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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, April 15, 2024

I LIKE it!!

Just Finished Reading: The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (FP: 1937) [212pp] 

I grew up (ages 10-23) about 7 miles from Wigan so it's not that surprising that I’d heard about this classic for as long as I can remember. Recently, especially after reading another non-fiction by Orwell, I thought it was about time I finally got around to reading it. It wasn’t really what I was expecting and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed that Wigan itself didn’t appear more prominently in the narrative. But that was my only, very minor, quibble with this work. 

The word that comes to mind concerning his descriptions of working-class life in the North of England around that time is: grim. Not only was unemployment rife and of long duration – the area was only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression despite industrial uptick due to the ongoing (slow) rearmament program – but the general living conditions were often appalling. Born in a dilapidated Victorian terrace myself (built I think in 1888) I could easily visualise Orwell’s accounts of the houses he stayed in during his time there. I could also sympathise with the tales of overcrowding – although I have no solid memory of such – as my parents and my brother and I shared a TWO-bedroom house with my maternal grandparents. How we actually managed that is beyond me! 

Another early section that really jumped out at me was his description of a visit to a coal mine and a discussion of the conditions below ground as well as how poorly treated (and paid) the coalminers were. In the 1970’s - so a little over a generation later – my school offered a trip to one of the last working coal mines in the area. I THINK it was probably Golborne Colliery. So, when Orwell described the conditions at the coalface and the hardship of just getting there and back – UPAID – I was right there with him. The group of us (plus a teacher or two) only stayed there a few hours but by the time we got back I was both exhausted and filthy – and we hadn’t actually DONE anything. The guys who actually WORKED down there, 8, 10 or more hours a day, week in and week out – just the thought of it amazes me, as it did Orwell who had nothing but praise for them. 

Whilst the first half of the book covered conditions for the workers – both above and below ground – the second half moved onto more political and sociological discussions of Class which was much more important and honestly rigid almost 100 years ago. Orwell had some interesting ideas about the prospect of a ‘classless’ society as well as the problems of ‘social mixing’. In some ways little has changed, although so-called social mobility is far easier these days where money talks louder than old-school ties – at least in most places. I did find it interesting when Orwell mused on the possible future European war and the dangerous rise of fascism both on the Continent and in England itself. Interestingly he thought that fascism could indeed take hold here if it wasn’t intelligently challenged.  

Overall, this was a very interesting look at a particular Class in a particular part of England at a particular time – and viewed (of course) from a Middle-class perspective [Orwell was VERY conscious of his position in the class hierarchy and that in itself was another fascinating look at the lived experience of the control system that Class was/is]. Inevitably this was at times very dated – a LOT has changed in the last 90 years or so – and, as a look into a very different world, could be quite confusing at times – even the language used was different in some ways back then – but as a brief glimpse of a slice of cultural/political/industrial history it's definitely worth a read and is worthy of the name Classic. More Orwell to come. Recommended.  

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Happy Birthday: Guy Fawkes (13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606), also known as Guido Fawkes while fighting for the Spanish, was a member of a group of provincial English Catholics involved in the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was born and educated in York; his father died when Fawkes was eight years old, after which his mother married a recusant Catholic.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Just Finished Reading: The Humans by Matt Haig (FP: 2013) [293pp] 

It was a punishment assignment, that was obvious from the start. His briefing was practically non-existent, he didn’t even know the language though, luckily, he was a quick learner. When they arrested him later – for not wearing cloths, how ridiculous! - he managed to cover his many mistakes with a simple phrased he’d picked up from Cosmopolitan: Nervous Breakdown. It was (almost) literally a get out of jail free card, well that and a bit of technologically enhanced hypnotism. It took a while longer to realise that they’d also lied to him. He’d just assumed that everything he ‘knew’ (or it turned out thought he’d known) was true, indeed obvious. It wasn’t. Sure, humans were indeed violent creatures who were wholly ignorant of how the Universe really worked but there was more to them than that. They had music, the poetry of Emily Dickenson and a wonderful food called ‘crunchy peanut butter’. They also, rather bizarrely, cared for their children and even knew who their parents were. Probably because of that oddness they also had something called ‘love’ but all of that was distracting from the mission.  

The real Dr Andrew Martin, who he had replaced soon after he was taken, had achieved a mathematical breakthrough. If allowed to be known it would propel humanity beyond its wildest dreams, into their Solar system and beyond into the greater Galaxy beyond. Such a thing could simply not be allowed to happen. The new ‘Andrew Martin’ would need to find out who knew about the breakthrough and eliminate them. Then, to make sure another breakthrough didn’t occur he needed to destroy all and any evidence. To be particular, he had been ordered to eliminate Andrew Martin’s wife and teenage son – just in case. That’s where the problems started and Newton the dog wasn’t exactly helping either... 

Sandwiched between a pair of serious books (the second of which is reviewed on Monday) I thought I’d drop in something silly, something different. This was definitely ‘it’. This is my 3rd book by this author and again I was not disappointed. He has the kind of off-beat quirky mind that I like – a lot. It would be easy to compare the author to Douglas Adams and this book to ‘Hitchhiker's Guide’ but that would be a disservice all around. Both are ‘light’ SciFi, both are commentaries on the absurdity of human existence, and both are ironically funny – and there the comparison falls apart. Essentially this is a novel about human relationships seen from a very ‘outside’ PoV. It's about just how HARD it is to communicate with others, even if you live with them, even if you gave birth to them, even if you love them – most of the time anyway. It’s about owning your mistakes; it's about admitting failure and doubt and it’s about knowing how inadequate the word "sorry" is. It is, in fact, all about being human. Funny, sad, profound at times and endlessly thought provoking I really liked it. Highly recommended – but you might need a few tissues ready for the sad bits.