Animal Farm and 1984 are to politics as Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights are to love – as books, they are essential reads and as bastions of ideology, they are the English archetype. As all men should be Darcy or Heathcliff*, as love is meant to be something overwhelming and irrevocable and eternal, Orwell’s canonical novels teach us that pigs are not to be trusted, that big government is evil, that we should watch the state because the state is watching us, and that we should be wary of anything that may be distraction from an awareness of the exploitation happening to us, unbidden, from the people who truly control the people to whole we pay our taxes.
Orwell’s important works came late in his career, and as the produce of years of thought and study of poverty in the country of birth and further afield. His opinions, which fly contrary to those expected of an old Etonian, grew from real life interactions with people living in poverty. Whilst Down and Out in Paris and London captures these experiences as a sort of gap year lark (I’m being critical), The Road to Wigan Pier instead chronicles Orwell experiencing the poverty of industrialisation as an involved outsider. There is no sense of pretence here – Orwell is already a successful writer by the time he starts researching this book, he has a career and a home to go back to when his peregrinations in the North are over, and he doesn’t hide this from the reader, and it seems he also doesn’t hide it from the people he meets. The Road to Wigan Pier feels more honest, more personal and – rather surprisingly – far more RELEVANT than I ever would’ve thought it could.
The book is in two halves – one half largely about other people, one half largely about Orwell. The first half I read chapter by chapter over most of a week, the latter half in one sitting on the train journey I am currently nearing the end of. So the weight of my experience regarding the text was weighted by circumstance.
In the first half, Orwell is in the north. In Wigan, Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester and as far south as the potteries, in the north of my own West Midlands, bebbe. He is staying in doss houses and wandering around factories and mines. He is walking through slums, through suburban estates built to house displaced former slum dwellers and he is speaking to hundreds of people – men and women – who are feeling the effects of poverty and unemployment. He writes about the resentment felt towards the political classes, but more than that he writes about the quiet acquiescence of the stoic, out of work, working class Northerner. People are forced to remain dirty due to lack of easy access to water. People are unwell due to punishing working conditions and a poor diet resulting from seeking small, unhealthy luxuries over wholesome food; he speaks to miners who have
to crawl for three miles underground before getting to the coal seam they will then spend 7.5 hours chipping away at; he speaks to shopkeepers who are unable to get a space to operate from in the new estates built to replace slums; he talks to people who have been out of work for years, to people out of work for weeks, to people ashamed of being out of work, to people who live in squalor due to their houses being already condemned and their landlords, thus, refusing to spend any money on the property. The issues raised by Orwell are mass unemployment (not as issue now as it was a few years ago), mass inequality, lack of affordable housing, political unrest and an unwillingness to evoke change, and (of course) the likelihood of industrial decline, which did come to pass.
The poverty of England in the 1930s, with the hint of war in the air, is recorded as something real, something believeable, but as something avoidable. Orwell praises and advocates Socialism, but he doesn’t describe what he means by it. The second half of The Road to Wigan Pier is a guide through Orwell’s political development, the growth of his opinions and certainty that socialism is the answer. He goes through all the arguments against it – mainly bitching about other middle class socialists, deriding them as vegetarian, bearded, sandal-wearing, birth-controlling, free love advocates.** The people who get involved in Socialism are the wrong people, he writes, and they put others off.
I think that’s kind of the way now, too. Who is Jeremy Corbyn? The exact same kind of bearded, middle class, sandal-wearing vegetarian that Orwell hated. Some things do not change.
And though the general levels of comfort of the industrialised north have improved, there is still great inequality and the state is still failing to ensure that sufficient housing is built for an ever-growing population. What can we do to fix things? Not much but be socialists, Orwell writes. But if socialism is still now as full of the alienating dullards as it was then, what hope does it have? And how does socialism benefit me, personally, is what the population thinks over 60 million times. The individual benefits when the whole benefits, but not as much as others. And fuck the man who goes from nothing to a room of his own, when my standard of living improves only by the purchase of a few more CAT scanning machines at my local hospital.
Selfishness won out. Socialism did not succeed. Fascism is what Europe is moving towards again, polarised and extremified (neologism) politics across the continent, meaning that a text looking at the world at a similar point – a few years after a global economic crisis, lots of violent machinations a long way away that could quite feasibly affect us here – a text looking at the world at a similar point is very relevant.
My train ride’s about to finish. We’re done here.
* I’m Heathcliff, of course. As I always say, “Out on the windy, windy moor I roll and fall in green. I had a temper, like my jealousy, too hot, too greedy. How could I leave you, when you needed to possess me? You hated me, you loved me too.”
** There’s also a bit of gentle homophobia thrown in here too, which is in stark contrast to the INCREDIBLY eroticised descriptions he gives of miners’ bodies earlier in the book. There’s also a very eroticised passage about Asian men, too – Orwell eroticises the other in a way that is quite problematic, the occasional chauvinism (isn’t misogyny) also a sign of this. At one point he says that he’d never drink from a bottle that had touched another man’s lips, though “of course”, a woman would be fine. Closet?