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The Road to Wigan Pier Paperback – October 18, 1972
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Although George Orwell grew up in the relative comfort of the English middle class, his socialist convictions and general sense of fairness led him to hate his country's deeply ingrained class structure. That perspective permeates this book, but the most striking elements are the quotidian details of life that Orwell observes in his first-person account of the lives of coal miners and others in the poor north of England. Wigan Pier is almost too realistic at times, as Orwell brings his unparalleled powers of observation to portray the wretched conditions of the working class. That Orwell may have slanted his reporting to make things look worse than they were is a question that does not lessen the book's interest.
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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.
More typo's than I care to mention. Horrible work checking over the final draft.
The second concerns class distinctions and the inability of the socialist movement to bridge them. His descriptions of the wackjobs infesting it are eerily familiar and match up perfectly to the SJW/ProgLeft lunatics of today. A must read for anyone interested in the genesis of his later more famous Animal Farm and 1984.
Page 17 (typos): "Most of the things one imagines in hell are if there. " People who sell written materials without proofreading them first can go hell if a hand basket.
Page 17 (missing words?) "When you finally got there - and getting there is a in itself..." A chore? A grind? Maybe the letter "a" is just short for "ass." Getting there is ass in itself. I could get on board with that.
Page 17 (punctuation errors): "They are feeding it on to the conveyor belt, a moving rubber, belt a couple of feet wide which runs a yard or two behind them." To be, or not to, be.
Page 19 (punctuation errors): "This is chiefly because the mere effort of getting from place to place; makes it difficult to notice anything else, In some ways it is even disappointing, or at least is unlike what you have, expected." Wow.
I'll be requesting a refund.