious cells of their own creating. The reader’s guide through the landscape of the text is George Bowling, forty-something, overweight, henpecked and short of money; another of Orwell’s literary alter egos, a figure on the path from Gordon Comstock to Winston Smith. For the contemporary reviewers Coming Up for Air was also seen as presenting “one of the remarkable phenomena of our age ... the cult of the little man.” (Times 28) Max Plowman, in a letter to Orwell, writes “[i]t’s done to the life and your little man lives all right.” (Bowker 251) The character of George Bowling is one of the more endearing of Orwell’s male characters. The success of the stage version performed at Edinburgh in 2008 testifies to the resonance that the character still has seventy years after being written. The locations of the novel: the outer London suburbs and the Thames valley are spaces Orwell knew well, he worked in the former and grew up in the latter. The themes of the novel are a continuation of previous concerns expressed by Orwell. The reflections on housing in the novel continue the series of observations on the British home he had started in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and would conclude with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). It is also a novel that reflects something of the period in which it was written. It represents part of a series of texts that D.J Taylor refers to as “a recognisable genre of thirties fiction: the ‘war is coming’ novel, in which scarcely any piece of human business can be transacted without the thought of the recruiting poster and the air-raid drill lurking grimly in the background” (Taylor xi).

<2> Raymond Williams notes: “[w]hat is unique about the novel in Orwell’s work is that he creates an entire social and physical milieu within which the social criticism and the personal break are defined elements.” (Williams 46) For Williams the landscapes of Orwell’s narratives are as much a series of authorial constructions as the development of the Orwell persona. Bowling is a fictional character with ‘fictional’ experiences. That some of them are taken from the life of the writer is inevitable if one considers the progress and intention of the narrative.

<3> In this essay I want to focus on the relationship of the individual and the space in which he lives. The role of the suburbs in English fiction is usually that of a pejorative space and the suburban estate Orwell describes in Coming Up for Air is no exception. Does this mean however that what he creates is a caricature of such a place or is there a deeper truth to his description? To this extent what follows is a literary analysis that privileges reflection on the architecture, planning, finance and social construction of such areas as metahistorical and social analysis. By taking such an approach we can better interpret and assess the landscape and people that Orwell creates/describes within the text. The essay is therefore split into three parts: firstly a brief contextual background to Orwell’s approach that also echoes some of his concerns; secondly a reflection of the physical fabric of the estate and, to conclude, an appraisal of the people of Orwell’s suburbia. The impact of the coming war is not forgotten; rather I leave it as an acknowledged subtext to the thoughts and actions of the characters within the narrative. Further analysis of the ‘summer of ‘39’ sub-genre is still required.

The Suburban Context
<4> Of the major writers of the 1930s only J.B Priestley tries to make a positive engagement with the mindset of the suburban classes. For him suburbia was a place where the working class and aspirational middle-class aspired to dreams of owning a house of their own. They were a “kind of signpost pointing to a sunlit main road of life,” an “escape from the houses with the outside toilet.” (Priestley 898) Contemporary analysis of the suburban models of the 30s suggests that such a viewpoint overlooked some fundamental flaws in the design and construction of such estates. Joe Bailey describes how the planning of these estates was “justified at an abstract level by the belief that small-scale face-to-face situations promote friendliness, political cohesion and democratic consent”, as well as a belief “that a collection of houses is always a social unit.” (Bailey 84) Peter Wilmott observes that “[n]eighbourhoods seem to work well enough in functional terms but there is no evidence that they do anything to create ‘community’ or ‘neighbourliness,’ or indeed that they have any special social significance.” (Wilmott 126) Arthur Edwards notes, “[s]uburbia lacked this neighbourliness[…][i]t was an isolated, unnatural society, established on the edge of town, made up of people chosen by accident of need and administrative convenience, and formed, not of a single social class, but often of a single age-group.” (Edward 111) For Lynne Hapgood this is the “marginal suburb –- on the margins of social status, of the aesthetic environment and of culture.” (Hapgood 170) She further notes that “[i]t was discussions about the perceived ugliness, monotony, cultural limitations and small mindedness of working-class suburbs that most galvanised public opinion.” (170)

<5> Some of these attitudes are reflected in Thomas Sharp’s critique of the Garden City. “Streets,” he notes, “must be taboo; and so that there will be no mistake about it, the very word is no longer used, even for the purpose of an address: all have the proper country flavour.” (Sharp 150) Similar sentiments about suburbia can be found in A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) where Orwell describes the matrix of roads in the area around Ringwood School. (ACD 197) Graham Greene in The Confidential Agent (1939) describes the holiday camp at Southcrawl as “circle after circle of chromium bungalows round a central illuminated tower –- fields and more bungalows.” (233) In The Lawless Roads (1938) he describes suburbia as “self-contained like an image of private significance ... Metroland loneliness.” (10) Louis MacNeice describes the activities of the suburban husbands on the weekend in Sunday Morning (1933): “Man’s heart expands to tinker with his car/For this is Sunday Morning, Fate’s great bazaar” and concludes:


But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Opens its eight bells out, skulls mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures. (MacNeice 23)

For the then Oxford student G. E Trevelyan suburbia was a land of bourgeois soviets: “[f]or what is communism? I take it to be the apotheosis of the herd; a levelling to the level of the majority; a general smoothing out of standards of living and taste to one standard, and an enforcement of this standard upon the recalcitrant few by the collective weight of the majority.” (Trevelyan 138) An article by John Betjeman in Criterion sums up something of the urbanite, intellectual, opinion towards the class of people who lived on the estates. This was, it must be remembered, a class still close to their working-class origins, practising frugality and financial prudence and having to buy or rent from council or developer. Betjeman writes:

It is going to take nothing short of a revolution to make Jones, who has been paying fifteen shillings a week for the last twenty years in order to become the owner of his jerry-built, semi-detached embryo slum, give up his rights. He is not going to sacrifice the standard roses on his front lawn, for any road-widening scheme, if he can help it. (Betjeman 10)

At its core this is, as suggests John Carey, a “snobbishness, partly [a] fear of the new, partly resentment at what [they] see as a self-assured, ambitious, materialistic middle class” on the part of such writers. (Carey 57) There is also a question of definition, of assessing just what exactly constitutes suburbia. For Lynne Hapgood it is a space where the “very material ordinariness and uniformity comprises everything that men and women are trying to know, and in their potent suggestiveness contains all quests and all symbols.” (Hapgood 73) This question of defining what exactly is ‘suburbia’ is an ongoing one. Carey suggests that “[l]ike ‘masses’, the word ‘suburban’ is a sign for the unknowable.” (Carey 53) Lynne Hapgood sees Edward Thomas as proposing “the suburb as a nexus of diverse perceptions, [as] a series of ‘small’ narratives that share the burden of meaning and combine to produce the potential for interpretation.” (Hapgood 4) She suggests that “[t]he state of suburbanism [is] an in-betweenness of country and city ... struggling for definition and, in so doing, helping to define society’s future.” (7)

The Suburban Estate
<6> However, the path to this future was not so easily realised. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1936) Orwell described some of the northern Corporation (Council) estates that he saw on his travels. The impressions he gained from what he saw in Barnsley and Wigan were not favourable. “The Corporation building estates, with their row upon row of little red houses, all much liker than two peas (where did that little expression come from? Peas have great individuality) are a regular feature of the outskirts of the industrial towns.” (RWP 61) A tenant whom Orwell meets complains that the houses are “cold, damp, and so forth. Perhaps the house was jerry-built.” (RWP 64) The locations are not always the best:

Certainly most Corporation estates are pretty bleak in winter. Some I have been through, perched on treeless clayey hillsides and swept by icy winds, would be horrible places to live in ... [n]evertheless, in a Corporation estate there is an uncomfortable, almost prison-like atmosphere, and the people who live there are perfectly aware of it. (RWP 65)

Orwell describes the suburban road where Bowling lives as resembling a “line of semi-detached torture-chambers.” (CUFA 10) In common with many of the 30s suburban estates, the prospective owners on the Hesperides Estate occupy land owned by the building society – in the novel the Cheerful Credit Building Society. Any inspections made of the estates were usually by the developers and/or the Building Societies for the purpose of valuation. Faults in construction would be concealed until the property was bought and settled. If the buyer raised an objection after the sale he would be shown the ‘Caveat Emptor’ clause. The Hesperides Estate is therefore dominated, at least metaphorically, by a hierarchical figure that is, according to Bowling:

[A]n enormous statue to the god of building societies. It would be a queer sort of God. Among other things it would be bi-sexual. The top half would be a managing director and the bottom half would be a wife in the family way. In one hand it would carry an enormous key –- the key of the workhouse, of course –- and in the other –- what do they call those things like French horns with presents coming out of them? –- a cornucopia, out of which would be poring portable radios, life-insurance policies, false teeth, aspirins, French letters and concrete garden rollers. (11)

This description is amplified as Bowling continues to describe the workings of the Cheerful Credit.

As a matter of fact in Ellesmere Road we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them. They’re not freehold, only leasehold. They’re priced at five-fifty, payable over a period of sixteen years, and they’re a class of house which, if you bought them for cash down, would cost round about three-eighty. That represents a profit of a hundred and seventy for the Cheerful Credit, but needless to say the Cheerful Credit makes a lot more out of it than that. Three-eighty includes the builders profit, but the Cheerful Credit, under the name of Wilson and Bloom, builds the houses itself and scoops the builder’s profit. All it has to pay for is the materials. But it also scoops the profit on the materials, because under the name of Brookes & Scatterby it sells itself the bricks, tiles, doors, window-frames, sand, cement and, I think, glass. (12)

James Richards, describing the architecture of these estates, calls it a “builders’ vernacular, composed out of the elements the builder found at hand when he came to build. (Richards 41) Alan Jackson notes that in order to get an estate started “it was often essential for the developer to have a few houses erected by contract at his own expense.” (Jackson 121) However, the land speculator or original landowner might well be the developer. They might then bring in a specialist firm of agents to help sell the land or prepare an arrangement with a suitable financing group – often a Building Society. The intention then was to obtain the land, build on it and then get the houses occupied. This meant that the estates were not built with aesthetic values as a primary factor. Jackson describes some of the defects in estate design that include the clearance of all trees, shrubs and natural features. Only rarely, for example Canons Park in Edgware, were the natural features assimilated into the estate plan.

<7> This compromise of construction is also reflected in the political compromises the new homeowners are required to make. Bowling observes that because “of the illusion that we own our houses and have what’s called ‘a stake in the country’, we poor saps in the Hesperides, and in all such places, are turned into Crum’s devoted slaves for ever.” (CUFA 13) The obligation towards the house and the home goes further than the mere fact of paying for it. “We’re all respectable householders –- that’s to say Tories, yes-men and bum-suckers,” notes Bowling, who “would die on the field of battle to save his country from Bolshevism.” (13) Home ownership, implies Orwell, is a compromising act. Bowling’s acquiescence in the final pages is a realisation that there is no other place for him to go back to. The escape from the estate has failed. The prison like atmosphere of these spaces is a space where the people are numbered and supervised. It is an:

“[E]nclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed.” (Foucault 197)

One way of assessing the Hesperides estate would be to see it as an experienced place. The Hesperides is defined by what Bowling does and the actions that he performs there: commuting, shopping and leisure activities (such as there are). There is little of the representational space about the estate in this text. Orwell describes a space that is not fluid or dynamic, but constant and apathetic; passion and action are occurring elsewhere other than on this estate. Bowling’s one major act of imagination is the idea of a statue to the Cheerful Credit Company. The imagination is subordinated to experience. The estate might be a space of ‘passion, action and lived situations’ but it is also a banal space. It is a site of “debasement of traditional culture,” where “the apparent openness of the suburbs which was suggested by notions of territorial expansion, aesthetic space and the social future in many contemporary writings” is exposed as an illusion. (Hapgood 195) If we consider the spatial perception of the location, that “[r]epresentations of space modify the spatial texture of a city or landscape according to certain ideologies,” (Thacker 20) then the key modifier in this landscape is the status of capital power, the presence of capital being represented through the commercial world in which Bowling works (Insurance) and lives in (Property).

<8> Richards describes the suburban estate as giving to its residents “a sense of belonging to a fairly sympathetic world and an opportunity of making out of that world something personal to themselves.” (Richards 38) Can something personal be established in such a space? Edward Thomas suggests suburbia offers so much it ends up meaning nothing at all. “There is no tradition about them. Poets have not shown how we are to regard them. They are to us as mountains were in the Middle Ages, sublime, difficult, immense.” (Thomas 6) Suburbia is more than one person can see or hope to know; there is a plurality of signs within this space. Therefore, Orwell’s perception of the suburbs is developed along several lines. For instance there is a parallel between the suburban dweller and the people of Marrakech: “[t]hey rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone. And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil.” (GO:E 30)

The Suburban People
<9> Another, and perhaps more important perception of the suburban estate and home is that of a dormitory space and this image of dormancy is prevalent in one of Orwell’s key pieces of critical writing: Inside the Whale.

The passive attitude will come back, and it will be more consciously passive than before. Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism –- robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale –- or rather, admit you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it. (ITW 48-9)

The key here is the idea of ‘quietism’, of ceasing to bother with the world and just accepting the horrors of what humanity was offering. “The ordinary man is also passive,” writes Orwell, “[w]ithin a narrow circle (home life, and perhaps the trade union or local politics) he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements.” (18) Inside the Whale is written with specific reference to Henry Miller but this belief, that “one [needs to get] right away from the ‘political animal’ and back to a viewpoint not only individualistic but completely passive – the view-point of a man who believes the world-process to be outside his control and who in any case hardly wishes to control it,” (15) can also offer itself as a reference to the world of the British suburban male.

<10> Whilst out driving Bowling notes of the British people that “[t]here’s something that’s gone out of us in the twenty years since the war. It’s a kind of vital juice that we’ve squirted away till there’s nothing left.” (CUFA 177) In this phrase Orwell, via Bowling, echoes some of the unconscious misogyny often present in writing about suburbia. There is a sentiment in this novel that the men have become emasculated and that the suburban space is actually a female space. There is a pull between the public sphere and the domestic, between:

[A] powerful strain of hierarchy, militarism, ‘frontier mentality’, administrative rationality, and masculine civic virtue’, while at home men are being drawn ‘in the opposite direction, towards egalitarianism, “progressivism”, consumerism, popular democracy, feminism and women’s rights. (Hapgood 42)

Bowling lashes out at this state by being unfaithful to his wife. Such an exercise offers him the chance to prove his masculinity through sexual prowess; the subterfuge and chance of being found out offer a plastic thrill, a vague and ultimately hopeless adventure. He stays because the vital juice has been drained away from him as well. The obligations to the economic machine have ensured such a condition. Only now, in 1939, with the threat from Germany coming ever closer does Bowling come to realise that “[t]he thing that has been cut away is his soul, and there was a period –- twenty years perhaps –- during which [we] did not notice it.” (CEJL 15) However, it should be acknowledged that H.G. Wells expresses similar sentiments thirty years earlier in Tono-Bungay (1909). There is an implicit anger within George Ponderevo towards his wife, a feeling that by marrying he is trapped in the suburban state.

<11> Bowling is aware of the circumstances of his environment. He understands the prison-like atmosphere of the estate and the compromises that living in such an environment make upon the individual. Christopher Caudwell, writing in 1937, offers a description of some of the challenges facing both the modern male and the literary hero at this time.

All crises, all wars, all perils or triumphs of States, all changes of social systems in which the hero manifests himself, represent the cracking of the carapace of social consciousness ... If social being were never to change, social consciousness, which bodies forth underlying social reality in terms of static symbols (words, thoughts, concepts, images, churches, laws), would always be adequate, and society would revolve like a gyroscope, stable and stationary. (Caudwell 24-25)

In the case of Bowling, however, the change is not what Caudwell has envisaged. It is an acceptance, a move to inside of the whale, which Bowling has settled for. The social being that is Bowling has changed –- he has grown older -– and so his social reality has changed. The capitalist state has developed and so has the ‘Bourgeois soviet’ mentality of G. E Trevelyan. A new form of living has developed, one that stands in contrast to the pre-1914 era.

<12> For the men, suburbia is somewhere to come home to from work, but what does such a place offer the women and the children? For the latter group there is the matter of schooling, although as Orwell describes in A Clergyman’s Daughter this was not always of the best variety. He had some practical experience of these establishments having taught at such a school in Hayes. Bernard Crick describes it as an establishment which took boys “whose lower-middle-class parents could not afford even a minor public school, but whose concept of being middle-class at all depended on keeping their children out of local authority schools, however poor the local private school” (Crick 221-22).

<13> The aspiring classes regarded these Local Authority Schools as producing little more than ‘shop-boy fodder’. Bowling recalls the “shame and comedown of going to the board school.” (CUFA 56) For the women who lived on the new estates the prospects, both literally and metaphorically, were less promising. Social workers in the 1930s noted a form of stress called ‘suburban neurosis’. This manifested itself as a concern over a lack of social contacts; worries about money and the home and the discrepancy between the “false set of values” derived from popular entertainment which provided “thrills and excitements not likely to be found in the suburban environment.” (Jackson 167-68) Richards notes that:

[W]hen a dormitory estate has been deposited at random –- or anywhere that land is cheap –- there is no focus for the life of the community ... the housewife] is temperamentally dependant on the stimulus provided by social intercourse and the ready-made recreations of modern life for which her never-silent radio is but a poor substitute. (Richards 83-4)

Suburban women were left during the working day in a space that was “ridiculed and condemned.” (Carey 69) They occupied a territory made spiritually vacant by anti-suburban disdain. Many women in suburbia, suggests Hapgood:

[S]eemed doomed to live within rather more constrained boundaries. The smallness of suburban life -– small houses, small minds and small concerns -– was a popular joke at their expense. Men were sometimes the butt of the joke, but that was because they had been emasculated by the female world of the suburbs. (Hapgood 114)

Such a social backdrop would seem to offer a chance for novelist to develop a detailed picture of suburban female ennui. Yet, the women within Coming Up for Air represent a somewhat caricatured group of feminine stereotypes: embittered widow, repressed spinster and bored housewife. There is a straining for humour rather than an honest perception of feminine characteristics but the list of their social activities, although presented for comic effect, does represent something of the reality of life on a housing estate in the 1930s. Lynne Hapgood notes that “in contemporary public opinion, the identification between women and the suburbs was initially forged ... by the suburb’s essentially domestic function and by the endorsement of women’s role as housemakers. (Hapgood 114) It is an attitude echoed by José Harris who suggests that the “feminisation of the suburbs merged with contemporary fears about the feminisation of culture.” (Harris 6) Is this then a key to our understanding of Bowling’s (and possibly Orwell’s) implicit misogynistic streak? Hilda Bowling is never given the chance to develop as a character in the same way as Rosemary in Keep the Aspidistra Flying or even Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four. She represents the kind of clichéd housewife featured in the Donald McGill postcards, images which Orwell would deconstruct two years after the publication of Coming Up for Air. In the latter essay he places the feminine depictions in the cartoons within a context for the period, an aspect that seems to be lacking within the image of the female characters in this text. Bowling may echo some of Orwell’s views, but it should be remembered that he is still a character in a novel. His feelings towards his wife are a reflection of the suburban male mindset of the period, an angry and frustrated group who had come back from the war hoping for a better world yet who would end up on the suburban estates.

<14> Bowling suggests Mrs Wheeler (embittered widow), is the guiding light of this suburban women’s group. “You couldn’t name a kind of idiocy that she hasn’t dragged them into at one time or another. Anything from theosophy to cat’s cradle, provided you can do it on the cheap.” (CUFA 145) This concern with money affords Orwell the opportunity for a subtle piece of satire. He presents Gollancz’s ‘Left Book Club’ as a charity that Mrs Wheeler has joined, for anything but the message. It is because they are “buying a book[…]for a third of its worth.” (146) The message it seems comes secondary to the cost. After the criticism and the less than enthusiastic foreword to The Road to Wigan Pier might not Orwell have sought a way of making a comment about the impact of Gollancz’s exercise? G.E Trevelyan also refers to this issue of reading material:

So he turns to those kindly editors of Omnibus Volumes and Selected Editions and Book of the Year Clubs who have pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for him. They –- the Omnibus editors especially –- have not only discovered the exact minimum of the works of any given author which it is essential for him to know, but provided, so thoughtfully, that he and Mr. No 2 and Mr. No 3 and so on up the street, and so on up all the streets, shall all have read the same extracts. (Trevelyan 147)

The concept of the ‘Left Book Club’ segues into one of the main set pieces of the novel, the Left Book Club meeting. The group in the hall is “the usual crowd of fifteen or sixteen people.” (CUFA 151) The chairman is something ‘in an architects office’; he also does the duties for the local Liberal party, parish Council and as MC for the Mother’s Union. Among the audience there is one other woman apart from Mrs Wheeler’s group: “a girl with dark hair, one of the teachers at the Council School. Unlike the others she was really listening, sitting forward with her big round eyes fixed on the lecturer and her mouth a little bit open drinking it all in.” (152) There are two from the local Labour Party: “You know the type. Been in the Labour Party since the year dot. Lives given up to the movement. Twenty years of being blacklisted by the employers.” Immediately in front of Bowling there sits the “local Communist Party Branch,” all three of them examples of the Bourgeois Soviets G.E Trevelyan describes. “One of them’s got money and is something in the Hesperides Estate Company, in fact I think he’s Old Crum’s nephew. Another’s a clerk at one of the banks.” (155) They sit next to the local Trotskyist, “very thin, very dark, nervous-looking boy. Clever face. Jew, of course.” (156) The casualness of the comment is typical of the anti-Semitism of the period, a trait Orwell was sometimes criticised for (Fyvel 178-182).

<15> There is a sense of anger lying just below the surface of Bowling. Some of this anger may stem from the loss of power that a site such as suburbia seems to enforce. There is a creeping realisation within Bowling that the world in which he lives and has taken great care to construct is going to fail. The house, whatever its faults, is a form of refuge. These mental spaces that men like him have prepared for themselves may be perceived as refuges from the hard times, the houses as symbols of a difficult time survived. However, once the threat of war seems inescapable the image of the house as a refuge disappears. What then has been the point of the previous years of hard work, struggle and sacrifice? The ‘low, dishonest decade’ (Auden 86-9) is finishing, and with it Orwell concludes his text with Bowling unable to stand up for himself. The urge to improve has been lost; now comes the will to fight, and at this point in time it seems that that the will is just not there.

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