The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell – Reviewed by Guy Portman
This highly acclaimed and controversial book came into existence as a result of a left-wing publisher by the name of Victor Gollancz commissioning Orwell to make a contribution to what he described as the ‘condition of England’. Gollancz later decided to include the resulting work in his Left Book Club series.
The first half of the book sees Orwell traveling through industrial Northern Britain, detailing and commenting on the working-class life that he comes across, beginning with his experiences in a squalid boarding house. In typical Orwellian fashion the prose abounds with vivid descriptions, such as a bedroom smelling like a ferret cage, a full chamber pot under a dining table, the event which finally leads the author to find new lodgings, and a room ‘festooned in grimy blankets’. A poverty stricken woman struggling to clear a blocked pipe with a stick is one image that is particularly poignant.
Orwell outlines in minutest detail the conditions of the houses that he visits, including the degree of rot, the state of the living rooms, sleeping quarters, sanitation, which is universally outdoors, and even the cooking facilities. The author’s visits to the coal mines, the cornerstone of industrial England at the time, are not without difficulty as he discovers that his unusually tall frame is ill-suited to the low mine shafts. Orwell’s fascination with his fellow man is prevalent throughout as he analyses the distance the miners travel each day, their wages, washing facilities and eating habits. He is very particular and fastidious in this regard, as the detailed tables that are included will testify. There is even an assortment of photographs inserted in the middle of the book, which capture the essence of working class conditions of the time.
The second half of the book takes the form of a highly critical and opinionated commentary in which Orwell’s Socialist leanings are in evidence throughout, as he argues eloquently about everything from the inevitability of our increased dependence on machinery, to attacking assumptions and prejudices about Socialism and his loathing of Fascism. The author was so opposed to this growing global threat that shortly after writing the book he headed to Catalonia to participate in the Spanish Civil War, in a losing effort against the Fascists. Despite the assertive and judgmental nature of the text, examples of Orwell’s sense of humor can be found in abundance.
This eloquent commentary, which continues to have political relevance even today, will not be to everyone’s liking, due to the detailed numerical data and relentless opinion. Those with left wing tendencies, the most ardent Orwell fans and anyone interested to discover more about the working conditions of the day will no doubt embrace this valuable literary contribution wholeheartedly.