The Road to Wigan Pier

George Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937, as a personal exposé into the lives of the working-class poor. Orwell infiltrated the industrial and mining towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire by sharing overcrowded and often unsanitary rooming houses with other workers. He reported on their appalling working and living conditions and in his descriptions did not hold back in using the most subjective language: 

“In Sheffield you have the feeling of walking among a population of troglodytes.”

The Road to Wigan Pier is filled with language one might expect a mother to use if she stumbled across her teenaged son’s room. When Orwell rents a room from a couple named Brooker, he has to share with three other men. The four of them are so cramped inside that Orwell, who was quite tall, couldn’t sleep with his legs fully extended. Orwell keeps the dirty people he rooms with and whom he meets at arm’s length if he can bear to look at them. This is one of Orwell’s constant remarks about poverty in northern England: not only are the houses but the people themselves are dirty. This remark reeks of prejudice, which would have gone unchallenged in the class society of England in the mid-thirties. Orwell seemed on a “dirt hunt”, checking under the fingernails and in the creases between the toes of his neighbours. In regards to the Brookers’ rooming house, Orwell wrote, often with contempt: 

“Generally the crumbs from breakfast were still on the table at supper. I used to get to know individual crumbs by sight and watch their progress up and down the table from day to day.” 

Meal preparation at the Brookers was an ordeal Orwell could not stomach: 

“The meals at the Brookers’ house were uniformly disgusting. For breakfast you got two rashers of bacon and a pale fried egg, and bread-and-butter which had often been cut overnight and always had thumb-marks on it. However tactfully I tried, I could never induce Mr. Brooker to let me cut my own bread-and-butter; he would hand it to me slice by slice, each slice gripped firmly under that broad black thumb.” 

To Orwell, poor people were dirty, miserable and had no personal pride: 

“In the mornings he [Mr. Brooker] sat by the fire with a tub of filthy water, peeling potatoes at the speed of a slow-motion picture. I never saw anyone who could peel potatoes with quite such an air of brooding resentment. You could see the hatred of this ‘bloody woman’s work’, as he called it, fermenting inside him, a kind of bitter juice. He was one of those people who can chew their grievances like a cud.” 

Orwell looked down on the poor working class from his bourgeois pedestal. Those who failed in business were themselves to blame for lack of business sense was a congenital trait. The poor could not succeed in business because they were too stupid to know any better: 

“Certainly it was true that the shop did not pay. The whole place had the unmistakable dusty, flyblown air of a business that is going down. But it would have been quite useless to explain to them [the Brookers] why nobody came to the shop, even if one had had the face to do it; neither was capable of understanding that last year’s dead bluebottles supine in the shop window are not good for trade.” 

Orwell in his analysis of reasons behind the current state of the British economy used two terms from the very beginning of The Road to Wigan Pier, which he didn’t explain till a considerable length into the book. I was puzzled by the abbreviation “PAC”, which he didn’t elaborate upon or define as the Public Assistance Committee until page 71. Orwell also made repeated references to the Means Test, yet didn’t explain what that was until page 73. 

The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two parts, equal in length. After the exposé on the working-class poor, the second part is Orwell’s socialist rant. I found this part overbearingly repetitive and boring. Orwell raises the same points over and over in favour of socialism, and in his own warped way gets into the minds of those who are against him and ridicules them. He reminded me of a psychologically imbalanced teenager who believes he knows exactly what every one of his fellow students is thinking and why everyone is against him. His subcutaneous omniscience rendered laughter instead of learned insight. I couldn’t repress laughter whenever Orwell railed against fellow socialists who happened to be of the wrong class. He described these people as “sandal-wearers” and “bearded fruit-juice drinkers”. Instead of seeing these people as allies and working with them, he belittles and dismisses them. 

I dreaded the second half of this book. I raced through reading the first part yet the second part plodded along; I couldn’t wait to put it down and be done with it.

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