Reading History: George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier

wigan pier

I can still remember it well. In history class in St. Paul’s Community College, we came to a section in our textbooks (Dermot Lucey’s Modern Europe and the Wider World for those of you interested) on the Great Depression and the changing political situation in Britain. Here was the Jarrow Crusade in vivid detail, with the most extraordinary of photographs. And along with it there was a quote from a book by George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier.

To that point, all I knew about Orwell was Animal Farm and 1984, neither of which I’d yet read. But this quote jumped out at me – something about the condition of working-class English people in this period resonated with me. Curiously, this was around 2005 or 2006, during “the good times”. I was completely enthralled, and in what I am nearly certain was my first ever Amazon purchase, I sought out this book and began a relationship with the writing of George Orwell that has scarcely altered since. While I may be more circumspect about some of his writing now, at the time I was utterly dazzled by it. And with The Road to Wigan Pier, I was struck by its sense of justice. It’s sense of what was unjust and what might change it.

I have re-read the book several times since, but have not now read it for many years. Like with other books I’ve written about for this little series, The Road to Wigan Pier exists as part of my mental furniture on several different levels: first, as a book which I devoured and when I had read less books than I have now, thought it unsurpassable. Second, and more importantly perhaps, it exists as a reminder to me of the kind of work I one day hope to write; it is a book moreover which encourages me to constantly think about the value of not alone what write, but about what use writing can be for at all. If by writing we cannot affect change, then what are we, as historians, social commentators, or even bloggers writing for, exactly?

And one might ask, what use reading, if not to have a similar effect? This was a question posed some time after by Richard Hoggart in his classic The Uses of Literacy. Hoggart’s was a book which I only read for the first time during my PhD, having been introduced to it by a friend. Now as I look at my decade old, Penguin  Modern Classics edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, I note that it is Hoggart who penned the short introduction that prefaces Orwell’s text. Perhaps most astutely observed by Hoggart is this (the introduction was written in 1989):

it is easy to see why the book created and still creates so sharp an impact; so much adverse notice on the one hand, so much grateful fellow-feeling on the other. Above all, it is a study of poverty and, underlying that, of the strength of class divisions. Orwell notes with contempt how in 1937 it was fashionable to say that class divisions were fading in Britain. Twenty years later I published a book which made similar points, and was told by some reviewers that I was grievously mistaken, that class feeling was virtually dead. Thirty more years on and the same things are being said. Class distinction do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves. Orwell’s stance in this matter is completely up to date. Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty. (vii)

Hoggart here fixes upon something which makes The Road to Wigan Pier timeless in many respects. Orwell’s ideas as expressed in it, are still vital to someone who wishes to understand the real social impact of unemployment and who wants to really understand the ways in which class functions. Take this for instance:

In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole. Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagance… In such circumstances you have got to cling to your gentility because it is the only thing you have; and meanwhile you are hated for your stuck-up-ness and for the accent and manners which stamp you as one of the boss class. (115-117)

Here we have Orwell discussing what in many ways has been and continues to be a defining feature of class formation in the post-industrial age: what Pierre Bourdieu identified as social and cultural capital. And in this single passage we also see why Hoggart in his introduction is able to say that the book is a study of “the strength of class divisions”. It is not just an antagonistic working-class who make themselves distinct from other classes but also the downwardly mobile middle-class (a growing constituency today) who make sharp distinctions between themselves as people with superior social and cultural capital. This is especially the case when their actual monetary situation is no better, and perhaps even worse, than working-class counterparts. Orwell would undoubtedly recognise the anxiety of today’s downwardly mobile middle-class easily. Consider this passage on the real impact of unemployment:

When you see the unemployment figures quoted at two millions, it is fatally easy to take this as meaning that two million people are out of work and the rest of the population is comparatively comfortable… This is an enormous underestimate, because, in the first place, the only people shown on unemployment figures are those actually drawing the dole – that is, in general, the heads of families. An unemployed man’s dependants do not figure on the list unless they too are drawing a seperate allowance. A Labour Exchange officer told me that to get the real number of people living on (not drawing) the dole, you have got to multiply the official figures by something over three. (69)

Not only was Orwell able to distinguish the difference between an individual living on a means tested dole, but the impact this would have on their dependants, in a passage that followed immediately after, he was able to pinpoint the reality of being underpaid – in contemporary discourse, precarity:

…in addition there are great numbers of people who are in work but who, from a financial point of view, might equally well be unemployed, because they are not drawing anything that can be described as a living wage. (69)

Thus, Orwell in writing this book, though written many years ago and in a very specific context has provided anyone who reads this book with an extraordinary weapon: an ability to critically analyse a situation, to empathise with but also distance oneself critically from people and assess the material conditions in which they find themselves. So we find a critique of class distinction, of means testing, of precarity, of a failure to provide a living wage all in words that ring true today, first penned in 1937.


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