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Friday, 10 September 2021

George Orwell: The Road to Wigan Pier

George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair):
The Road to Wigan Pier (4*)

This is very much a book of two halves.

It begins with Orwell’s account of the terrible living conditions in the industrial north of England during the nineteen-thirties. He writes first-hand after staying in lodging-houses, and living with miners and the unemployed in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield. I enjoyed this half of the book enormously, mainly because I can relate to it. Parts remind me how things still were in the fifties. Even in the seventies, echoes of the thirties were still around, despite much having improved by then. 

The second half advocates socialism as a means of improving these conditions. “Why aren’t we all socialists?” Orwell asks. It is interesting and clearly-argued, but I struggled to get to the end. It is not what I wanted to read (which has nothing to do with any political leanings I might have). I’ll say little more about this part other than to suggest that gains in living standards after the war were due to socialist policies.

Here are some of the things that struck me (page numbers may be inaccurate as I was using a Kindle).

Orwell writes of the thousands of ‘back to back’ terraces (they had no back doors because other houses adjoined the rear) “… which are all of a condemned type but will remain standing for decades.” (p48). They did. I lived in them in the Brudenell and Royal Park area of Leeds in the nineteen-seventies. Most had by then been modernised with damp courses and bathrooms, but not all. Across the road, we used to see inhabitants walking out in their pyjamas to the communal lavatories in the middle of the row. Those same houses are still there today, although the lavatories have been demolished to leave enclosures for dustbins. 

Older black and white photographs give a better idea of how dreary some of these streets were, such as this one, the communal lavatory with wooden seat in the middle:

My grandma had an earth closet as late as the nineteen-fifties, not a communal one, but it had to be shovelled out and burned.

Obviously, Orwell says a lot about class:

“… the real secret of class distinctions in the West … why [even a bourgeois Communist] cannot think of a working man as his equal. ... The lower classes smell. That was what we were taught… It is queer how seldom this is admitted.” (p119)

Remember the days before it was common to shower and wear clean clothes every day, and rub deodorant on all over? My mother used to say “clean shirt and socks every two days, clean underwear twice a week, and a bath once a week”. Many people were identifiable by their individual smell. Not all were pleasant. There was the man I tried not to sit near on the train who kept his suit in a fusty wardrobe. There was another who dried himself with a dirty towel. You could detect these things. Smokers were unmistakable. Sometimes you knew when women were having their periods. There were lots of smelly feet and armpits, or maybe poorly washed clothing. Goodness knows what their underpants must have been like. This was life in the cities as late as the nineteen-seventies.

Differences between north and south are central to the book. Staying in a dreadful lodging house above a tripe shop, several beds to the room, Orwell shares with a commercial traveller who is more used to hotels.

“He caught my eye and suddenly divined that I was a fellow-Southerner. ‘The filthy bloody bastards!’ he said feelingly. After that he packed his suitcase and… [left]”. (p13)
The unrelenting nature of working-class labour is detailed, and the enormous debt owed by those living cosseted lives to those toiling in the mines and factories:
“In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. … all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to the poor drudges underground…” (p30)

So it still is in principle. We can’t all work at home on computers.

I found the first half of the book fascinating, and could go on about unemployment, the state of working-class teeth, poverty, and so on, but will end with a few more quotations (it’s easy to cut and paste from a Kindle, and the book is out of copyright):

An example of Orwell’s forthright views (it is almost worth reading the book just for these):

“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.” (p161) 

He’s nearly as entertaining as Adrian. On Yorkshiremen:

“There exists in England a curious cult of Northern snobbishness. A Yorkshireman in the South will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior.” That the South is inhabited “merely by rentiers and their parasites. The Northerner has ‘grit’ … the Southerner is snobbish, effeminate and lazy…” (p101)
Too true. And one for any Sheffield bloggers that may be out there:
“Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World … it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village … And the stench! …” (p98)
 
Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

35 comments:

  1. Absolutely amazing and to have the 50s, 60s and 70s conditions in print is a good thing. Poverty was certainly hard going back then.

    This fascinated me and when an evening tv ad break comes on, I will ask my partner if this was something that happened in Newcastle, "we used to see inhabitants walking out in their pyjamas to the communal lavatories". I had no idea and an ad break has arrived and I asked. My partner always had an indoor toilet but relatives had outdoor toilets, as we did here, but we don't have snow and extreme cold, so not so bad. We just had flies at the toilets, thousands of them.

    However my partner's father did use communal toilets when he was younger, one at the end of lane.

    I am given to wonder about your toilet facilities when you walking in Scandinavia?

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    1. Electronic copies of the book are copyright free for Kindle etc. on the Faded Page site. I'd have given 5*** without the second half.
      There was a lot of poverty in Newcastle. There are some brilliant films on the Yorkshire and North East Film archive site made in the 60s in which well-known people remember their associations with the area, e.g. James Mitchell on South Shields.
      As regards toilet facilities in Iceland, you'll notice spades outside some of the huts in the pictures.

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  2. I read this book about 40 years ago I think and, although a Southerner, recognised some of the scenes he described. My grandparents were working class and endured many similar living conditions during the 1930s in the east end of London. My aunt's family lived in a two up two down with an outside privy. Cold, dark and damp year round with Izal paper and spiders.

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    1. I might look for Down and Out in Paris and London.
      There was an outside loo where I lived until I was 6. The water tank was high on the wall with a long chain. We used to hang a small methylated spirit light from it to stop it freezing up in winter.

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  3. My brother and I were reminiscing about our toilet in the 1950s at the weekend. It was a hole in a wooden seat over a bucket which both of us remember clearly. My father emptied it on a Sunday morning. We didn't get a flushing toilet until we went onto the mains water. We bathed once a week on a Sunday night. I got to use the water first being the youngest. I enjoyed Road to Wigan Pier.

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    1. People who have known only nice warm indoor bathrooms would struggle with it. My grandma's backed on to a square open topped brick rubbish building they called the ash midden, where they burnt their rubbish. There was a hole through the wall from the bottom of the toilet. Mains water arrived in the village around 1950 but it was some years before they got a flush, which was in an outside cubicle with a corrugated roof.

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    2. What you've never had you never miss. Mains arrived with us in the early 50s but it wasn't until much later that my father dug a hole for the septic tank and put a flush toilet in, it was still an outside toilet. My mother kept it like that for almost her entire life in the house until she reluctantly at aged 80 had an inside toilet put in. She always considered that toilets should be outside.

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  4. And people today are bitching about the "oppression" of wearing a mask? Sheesh.

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    1. It says it all. And yet there are people in some parts of the world whose living conditions are still the same.

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  5. Oh Rachel - I could have written that. My Dad emptied the lav every Satuday and always under the old damson tree at the bottom of the garden and I always got te bath water first! It is year since I read Wigan Pier - must read it again.

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    1. We knew a family that emptied it beneath their apple tree. They once gave an apple to someone who didn't know. It amused us no end when someone else said to them that it looked a lovely apple and asked whether they were enjoying it.

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  6. As a child in the early 1970s I lived for a year or so in a 2 up, 2 down house with an outside loo, a tin bath and a small water heater near the kitchen sink as the source of hot water. We had to wee in a bucket if we needed to go during the night. My great aunt and uncle lived with the same conditions until they died in the 1990s, Uncle H having been born in the house and refusing to have a bathroom extension added to it. At school our toilets were in a block in the playground and quite often froze up in the Winter months . It's 50 years ago, but I remember it vividly.

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    1. Some people now wouldn't even consider a house with less than two or three bathrooms. I have a photograph taken in our back yard around 1955 where you can see the tin bath hanging on the wall in the background. We had an enamel "po" to go under the bed. The note it made gradually went lower and lower as you added more liquid. Yes, school toilets in the playground too. The lads used to see if they could get it to go over the wall into the lane behind the school.

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  7. “Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World … it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village … And the stench!

    How very dare him

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  8. It sounds like he had a purpose in the first half of the book to lead up to the second half. In my lifetime we have always had indoor bathrooms. However, my grandparents and before had an outdoor toliet behind the house, but they were not shared with other families. Interesting post Tasker.

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    1. I read extracts from this at school, but this is the first time I've read the whole thing. After the last book I reviewed - Obama's Dreams From My Father - I've had enough of political stuff for a while.

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  9. I had two sets of cousins who grew fairly up without indoor pluming. In fact, my father's favorite sibling always brought her children to our house for baths the night before the first day of school.

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    1. Which reminds me that when we eventually did move to a house with an indoor bathroom, my grandfather used to come on the bus once a week for a bath.

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  10. Quite an eyeopening post for me, Tasker. Will look for the book.

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    1. Orwell writes very clearly so it is easy going, although I thing he does tend to write for effect. His writing style guidelines are often quoted.

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  11. I have read the book years ago Tasker. My Nanna had an outside loo, and one cold tap in the kitchen but can always remember the terraced house being clean. Women worked hard in those days with little of the luxuries we have today. We may reminiscence about scrubbing the front step but it was a hard life, the laundry especially.

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    1. It was a full-time job - more than full-time I hear the howl. That was when an ordinary wage - working in a shop or in an office - would support a whole family. Before we were all monetised.

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  12. As I have suggested before, Orwell did not even attempt to give the city of Sheffield a fair crack of the whip. Apparently he was ignorant of The Botanical Gardens, Graves Park, Broomhill (loved by John Betjeman) and the lovely suburbs that reach out into The Peak District. He saw the side of Sheffield that he wanted to see after spending just three days here.

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    1. Yes I commented it earlier on your blog just after I read it. I think Orwell wrote about those parts of the north that made for good copy and furthered his socialist argument. There are pleasant bits in all places, even Wigan. Interestingly, a passage from the book came up as a crit. piece in the 1977 JMB English Lit. 'A' level paper I did (blogged previously), with questions asking candidates to discuss the author's attitude, how vivid and moving are the descriptions, and why scrambling for coal when dirt wagons are tipped on to slag heaps is something "well worth seeing". The point being not to take things at face value. So I am being mischievous in selecting quotations, but they are amusing.

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  13. The biases people hold toward people who are different (not limited to education, work status, location, race) are ever present. Maybe someday tolerance will overcome.

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    1. Thanks for visiting, Emma. I think you've put your finger on what Orwell was saying. Yes, he did have biases, but he also valued tolerance.

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  14. Orwell was writing at a time when capitalism had failed, causing mass unemployment; when fascism was on the rise in Germany and Italy; when Stalin and Beria were murdering millions of men and women in the Soviet Union.

    I would argue that our cities have declined since the pos-twar period which Orwell did not leave to see, a tragedy for him and us.

    Outside of the big malls our shops are shabby, our streets filthy, our people are drably dressed, our diet has deteriorated with junk food.

    The Glasgow of my youth had swanky areas like Sauchiehall Street with its theatres, cinemas, cafes, tearooms and department stores.
    Today Sauchiehall Street is nothing, and Charing Cross is a dive.

    Shops in local neighbourhoods had beautiful facades, today they are painted black and grey.
    Rubbish is strewn everywhere, pubs blare our music, giving a poor impression to children growing up there.
    Anti-social behaviour, drugs, yobbery, loud music, trash culture.
    Haggerty

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    1. John, I agree entirely. Yorkshire cities are the same. The smaller ones like Huddersfield and Wakefield are hardly worth visiting. Capitalism is failing again. Perhaps it needs socialism in order to succeed.
      I'd have loved to have been out drinking in the Glasgow of your youth. That would have been some night.

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  15. Colour photos of Glasgow in the 1960s, online, show Union Street and Argyll Street at their very best.
    People took pride in their appearance, and it was reflected in their civic pride.
    It was the same in Leeds, Wakefield, Bradford, Halifax, Sheffield.

    Industrial Glasgow, with its Art Deco shops and cafes, is as far removed from us today as the paintings of Sean Keating (online) are from modern Ireland. (Keating's work was loathed by novelist Aidan Higgins and loved by others, myself included.)

    There is a black and white photo of Jimmy Reid with R.D. Laing and they are in The Mungo Vitner's, a pub long gone.
    The Portland Arms in Shettleston Road (online) is said to be the most intact Art Deco pub in Britain.
    Laurieston Bar in Bridge Street has a remarkable interior.
    The Italian cafes with their Vitrolite facades in pastel shades are nearly all gone.
    And the grand department stores with their uniformed commissionaires are as antique as the novels of George Moore or Arnold Bennett.

    Yet it is the people I miss most, the generations who came through the First World War, the Depression and the Second War.
    I wonder what they would say about the United Kingdom today?
    What would George Orwell say?
    Haggerty

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    1. There are some wonderful images and videos on the internet. George Orwell would have forged an unlikely friendship with Nevil Shute and gone off with him to Australia.

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    2. George Orwell, a gaunt stranger in King's Cross, Sydney, defeats the spectre of his lonely death.
      He would become Eric Blair again, and sit in the snug of a Victorian pub, playing cards with Nevil Shute, looking narrowly at strangers coming through the saloon doors, expecting a Cheka agent to shadow him even here.

      George Woodcock said Orwell's face reminded him of Don Quixote, *a tall thin angular man with Gothic features*.

      *In his own way he was a man of the Left,* writes Woodcock in his book The Crystal Spirit (the title taken from Orwell's poem about the Spanish Civil War) *but he attacked its holy images as fervently as he did those of the Right.*

      *The Ministry of Truth - A Biography of George Orwell's 1984* by Dorian Lynskey is now in paperback.
      Haggerty

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  16. I read Orwell over 50 years ago when I was idealistic socialist and because of my job had seen housing conditions many would never have seen. I was an idealistic socialist (but because of my job no one ever knew that until I retired from public service). I grew up in a new 3bedroom terrace house with a gas heater in the bathroom. Even in my teens I realised I was one of the fortunate. I am concerned today because the huge disparity in housing conditions not just between the 1% of the 1% but between those millions living in conditions which are the modern version of the slums that I knew as a child and the millions who are not. I am one of the world's optimists but I don't see a way out of the problems we face now in a way that the governments saw and acted in the Sixties.

    Being a Lancastrian who has lived the majority of his life in Scotland's North I shall not comment on the North South English divide.

    I liked Debra's comment "And people today are bitching about the "oppression" of wearing a mask? Sheesh."

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    1. We are in a dreadful mess with housing. I see it as one of the main causes of a lot of our problems and an unintentional side effect of government policies. The only ways out are either to act radically to reduce values (not popular with those whose £750k house might be reduced by a third) or to do it by stealth over many years. A hairdresser I used to have would go on about scroungers blowing their benefits on alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, electronics and holidays, and if "they" had money they were drug dealers, no doubt true in some cases, but many people in poor housing are working and paying a large percentage of income to landlords.

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