“Mr. Orwell must have wasted a lot of energy trying to be a novelist. I think I must have read three or four novels by him and the only impression these dreary books left on me was that nature didn’t intend him to be a novelist.” This was QD Leavis writing in 1940—by which time Orwell had written three novels, Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter: doubtful if these would have earned him more than a footnote in a review of the literature of the 1930s. So when and how did this average novelist become a writer of such global impact? It all began 80 years ago, on 8th March to be exact, when The Road to Wigan Pier was published.
To begin at the beginning, Victor Gollancz, publisher and noted supporter of left-wing causes, had decided to commission a writer to spend some time in the north of England. They would provide an account of the lives of the poor and unemployed for his new Left Book Club. Socialist sympathiser, relatively unknown young writer but with a proven record of portraying poverty, who better to send than George Orwell? It had been no laboured novel but a vivid autobiographical account of his days among the poor of Paris and London, published in 1933, as well as some pieces in The Adelphi, the unofficial voice of the Independent Labour Party that had earned Orwell that commission which would set him off on an adventure that would change his life. To most of his vast army of fans outside Britain today the product of that commission, The Road to Wigan Pier remains largely unknown—and yet it was writing this book that transformed a gifted but weakly focused would-be writer into the committed socialist and author George Orwell. His journey to socialism and to literary prominence was routed through Wigan.
The landscape of the north of England as Orwell painted it was defined by industrial squalor and an arresting ugliness. According to Orwell Sheffield was “the ugliest town in the Old World.” He made this implausible claim (he’d never gone to Middlesbrough!) for a specific purpose: to oblige his chiefly southern middle-class audience to acknowledge that this industrial dereliction was qualitatively different from the down-at-heel inner cities with which they might have been familiar. He set out to describe the lives of the poor in the north with squadrons…