About Me

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

Monday, April 15, 2024

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.  


Stephen said...

There was that Mosley fellow in the silver shirts...Wodehouse did a parody of him with his "Roderick Spode".

CyberKitten said...

Black shirts..... Quite delusional.... Shouted a LOT. Prone to waving his arms....

Helen said...

I thought this book was fascinating, particularly the first half with the visit to the mine and the descriptions of the housing and living conditions. I haven't read any of his other non-fiction books, but I'm sure I'll get to them eventually!

CyberKitten said...

If you liked 'Wigan Pier' I'd definitely encourage you to read 'Down and Out in Paris & London'. It's *full* of interesting observations.

I've read '1984' & 'Animal Farm' *decades* ago (in fact my English teacher at the time lent me her copy of '1984' when I was 13 or so thinking I'd appreciate it. Honestly, that book changed my life by laying the foundations of my political beliefs) and I intend to read his other fiction works over the next few years. I think I have them all already...