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Peerless in Wigan

By Scott Hamilton

In February and March of 1936, a young journalist and novelist named George Orwell left his adopted home of London and travelled through the northern counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, staying in boarding houses in Wigan, Sheffield, and Barnsley, tramping through the poorest streets of those cities, and meeting and interviewing miners, small businessmen, and unemployed workers. After returning from the slums and slag heaps of the north, Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier, a book which considers the impact of the Great Depression on England’s working class with a mixture of sympathy, disgust, and anger.

The Road to Wigan Pier was written very quickly, because Orwell was preparing to travel to Spain and fight for the anti-fascist side in that country’s civil war. The book’s descriptions of England’s depressed north are relatively brief, and much of its second half is given over to a vituperative and rather strange polemic against ‘vegetarians, feminists, pacifists, fruit juice drinkers’ and other reprobates who have, according to Orwell, tried to hijack the doctrine of socialism. The Road met with mixed reviews when it was published in 1937.

In the seventy-five years since its appearance, though, Orwell’s book has become established as a classic portrait of the effects of the crisis of capitalism in the thirties on ordinary people. Certain passages in the book, like Orwell’s description of ‘a slum girl of twenty-five’ with ‘an exhausted face’ kneeling on an embankment and poking a stick up a frozen waste pipe, or his tribute to the ‘black and naked’ coal miners whose ‘hacking and shovelling’ is the unacknowledged basis of modern life, have seemed to sum up the misery and injustice of what WH Auden called ‘a low dishonest decade’.

Orwell’s book has inspired a number of sequels over the decades since its publication. In 1984 the journalist Beatrix Campbell surveyed the damage that Thatcherism was doing to Wigan and other parts of the north in her book Wigan Pier Revisited. When Campbell made her journey through the north, the long boom which had raised living standards in Britain and the rest of the West after World War Two had ended, and Thatcher’s government was trying to restore the profitability of business with a programme of privatisation and deindustrialistion. The ‘New Labour’ regime of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would maintain the essential policy planks of Thatcherism.

Thatcherism and Blairism turned parts of the cities of the north into wastegrounds, but they seemed, in the late nineties and for much of the noughties, to have created a mini-boom for business. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, though, the British economy is once again in recession, and unemployment is once again rising. In retrospect, the good times of the fin de siecle years seem to have been based upon cheap credit, rather than on the success of Thatcherism.

With Britain once again in crisis, it seems appropriate that the freelance journalist Stephen Armstrong has made a new journey to Wigan, and turned his encounters with the people of the city into a book he has given the inevitable title The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited.

In a review written for the Guardian, Stuart Maconie praises Armstrong’s intentions, but contrasts his methods and style with those of Orwell. Orwell focused much of his attention on miners and other parts of the traditional industrial proletariat, while Armstrong studies the low-paid, casually employed service sector workers who are part and parcel of post-industrial Britain, but both men rage against the deprivation and class divisions which disfigure their society. Yet where Orwell’s book is a series of portraits made in spare, poetic language, Armstrong’s is full of statistics and citations. Maconie complains that Armstrong has taken more trouble with his data than he has with his language:

[S]tylistically, the two writers are worlds apart. While we know what Armstrong means when he says that the social reformer Seebohm Rowntree “cut people the same kind of slack as Orwell did”, or when he says of the concept of relative deprivation “you can sniff at the label and consider it way too generous a definition of poverty”, you can sense Orwell bridling from beyond the grave at the slipshod expression. This may seem harsh, but if you’re going to borrow the title and the concept of one of the finest pieces of social reportage and documentary social history by one of the greatest modern English writers, you need to be on your mettle in every sentence.

Stephen Armstrong seems to regard Orwell as a faultless figure, but Beatrix Campbell used her book about Wigan to take a few cracks at the great man. She argued that Orwell idealised male workers like the coal miners of the north, but treated the women of the region as passive victims of the Great Depression. Female trade unionists and other strong women were ignored in favour of miserable, helpless characters like the ‘slum girl’ poking a stick up a frozen pipe. Campbell tried to rectify Orwell’s bias by doing interviewing scores of Wigan women and by writing about women’s institutes and clubs in the city.

Some of Campbell’s charges against The Road to Wigan Pier have been backed up by recent scholarship on the book. Since the publication of Orwell’s twenty-volume Complete Works in 1998, we have been able to compare the text of the journal he kept during his journey to the north with The Road, and to note the numerous discrepancies between the two works. A lot of the most famous details in the book don’t appear in the journal, and there are reasons for thinking that they are invented. Orwell claimed to have observed the famous ‘slum girl’ at work with her stick early in February 1936, for instance, at a time when the weather in the north of England was unusually warm, and pipes would not have been frozen.

We should not be surprised if parts of The Road to Wigan Pier were invented, because biographers and commentators have long conceded that there are fictional details in many of Orwell’s ostensibly non-fictional works. There is no evidence that Orwell ever shot an elephant in front of a crowd of villagers or observed a hanging during his time as a colonial functionary in Burma, and some of the most memorable characters in Down and Out in Paris and London are fictions.

Orwell is a writer who divides opinion on the left, and Stephen Armstrong and Beatrix Campbell in some ways represent two opposed views of his achievement. For Armstrong he is a saint and a prophet; for Campbell he is a shyster who knew a lot less about working class culture than he pretended, and whose work has been embraced by the right.

What Armstrong and Campbell arguably have in common, though, is a radical misapprehension of the method Orwell used when he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier and many of his other works. In this day and age, when the poorer corners of societies like Britain are crawling with social scientists doing all sorts of quantitative and qualitative research for government departments and universities, it’s all too easy to treat The Road to Wigan Pier as a pioneering work of sociology. In reality, though, sociology only really took off in Britain in the seventies, and was virtually non-existent in the thirties.

In his classic 1965 essay ‘Components of the National Culture’ Perry Anderson argued that the long absence of sociology and most other social sciences from Britain meant that the country’s academics tended to work in a piecemeal fashion, without the broad vision of their society that a discipline like sociology could provide. As a result there was, Anderson suggested, an ‘absent centre’ in British culture, and for a century or more literature had tried to fill that centre. Writers like Arnold, Lawrence, Leavis and Orwell had all tried to describe the broad outlines and diagnose the major ills of their society. They had stepped into the vacuum created by the absence of a British Durkheim or Marx.

Orwell’s books have to be considered, then, as part of a tradition of literary commentaries on and critiques of British society. The Road to Wigan Pier falls easily into a sub-tradition within this tradition, in which socially concerned writers leave the comfort and safety of their studies and set out on journeys that will give them a first-hand understanding of their nation’s ills. William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, and JB Priestley’s English Journey are members of the same species as The Road to Wigan Pier.

The ‘state of the nation’ travel book differs markedly from the work of most sociologists. It doesn’t feature either conscientious qualitative research or number-crunching quantitative research, but instead relies on first impressions and intuitions. It doesn’t proceed in arguments so much as anecdotes and images. And it relies for its credibility not on its footnotes and bibliography but on the extent to which its narrator manages to impress us with their personality, and with the snap judgments they offer on the people and events they encounter on their travels.

We might understand the difference between a book like The Road to Wigan Pier and the work of most social scientists by invoking Hans-Georg Gadamer’s distinction between judgement-based and calculative thinking. Where calculative thinking aims at certainty and tries to fit data with general theoretical laws, judgement-based thinking proceeds on a much looser basis, and owes more to the methods of the arts than the sciences. Gadamer argued that in our era calculative thinking has largely superseded judgement-based thinking. The computer, with its ability to crunch vast amounts of data and its illusion of precision, is the model for all thought.

Today works like The Road to Wigan Pier are sometimes subjected to pedantic criticisms by people who misread them as attempts at social science. The fact that Orwell invented this or that detail of a text, or emphasised this social group at the expense of another, is held up as proof that he failed to produce a properly rigorous account of his subject. The fact that Orwell was working by a different set of rules is missed. For their part, Orwell’s defenders often mistakenly seem to feel that they have to fight tooth and nail against some of the more pedantic criticisms of their hero, and attempt quixotically to deny his habit of inventing characters and events, his biases towards certain groups at the expense of others, and the speed with which he made and revised many of his judgements.

Because both Orwell’s supporters and detractors ignore the tradition he was working in and the method he was using, they are incapable of learning from the achievement of books like The Road to Wigan Pier. Both Beatrix Campbell’s and Stephen Armstrong’s accounts of their journeys to the north substitute plodding empirical research for Orwell’s intuition, and give us dull, cliche-ridden prose instead of Orwell’s succession of uncanny images. Where Orwell haunts us, Campbell and Armstrong bore us, despite their good intentions.