The Road to Wigan Pier
I hate to start with a cheap trick but I fear it’s just too easy to pigeon-hole George Orwell–born Eric Arthur Blair for those who didn’t know. That’s the downside of assigning Animal Farm in high school as it was back in the 70s. I’m not sure that’s still done; I’m equally uncertain anyone then seeks out 1984 now that the date is safely past.
What I am certain of is that anyone who stops with those two books is denying themselves an ongoing acquaintance with one of the great writers of the 20th century. Orwell was most emphatically not a pseudo-sci-fi novelist trying to warn us of a dystopian future. What he was, I’d argue, was a true humanist, ready and able to accept people for who and what they were. Move past the aforementioned titles and you find first person accounts of colonial outposts, civil wars and the working poor. Orwell, almost always, is on the side of the oppressed.
“I was born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle class.” That’s Orwell in the second half of the book introducing his bias. It’s immediately apparent, when reading Orwell, that he is not only aware of bias but he’s aware that he cannot escape it. In the context of English society, with its fine class distinctions, that alone is worth mentioning. Orwell is too honest to approach his subjects as though he were the missing Schlegel sibling. He reports what he sees, says what he thinks and lets the chips fall where they may.
There are plenty of chips falling in The Road to Wigan Pier. The book was commissioned by The Left Book Club, a sort of Book of the Month Club for the enlightened classes formed during the dark days of the Great Depression and fascist ascendancy. To say the patrons were displeased with the results of their commission is an understatement. This is the only book I can remember reading in which there is a foreword that dismisses the main word.
Why would that be? The book is divided into two parts. The first is reportage, Orwell’s personal experience living with and observing the working–and all too often non-working–poor. He shows us boarding houses where 4 strangers, Orwell among them, share a bed. He explains the economics of living on the dole. He goes down in a mine and scuttles to the face of the coal seam. He talks about the ‘game’ in which ‘players’ race beside the train dragging mine slag and climb aboard to harvest what they can. This is the sorry face of industrial society and it’s far uglier than anything Naomi Klein has exposed herself to; the assembly factories in the Asian empowerment zones she visited come off as comparatively clean and safe. I’m certain that the awfulness Orwell recounts is what his patrons sought.
It’s the second half that must have rankled. Orwell tries to explain why so many people reject Socialism, at the time considered by many to be the only alternative to fascism. His answer isn’t kind to his patrons. He essentially tells us Socilaists are middle class types who condescend to the poor and take the joy out of living.
Relevant excerpts: “We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few people want to abolish them.” (p.157) “…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.” (p. 174) That last one is quite an indictment and, alas, seems to hold true for a cross-section of today’ s American Left.
Orwell concludes the problem of socialism is that the book-learned are behind it and don’t understand what the laborer instinctively does: “He [the genuine working man] grasps… that Socialism means justice and common decency.” (p. 176) Or as he states later, “..the real Socialist is one who wishes…to see tyranny overthrown.” (p. 221)
In the face of all this what do his spurned patroons offer as a riposte? Orwell, they complain, says the poor smell. They may. Here in New York homeless people get pretty ripe this time of year for the reasons Orwell reports: lack of access to baths and funds too limited for access to hot water or even soap. Granted, there’s a lot of class bias about how one keeps one’s toilet but he’s fessed up about the bias.
I’m not sure all that much has changed in the almost 80 year since Wigan was published. We may have moved the uglier bits farther away. We may have altered the social compact to render speaking of such things impolite. We may again be in a time when there is so much economic fear that acting the ostrich or tortoise seems the only viable strategy.
Orwell, I think, would suggest otherwise.