Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #39: The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

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 It’s many things – a historical document, a piece of longform investigative journalism, a slice of social realism, a political screed, a reasoned argument, an examination of self and society – and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.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #38: Why I Write & Books vs. Cigarettes by George Orwell/Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy read at an event I went to recently, and maybe it was the gin in my system, the London night air, or her Marianne Faithful-esque sultry voice, but I fell head over heels for her. I’ve got a copy of Black Vodka, her short stories, but I’ve only dipped in to them for short sybaritic bursts. When I saw that Notting Hill‘s posho essay series had released her response to Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’, called ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’, I figured I’d rip through the Orwell before getting stuck into Levy’s (handsomely presented in a royal blue mini-hardback).

But the thing about George Orwell is, you can’t just read a single essay. It’s like a bag of chips; who can stop at the first one? I couldn’t get a paperback of Shooting the Elephant so I rampaged, pachyderm-like, through these two samplers from Penguin’s (somewhat cringe-worthy) ‘Great Ideas’ series. All of Orwell’s essays are available online, not that I ever have to fill up a tiresome work hour. No siree bob.

Thing is, if you’re going to listen to someone’s views on Orwell, it’s just as easy to read him directly – he comes from that part of history just slipping from living memory, and has left such a huge legacy. It’s all too revealing to discuss him and really just reveal your own shortcomings and predjudices. His great mission, to make political argument that was both objectively truthful and beautiful, is still a much-needed and worthy one, and his gift of showing that politics and philosophy and literature are for (and should be for) everyone, and not just the domain of a privileged few, is really displayed in these short works. There’s a quote in the Wikipedia entry for him by historian John Rodden: “John Podhoretz did claim that if Orwell were alive today, he’d be standing with the neo-conservatives and against the Left. And the question arises, to what extent can you even begin to predict the political positions of somebody who’s been dead three decades and more by that time?”

It’s clear from reading these essays that Orwell would think it batty to judge a writer outside of his own social context, and also clear that he wouldn’t think much of the Tory buffoons currently dismantling the NHS – nor the pitiful Labour party opposing them. Instead, he’d criticize both sides, well aware that the problems were far more systematic than a simple right/left split.

Another eyebrow raiser from Rodden (via Wiki):

Rodden goes on to explain how, during the McCarthy era, the introduction to the Signet edition of Animal Farm, which sold more than 20 million copies, makes use of “the politics of ellipsis”:

If the book itself, Animal Farm, had left any doubt of the matter, Orwell dispelled it in his essay Why I Write: ‘Every line of serious work that I’ve written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism … dot, dot, dot, dot.’ “For Democratic Socialism” is vaporised, just like Winston Smith did it at the Ministry of Truth, and that’s very much what happened at the beginning of the McCarthy era and just continued, Orwell being selectively quoted.

Why I Write does outline his commitment to Democratic Socialism. The longer work, The Lion and the Unicorn, written during bomb raids in London, outlines the need for a social revolt against capitalism as the only way for England to win WWII. If bombs were falling on my head, I wouldn’t be able to write-think-anything coherently, let alone produce a reasonable call for massive social upheaval, and it brought home to me the sheer extremes of the pressure of the time.

Deborah Levy’s essay – about 100 pages long – opens up with her crying on elevators. While Orwell uses his own history in ‘Why I Write’, his chronology is more straight-forward. Levy goes back and forth in her personal experience, using illuminating quotes from female writers like Duras, Sand, and Woolf, to bring out the story of her own voice.

I read it breathlessly. The prose is so beautiful, the way she tilts mundane issues (the motherhood/identity/domesticity grind, the labour of writing, the tedium of the suburbs, the confines of politics on children, and the stickiness of nationality) detonated in my little brain. I haven’t got it to hand – it was a borrowed copy! – and I’m feeling too dunderheaded to condense her brilliance with my thick fingered typing. But I think Orwell would approve of her response, which is the best compliment I can think of.

TheGreatUnstainer’s #CBR5 Review #01: Books v Cigarettes by George Orwell

Of all the early 20th Century writers, George Orwell continues to be an intriguing character.  Despite being a socialist, his two most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984, caused him to become the darling of the modern libertarian, of the tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist, and of the perpetual adolescent of the Internet.

But this popular caricature of Orwell as the friend to the neo-con is difficult to reconcile with the Orwell who emerges from his essays.  Books v Cigarettes — a collection of seven essays published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series — presents some of Orwells musings on society, particularly his relationship with the intelligentsia.  The collection paints a picture of an Orwell who is at once both a self-conscious outsider — almost desperate to be acknowledged as a contrary, free, and independent thinker — and a painfully self-conscious product of middle class England.

Continue reading