Mention George Orwell and the mind most readily turns to his two masterpiece novels, ‘Animal Farm’ and, of course, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. Together, these two modern classics constitute a third of his body of fiction in a career curtailed all too soon by his untimely death, at 46, in 1950.
In 1936, Orwell was 33. He’d published three novels, to moderate acclaim, which centred around themes of status, the shallowness of ‘having’ it and the deprivation that occurs without it. He’d seen the effects of colonialism on a ruled class, as an officer in the Burmese police force but knew he lacked what today, we’d call the ‘lived experience’ to write on these subjects with sufficient authority. For years, his research involved living in areas of severe poverty, gaining authenticity and as a reaction to what he felt was the distortive prism of his own upbringing. An account of those experiences had been published three years previously, called ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. He was a novellist whose research methods had led him to become a polemicist.
In ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, Orwell’s travels among deprivation were not to inform a novel or a character but to tell the stories of the people he encountered, to describe their living conditions, to attempt to explain their outlook – and the implications for humanity suggested by such a trajectory. There are two parts to the book and they perform two very different functions.
In Part One, Orwell is the observer. He explains his methodology and the various lodgings that he experiences – in Wigan and elsewhere. The commentary is not linear, with testimonies stitched together to suit the narrative, rather the timeframe. As in ‘Paris and London’, this editing style is acknowledged.
Orwell’s observations range from the specific to the wide-ranging. He dedicates time to minutely deconstructing a typical household budget, describing how value can be extracted from every halfpenny. Within a few pages, he operates at the macro level, lamenting the unnecessarily bleak aesthetic of the industrial town, remarking at its increasingly “frightful…ugliness” the further north one travels. He attempts to examine his subject from a variety of different angles: the effects of poor nutrition, the ravages of the “Great War” on the demography, the reductive effects of poverty on one’s psychology and the almost Olympian levels of fitness required to sustain a living from coal-mining.
In Part Two, Orwell draws upon his experiences and analyses their implications for a future he was, even by the mid-thirties, deeply unsettled by. There are passing references to both Hitler and Mussolini and a dark sense of foreboding that, as we now know, proved to be entirely accurate. The fact that the editing process for this book took place with Orwell largely absent, documenting (and fighting in) the Spanish Civil War for the anti-Fascist Catalans, highlights his awareness of the inevitability of wider conflict in Europe.
The most striking aspect of ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ is its immediacy. As a native of Wigan (for whom reading this book is almost a rite of passage), I expected a level of familiarity in its pages that non-Wiganers would struggle to discern. Here, Orwell does not disappoint: Mentions of Beech Hill, Scholes, Wallgate, “Welly” (actually Whelley) all add authenticity and make it easier to form a mental image. References to Lancashire dialect elements such as calling the brow of a hill a ‘broo’ and the pronunciation of the name ‘Hooker’ as “Uker” are also familiarities that span the decades. Even the inclusion of the unnamed slag heaps that used to dominate the skyline around the town call to mind the well-known (in local circles) “Wigan Alps”. Any Wiganer with the barest knowledge of the town’s history will find these observations compelling.
The mistake here – and it’s one I freely admit that I made – is to assume that the relatability of this 85 year-old publication lies purely in its locality; that it is merely a historical document of little circumstance beyond its own geography. Ergo, to any modern reader not from the Industrial North, the whole thing would be little more than a curious sideshow piece about a quaint people from a bygone age.
The truth is that it’s difficult to keep count of the points that Orwell raises that do not have the same (or even greater) resonance today than they had in 1937. Even given the author’s famed prescience, the inevitable conclusion is that far less has changed than we should find it comfortable to admit. We may consider it a cliché to suggest that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” but no other statement more neatly encapsulates the ideas and themes that Orwell puts forward.
Viewed in its entirety, the list of parallels with the present day is astonishing. Wider concepts such as the inequalities of the North-South divide or the tendency of many to retreat to a reassuring insistence that poverty is just a consequence of poor choices are both prevalent. Why still bemoan the North’s lack of opportunity and prosperity, relative to the South, after all this time? Orwell (and I) would suggest that such a question is, manifestly, its own answer. Similarly, the timeless concept of the complacent comfortably-off to think in Victorian terms of a ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.
If you’d like your parallels to be more specific, look at what Orwell says about the growth of gambling as a popular substitute for sustenance, even quoting its justification by many: “something to live for”. Marx considered religion to be “the opiate of the masses”; Orwell would have updated that metaphor to gambling. Today, it is the “major industry” that he foresaw, spending the majority of its promotional budget on telling people not to partake in it, adding the veneer of apparent responsibility to an income stream “almost all of it from the pockets of working-class people”.
There is similar short shrift given to radio and a greater availability of world news. It may seem a little harsh now to judge people for being distracted by overseas events and the ‘Received Pronunciation’ BBC in the 1930s. He simultaneously described it as not “desirable” and yet an understandable coping strategy to “make the best of things” [in an entertained torpor]. This both pre-dates and is more applicable to the ‘celebrity culture’ that followed and upon which Orwell would, no doubt, have had much to say, had he lived to see it.
Thereafter, Orwell shifts through the gears, reaching a crescendo of indignation on a number of issues, each with their own 21st Century echoes. Read his thoughts on how ineffectually socialism is represented by its intellectual adherents (“one of the most desolate spectacles in the world”) rather than the focused pragmatism it inspires in the ‘average person’ and then consider the failed experiment of Corbynism. Reflect on his arguments about the declining quality of nutrition in the earliest age of industrialised food production and think about the various health effects of a diet of wholly processed food.
He makes the point that in a post-Depression age, socialism is “losing ground exactly where it should be gaining it”, as populists around Europe fed discontent to fuel their own ascendancy. It’s not a massive leap of logic to conclude that, following the austerity measures of the early 2010s, numerous populist leaders around the world began to gain support. Currently, they still are. Seemingly, Santayama’s famous quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” was never more apt.
Orwell takes aim at what he perceives to be in-name-only socialist literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw. He accuses Shaw of using working-class characters merely “‘as an object of compassion’”. There is some merit in this analysis. In Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’, Eliza Doolittle is introduced as a bland stereotype upon which an educated man’s ‘superior’ interests are projected, which somehow imbue her with advantage, even though it isn’t clear what that advantage is. If Orwell were writing today, he’d doubtless describe her character as being ‘without agency’, which should be a devastating criticism of any “lifelong socialist” playwright.
There are forays into the damaging effects of inaccurate reporting on the body politic which obviously foreshadow Winston Smith’s place of employment, The Ministry of Truth and, perhaps more disconcertingly, the ‘fake news’ by which we are all now surrounded. Of all the warnings of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, the ability to broadcast patent untruths is arguably the one we have heeded least.
Amazingly, there’s also a reference to an even more current phrase. While satirically paraphrasing a well-meaning but rather patronising intellectual socialist, very much implying he also exhibited Orwell’s perceived deficiencies of Shaw and ‘Pygmalion’, he asks “‘Why must we level down? Why not level up?’”. In this context, it can be viewed as a representation of a naive, unachievable enterprise. For that reason, it’s unlikely to have formed the inspiration for the current version of the phrase, although current evidence suggests that here too, Orwell seems to be many decades ahead of his time.
Ultimately, Orwell’s depictions of crushing poverty, the demeaning choices it forces on people, the perpetual trade-off between heating and eating are, depressingly, more associated with headlines in 2022 than they were even likely to have been in 1937. War once again looms on the farthest outpost of the continent and populism is still in the ascendant. A largely distracted electorate is mollified by low culture and misled by pernicious untruths. Capitalism remains a necessary solution but too easily, we seem to find many examples where the profit motive rides untrammelled over other considerations.
Orwell never experienced the world with television, consumerism, globalisation, a dominant popular culture or the internet. He predicted many of the worst excesses of totalitarianism but for the most part, his gravest concerns have been avoided. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that this won’t change but his works will continue to be the most effective cautionary tales, for as long as we are willing to listen to them.
For a ground-breaking polemic from a world that was in so many ways different to the one we inhabit today, it’s ultimately damning in the extreme that there are far too many reasons that we can’t easily dismiss it as a quirk of its time, a mere historical artefact, eighty-five years after it was published. Then, as now, Wigan was a metaphor for a whole section of the populace, an ignored, misunderstood cohort, that posed questions of how life should be.
As in 1937, it’s probably just as true to say today that without an understanding of daily life in Wigan (and towns like it), it’s impossible to be able to effect real, meaningful change on the chances and expectations of most of the United Kingdom. If you happen to lead a political party, it may be helpful to know that The Road to Wigan Pier today is the M6. Exit at Junction 25 and take the A49 north. You really can’t miss it. You can only choose not to look.