Category: Non-Fiction/Politics – Hardcover: 232 pages – Publisher: Secker and Warburg – Source: Independent subscription library
First Published: 1937
Counts for my Classics Club list
In my memory The Road to Wigan Pier was a well-written, sarcastic call to arms about the poverty of those in the industrial towns of the north. I last read it in my teens and I remember being shocked by the candid snapshot of slum life it offered. I think I must have read a library copy of it then too but I always meant to buy my own. When I was making my Classics Club list last year I realised I’d never bought that copy and it was due a re-read, to see how it fitted in with everything else I’ve read on the 1930s and poverty since.
It’s taken me a while to write up my review simply because I am surprised at the gap between the book I remember and the book I read this time round!
Published in 1937, this was a rather controversial book of the month choice from the Left Book Club which aimed to supply subscribers with socialist texts and pamphlets to help them understand, discuss and promote political ideas in locally organised book clubs.
Part I of the book is Orwell’s account of going to see what life was like for poverty-stricken miners, what they got paid, what a typical day was like at the mine, what happened to them if they were disabled in an accident and looking around the slum housing they were unable to escape. It’s bleak stuff:
‘House in Thomas Street. Back to back, two up, one down (i.e a three-storey house with one room on each storey). Cellar below. Living room 14 ft by 10 ft, and rooms above corresponding. Sink in living-room. Top floor has no door but gives onto open stairs. Walls in living-room slightly damp, walls in top rooms coming to pieces and oozing damp on all sides. House is so dark that light has to be kept burning all day. Electricity estimated at 6d a day (probably an exaggeration). Six in family, parents and four children. Husband (on PAC) is tuberculous. One child in hospital, the others appear healthy. Tenants have been seven years in this house. Would move but no other house available. Rent 6s 6d, rates included.’
(Page 49, description of a house in Sheffield. PAC is the old name for the dole.)
I’d remembered most about this section of the book but had forgotten that Orwell had limited himself to just miners in a couple of locations rather than looked at factory workers, dockers etc.
The chapter where Orwell describes going to a mine, getting down to the coal face a mile or so away from the elevator shaft, crawling along 4 ft high tunnels and then watching men work for hours in strange, rigid positions with only a sandwich to sustain them, was just as shocking, informative and well-written as I remembered. This quote is wonderful for setting everything in context:
‘…Each man is shifting coal at speed approaching two tons an hour. I have just enough experience of pick and shovel work to be able to grasp what this means. When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin.’
What I hadn’t remembered (or perhaps noticed in my teens) was how uneven the quality of the writing was.
In the descriptions of people Orwell met and the places he visited there’s real flair and the writing is clear, muscular and coldly angry about specific facts. He manages to capture details others might have well have missed – for example, the fact that ‘death stoppages’ on a miner’s pay slip had been rubber stamped rather than handwritten (meaning that the company had automatically deducted an amount from the man’s pay to go into a collection for a dead miner’s widow and children - and this was so regular an occurrence that they couldn’t be bothered writing it any more). And Orwell is especially good at hammering home brutal truths:
‘Our unemployment allowances, miserable though they are, are framed to suit a population with very high standards and not much notion of economy. If the unemployed learned to be better managers they would be visibly better off, and I fancy it would not be long before the dole was docked correspondingly.’
Ouch. That’s still as uncomfortably serious and realistic a threat in 2013 as it was in 1937.
The majority of these early chapters though are streaks of great flair and shockingly astute social commentary mixed with very, very derivative set pieces and sections which feel very rushed. In my teens I wouldn’t have known that but reading it now, after J B Priestley’s English Journey, Maud Pember Reeves’ Round About A Pound A Week and other similar books that aim to capture the facts about those living in poverty, Orwell’s book seems more like cribbed homework than ‘influenced by’.
Perhaps this isn’t all that surprising when you learn that he wrote this while juggling potential libel issues with another book, while preparing to leave the country and fight in the Spanish Civil War and in a very short period of time. That hasty approach does makes the chapters seem more like loosely connected essays that part of a coherent whole though and all those similarities to other writers lessens the overall impact.
Part II is well, rather autobiographical and very, very strange. It’s the controversial part of the book that Victor Gollancz, as one of the LBC’s editors, tried to persuade Orwell to drop. It covers Orwell’s explanation of his own place in England’s class-based society (lower-upper-middle class), how the working class is perceived by the middle class, how Socialism is failing to reach both the ordinary working class the less militant members of the middle class and ends with his thoughts about what must be done to avoid misguided socialists driving the middle class into the arms of the Fascists.
‘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 remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.’
This section of the book is deeply personal, rather rude and although Orwell’s line about ‘the working class smells’ is always taken out of context or misquoted, he’s still using his stance as ‘good-natured observer’ to poke fun at both the working class and the middle class audience this was written for. In fact, it’s been a while since I read a book so determined to offend and jostle its intended readers. Orwell is refreshingly (sometimes bracingly) honest about his own attitudes to class and a lot of his ideas about going back to grass roots socialism, improving the world first and debating whether to mechanise everything later, do (in general) make good sense even today.
I do agree with Gollancz though – the audience wasn’t ready to be shown quite such an unflattering mirror of themselves and Orwell’s balance is wrong. He’s spent the limited time he had for this part of the book on summarising his own experiences rather than quantifying what he means by rather open-ended phrases like ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’ which makes it rather limited in its helpfulness. Rather than a call to arms Part II is clumsy and needs far more clarification than is given, it’s much less interesting to a modern reader than Part I.
So you see, I remember The Road to Wigan Pier as being clearly written, dry-eyed and bombastic, investigative journalism with a flair for including plenty of case studies and illuminating detail. It turns out that those elements are definitely still there in the book but it’s only one half of the story. The other side of this coin is occasionally incoherent, deadline driven, overly personal, rather provocative, poorly defined political theory and social commentary based on earlier works.
Insightful one moment, infuriating the next.
I’m very glad to have re-read this one and set it back into proper context. It’s not Orwell at his best and it’s not a standalone work but, seen as a link in a very important chain of books about what it actually means to be poor and what really needs to change, this remains a key 20th century text. But, even if I wasn’t a Priestley fan, I’d say that English Journey (my review) is far more interesting for a modern reader and far more complete a work.
Rating: 6/10 (Book Review Scale)