Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell

The Bookfoxes’ Shelf of Shame Week

1288633522-theroadtowiganpierThere it has been on the bookshelf, for years and years, The Road to Wigan Pier, a 1970s Penguin edition (this is the image on the cover), turning yellow now, and utterly unread by me. Until now, that is, and I’d like to thank Bookfox Simon for his challenge for this week to tackle something I am rather ashamed for having neglected.

It’s one of those books that I know quite a lot about – I know what’s inside it, I know something about its impact when written and influence since, I know something about its context, and I have read other books in the same genre. But none of that prepared me for the impact of reading the first chapter for the first time. What comes through with sledgehammer force is Orwell’s anger, his righteous, towering, beautiful anger, not so much at the fact that such poverty and hard work and deprivation exist in our supposedly prosperous and civilised society, but at the wilful ignorance of the classes living in comfort of the horrible conditions that underpin that comfort.

By the second chapter I was reeled in completely with a brilliant rhetorical device. Hs is describing his own observations of the work of miners. He is allowed to go underground, experience the journey and the foul conditions of dust, noise and blackness, contemplate the dangers, and watch the miners deliver immense physical feats in those seemingly impossible conditions. It is a first person narrative, but it is delivered entirely in the second person. If the you, the reader, had gone where I, the author, have gone, you would see this, you would feel that: You get into the cage, which is a steel box about as wide as a telephone box and two or three times as long … The steel door shuts on you, and someone working the winding gear above drops you into the void. You have the usual momentary qualm in your belly and a bursting sensation in your ears, but not much sensation of movement until you get to the bottom, when the cage slows down so abruptly you could swear it is going upwards again … When you crawl out at the bottom you are perhaps four hundred yards under ground. That is to say you have a tolerable sized mountain on top of you; hundreds of yards of solid rock, bones of extinct beasts, subsoil, flints, growing things, green grass and cows grazing on it – all this suspended over your head and held back only by wooden props as thick as the calf of your leg. After page on page of this buttonholing, I was underground too, and feeling very claustrophobic and frightened. Orwell’s passion and outrage make much of the book as immediate as this.

The Road to Wigan Pier is a collection of linked essays on the conditions of the working class in the North of England, and the conditions in the rest of the country and in society that are the cause. It covers work, lack of it, life on public assistance, housing (or lack of it) diet and nutrition (or lack of it), physical health and constitution, among other matters, and all feeding an analysis of the exploitation of the poorest in society by those whose comfort depends on their labour, but also by those who live among them but are in a position of direct power over their lives – landlords, employers, administrators of the dole and public assistance – even their fellows when describing narks and blacklegs.

It’s a book to feed one’s anger at inequality and at wilful ignorance of the circumstances of other people’s lives. It might have been said at some time or another since the war that The Road to Wigan Pier is outdated, no longer relevant – but as I read it, I felt it to be directly relevant to today, and it should be required reading (with all its faults) for everyone involved in the changes planned to the welfare state – all of which are posited on the sort of arguments and beliefs that fuelled the cruelty of the systems in place when Orwell was writing.

The Road to Wigan Pier falls into a particular genre of sociological enquiry, that started in the 19th century and with all its faults, led to the Factory Acts that began to make an impression on the exploitation and danger experienced by working people. By the 30s it developed into Mass Observation. However, Orwell stood outside of that movement, and was completely unconstrained by any external influence on his method. I’ve done some reading in this genre – the likes of Maud Pember Reeves’s Round About A Pound A Week, that delved inquisitively (but informatively) into how women did (or did not) manage to feed and clothe a family on 20 shillings or less a week; or Robert Roberts’s The Classic Slum. Roberts’s account of poverty in the North West is more stoical and empathetic, and less angry – his was a first hand account by someone who had lived the life he described. Orwell is an outsider, and this fuels his incandescent rage at what he finds out that he knew nothing about, and his passion to share the knowledge with everyone else who knew nothing about it. He knows the conventions of the genre, and in particular the persuasiveness of data, which he delivers in quantity with a thick veneer of irony.

And then in the second half of the book he abandons all pretence of disinterested enquiry as he weighs into a searing attack on the English class system and the failures of Socialism to deliver necessary progress. In his intensely personal reaction to the conditions of work and life that he saw, he may have got some things, and some people, wrong. He may have been patronising. He describes working conditions, indignities of a system of dole and public assistance, and cynical exploitation of tenants by landlords that should make life unbearable, and yet people bore it.

But his anger should be back in fashion. The postwar settlement, which shaped my life, saw a great improvement in much of what Orwell described, but now his observations are resonating with me so strongly. Bearing down on benefits with a rationale that they are undeserved; seeking to drive down the costs of labour; pricing people out of decent homes – this is precisely what Orwell was describing in the late 30s, and it is all happening now. The attitudes towards this that he describes can be heard and read now, from politicians and their potential voters. As I said, once again this is required reading, and I am glad I read it at last. It was high time.

George Orwell: The Road To Wigan Pier. London: Penguin Books, 2007 (Penguin Classics). 240pp
ISBN 13: 9780141185293
First published: Gollancz, 1937.
My copy is the Penguin edition of 1962, reprinted in 1978.

12 comments on “The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell

  1. Kate
    March 20, 2014

    Brilliant. Far better than what I wrote about the book in my podcast. His account of living in the lodging houses and seeing the grimness and meanness of life for the very poor as one living among them is also unforgettable, for the physical details of bugs running across tabletops, and the bed too short for a man to lie straight on, and cardboard shoe soles and suitcases.

  2. David Boyd
    March 20, 2014

    In the proud genre of Zola’s ”Germinal”; Llewellyn’s ” How Green Was My Valley” and a lesser known sociological work Huw Beynon’s “‘Working for Ford”. All these I think in their different ways underline the plight of the ordinary people caught in the malevolent clutches of industrialisation. As Edward Heath once famously called it “the unacceptable face of capitalism.” Such a shame that our present ‘leaders’ don’t seem to have the intellectual capacity and decency to understand this truism.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings
    March 20, 2014

    Excellent piece which really encapsulates the brilliance of the book. Orwell was an inspirational writer and his anger transmits so well through “Wigan Pier”. It’s definitely essential reading!

  4. Mrs Ford
    March 20, 2014

    Definitely required reading. Picked it off my shelf last year (exactly same edition!) to check a quotation for village quiz, and found myself completely enthralled by the sharpness of Orwell’s writing and his observations, all too relevant today. Am definitely planning to re-read more of his works..

  5. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book)
    March 20, 2014

    What a fantastic post, Hilary. And how powerful the excerpt about mining is – I will have to read my own neglected copy to get the full force of it. And I must, must read more Orwell – his writing is always so brilliant.

  6. heavenali
    March 20, 2014

    I have enjoyed Orwell in the past. HE does write about society so well. I remember the anger that comes through in Burmese Days it stayed with me for ages.

  7. Mathias Klang
    March 20, 2014

    Thanks for the reminder. Your post made me go look up the best quote

    “The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”

    Wigan Pier just made it into the must re-read now pile.

  8. Pingback: writing notes | some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system

  9. rosyb
    March 21, 2014

    Wow Hilary – this piece is a stormer! You seem to have inspired a whole flock of people to rush off and read…including me. Really powerful piece.

  10. Amyclae
    March 26, 2014

    “wilful ignorance”

    It has been a bit since I have read the book, but I wanted to pipe up that I don’t think that was his point at all, which is good because I think it makes you more right than you know. It wasn’t willful ignorance, but instead a sort of dull, default apathy that overwhelmed him. London, at times, can be quite isolated from the rest of the country. And what I think he was always disturbed by was that London, alongside the scions of wealth and power that resided in there, were always curiously apathetic in their precise knowledge of the condition of labor.

    I think this is significant for two reasons. First, ignorance is a great moral defender. “I did not know!” I never got the idea that Orwell was willing to provide such an obvious out. Second, what was so disturbing about the status was that the divide was not willful. It was the system. The boot on the face of humanity yet the boot was attached to what–Big Brother, after all, does not exist in fact assuming he existed in the first place. I like to think that’s why he left England. He was willful. Others were not.

    Anyhow, this just goes back to your point about how relevant it is in today’s world where everything is getting more and more impersonal.

    My .02. I hope you just take this comment as interest and how your writing provokes it. Sorry for the intrusion.

  11. Hilary
    April 1, 2014

    Thanks to you all for your positive comments. I posted this review and ran away on holiday, so it is great to come back to such an interesting response. I hope everyone inspired to read or re-read this finds it as invigorating as I did.

    @David Boyd – you’ve come up with a quote that again should become common currency again, the ‘unacceptable face of Capitalism’ – eternal vigilance required on that.

    @Amyclae – thanks for your interest in this review. I may not have made myself quite as clear as I should, but the ‘wilful ignorance’ was not Orwell’s. He castigates himself for ignorance, but of course it is in the research for this book that he sought to cast his own ignorance out. I stand by my point, though, that he inveighs against the wilful ignorance of the middle and upper classes and in the passion of his words tries to break through it. I reckoned I’d quoted enough in my review, but I’d also marked to quote the following: When I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, the thing that horrified and amazed me was to find that many of them were ashamed of being unemployed. I was very ignorant, but not so ignorant as to imagine that when the loss of foreign markets pushes two million men out of work, those two million are any more to blame than the people who draw blanks in the Calcutta Sweep. But at that time nobody cared to admit that unemployment was inevitable, because this meant admitting that it would probably continue. The middle classes were still talking about ‘lazy idle loafers on the dole’ and saying ‘these men could all find work if they wanted to’, and naturally these opinions percolated down to the working classes themselves. I remember the shock of astonishment it gave me, when I first mingled with tramps and beggars, to find that a fair proportion, perhaps a quarter, of these beings whom I had been taught to regard as cynical parasites, were decent young miners and cotton workers gazing at their destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap. I call that a description of wilful ignorance, and it’s again so resonant today. I hope I understood your point, Amyclae!

  12. sshaver
    April 8, 2014

    After all these years, Orwell’s honesty still stands.

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