George Orwell

 

The Road To Wigan Pier

 

1937

 

Definitely in three distinct parts (only the first two deserve the B+).

 

You can see where this sort of thing comes from: socialist Orwell is in yet another heated debate with someone about whether or not miners are underpaid, or whether unemployed people are bludgers, but rather than just leave it at a slammed door, he heads out and tours mining districts, going down the pit and interviewing hundreds of employed and unemployed miners. He doesn’t kid himself that this makes him ‘one of them’ (indeed, he laments how it’s impossible to really experience a working class home because, of course, they will alter their behaviour when a guest is there), but he certainly has a better idea of what he’s talking about than his opposition.

 

It opens in the cheapest of cheap accommodation – where he can integrate. As he recalls from his time living as a tramp (or, these days, homeless person), as long as you dress the part no-one particularly cares about your educated accent. It then moves through several case studies of housing and wages, Orwell using empirical evidence rather than ignorant argument – a surprisingly rare thing given the amount of time given over to this sort of debate. But he doesn’t give himself over to pages and pages of dry statistics – he’s a journalist and a novelist, and he writes well. While he does have a bias, he is still able to recognise points on either side. However while he stays with the facts he does gather, his case is well stated. Part one: there are hoards in 1930s England living in awful poverty, and the working conditions of miners are appalling.

 

Part two manages to do what dry textbooks don’t – Orwell moves to autobiography, virtually testimony, of how he came to be so concerned about class exploitation (‘testimony’ turns out to be a telling word – ultimately the book is an attempt to proselytise and/or to criticise how the socialist movement is losing potential adherents through poor marketing). As with hearing a Christian testimony, this is often more interesting and involving (and convincing) than stark facts or theory, breaking it down to something personal and cutting past our guard. Orwell’s story of how he moved from middle class public school boy to policeman in the Raj in India – to revolution promoting socialist deliberately living on the streets – is potent and amazing. This is less about the details, and more about how he attempted to atone for his role as exploiter.

 

Finally he moves to the weakest part of the book, away from bold research and honest autobiography, and onto sometimes surprisingly bigoted theory on how socialism should be best promoted. Again there are striking parallels to various attacks I’ve seen by Christians on the church, saying the problem is people can’t see the attractive simple truth about Christ because it’s attached to all this distracting cultural baggage. Or, worse, because Christians are embarrassingly dorky, it alienates cool ‘normal’ people. Orwell applies both arguments.

 

On the former he’s not so far off the mark. He pushes that the basic premise is simple: an overwhelming majority of poor people continue to support a relative fraction who have inherited vast wealth at their expense. But the poor won’t unify as long as they are hung up on the trappings of differing background, so, for example, a lowly clerk will see himself, and be seen by others, as being of the same class (and on the side of) millionaire Lords, and against any blue collar workers who are on the same income, or often earning twice or three times as much. The answer isn’t to act as if family background and education don’t exist and think it means anything to go and hang out with people whose tastes and social habits are mutually repellant. But it is to back off on stupid pejorative stereotyping on both sides, and to recognise the far greater economic perspective and deal with that far more important injustice.

 

On the latter he perhaps has some points, but betrays some absurd prejudices of his own. He feels a major problem is that all sorts of ‘inferior’ people are attracted to the socialist cause, so ‘normal decent people’ (a phrase he uses repeatedly seemingly unaware of its embarrassingly overt assumptions) keep away from these freaks – freaks, like feminists, people with beards, and, worst of all, vegetarians! Now and then Orwell, so often an incisive commentator who stepped outside his culture, lets fly some real ‘man of his time’ clangers. A ‘normal decent person’, you would gather, is someone, ahem, who closely resembles Orwell’s view of himself. That is, someone who is a man of the world, who enjoys a hearty meal, a smoke, a drink, and a woman or two (prostitutes not excluded), and has no time for any sort of nonsense about anything ‘spiritual’.

 

Much like this review, the third part of the book is quite undisciplined and gets a bit windy at times – no more so than when he goes off on a tangent about the evils of technological advances. It’s a side point he gives far too much time (he’s making the point that people who oppose the growth in machines in industry erroneously see it as central to socialism), revealing (particularly in hindsight) some bizarre and laughable fears. His largest one is that workers will have too much leisure time, and he can’t conceive of anything worth doing apart from work.

 

So … as someone who’s been an Orwell fan, particularly of his essays, the first two parts of this fuelled my respect for his integrity, insight, and writing ability. Unfortunately the final third revealed more of some feet of clay than I expected to see. Orwell had the rare courage to overcome centuries of class prejudice to live among, respect and even champion the cause of people his peers could blithely dismiss. Ironic that he could still as blithely dismiss anyone from his own class who wasn’t an atheist with similar (fairly narrowly defined) social and moral values.

 

March 2003