What Orwell discovered in the North

All Roads lead from Wigan

March 02, 2017
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“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 DaysKeep 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 of statistics about housing, unemployment and poverty. He was no trained sociologist but his surveys, his accumulations of evidence, his motley collection of facts represented a rare attempt to give an objective popular account of the lives of the poor to readers who would mostly have been ill-informed about such matters.

He begins Wigan Pier with a literary sleight of hand; by letting his audience of mostly southern intellectuals believe that he agrees with them. There is a cult of northernness, he writes, in which: “you and I and everyone else in the south of England” is written off as snobbish, effete and lazy. By contrast the northerner sees himself as gritty, warm-hearted and democratic. Yorkshiremen secretly believe all other peoples to be inferior whereas in reality they belong to a “rather uncouth tribe.’” Philip Toynbee thought that Wigan Pier read like a report by some well-intended anthropologist on an oppressed tribe in Borneo. But the reader is put at ease: Orwell is “one of us,” so it’s safe to read on. Only later will they discover that, like many an anthropologist before him, Orwell had gone native.

But look, says Orwell, even when we’ve consigned this silly cult of northern superiority to the bin, there really are differences between north and south. For mainly climatic reasons the “parasitic” dividend-drawing classes had tended to settle in the south, so that there was some truth in the picture that northerners paint of the south as “one enormous Brighton inhabited by lounge lizards.” Moreover, the embourgeoisement of the northern working class was happening at a much slower pace than in the south. This meant that different northern dialects persisted and an educated accent stamped a person as an incomer rather than as a representative of the local petty gentry, an advantage for Orwell because it allowed him to meet working-class people in the north on “approximately equal terms.” What his nose picked up in this wasteland, above a number of less appealing aromas, was the smell of equality. “In a Lancashire cotton town,” he wrote, “you could probably go for months without once hearing an ‘educated’ accent, whereas there can hardly be a town in the South of England where you could throw a brick without hitting the niece of a bishop.” (Originally a Woodhouse phrase Orwell, a fan, had customised and as we see used to great effect.)

The northern working class, he went on, was moved by an egalitarian fellow-feeling, by a sense of common decency, values nurtured by the Church reflecting the traditional Christian values of charity and justice, values Orwell would later see reflected in the cinematic art of Charlie Chaplin and in the cartoonist art of Donald McGill. In his essay “The English People,” Orwell wrote that Chaplin’s comedic success stemmed from his ability to represent the “concentrated essence of the common man” coupled with its instinctive grasp of decency and justice. No wonder he was banned by the Nazis, says Orwell. The world that McGill depicted was also a world of equality and mateship. His postcards and their obscene mottos made sense only within the context of a value system that assumes that ordinary people want to behave decently and be good, though perhaps not too good, and not necessarily all the time.

Significantly, Orwell didn’t leave us with only a picture of a northern working-class managing to survive the ordeals of poverty through a value system based on egalitarianism and common decency. He had in mind something far more ambitious and controversial: the conscious adaptation of these values, with the support of “all right-thinking people” to the public sphere as a form of politics. This is a massive leap of faith but Orwell was unapologetic, writing “all over England, in every industrial town, there are men by scores thousands whose attitude to life, if only they could express it...would change the consciousness of our race.” This was democratic socialism.

So what would Orwell’s democratic socialism amount to? He took for granted that retention of the basic structure of working-class culture would be a prime objective (family, pub, football, betting)—how else could their values be sustained?—and that consequently utopianism and any form of scientific or indeed ideological socialism would be inappropriate. “The working-class Socialist, like the working-class Catholic, is weak on doctrine and can hardly open his mouth without uttering a heresy, but he has the heart of the matter in him.” Orwell’s democratic socialism—no more and no less than the public endorsement of what he called “common decency”—couldn’t be elaborated into a programme of action any more than it could be formulated into a systematic ideology because it represented the way of life of a community. It would be quite wrong to think that Orwell’s rejection of ideology was based upon lack of understanding or knowledge of ideological debate. A Roman Catholic theologian wrote to him once suggesting that they collaborate in fleshing out a theory of the politics of “common decency.” There is no record of Orwell replying. For Orwell ideology took democratic socialism away from the working class and gave it to the intellectuals.

Orwell’s democratic socialism stood apart from the intellectuals’ version of socialism: something for “the clever ones” to impose upon “the Lower Orders,” like a dose of Extract of Malt. The primary task, then, was to see that democratic socialism was not intellectualised but humanised. “We have got to fight for justice and liberty, and Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off it.” The “exploited” middle-class would be won over, for they would soon come to realise that the real struggle was not between those who did or did not pronounce their aitches but between the exploiters and the exploited. In the second half of Wigan Pier, in the guise of devil’s advocate, Orwell unleashed a brilliant but savage onslaught on left-wing socialist intellectuals. Everyone knows that he came to despise Stalin and Soviet Communism as the greatest threat to his decency myth of democratic socialism, but in 1937 British intellectuals were just as much the target of his ire, none more so than his schoolboy heroes Bernard Shaw and HG Wells, along with some colleagues at The Adelphi and even many members of the Left Book Club for whom he was supposed to be writing. Democratic socialism needed a champion who could clear out the ideological baggage that socialism had accrued and speak out for its primal sanities: it needed George Orwell.

In the seminal Wigan Pier Orwell created—or as he would see it, brought to light—a distinctive brand of socialism chiselled from the common decencies of working class life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian, would argue that Christianity similarly led away from abstractions and towards “an ethic which is entirely concrete”; and Vaclav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s dissident author and democratically elected president, would write an essay in 1978 entitled “The Power of the Powerless.” In it he rejected dominant socialist ideology as “the interpretation of reality by the power structure” and argued instead for a “post-political” system, when ordinary men and women would genuinely participate in decision-making. There is tightness in Havel’s argument which exposes the limitations of Orwell’s own but both men, and Bonhoeffer are talking about the same phenomenon.

Well, were they right? George Gissing, a socialist and writer whom Orwell admired, knew the poor better than Orwell did, and he regarded the working class as savages who should on no account be let anywhere near power. Even Orwell, when his guard was down, exhibited reservations and nowhere, inWigan Pier or later does he give a satisfactory account of how democratic socialism would come to dominate the nation’s political system. Wyndham Lewis wrote: “I consider Orwell's romanticising about [the working class] an insult to them, for he really thought they were marked off in some mysterious way… which they are not. The whole of the Wigan Pier business was, he concluded, a silly affectation and Orwell’s picture of virile workers and nineteenth-century values “medieval and guildish.” Walter Greenwood, whose own portrayal of northern working-class life Love on the Dole was made into a (banned) film, wrote that though Wigan Pier held his interest from cover to cover, he couldn’t remember being so infuriated by some of the things Orwell said. One commentator, Samuel Hynes, wrote that Orwell's working-class values amounted to nothing more than a vague “emotional liberalism”: if more people would be decent the world would be decent. Another, John Newsinger argued to the contrary: Orwell’s panegyric for the workers was much more than a “personal idiosyncrasy”; it constituted a serious political position. On the other hand, he continued, it suited Orwell’s purpose to show the working class as honourable victims with only a limited capacity for leadership. Nowhere did Orwell acknowledge the workers’ revolutionary potential. These judgements have weight but the value system that Orwell sought to articulate, his democratic socialism, belonged to the industrial working class and not to a medieval guild; moreover it required social and economic equality as a sine qua non. Whilst it is true he had nothing to say about the revolutionary potential of the working class and indeed carefully avoided working-class political leaders, Orwell remained fully committed to the end of his life to the belief that if there was any hope, it lay with the proles.

Other caveats remain however. A working-class communist in Aldous Huxley’sPoint Counter Point observes that when you live on less than £4 per week you’ve “dammed well got to behave like a Christian and love your neighbour,” suggesting that Orwell’s democratic socialism was no more than a conditioned response to poverty. Moreover, Orwell’s reaction to the warmth of working-class families and communities was at least as emotional as intellectual. We remember the occasion referred to in his first full-length work Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, when he helped a costermonger put back fallen fruit on his barrow. The resulting “thanks, mate” rocked him: nobody had ever called him mate before. In his experience people of his social class didn’t have mates, or neighbours.

Orwell’s democratic socialism was intended to represent the distillation of this spirit and at the very last, as Winston Smith’s mind is being destroyed in torture in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is to this spirit that he tries to cling: “What mattered were individual relationships...the proles... were not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they were loyal to one another. ‘The proles are human beings,’ he said aloud.” This emotional attachment made him parti pris; in portraying the north in 1937 it was inevitable that Orwell would have seen what he wanted to see and ignored what he didn’t want to see (for example the gender inequality and domestic violence that DH Lawrence wrote about in Sons and Lovers); and just as importantly he would have written only what he wanted others to read. Perhaps it wasn’t always the truth that his “prose like a window pane” looked out on.

Moreover, if Orwell wrote Wigan Pier to open our eyes to the hardships of working-class life and to prompt political action to alleviate them, what if it worked? Would the values that nourished democratic socialism survive? The post-1945 welfare state increasingly became the “good neighbour” for every citizen and in doing so indirectly helped engineer the decline of the very values Orwell cherished. A number of studies of the sprawling new estates, into which much of the industrial working class was rehoused, such as Michael Collins’s on working-class culture in South London, suggest that the traditional qualities of neighbourliness that had marked such communities had somehow become detached. Moreover the decline of Britain’s industrial base entailed the shrinking or even disappearance of traditional places of work in which Orwell’s values—his democratic socialism—had thrived: factories, mills, docks, ship yards, fishing ports. (It is worth pointing out that Orwell made little attempt to analyse the trade union movement in any depth, though that too has obviously shrunk dramatically.) By the 1990s, in The Full Monty, the industrial working-class, the last residue of Orwellian hope, is shown fatally weakened by the effects of neo-liberalism and globalisation: its representatives exit stage left, naked, with a song. A more devastating picture of the decline of the very fabric of working-class democratic socialism would be difficult to imagine.

But a key fact about Orwell’s democratic socialism surely is that he believed in it and it gave him a sense of mission, a mission for which he was prepared to give his life when he believed he saw it in action in Civil War Barcelona. It would shape and enrich most of his literary output including his two best known works.

In Wigan Pier Orwell’s writing style shows a mastery fired by his newly forged political allegiance: now he knew where he was going. As Richard Rees noted at the time, it was as if a smouldering fire had suddenly burst into flames. The best-known descriptive passage in the book concerns a young woman trying to clean out a clogged-up drainpipe. We are with Orwell as he sits in his train observing from a distance. We know about the woman’s life, the kind of conditions that have pressed in on her and above all we realise that as she watches the train pulling away to another world she knows that she is and will always be a prisoner in a truly awful place. And don’t think, he concludes, that somehow it’s different for “them”: she knew all too well what her life amounted to. Newsinger called this “one of the most powerful images of social injustice in the English language.”

In Wigan Pier Orwell advanced a case for a new, different kind of socialism that drew its inspiration not from an ideology but from the values of ordinary working-class people. This democratic socialism was consciously built upon a myth and at its heart lay the simple phrase that stayed with Orwell for life: any hope for the future lay with the proles. Whatever coherence and conviction his democratic socialism may or may not have possessed, whatever its relevance or irrelevance for the modern world it was the force that created and gave a focus to Orwell’s writing, which in turn helped to shape the post-war world.

His brief stay in Wigan proved to be a landmark in Orwell’s life and in his writing. It gave him a mission, to champion democratic socialism against all injustice, and this in turn brought to his prose an incomparable vigour, vivacity, muscularity and incisiveness, forging an imaginative power of such force that he became perhaps the most influential cold warrior of them all. Not bad for a man whom nature didn’t intend to be a novelist!