Ellie Blow: Life, Activism, Literature
Everyone knows Trainspotting, the book that became a film that became a iconic cultural moment in the mid-Nineties. Even if you’ve never read or seen it, I bet the word causes certain associations in your mind: Ewan McGregor, skinny and sweating on the film posters; that orange-on-white text, beloved of student posters; that quote. You know the one. ‘Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.’
So it’s written in the original book, anyway; the film Anglicised it somewhat, but it remains one of the defining quotations of that particular moment. As well as one of the most mis-used.
When I was in high school, the humanities departments put up posters encouraging would-be historians, geographers and so on to take their subject at GCSE. I don’t remember the history department’s poster, but the geography department came up with “Geogspotting”, a concept that’s always stuck in my mind for being so completely out of touch.
Their poster aped the Trainspotting promotional material. ‘Choose wading about in rivers. Choose learning about the world. Choose trips to France. Choose geography,’ the poster somewhat cringeworthily suggested. It was the marketing campaign equivalent of your dad attempting to dance to dubstep.
Since then I’ve seen Trainspotting’s most memorable quote bastardised for everything from election campaigns to student posters (‘Choose beer’. Makes me shudder. And not just because I don’t like beer). But I’ve never seen it used in anything near the right way. And sure, I’m a pedant, but it irritates me to the point of sending me off an incredibly long and impassioned rant. And making me less than popular with anyone else who happens to be around. (Especially if it’s their poster).
See, the thing is, as I’m pretty sure most of us know, that quote isn’t the whole story. It’s got a couple of lines before and after it which are crucial to understanding it. So crucial, in fact, that the purveyors of Geogspotting and Beerspotting and whatever-you-really-want-that-can-be-shortened-to-one-syllable-spotting have completely missed them.
So here we go. In the interests of education and correcting cultural myths, here’s the whole paragraph:
‘Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream…They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign ay thir ain failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whit they huv tae offer. Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.
Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it’s thair fuckin problem.’
Basically, then, as we should all be aware, when Renton gives this speech – or, in the book, has these thoughts – they are not intended to be a representation of a life that he wants. If the use of ‘mind-numbing and spirit crushing’ doesn’t give it away, that final ‘choose life’ is immediately followed by ‘Well, ah choose no tae choose life.’ In the film, he adds, ‘I chose something else’ as he injects a syringe full of heroin into his bloodstream. It’s a pretty clear message.
It’s interesting, then, just how far Geogspotting and Beerspotting and what-have-you missed the point. They didn’t just ‘not quite get it’; no, the points they were trying to make are the direct opposite of the quotation they used to make them. In actual fact, what my geography department was telling me, by implication, was ‘Don’t do geography, take heroin!’
(I mean, you know, they probably didn’t realise that. But still)
What I’ve been trying to get round to, in an admittedly long-winded way, is this. Trainspotting has become such a cultural moment that it’s often referenced and appropriated by people who have absolutely no idea what it’s even about, other than ‘that Scottish drug book’.
When I was fifteen, my mother banned me from reading it because ‘it glamorises heroin’. Obviously, I immediately went and bought a copy, because I was fifteen and listened to too much Pete Doherty. When I read it, though, I was so taken aback – not to mention nauseated – that I went back to my mother and demanded to know exactly how it glamorised heroin addiction. This is a book, mind you, which begins with two of its supposed protagonists in the grip of heroin withdrawal: ‘Bad cramps wir beginning tae hit us as we mounted the stairs tae Johnny’s gaff. Ah wis dripping like a saturated sponge, every step bringing another gush fae ma pores. Sick Boy wis probably even worse, but the cunt was beginning no tae exist fir us. Ah wis only aware ay him slouching tae a halt oan the banister in front ay us, because he wis blocking ma route tae Johnny’s and the skag. He wis struggling fir breath, haudin grimly oantay the railing, looking as if he wis gaunnae spew intae the stairwell’. It’s vivid, it’s shocking in places, but it’s never sensationalised; these two misfits in an Edinburgh stairwell are hardly junkie rock-stars playing to a crowd of millions. If anything, Trainspotting does more to de-glamourise heroin addiction than any other depiction in popular culture.
When I pointed this out, though, my mother had a confession to make: she’d never actually read it. Which, I think, is something of a microcosmic view of how this book is received. It’s required reading for quite a few English Literature courses; but it’s still somewhat looked down on as gross, graphic sensationalism by parts of the Establishment. It’s by turns a genuine depiction of a certain unemployed, drug-addicted, barely-coherent sector of society, and an over-exaggerated piece of tabloid journalism. It’s brave, or it’s lurid; affecting or sickening; exhilarating or impossible to read.
The book has been so overtaken by the controversies surrounding it – as, to a lesser extent, has the film – that sometimes it goes rather underappreciated, for all the superlative praise it receives. Because the best things about this book aren’t the scatological scenes we all remember – they’re just the grotesque icing on the cake. The best thing about this book is its portrayal not of heroin addiction but of hopelessness. When you’re talking about Trainspotting, it’s interesting to remember that only about half of its cast are actually heroin addicts, and the book as a whole by no means focuses solely on them. Look at the psychotic Begbie, whose thoughts on heroin he succinctly sums up: ‘Fuckin junkies. A waste ay fuckin space’; or Sick Boy, who kicks his habit as early as page 55 of the book and never goes back to it. It is a book about heroin, yes, but it is not a book only about heroin. It’s a book about escape; a book about despair; a book about making bad choices. It is a book about choosing not to choose life, in all the permutations of that phrase.
It’s also well worth a read, whether or not you’ve seen the film. (If you’re relatively strong of stomach, that is.)
Next Week: About the Death Penalty: Vernon God Little
The book was published in 1999 to great critical acclaim; it won a clutch of prizes, including the Guardian first book award and the James Tait Black prize for fiction. A TV series was made (still available on 4OD, and well worth a watch). Something about Smith’s multi-faceted, warm, funny tableaux of London life at the turn of the century caught the nation’s imagination and tugged at its heartstrings.
At the time, Smith insisted that White Teeth wasn’t a political statement. ‘I wasn’t trying to write about race,’ she said. ‘I was trying to write about the country I live in.’ Yet it can’t be denied that the book was hailed as a watershed moment for multiculturalism. What was it about White Teeth that captured that particular moment in time so perfectly?
The book follows the lives of two London families, the Joneses and the Iqbals, across two generations. For most of the novel, the two families live next door each other in Willesden, an area of north-west London. The Iqbals are from Bangladesh; Archie Jones is from London, and his wife Clara is Jamaican.
It would have been easy, then, for this novel to focus exclusively on the races of its main characters. But Smith doesn’t take the easy way out: what she does with White Teeth is infinitely more interesting and relevant. Race is a backdrop in White Teeth. It’s never forgotten about; indeed, it informs some of the major plot points of the novel; but neither is it the book’s sole focus.
White Teeth is by no means colourblind, but neither does it see things exclusively in black and white – if you’ll excuse a slightly mixed metaphor. Instead it focuses on the grey areas in between, the everyday reality of life for both of these families.
The book’s temporality ought not to be forgotten, either, when discussing its attitudes towards multiculturalism. The main action happens in two sections: the first, concentrating on the first generation of the families – Samad and Alsana as adult immigrants, and Clara having immigrated with her mother as a child – has a very different focus and attitude towards race than the second. For example, reactions to Archie and Clara’s marriage are mixed: Clara’s mother strongly disapproves ‘on grounds of colour rather than of age, and of hearing of [the marriage] promptly ostracized her daughter one morning on the doorstep’.
Similarly, Archie’s employer attempts, through an excruciatingly awkward conversation of which Archie entirely misses the point, to communicate that his ‘attitude is a little strange’: ‘you see the wives don’t like it because, let’s face it, she’s a sort, a real beauty – incredible legs, Archie, I’d like to congratulate you on them legs – and then men, well, the men don’t like it ‘cos they don’t like to think they’re wanting a bit of the other when they’re sitting down to a company dinner with their lady wives, especially when she’s…you know…they don’t know what to make of that at all’.
What’s interesting here, perhaps, isn’t the attitude towards race itself, which is depressing but not entirely unexpected: it is the way in which Smith cleverly buries it in euphemism. Archie’s boss – the significantly named Mr Hero – insists that ‘it’s not that I’m a racialist [...] I’d spit on that Enoch Powell…but then again he does have a point, doesn’t he?’ It’s an attitude that we’ve all seen people articulate, whether in our direction or elsewhere, and in having Archie so totally misunderstand the point of the conversation, Smith manages to skilfully satirise it without ever letting us escape its painful intent.
The second half of the book deals with the children of the two families: Archie and Clara’s daughter Irie, and Samad and Alsana’s twin sons, Magid and Millat. Each of the three children has their own take on the world and their place on it. Again, race isn’t the sole focus of the novel – the growing pains of three teenagers make up a large part of it – but it certainly isn’t brushed under the carpet. Most notably, Samad makes the decision to send one of his young sons to Bangladesh, to be raised ‘traditionally’ by his family in the hope of avoiding ‘corruption’. ‘If religion is the opium of the people,’ Smith writes, ‘tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rearely appears sinister.’
The sending away of Magid – chosen over his twin because ‘Magid had the brains, Magid would settle down quicker, learn the language, quicker, and Archie had a vested interest in keeping Millat in the country because he was the best striker Willesden Athletic FC (under fifteens) had seen in decades’ – forms the spine of the book’s second half.
Samad’s plan, of course, fails. Magid does not become ‘for God, not for men…a real Bengali, a proper Muslim’ in the way that Samad
wants him to be. Instead he becomes a scientist, mixed up in controversial research against which Samad is protesting. Meanwhile, Millat joins an extremist Muslim group in the UK – ‘Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation’, or the wonderfully-deflating KEVIN (‘We are aware,’ said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, ‘that we have an acronym problem.’).
Irie, meanwhile, has developed a teenage crush on a whole family, the New Age, middle-class Chalfens, well-meaning but still unable to see beyond her skin colour. ‘She had a nebulous fifteen-year-old’s passion for them, overwhelming, yet with no real direction or object. She just wanted to, well, kind of, merge with them. She wanted their Englishness. Their Chalfishness. The purity of it.’ Both she and Millat are very aware of their racial identities and their heritages; both, too, have problematic relationships with their parents; but they both deal with it in different ways, and this is how Smith really brings her characters to life.
(I don’t want to give away too much about the end of this book, because it’s wonderful and well worth reading, but suffice to say that the Iqbals, Joneses and Chalfens of both generations eventually collide in a hilarious, poignant, tumultuous finale.)
Although Smith might claim that White Teeth isn’t a political novel, then, its political dimensions are pretty glaring, all things considered. But it’s more than simply a polemic – Smith is writing more after the fashion of Dickens than, say, Orwell; what makes this novel great is that it is an exploration of what it’s like to grow up in the last decades of the twentieth century, in a London still finding its multicultural feet. One of the most memorable passages from the novel, for me at least, is this one, which seems to encapsulate everything I’m trying to say:
‘It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble). Yet despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover’s bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.’
Next Week: Drugs and the Modern Working Class: Irvine Welsh and the ‘Trainspotting’ Generation
“Free speech” and our right to it is a fundamental human right which, too often, I don’t really think about. If something threatens it, I’ll join everyone else who’s up in arms, but for the rest of the time it just exists, like air or water or cups of tea or other things I don’t spend as much of my time being thankful for as perhaps I should. But we’ve been reading some fascinating thoughts about the UK’s take on the subject here at Student Activist Diary this weekend, courtesy of Tom Kemp, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to look at a man who wrote extensively and wonderfully in defence of human rights, and in defence of free speech, in a country where those things could not be taken for granted.
The basic history of Communist Russia is pretty common knowledge, I think, but just so we’re all starting on the same page, so to speak, here’s a brief rundown. (Here’s an even briefer one, in song. It’s much rhymier than mine.) In February 1917, a series of workers’ strikes at factories in Petrograd led to an uprising. When the Tsar, Nicholas II, called in the troops to suppress it, there was a mutiny. The Tsar was deposed, and a Provisional Government took over.
But the Provisional Government proved an ineffectual power, and in October of that year the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, organised a second revolution. Unlike the first, this was organised: it wasn’t the natural conclusion of years of unrest and inequality, it was a coup intended to take power from the Provisional Government. And – of course – it succeeded.
The years that followed, first under Lenin’s rule and later Stalin’s, were a perfect example of Communism collapsing on itself and becoming a cruel totalitarian diktat. Marx’s ideals were all but forgotten as the country struggled onwards, its leaders, despite their supposed comradeship, as pitiless and brutal as any Tsar could have been. As last week’s subject, George Orwell, famously wrote in his viciously satirical Animal Farm: ‘the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’
Political undesirables, including those who were considered to be simply ‘class-alien’, were sent to gulags, forced labour camps where they were made to work in horrific conditions, often until death. Fair trials rapidly became a distant dream as troikas – commissions of three people who were allowed to pass sentence without trial – became an increasing part of the political landscape, along with ‘show trials’ in which alleged conspirators ‘confessed’ to their crimes and were executed or imprisoned.
It was a climate of fear, uncertainty and anxiety which it is impossible to explain fully in just four hundred words. People were executed, imprisoned or sent to the gulags in their thousands; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was just one man in this mass of tormented human life, but he has become justly famous as a chronicler of their experiences.
Solzhenitsyn was arrested in 1945, whilst serving in East Prussia as part of the Red Army. His crime was writing derogatory statements about Stalin in a letter to a friend, which – under Article 58 of the Soviet criminal code – was a crime which carried a harsh sentence. After being beaten and interrogated, he was sentenced to eight years in the gulags.
Much of the work he would later publish – including his two most famous books, The Gulag Archipelago and One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich – was inspired by his experiences in the labour camps. The Gulag Archipelago is a three-volume epic which combines historical discussion, testimony and philosophical reflection to describe the Soviet labour camp system in all its unrelenting horror; it is credited with being the book that alerted the West to what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. It’s well worth a read if you have time: it’s a massively important book – but I won’t pretend that it will be a light-hearted, joyous experience.
Ivan Denisovich, on the other hand, is a much shorter account. It’s more reader-friendly, though no less chilling to read, and it is the book that I want to focus on today. Starting with the five o’clock ‘morning reveille’ and concluding with the end of the day, it literally depicts a single day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (called Shukhov in the text, and therefore here, too), a political prisoner in an unnamed gulag.
The most startling thing about the book is just how evocative it is. (I last read it on a fairly cold day, and ended up wrapped in several layers of blankets with my teeth chattering). Solzhenitsyn goes into great detail about Shukhov’s life, and the lives of the prisoners and guards with whom he shares his space. Take, for instance, this passage in which Shukhov receives his morning bread ration: ‘A spoonful of granulated sugar lay in a small mound on top of the hunk…though he was in a hurry, he sucked the sugar from the bread with his lips, licked it under his tongue…and took a look at his ration, weighing it in his hand and hastily calculating whether it reached the regulation fifty-five grammes….He, like every other prisoner, had discovered long ago that honest weight was never to be found in the bread-cutting. There was short weight in every ration. The only point was how short.’
Each part of Shukhov’s day is described in the same detail, detail that might be excruciating in the hands of a lesser writer, but here serves only to prevent us from forgetting for even a moment the horror and desolation of the conditions in which he finds himself.
So what prevents this book from being a mere festival of misery? Certainly, it’s very difficult to read in parts, and not least because it is so clearly based on the real experiences of the author. Yet Shukhov himself, our protagonist, does not always share our feelings. Rather than his interior monologue taking the form of a constant set of complaints, Shukhov’s thoughts are tempered with a quiet stoicism.
At the end of the day, for example, he reflects: ‘He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent the team to the settlement; he’d pinched a bowl of kasha at dinner…And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it. A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day’. It allows us, as readers, the time to sit back and reflect on what is actually happening, to draw our own horrified conclusions: time that is vital, given the political message the book conveys.
So Shukhov survives another day: just one, of the ‘three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that’ which make up his time in the camps. But what of Solzhenitsyn? Released in 1953, he was exiled for life to Kok-Terek, a remote area of Kazakhstan. However, suffering from a vicious cancer, he was allowed to go to Tashkent for treatment in 1954, an experience which informed his later, equally bleak novel Cancer Ward.
‘During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known.’ Solzhenitsyn wrote later, after winning the Nobel Prize.
In 1961, however, things began – slowly – to change. Novy Mir, a literary journal which had previously kept to the party line, began to take up a more rebellious position. Under the editorship of Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the journal agreed to publish One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich; the novella appeared in November 1962.
But Solzhenitsyn’s manuscripts were seized and the printing banned. He was forced to go into hiding at his friend’s house, for fear of being exiled, executed or returned to the labour camps. It was here that he finished The Gulag Archipelago and cemented his reputation as one of Soviet Russia’s finest dissident writers. A reputation that had begun to be formed with One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich.
For, perhaps, obvious reasons, there is a strong tradition of politics in twentieth-century Russian literature – a topic to which this column might yet return. But One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich is one of the most immediate, chilling depictions of life under the Soviet Union. Spare the couple of hours to read it – it’s a slim volume, no more than 141 pages – and you’ll not be disappointed. Shocked, saddened, appalled. But not disappointed.
Next week: Zadie Smith – the voice of modern Britain? White Teeth and Multiculturalism
Mention the word ‘Orwellian’ in conversation today and you are referring to something specific: a dystopian society; an intrusive state; a totalitarian government. CCTV cameras, ‘Big Brother’ watching you, and the unnameable horror of Room 101. Over the years Orwell’s name has come to be so entangled with the concepts of his last and greatest novel, 1984, that we no longer distinguish between the man and the work. Orwellian means censorship.
When you consider the rest of Orwell’s oeuvre, though, this confabulation of the two words becomes nothing more than a cruel irony. Throughout his life, Orwell championed the truth and its right to be heard. In books, essays, and even in his weekly column for literary magazine Tribune, he stood up for those who had no voice. Time after time, his insistence upon clarity, straightforwardness and often brutal honesty got him into trouble – whether with the publishers who censored him, the critics who refused to take him seriously, or the readers who didn’t want to hear what he had to say. Right up until his final novel, he struggled to find publishers for his work: TS Eliot, amongst others, rejected Animal Farm on the grounds that the book was not ‘ the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time’.
(Of course, as it turned out, the book was precisely the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation of 1945. The Cold War was just beginning, and criticisms of Communist Russia – with or without pigs – were all the rage in America, where the novel became a best-seller. It provided Orwell with the time and money to retire to a remote Scottish island and work on what was to be his final novel – 1984.)
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; and besides, everyone knows the plots of Orwell’s later, most famous novels. Today it’s his “documentaries” under question. Orwell wrote three: Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier both deal, in various capacities, with the “working classes”; Homage to Catalonia is about his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and, whilst well worth a read, not quite as relevant to the point I want to make.
One of the most interesting questions to ask about George Orwell is: how exactly did he come to exist? For, of course, it is an assumed name, the pseudonym of one Eric Arthur Blair – a middle-class, Eton-schooled young gentleman whose ambition was to go into the Indian Imperial Police, following in the footsteps of his father. Not, you might be forgiven for thinking, the obvious candidate for George Orwell’s impassioned attacks upon totalitarianism, imperialism and social injustice.
So how did Blair become Orwell? How did the ‘odious little snob’ he describes his childhood self as in The Road to Wigan Pier become the dedicated socialist who wrote that book, as well as so many others?
According to Orwell himself, it was his experience of the military police in Burma that convinced him a change was needed. In one of his most famous essays, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, he says of his time in Burma: ‘I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos — all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective.’ Still, he returned to England in 1927, at the age of twenty-four, determined not to go back to Burma. Instead, he decided, he would become a writer.
‘Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea [of being a writer],’ he says in ‘Why I Write’, another of his most famous essays, ‘but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.’ And in 1927 that is exactly what he attempted.
This was also the time when he started going out on his famous “tramping” expeditions, which would later form part of his first published book Down and Out in Paris and London. Ditching his clothes for a ‘dirty and shapeless’ outfit with ‘a gracelessness, a patina of antique filth, quite different from mere shabbiness’ and his middle-class accent for a rough Cockney, he would go and spend the night in the ‘spike’ or casual ward (a hostel, bound by strict and often senseless rules), chatting to the tramps and getting to know them on their own ground. As critic V.S. Pritchett said, he ‘went native in his own country’.
Orwell wasn’t the first to do this: notably, he was preceded by Jack London, whose ‘People of the Abyss’ he later noted as an influence in the early formation of his politics. But still, let’s think about this for a second. How many of the people who presume to know about the lives of the working classes ever bother to actually do what, to Orwell, seemed like the obvious step: go and spend time with them? Few of his supposedly Socialist, middle-class contemporaries undertook journeys like Orwell’s. Even today, not many – not enough – of the people who argue so passionately for – and against – welfare cuts and support for the poor have really experienced poverty.
It’s fair to say of Down and Out… that it is the work of a young author, and, more pertinently, a young man. Orwell’s politics are not by any means assured: he called himself, at this time, a ‘Tory anarchist’. He never mentions socialism, with or without a capital ‘S’, and even when he makes generalisations about, for example, how to improve the lot of the tramps – make farms of the workhouses, and let them grow their own food – he qualifies them with statements such as ‘This is only a rough idea, and there are some obvious objections to it. Nevertheless, it does suggest a way of improving the status of tramps without piling new burdens on the rates’.
By the time he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, though, Orwell was nearly ten years older – by now a reasonably well-respected
journalist, with two fairly well-received novels to his name besides. He had had ample time in the past decade to consider his political leanings; during that time, he had become a staunch Socialist, albeit an eccentric one. ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic socialism, as I understand it,’ he wrote later.
The phrase ‘as I understand it’ sums up Orwell’s political beliefs in a nutshell: even as he was very much on their side, he made few friends amongst the socialist movement. Indeed, it was in The Road to Wigan Pier that he wrote the famous lines: ‘’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.’
(Yeah, he does equate “feminism” with, erm, “fruit-juice drinking” and being a “crank”. The man wasn’t perfect. For better or worse, Orwell was a man of his time.)
However, even whilst deriding socialists, Orwell was still very much for Socialism. Indeed, the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier takes the form of an extended essay on Socialism and how Orwell feels the movement could be improved. It’s of questionable literary merit, and much of its politics is horrifically outdated. ‘The choice is not, as yet, between a human and an inhuman world. It is simply between Socialism and Fascism, which at its very best is Socialism with the virtues left out,’ Orwell notes, three years before the start of the Second World War.
Yet, for all that, it is still worth a read, if only for its autobiographical section – a chapter or two in which Orwell gives a brief account of his life, and goes as far as he ever would in describing how Eric Blair became George Orwell.
The first part of Road to Wigan Pier, on the other hand, is justly the more famous. It tells the tale of Orwell’s journey to the north, to research working-class life in the mining towns hit by the Depression. Full of memorable images and glorious, powerful prose, it captures perfectly what life must have been like for the people of the town. Employed or unemployed, living in reasonable comfort or crammed into tiny slums, Orwell paints their pictures with all the empathy and skill of a man who truly wants to help out.
I know that we’re mid-semester again now, and time for pleasure-reading is strictly limited, but anyone who prides themselves on their literary and political credentials really ought to give Orwell a read; there is a reason his name is synonymous with English political writing of the twentieth century.
Next week: One Day in the Life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Ivan Denisovich and Communist Russia