George Orwell wrote this work in 1936 following an investigative tour of several Lancashire and Yorkshire mining centres - villages and towns - still suffering unemployment, dire poverty and the effects of the Great Depression. He set out to research the living conditions of these places following a specific commissioning from Victor Gollancz , the left wing publisher of the day. What we have got as a result of this journey and research is a strong work in Orwell's brilliant clear prose of the conditions of the working coal mine along with aching portrayals of the living conditions of the workers and their families and a personal, clear polemic essay to support this research. The book, then is in two main parts 1) portrayal in brilliant clarity of the lives of real people from observation , involvement and interview backed up by actual data on wages, cost of living etc from the mine records and other records in the local library and 2) a strong and intellectual essay on the state of social and political England - with the first part informing the personal opinion essay of the second part.
The style of the first section is investigative journalism at its very best - the blueprint in fact. Orwell visited miners homes and talked with the families, he went down the coal mines and observed the workers at first hand and presented us with unforgettable descriptions of the way these mines were worked at that time - conditions which I am sure were similar in Australia. He noted the deprivations of the unemployed and the underemployed in those hard time and recorded it clearly and with no nonsense humanity. A most startling fact of the mining occupation was that the miners worked on their knees doing their picking and "filling" because of the low height of the mine roofs . A man could not stand up there. Orwell doesn't dwell sentimentally on this fact - on the contrary his description of the physical strength and ability of the mine worker is discussed with admiration. We learn that these miners were usually of small stature because a taller person such a Orwell himself just could not manage to do the work. He is admiring of the miners lean , strong physiques and their resilience.
Along with this description of working miners Orwell spends time observing the unemployed such as when competing for waste coal called "scrambling for the coal" . He thought this so amazing that he wondered why it had never been filmed. This scrambling involved people going through the slag coming from the mine for any coal left in the delivery train trucks and with others at the bottom of slag heap (including women and children) scrambling again for any left overs after the higher scamblers ,who had first leapt on to the moving trucks as they arrived, had done their sifting. This way the unemployed got their fuel supplies for free.
The system provided unemployment benefits enough to just barely feed a family - in fact families as an unemployed group were better off than single unemployed persons who were the very poorest of all . It is clearly shown however that the families with work were better off in every way than those where the breadwinner, ie male miner , was out of work. All housing was rented - mostly public housing owned by the local authorities . Orwell sets out costs of living from his checking of records including rent and reporting from individual householders on their purchases for the weeks food etc.
Orwells compelling account of these social and working conditions along with the photographs in my complete edition (Secker & Warburg, 1980) presented a strong case of the plight of the mining working class in those very hard times - a classic, absorbingly interesting, journalistic work.
Then you come to the second part of the book - which is a brilliantly argued essay . The honesty of this part reaches out to one . This partly because of the autobiographical approach of the essay which in turn adds to its gravity and some of its prophetic tone.
Orwell uses his own life experiences as "test case pieces " (my comment) to stringently examine the English class system . He applies pithy , economical, descriptive terms like "shabby genteel" and "shadowy cast system" with biting yet empathetic effect in this analysis. For instance, Orwell labels his class as "Upper Middle Class" and shows why this is so by autobiographical reference and detail in order to be able to point out what the other classes are. He is concerned about this separation of the classes but realistic that it has a strong systematic hold on people . He is proposing that people of the different English classes should be striving towards a "Good" socialism in order to deliver a fairer society.
Along with the research of the first part of the book this all underpins his analysis and investigation of the political system and the range of "Isms" occupying the minds of the the political intelligentsia of the time - Socialism, Capitalism, Communism and Fascism . Interestingly he doesn't mention "Democratic Socialism" - too historically early for that term I think. However it is possible to posit that in his overall argument outlining the need for "good socialism " - he is in effect describing a type of "democratic socialism".
In arguing this way I get the message that Orwell is working hard to show his fellow countrymen that they need to face up to the dangers of fascism in its guises - "National" and"Communist" by striving for the fairer society which good, real socialism can bring. Fascism then is the real demon which horrified him.
Interestingly, Victor Gollancz , was uncertain about the essay because he thought Orwell was too hard on the middle class , socialists of his day - Keatings "Basketweavers" and that it might anger the regular Left Book Club readers but printed it as is nevertheless. The rest is literary history. And on that note I should mention the social history inbuilt throughout this 100 page essay is stunning.
I haven't done this brilliant essay justice but I recommend it highly for the joy of its intellectual strength and the pleasure of reading one of the best essayists in the English cannon at his finest.
Two final comments - there apparently was no "Wigan Pier as such at that time - it was a local joke. (Orwell himself even tried to find the "Pier"at one time).
Second - the final long paragraph is a neat Orwellian summary and witty predictive 1936 comment which I will quote a little of in the hope you will be tempted to read the whole thing.
"In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialistic party that we need, …. if not Fascism is coming …..
And when the widely separate classes who, necessarily, would form any real Socialist party have fought side by side … perhaps the misery of class-prejudice will fade away …. and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but out aitches."