The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell

George Orwell is in many ways the polar opposite of Michael Moore. Although both writers come from the left of the political spectrum (to the extent that that blunt measure means anything), Orwell is painfully, profoundly and scrupulously honest in his writing. The Road is a book of two parts. The first charts Orwell’s visit to Wigan and other Northern English towns. As in Down and Out in Paris and London, and his earlier trips to London’s East End, he tries to live the life of the people he’s observing, by staying in their houses, dressing as they do and so-on. I first read Down and Out when I was about 15, and I airly dismissed it as tosh on the basis that (1) Orwell’s language was simple and direct and there therefore couldn’t say anything interesting or profound; and (2) he came from a relatively wealthy lower-upper-middle class family, and that therefore the experience lacked authenticity – he could just write home at any time asking for a pound note and a parcel of tuck.

My first point – the simplicity of the writing – (at least to the extent that it applies to The Road to Wigan Pier) is plain wrong. I will go back and reread Down and Out just to check. The second point – the lack of authenticity – bears a bit more analysis.

Orwell is fully aware of his inauthenticity. He’s a misfit: he talks posh, he’s tall and weedy (as opposed to the short and muscular miners), and he’s lower-upper-middle class. He’s physically repulsed by many of the people he meets (the second part of the book has a large section devoted to their smell). He detests the petty meanness of the owners of the boarding-house he stays in. He’s aware of the contradictions in this. Journalists and politicians are well aware of the trick of using the example of a since person to engage our emotions, or to zoom out and talk about a depersonalised mass, or statistics when they want to isolate our emotions from what they are talking about. This cynical trick is employed constantly, and of course one of the reasons that objectivity is impossible is that in reporting any issue someone has to choose the focal lens of the lens they use: do they concentrate on the plight of individuals, or talk in terms of abstract statistics?

In (the first part of) The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell does both, but it’s clear this an issue he is wrestling with mentally. He’s not choosing the viewpoint he thinks will best convey his message. He’s expressing to us an edited version of his though processes: a meta view, and revealing those thought processes gives us a much more honest view than Michael Moore, for example.

Orwell doesn’t edit his visceral distaste for the grimness of Wigan and Sheffield, and their hovels and slums, and he is devastatingly offensive about some of the individuals he meets: he’s no bleeding heart liberal in that respect. (A letter to the editor in the Independent earlier this week made the crass assumption that Orwell viewed “the lower classes” as diamonds in the rough, who with a bit of education and prodding will become useful members of society. A reading of The Road to Wigan Pier shows that is simply not true: it’s not even an over-simplification.

I’m sure that Orwell would agree with Russell’s observation that suffering does not ennoble.

Part one of the book, therefore, is a powerful and direct description of the filth, squalor and deprivation of the slums of Northern England, and the hideous conditions in which miners are required to work. Orwell himself goes down the pits. The claustrophobia is palpable. I had to stop reading every so often and walk around, reminding myself that I had the simple luxury of space. It’s also a fledgling, work of sociology, and deals with many of the same issues (and reaches similar conclusions to) Michael Young and Peter Wilmott’s study Family and Kinship in East London published some 20 years later (and equally worth a read)

Part two of the book is more complex and in many ways more interesting (although less viscerally arresting). It talks about the class structure in Britain with startling frankness, and also about the North-South divide. It discusses race, and even matters as basic (and fascinating) as hygiene and table manners.

Orwell’s criticism encompasses his own class, but not in the classic bourgeois-socialist self-hating way, and, crucially, he does not try to set himself apart from his class (the implication always being, therefore, that by doing so he is somehow superior because he has transcended the shackles which bound his fellow man). Michael Moore’s stock in trade, in stark and retina-searing contrast is precisely the smug superiority that I am a “stupid white man”/”ignorant American”/”slobbish fat person”/”infantile, thuggish male” with the barely-disguised corollary “but of course I am superior enough to have noticed this and transcended it”. And of course the appeal of his books and films is that he allows the audience into this conspiracy, and allows them likewise to feel the smugness of superiority. (In truth I don’t know if he’s pulled this trick in relation to the fat person thing).

Hanging over the piece is the ever-present menace of Fascism (always nice to see the Daily Mail getting a name-check in this regard – plus ca change). Orwell, as ever, reminds us that his beef is with totalitarianism, and that his form of socialism is democratic (he likens the totalitarian tendency in socialism to sawing off the branch which is supporting you).

There’s some slightly bizarre (in retrospect) passages about the machine age. They, in themselves, require a separate analysis, but, at risk of hugely oversimplifying, machines to have a tendency to dehumanise, and work is necessary for human happiness. Wells and Lawrence get the usual name check.

A wise man once said that the greatest compliment that can be paid a writer is that a reader wants to learn his work by heart. As I was reading, I was constantly thinking, I’d love to be able to remember that passage.


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