Posts Tagged ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’
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