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The Road To Wigan Pier Paperback – October 18, 1972
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About the Author
GEORGE ORWELL (1903–1950) was born in India and served with the Imperial Police in Burma before joining the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was the author of six novels, including 1984 and Animal Farm, as well as numerous essays and nonfiction works.
- ASIN : 0156767503
- Publisher : Mariner Books; First edition (October 18, 1972)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780156767507
- ISBN-13 : 978-0156767507
- Item Weight : 7.5 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.31 x 0.64 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #35,557 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on September 12, 2020
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Orwell went to mining country to report on conditions for the Left Book Club. What he turned in displeased the publisher, Victor Gollancz so much that he wrote a foreword disavowing Orwell's strictures on socialism (which we'll get to).
The reportage is basically the first half of the book, and it is good writing, very vivid.
The whole book is not like this, but I have to quote this paragraph:
I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag-heaps, and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag-heaps in the distance, stretched the “flashes”—pools of stagnant water that has seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The “flashes” were covered with ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore beards of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water. But even Wigan is beautiful compared with Sheffield.
More typical is an observation like this:
As for pubs, they are banished from the housing estates almost completely, and the few that remain are dismal sham-Tudor places fitted out by the big brewery companies and very expensive. For a middle-class population this would be a nuisance—it might mean walking a mile to get a glass of beer; for a working-class population, which uses the pub as a kind of club, it is a serious blow at communal life. It is a great achievement to get slum-dwellers into decent houses, but it is unfortunate that, owing to the peculiar temper of our time, it is also considered necessary to rob them of the last vestiges of their liberty. The people themselves feel this, and it is this feeling that they are rationalising when they complain that their new houses—so much better, as houses, than those they have come out of—are cold and uncomfortable and “unhomelike.”
We haven't got to the socialists yet, because Orwell then makes some observations on class, particularly his class, which was 'educated,' but not wealthy. Some of this section reminded me of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a novel Orwell wrote on the same theme. His conclusion is this:
The fact that has got to be faced is that to abolish class-distinctions means abolishing a part of yourself. Here am I, a typical member of the middle class. It is easy for me to say that I want to get rid of class-distinctions, but nearly everything I think and do is a result of class-distinctions. All my notions—notions of good and evil, of pleasant and unpleasant, of funny and serious, of ugly and beautiful—are essentially middle-class notions; my taste in books and food and clothes, my sense of honour, my table manners, my turns of speech, my accent, even the characteristic movements of my body, are the products of a special kind of upbringing and a special niche about half-way up the social hierarchy. When I grasp this I grasp that it is no use clapping a proletarian on the back and telling him that he is as good a man as I am; if I want real contact with him, I have got to make an effort for which very likely I am unprepared. For to get outside the class-racket I have got to suppress not merely my private snobbishness, but most of my other tastes and prejudices as well.
Well into the book now, the quote I was looking for. It may ring some bells:
One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured, “Socialists,” as who should say, “Red Indians.” He was probably right—the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary man, a crank meant a Socialist and a Socialist meant a crank.
And a bonus quote:
The truth is that to many people, calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which “we,” the clever ones, are going to impose upon “them,” the Lower Orders. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to regard the book-trained Socialist as a bloodless creature entirely incapable of emotion. Though seldom giving much evidence of affection for the exploited, he is perfectly capable of displaying hatred—a sort of queer, theoretical, in vacuo hatred—against the exploiters. Hence the grand old Socialist sport of denouncing the bourgeoisie. It is strange how easily almost any Socialist writer can lash himself into frenzies of rage against the class to which, by birth or by adoption, he himself invariably belongs.
The reason I am lengthening this review with so many quotes is that I actually finished the book over a year ago, but reading my highlights has reminded me how rich it is. Well worth reading, especially for anyone who has enjoyed other books by George Orwell.
Wigan is a small town in the Greater Manchester district located in northwestern England. It is part of what was "the industrial north," whose prosperity declined sharply after the First World War. Orwell, on an assignment for the "Left Book Club" visited Wigan, briefly shared the lives of the poor there, and wrote this account of his experience. The "Pier" in the title was a wharf on the Leeds and Liverpool canal that had been demolished even before Orwell arrived. He slept in a very sleazy boarding house, which he describes in detail. The vivid details include the dirty thumbprint of the owner, Mr. Brooker, on the slice of bread he would pass to Orwell as well as the fact that he slept, very crowded, four to a bedroom, and could not stretch his legs out fully in his bed until another roomer had left for work.
The area around Wigan was coalmining country. He went down in the mine, a tall man in a short man's world. Just to get to work, that is, the coal face, once underground, a man would have to walk, at a crouch, between one and six miles! Miners were physically fit, they had to be, to get to work, and then shovel the coal onto the conveyor belts. Orwell then describes the miner's homes, and daily lives. There was a "housing shortage." None of the miner's homes had a bathroom. There was a communal one, which might involve a walk of 50 to 200 yards. Imagine that, with five children! He describes the problems of bathing, and the efforts required to obtain hot water. He lays out the finances of their lives; a constant struggle, with disaster only one accident away. Orwell does this with a reporter's flat affect; no purple prose, the facts themselves would convey the pathetic misery of their daily lives.
In the second part of the book Orwell examines what should be done about this. He is frank about the class structure in England, describing how as a member of the "lower upper middle class" he was taught not to associate with the poor, and how he developed an attitude towards the "common" people: "And what is this attitude? An attitude of sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred." What to do about it? As Orwell says, he studied Greek for 8-10 years in school, and cannot repeat the alphabet, "...but your snobbishness, unless you persistently root it out like the bindweed it is, sticks by you till your grave."
Orwell is a "Socialist," a moniker that is still considered highly disreputable, particularly in the United States. But he lays out the economic dilemma succinctly, sans humbug, which is one of his more favorite terms: "The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all co-operate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one should possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system." And then he dissects why the socialist agenda is moving backwards, focusing with particular animus on the jargon-laden discourse of "thesis," antithesis" and "synthesis" that so turns off the "common people," not to mention the eccentricities of the sandal-wearing adherents of socialism. Some 30 years later, Paul Goodman was covering much the same territory. And more than 30 years after Goodman, the essential issues remain, during yet another economic downturn, and hordes of college graduates, not in the mines fortunately, but wasting away, waiting on tables. An often overlooked Orwell classic, 5-stars, plus.
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The second half is an interesting, often funny account of why people are turned off the socialist cause. I had many a moment where I laughed out loud, particularly at these kind of quotes:
"It would help enormously, for instance, if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly! But that, I am afraid, is not going to happen."
"The truth is that, to many people calling themselves Socialists, revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which 'we', the clever ones, are going to impose upon 'them', the Lower Orders."
Whether you agree or not, you have to admit at times Orwell had a point and that point persists today.
As I indicated, the structure of the book feels a bit clunky though. My advice is not to read the forward before reading the book but to read it afterwards. It gives away a lot of the structure and how it was received which I preferred to think about after the event. The reason for the lack of an editing eye was Orwell had left for the Spanish Civil War just before publication.
One thing I would say is you don't have to be hard left to read Orwell, in fact he's as critical of the hard left as he is of capitalism. Also Orwell is really easy to read and you feel like you've read something of note every time you read one of his books.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom 🇬🇧 on July 17, 2020
By modern standards the structure is probably rather shambolic, and it is stronger on personal experience than evidence, but as a writer, Orwell has the ability to just vanish and let the lives of those he is describing come fully alive before you.
The second half was not originally published, and it is easy to see why. It is part debate, part rant, about his desire for the rise of socialism. He takes swipes at all and sundry, from nouveau Catholics, to sandal wearing lefties and Quakers in their garden cities. He debates the attractiveness of the English physique and whether the working class smell. Despite this, he comes across as sincere, well intentioned, and uncannily astute on a great many things.
After this, Orwell headed off to fight in the Spanish civil war, and he is surely one of the most impressive Britons of the twentieth century.
Overall, very highly recommended.
The book is in two parts: Part One is the story of his living among the unemployed of Northern England in 1935. As I was alive in the 1930s, the son of a father who was unemployed for two years, what George Orwell reports strikes a chord in my memory, though I lived in Southern England at the time. He describes in detail the appalling conditions in which the working class unemployed lived in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Yet in so doing, he is unable to distance himself from his middle class upbringing, and this is manifest in his comments on the people he lived with.
Part Two is an attempt to indicate how socialism might remedy the situation. It also contains his analysis of why the then existing left wing parties would not succeed in bringing about socialism in the UK. Again his own prejudices come out in this analysis, for example, he is obsessed by the social class issue, and he seems to dislike vegetarians, Quakers and sandal wearers! There is also a tendency for Orwell to repeat himself, consequently, Part Two is overlong for what he has to say .
Thus although there is a hint in this book of the intellectual promise of his later works, apart from the revelation of the poverty of the northern working class in Part One, this book is not, in my view, a classic.