"The Road to Wigan Pier" by George Orwell

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."

Faye Lawrence

1 comment:

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye, for a very helpful and interesting posting. I will confess that I started very slowly on this book, and found it hard for a while to go on: the opening account of Orwell's stay in lodgings provided by the owners of a tripe shop really is stomach-turning. The description of squalor certainly is vivid! (Interestingly, although I had not read 'The road to Wigan Pier' before I recalled being regaled with an account of this part of the book by a fellow librarian on a reference desk some twenty-five years ago.)

Grim though much that follows is, the reading becomes easier. As you indicate, Faye, the account of the miners and the conditions they endure is masterly. I had no idea that they could not stand upright, had to walk stooping large distances underground to get to their workplace, and worked almost naked because of the heat.

As you also indicate, the second part of the book displays Orwell's ability to argue lucidly at its best. Some of what he says still holds very much true: our ALP, as has often been observed, is now arguably more a party of the middle class than of manual workers. Of course much has also changed, and the interest of this part of the book is largely as a reflection of its times. Orwell often provides often acerbic references to leading literary figures, some still well-known, others now obscure. Except in the imaginations of the more paranoid menbers of the American Tea Party, nobody with any influence now advocates socialism as a solution to society's ills. But it is impossible to read the last hundred pages of the book without being deeply impressed by Orwell's beautifully lucid prose and his ability to marshall and present arguments.