Book review: “The Road to Wigan Pier”, George Orwell

It was a gift from an Australian relative of a neighbour of mine. He had been on a tour through a few European countries and was reducing the luggage to be taken back home. So a while ago, “the Road to Wigan Pier” ended up in my bookcase – unread.

Hunting through the bookcase for George Orwell’s book everybody is currently either reading or ordering through Amazon, I came across this one. Or rather: these two short george-orwell-road-to-wigan-pierbooks published as one.

For it consists of two parts, the second one being a kind of long essay. This part contains a short autobiography. It records George Orwell‘s long journey from being a member of a middle class family to becoming a socialist.

He describes his childhood, how he came to attend a posh school where he did not totally fit in, time spent abroad and why he believes in socialism. He tries to answer questions like: if life for the poor is so horrible, why are not more socialists?

A few of his remarks are quite right, but others are dated. The book was first published in 1937. What Orwell thinks of Hitler and Hitler’s Germany is already pretty clear.

After the Second World War, things started to change. Orwell’s prediction that the middle classes would not survive, never happen. An improvement of living conditions, of living standards took place. The speed of change increased from generation to generation.

If the second part is dated; what about the first part? This non-fictional account of poor people living in the industrial areas of Britain is more readable. It is not a treatise, trying to answer difficult questions. It is a record.

By now, the story printed on the back of my copy – that the Left Book Club commissioned Orwell to write this book – is very much doubted. He probably could no longer afford to live in London. He left and traveled to the Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire.

He lived among the miners and recorded what it was to work in the mines, to live among the poor. These descriptions are vivid accounts of real life. Orwell describes the harsh life. Here are descriptions of the difficulties of making ends meet, the great poverty, the high unemployment – the sheer hopelessness of it all.

The first few pages describe his sleeping arrangements in a cheap boarding house: four beds crammed in a small room. The toilet is outside. It is terribly dirty. There is no bathroom – most people took a bath once a week. Breakfast consisted – if one was lucky and could afford it – of a slice of bread with dripping and a cup of weak tea.

It seems a distant life, but was the reality of generations not that far removed from ours. There are black-and-white films and photos which show it. There may be elderly family members who still remember it: towns having less than five bath-houses which serve whole neighbourhoods, toilets at the back of the garden, a sink or tub in the kitchen instead of a shower and hot water taps; badly built houses, a housing-shortage and unemployment.

The seven chapters contain descriptions of work in the mines. There are explanations of how much miners and others earn and how the money is spent. It describes unemployment and families trying to cope. Life was not just brutal, but practically without hope of improvement.

We have forgotten how bad life was, only three generations ago. How hopeless it was, how bad the hygiene and poverty were. This non-fictional account, this social document brings it back to life.

While reading the first seven chapters, it was difficult to understand the protests against mine-closures. Surely, there were better jobs? Mining was hard and life-threatening work, it was dangerous. Are a few of the answers Orwell mentions in his second part perhaps applicable?

To turn back to the most impressive part of this book: Orwell traveled north, using contacts he made through the Unemployed Workers Movement. While traveling – and possibly searching for work while playing with the idea of writing a book – he kept a diary recording his impressions.

Months later, Orwell was able to rent a cheap cottage in Hertfordshire. He seems to have also run it as a kind of village shop. There he wrote this book, based on memories and his diary.

Orwell’s publisher was afraid the book might upset members of the Left Book Club. So he wrote an introduction, partly discrediting or diminishing what Orwell experienced and witnessed. Despite the introduction, this highly critical book was not well received.

As an account of the lives of grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as providing an iinsight in Orwell’s opinions and convictions – “The Road to Wigan Pier” should be a must-read now.

“The Road to Wigan Pier”, George Orwell, first published 1937, Penguin paperback 1992,204 pp,

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