The first reference to this book I can remember came from Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. What I recall is a line about Orwell ‘sneering’ at the locals and ‘slagging off’ the town, which may well be a complete mistake – I doubt Bryson had an ax to grind in his cheerful travel book. But that was the kind of thing I grew up assuming this was: a clever clogs Southern writer banging on about how grim it was Oop North. But The Road to Wigan Pier is a far stranger book than that, and much better. It’s many things – a historical document, a piece of longform investigative journalism, a slice of social realism, a political screed, a reasoned argument, an examination of self and society – and never less than vital and arresting.
It opens in a desperate boarding house that’s like something out of Hieronymus Bosch’s joke book, a squalid room crammed with unfortunate souls perched over a tripe shop. It’s queasy, blackly funny, and pathetic, and sets the scene for a penetrating exposure of an underbelly to English life that most people would rather ignore. But that’s not what Orwell does – having got our attention, he then begins to describe the slums of the Northern towns, and the architecture of misery that forms the lives in them. The way housing shortages, unemployment, poor nutrition, and political disenfranchisement converges on the working class, and how damaging it is. Then he goes down the mining pits, and from there paints a picture of what miner’s lives are like, contrary to the then-popular attitudes to them. Always interested in health and hygiene, he administers a thorough kicking to the myth that ‘miners would only use baths to store coal’. And far from sneering, the writer stands in unabashed awe at the work they do and the lives they lead.
From there, Orwell goes on to examine his own prejudices and snobbishness. The book concludes with a lengthy tract on how the contemporary Socialist movement has alienated the people it needs to help and to be effective. All this would be deary, except we’re in the hands of one of the greatest political writers ever, and he only sneers when he has built a case to sneer at.
Reading this now, I flipped between boggling at the ghastliness of the poverty, and bringing myself up short to recall that it’s by no means left in the past. Yes, largely speaking standards of housing and employment have vastly improved in the UK (there are still miners, and many millions of people living in unfathomable poverty so that we can live well), but I have friends who have been ‘invisibly homeless’, and I’ve seen squats being evicted and leaving whole families on the streets. I’ve never been in a squat with facilities as poor as the ones described in the opening chapters, which housed workers.
I giggled a little at his description of the rise of the machine age, and the attendant fears of it – then it’s struck me that this book was written only a handful of years before the death camps. His catch-all terms for the ineffectual cranks he found clogging up the left-wing movement are funny now – ‘fruit juice drinkers’ and ‘aspirin eaters’ – but the wider point, that in-fighting and alienation from a wider audience holds back movements devoted to justice, is one that’s bitterly still true. This line:
Possessing a technique which seems to explain everything, they do not often bother to discover what is going on in people’s heads
launches his critique of smug Marxists. It’s a factor that I’ve found all-too-common in academics, activists, cultural critics, and bores of all stripes. Orwell’s ability to hit the nail on the head of human fallibility is demonstrated throughout the book. Often, he concedes that one solution to the poverty he describes is merely the lesser of two evils, a pragmatic touch lacking from so much sociological analysis. His summing-up reinforces a long held suspicion of mine against anyone trying to sell a Utopia. That’s what’s still valuable about this document, as much as the view on a lost community. Richard Hoggart’s introduction points out that in 1937 Orwell points out that it is erroneously but popularly believed that class distinctions are fading, when they were clearly just shifting, and that thirty years later Hoggart himself was taken to task for making a similar point. It’s 2013 and class is still an important issue, one that’s hard to talk about (I think that’s one thing the Occupy movement was pretty good at), and here’s a recent snarky sample of how pernicious it is. Or check out this review of Owen Jones’ book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Orwell made many of these points here, in language as clear as his anger.