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 Bookfoxes’ Shelf of Shame Week
There 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.
Monday: Hilary takes sneaky delight in Jay Rayner's bad days at the office in My Dining Hell.
Wednesday: Kate read Colm Toibin's Brooklyn on the way back from New York.
Friday: Diana Birchall, joining us from sunny Santa Monica (we hates her) gets stuck into Edith Sitwell’s classic English Eccentrics.