“On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like black beetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.”
I am working very slowly through George Orwell’s books, having read Keep the Aspidistra Flying last year and Coming Up for Air the year before, as well as 1984 and Animal Farm as a teenager (I should probably re-read those two one day). The Road to Wigan Pier is the first example of his non-fiction I have read.
Published in 1937, this book was commissioned by the publisher Victor Gollancz, who wanted Orwell to write about the living conditions of the unemployed in the north of England, particularly in the industrial towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Orwell spent several months in 1936 living in Wigan, Sheffield and Barnsley while he researched the book…which turned out to be not quite what Gollancz had hoped for. When it was issued by the Left Book Club, Gollancz was concerned that members would be offended by some of the ideas expressed in the book and added a foreword in which he distanced himself from Orwell’s views.
The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two very different parts. The first half documents Orwell’s time spent in the north, staying with working class people and studying the way they lived. Orwell’s observations are honest, vivid and non-judgmental, and this is by far the most interesting section of the book. Although he was originally asked to write about the unemployed – which he does – he also writes about those who are employed but still living in poverty, and he devotes a lot of time to describing the working conditions of one sector of workers in particular: the miners. Orwell went down a coal mine himself as part of his research, in an attempt to understand what it was like, and the respect he gained for the miners is clear.
I found it fascinating to read Orwell’s descriptions of the houses he visited and stayed in: the layouts of the buildings, the furnishings and amenities (or lack of them) and the sleeping arrangements. The levels of squalor in which families with young children were living is shocking to read about. Here is one of the many examples Orwell gives of the notes he made while inspecting these houses:
1. House in Wortley Street. Two up, one down. Living-room 12 ft. by 10 ft. Sink and copper in living-room, coal hole under stairs. Sink worn almost flat and constantly overflowing. Walls not too sound. Penny in slot gas-light. House very dark and gas-light estimated at 4d. a day. Upstairs rooms are really one large room partitioned into two. Walls very bad — wall of back room cracked right through. Window frames coming to pieces and have to be stuffed with wood. Rain comes through in several places. Sewer runs under house and stinks in summer but Corporation ‘says they can’t do nowt’. Six people in house, two adults and four children, the eldest aged fifteen. Youngest but one attending hospital — tuberculosis suspected. House infested by bugs. Rent 5s. 3d., including rates.
The Penguin Classics edition I read includes a selection of photographs so you can see what these homes looked like (although, curiously, most of them are pictures of buildings in Wales and London rather than the northern towns discussed in the text). Being from the north myself I feel I should point out here that, thankfully, things have changed drastically since the 1930s! The slums were cleared long ago and towns and cities have been regenerated; some areas are still suffering from the loss of heavy industry, and poverty still exists, of course, but not on the scale or of the type Orwell describes in this book.
The second half of the book takes the form of a long essay in which Orwell talks about his own upbringing as a member of what he calls ‘the lower-upper-middle class’ and how this affected the way he felt about the unemployed and working classes (he grew up, he says, being told that working class people smell). He goes on to explain how his attitudes began to change and to discuss his theories on socialism, the class system and left-wing politics. He also takes the opportunity to criticise the views of his fellow socialists, which is what sent Victor Gollancz into a panic. While I found this part of the book much less compelling than the first (I have to confess that I found my attention wandering a few times and had to force myself to concentrate), it was still interesting to read.
Because Orwell puts so much of himself into this book, it has given me a better appreciation of what he was trying to say about class and capitalism in novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I’m now looking forward to reading Down and Out in Paris and London!