Review: The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

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The Road to WIgan Pier by George Orwell book cover
The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – a book commissioned by the Left Book Club – is, perhaps, the perfect encapsulation of Orwell’s early approach to political writing, and is one of the most often cited books when 1930s unemployment in Britain is discussed. The first part describes Orwell’s nomadic experiences as a bourgeois writer (in his own words, part of the lower-upper-middle-class) slumming around working class areas in the North of England, where he records the crushing poverty he observes. The second part is an extended essay on Orwell’s political thinking at the time, and the hindrances to Socialism’s rise in England (notably, Socialists themselves in many cases) – a particularly pressing topic at the time of publication as Orwell cites Socialism as the solution to the rising Fascism in Europe.

The first part is written from a point of distance, without dialogue or involvement from the author. Rather, it is ‘straight’ reportage. Orwell’s description of the working class existence in the North renders a harsh world for the reader; the descriptions of a miner’s daily habits beneath ground are particularly powerful. Orwell captures well the working class response to difficult conditions – their ability to endure smilingly, helped along by comforting palliatives like sweet tea, the football pools, and clothing cheap enough that they could ape the glamour of the big screen, in their own, small way. As Orwell points out, a healthy diet and stricter budget might have been the rational option, but perhaps not a natural one. What is particularly remarkable in the reporting is that, even when Orwell runs through mundane details and figures – miner’s earnings, shopping bills – he manages to maintain interest.

Orwell idolises the physical, enduring qualities of the working class man and the idea of the family unit. But his view is more than somewhat limited, given the inequalities that were present in working class life. Rare was the idyll that Orwell portrayed of a close-knit and comfortable family unit, operating within the framework of a mutually supportive community. The entrenched patriarchy of the working class family and the tendency of a cohesive community to exclude outsiders are barely touched upon. In the context of The Road to Wigan Pier, miners stand in for the working class as a whole, but this immediately excludes the scores of office workers, who have not the dignity of admirable physical labour or the knowledge that their work is absolutely essential to society’s functioning in the same way that Orwell’ proud miners do. Exploitation is exploitation though, and this Orwell appreciates.

For Orwell there was an unbridgeable gap between classes, which prohibited them becoming truly intimate – an observation which was particularly pertinent for him as he lived among and attempted to report on people from a different class for this book. It is often argued that Orwell was a na├»ve Empiricist of the Lockean tradition, and in many ways The Road to Wigan Pier supports this assertion. It seems to me, however, to be a simplification of Orwell’s stance and I find it difficult to condemn the act of seeking out the experiential evidence, no matter how short-sighted it might at times appear, to confirm or deny a theory. Indeed, a good grounding in the reality of the world is surely one of the strongest defences against the abuse of ideologies, etc. Perhaps Orwell’s greatest strength is understanding and exposing the gap between theory and reality, between what works and what doesn’t. In grounding his opinions so firmly in the plain reality of life, his writing is so much more readable than many of the detached theorists who Orwell would have disdained.

It is in the second part of the book that Orwell looks more at the theoretical side of his politics. In this part Orwell is, essentially, working through his political thinking, developing it as he writes – a process that visibly continues throughout his writing career. What Orwell doesn’t do is defend or promote socialism – to him it is the obvious and indisputable solution to fascism, and a system that would see the majority better off. Rather, what he discusses are the things that hold back the rise of Socialism.

Orwell is self-aware enough to acknowledge the prejudices that colour his own thinking, and when he attacks particular brands of Socialist – the “fruit juice drinkers, nudists, sandal wearers, feminists, and vegetarians” – one is aware that this is Orwell’s subjective take on the situation. That said, it is easy to take offence at the broad dismissal of certain types of socialist, but that is to bypass the reason that brings Orwell to this point: that those divorced from the proletariat experience – often those who have a voice that the true working class do not – are harming the socialist cause. It’s a knotty issue, but Orwell’s straight-faced writing makes it easier to accept and assess his biases (if one treats them as such), something that can be said of very few writers. Besides which, Orwell can be bitingly funny in full flow, and the second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a great example of this:

Socialism calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.

In the second part there are excellent observations on human psychology, class, and technology. There are touches, too, of Orwell’s recognition – which he would later develop – of the importance of nation, when he discusses the difference between (potential) English Fascism, and its continental forms. Throughout, Orwell appears to be unshakeably honest in his reporting of the conditions he experiences, and his own prejudices to both the working class and the bourgeois socialists. What does, however, seem peculiar is that while the second part is commonly read as Orwell’s subjective view of Politics and Socialism, the first part is read with no such discrimination, but as a straight and objective piece of reportage. Certainly the style lends itself to this reading, but it is definitely worth noting that, when compared to Orwell’s diary of the time, there are any number of disparities. This is not to say conscious over- or under- writing, but rather sloppy mistakes and the construction of a narrative that well fits the thrust of Orwell’s argument. The honesty and sharpness of Orwell’s prose can be disarming, but the reader must be cautious to follow the thrust rather than the detail. Whether one finds the minor inaccuracies intolerable to overall credibility or not will be a personal choice.

Underpinning all of Orwell’s observations – whether one agrees with them or not – is a powerful urge towards social justice and truth: his moral compass was surely one of Orwell’s most valuable qualities as a writer and a man. One gets a true sense of this in The Road to Wigan Pier, the book that launched Orwell into the common public consciousness (it sold more copies – 44,000 – by some distance, than all his previous works combined). It’s easy now to dismiss Orwell’s views as those of a by-gone era – and indeed many do – but it would be a shame to think that ‘progress’ has wholly and irreversibly left the ideals of Orwell behind.

The more Orwell I read, the more I find him a voice of incomparable good sense (I realise I'm not breaking new ground here) and a refreshing break from a lot of nonsense that gets written. For me, too, there is an over-arching feeling that he was 'right' more often than not - a feeling which careful thought only helps support.


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