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on 20 December 2011
Published in 1937, George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier documents the grinding poverty of northern England, namely Lancashire and Yorkshire. As with Orwell's better-known and somewhat similar Down and Out in Paris and London, the author sets out to investigate the conditions of the poor by living among them and writing about his experiences. There is a chapter on coal miners and mines, and Orwell elucidates on the culture and mechanics of the industry; he goes down a mine to report, taking the reader with him. Orwell discusses unemployment (how it's misunderstood, etc.) and touches on how the upper classes view the lower ones.

That, more or less, makes for Part One, which I found engaging from a historical perspective as much as anything. It's meant to be a socioeconomic investigation (a description, a testimony), but because it's 75 years old, it's become a historical document. Part One isn't as lively or vivid as sections of Down and Out, perhaps because there's little dialogue and it lacks that diary-of-life-in-the-gutter quality. The conditions Orwell describes are awful, but, comparatively, there is a sense of detachment in the way he communicates them.

In Part Two, Orwell gears down, going from documentary to dissertation, and though historical, this part is timeless. "The English class system has outlived its usefulness," is the message he wants us to take from Part One, so what's the solution? The most obvious answer is socialism, but is socialism really the medicine society needs to take?

The section about machine-worship notwithstanding (time has proven Orwell, and probably many others, wrong about the future of machines and technology), Part Two makes for provocative, passionate, and insightful analysis. Anyone who's ever given thought to class distinction, class conflict, exploitation, the plight of the working poor, or been drawn, if only momentarily, to socialism or its various forms (Marxism, communism, democratic socialism, etc.) ought to read this book, and carefully. Anybody who reads tracts like Terry Eagleton's Why Marx was Right ought to read The Road to Wigan Pier immediately afterward. They should buy them together.

In socialism, Orwell finds a few good, if loose, ideas, a lot of stupidity, and even more pretension. He lambasts its advocates, arguing they are out of touch with the proletarians they claim to venerate. Socialists are striking a blow at the bourgeoisie, yet they are the bourgeoisie. If a coal miner walked in on one of their meetings, they would feel, at the least, uncomfortable. Socialists hold that "poverty, and what is more, the habits of mind created by poverty, are something to be abolished from above, by violence if necessary; perhaps even preferably by violence."

Socialism is dogma, Orwell illustrates (without saying as much), arguing that it is not a mirror image of fascism, but a perverse form of it (a "travesty" is the word he uses). Though seemingly antipodean, the ideologies have much in common. If you travel far enough toward either end of the political spectrum, you end up as a blip on the opposite side.

The attacks are scathing, and come in bunches. "We have got to admit that if Fascism is everywhere and advancing, this is largely the fault of Socialists themselves. Partly it is due to the mistaken Communist tactic of sabotaging democracy, i.e. sawing off the branch you are sitting on...." Moreover, Orwell says, Socialists "have never made it sufficiently clear that their essential aims are justice and liberty. With their eyes glued to economic facts, they have proceeded on the assumption that man has no soul, and explicitly or implicitly they have set up the goal of a materialistic Utopia." The greatest excoriation, though it's hard to choose, might be: "Socialism calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win."

And it very nearly did win. The prophetic nature of Orwell's ideas is part of his perennial appeal.

`But hey,' interjects the modern-day far-leftie. `Orwell is talking about a brand of socialism that no longer exists. Socialism has changed.'

It has in some regards, but elements of the variety Orwell was talking about are still apparent. Democratic socialism is still championed by people from the middle class, it's still dogmatic, and it still reveres "great" men who believe change must come from above. Socialism is often the final destination of the alienated. It is a mind-numbing religion for the non-religious, intellectual, middle class.

They say a good book tells you what you already know (or suspect), and it's probably for that reason I enjoyed this one so much. I live in one of Canada's poorest cities, thoroughly blue collar. It's hard not to look at the poor and start conjuring up ideas about social engineering. Give them an education, you think. Give them purpose. Break the cycle of generational poverty. I recently reread Marx and even voted for and joined Canada's democratic socialist party, though I quickly wished I hadn't. The rally I attended was dominated by "vegetarians with wilting beards" (or at least many of the local university's bearded faculty), sixties' activists, and "earnest ladies in sandals." I was, quite frankly, put off by this, and by discussions in the crowd about the bright spots of the Soviet Union and a few of communism's "great" men, the handing out of hammer-and-sickle adorned propaganda rags, etc. As Orwell writes, "the thinking person, by intellect usually left-wing but by temperament often right-wing, hovers at the gate of the Socialist fold. He is no doubt aware that he ought to be a Socialist. But he observes first the dullness of individual Socialists, then the apparent flabbiness of Socialist ideals, and veers away."

And none too soon.

There is an intriguing aside to The Road to Wigan Pier. The book was commissioned by a publisher named Victor Gollancz, who wasn't at all happy with Part Two and worried about the reactions of members of the Left Book Club, the organization that issued the book. Gollancz wrote a flaying, impassioned foreword, included in the modern Harcourt edition, where he attempts, lest the reader get the wrong impression, to take the edge off Orwell's words. Gollancz apologizes to vegetarians, half-gangster commissars, and cranks, and says Orwell is "astray" and a "frightful snob." Orwell doesn't even define socialism, Gollancz whines; nor does he explain what he means by "liberty" and "justice." The spirited "pretort," if you will, ends with a figurative, if not literal, call to mobilize against the capitalistic enemy.

The observant reader sees Gollancz's foreword for what it is: a wretched attempt at censorship and damage control, and the very sort of empty rhetoric, hare-brained we-know-best thinking, and militant jingoism Orwell so skilfully obliterates.

Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World
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on 1 April 2006
'The Road to Wigan Pier' is split into two parts. Part one is George Orwell's recording of his experiences in the North of England, meeting miner's families and reporting at first hand what he saw and heard. Orwell records with sincerity the working class condition. There is no blame or embellishment of what Orwell saw. Orwell's descriptions of the people in the boarding houses he was staying in, are wonderful. You really get a sense of the filth and depravation, and yet the people make you feel at home, to the point of marking your bread and butter with "a black thumb-print on it". I appreciate Orwell's candid writing. The stark reality of poverty is brought to life by Orwell, from his description of the conditions of working in the mines, to the weekly shopping bill and food consumption.
Part two is Orwell's polemic on what he saw and experienced. I found this part of the book filled with passion, anger and justifications. Orwell always makes sure to explain the reasoning behind his arguements and even apologises for his background. Part two consists of political theories, language, class distinction and the personal journey Orwell experienced whilst researching part one.
In my opinion, 'The Road to Wigan Pier' is a wonderful snapshot of a time and a place. It still has a place in literature today as a reminder to us all that there are still destitute people in the world and that things haven't changed as much as we hoped.
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on 26 February 2000
This novel is split into two parts. The first being an interesting description of working class Northern Britain in the 1930s. Orwell visited, amongst other places, Wigan in Lancashire where he stayed with 'working class' people. This really opened my eyes to the hardship and sense of family and community which, to a certain extent, still exist in Working class areas of The North. The second section is Orwell's analysis of his experiences. He concentrates on the legendary British sense of class and displays his Socialist tendancies, from the point of view as a member of (in Orwell's words) "the upper lower middle class". I found the first part of this novel very interesting - I didn't want to put it down. However, the second part is a more difficult read, although still quite interesting - displaying Orwell's views on the classes.
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on 14 November 2002
This book is divided into two sections. The first is a devastating account of the lives of coal miners in the north of England. While this account may be exaggerated it is completely conceivable that life in this time under such social and political conditions might have been like this. He goes to considerable length to explore the personal reactions and methods of endurance of the people he met. Orwell's dedication to exploring what life was really like for the coal miners was made at considerable personal discomfort and were as heroic as Jonathan Kozol's efforts in our present time.
The second half of the book is a long argument by Orwell of the negative aspects of socialism. He does this in order to provoke a serious discussion over how socialism can be implemented in our society. He understood well, as demonstrated in 1984, that many political parties use propaganda as a means of convincing the public that theirs is the right way. But, by taking the opposing view and criticising his own beliefs, he is able to bring the issues of the party into an open forum to consider implementations of change rather than party rhetoric. He does this most sincerely and in no way tries to hide the faults of the socialist political system of thought. In doing so he proves himself to be quite dignified in his system of beliefs. The juxtaposition of these two sections provides a striking idea of the immediate need for political reformation. He did not need to defend socialism because the need for a political change that could effect the lives of the lower class he investigated was obvious. This showed that Orwell's political ideas didn't exist on some ideological utopian plain, but were firmly rooted in the immense danger a political system could inflict upon a large population. It would be wise to remember this in reading the more popular 1984 and Animal Farm as well.
This book is compelling not just for people interested in politics, but also for anyone interested in history and the human condition. It is something you will be able to learn much from and provide you with inspiration.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 9 November 2012
Even though I had not realised before reading it that The Road to Wigan Pier is not a novel but an extended essay, I was not disappointed. The book, which treats of the condition of the working class in 1930s Britain, is half descriptive and half political pamphlet. The first part applies Orwell's matchless powers of depiction to the slums of Wigan, its coal mines, its social housing estates. It is based on the author's experience living for several months among ordinary working families. The scenes from the bottom of the coal pits are particularly grabbing. In typical Orwell fashion, they make repeated simple but striking points: coal miners invariably had to walk for several miles underground just to get to their jobs, for example, and this meant navigating long, narrow passageways where in most places a human being cannot stand. The strain on the legs was such that untrained visitors could only hope to get there, after interminable creeping, exhausted and probably injured. And this was before several hours spent shovelling tons of coal even began.

The second part of the book consists of a call to arms in favour of socialism. This was the great depression, and capitalism looked rather beat. Europe also faced the threat of fascism. Here the interest is historical, specifically in Orwell's own path but also in the contemporary ideological context. Orwell's pamphlet shows how an intellectual of great lucidity, honesty, and intelligence could have believed in the superiority of socialism. Inevitably Orwell makes false predictions ('The Socialists are right, therefore, when they claim that the rate of mechanical progress will be much more rapid once Socialism is established.' (page 192)). But he has many interesting observations on technical progress, human psychology, and culture, amid rich private reflexions on the meaning of class. The point in the choice of Wigan pier for a title is that the pier has become derelict and been destroyed. Yet Orwell would continue on his political journey. Next in line was Homage to Catalonia, also an Orwell must-read, describing his experience in Spain and concomitant disillusionment with the communist camp. It seems Orwell was subsequently impressed with the Conservative government's stand on the right side of WWII, completing his ideological conversion. At the same time, his affections remained with the British working class. The Road to Wigan Pier makes clear why.
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on 2 July 2002
George Orwell, commissioned by the Left Book Club, tours the recession hit mining areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire in 1936 and his report on the harsh social conditions he found there (the first part of this book) pulls no punches. No-one before or since has done reporterage like George Orwell and the vividness and directness of his prose with its underlying blazing committment to social justice strikes the reader, even at this remove of time. Orwell's descriptions, couched in his superb prose, will remain in your mind for ever and should be re-read by everyone as a reminder of just how harsh life was for many people, within living memory. Orwell is particularly good about the desperation, the struggle with respectability and the terrible psychological and social toll of unemployment and poverty.
The second part of the book charts Orwell's personal odyssey from public schoolboy and officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma to crusading Left-wing author and journalist. Along the way Orwell expounds his personal strategy for Socialism. Although dated, his insights are fascinating, describing as they do the origins of the class struggle ideas that infested and inflamed British politics right up to the 1990s. Orwell is bitingly caustic about many of his fellow Socialists, castigating the obsession with mechanical progress, the worship of Russia and the crank tendencies (still evident in the British Labour Party) - "...the dreary tribe of high-minded women...and the bearded fruit-juice drinkers that flock to the idea of 'progress' like bluebottles do to a dead cat". With incredible prescience Orwell identifies the factors that would eventually kill the traditional "Old" Labour Party - firstly - the dichotomy between the Labour voter in the street (who, by and large, wanted/wants a better standard of living from better working and living conditions), and the "orthodox" hierarchy and activists of the Labour Party (who, by and large, at least in theory wanted a complete change in society), secondly - the accretion on to socialist politics of a huge amount of crank ideas (Orwell's acerbic and caustic put-downs of crank thought forms some of the book's most memorable, and funniest, passages).
What Orwell cannot have forseen was that the second war, the moderate 1945 Labour government, the end of the British Empire, Baroness Thatcher and the rise of a knowledge, finance and service based economy would change the face of England permanently. But however dated the social and political conditions under which he wrote, George Orwell is always worth reading, always hard-hitting, always vivid and detailed, always committed and honest, often hilariously funny.
Read this book, read everything that George Orwell wrote.
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on 5 June 2008
Born and bred in Wigan.I had read 1984 and Animal Farm but had put off reading TRTWP until I was 50.
Orwell writes of the hopelessness of the masses and concludes that they accept their lot because of the "palliatives" of modern technology clothing (dream of being Greta Garbo or Clark Gable) , alcohol,the movies, radio, the football pools etc.
The government massage and manipulate statistics to show unemployment levels and poverty to be a fraction as bad as they really are.
The middle-class believed that the poor should be instructed to spend their means tested allowance wisely eating tasteless but healthy food,wholemeal bread,oranges,raw carrots etc and to shun alcohol and tobacco etc.
Tell me as anything really changed or have we come full circle under New Labour.
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on 20 April 2001
A book one can read and read again. The first part, in the main a near-factual account of life in the industrial North of Britain makes interesting, if somewhat uncomfortable reading. The second part is where it becomes funny. Orwell, a committed socialist, never really got on with the Socialist movement and here he tells you why. All his prejudices come out, from Hampstead Liberals, to sandal-wearing vegetarians. Marvellous stuff, ending with a rant about his own warped view of the working-class, instilled in him by his parents and class upbringing.
All in all a good read, and as with any Orwell told with truth and candour.
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on 10 April 2012
Having lived and worked in industrial Lancashire for thirty years from 1975 it was lovely to be recalled to sights and sounds, and places, that were fading memories.
George Orwell was writing from a political prespective as well as from a social perspective, and it was fascinating to see how relatively slow social change has been in spite of national and political pressures to improve the industrial northwest.
"The Road to Wigan Pier" is by no means out of date amd still shows a strong cutting edge. Recommended reading for those who have a social conscience and feel there is still room for change in spite of the great improvements that have been made since the book was written.
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on 12 November 2010
A very clearly written book, easy to understand even for someone not particularly politically minded. I was born into a mining society in 1943, six years after the first appearence of this book but I can still relate to some of the conditions described. The discussion on how society was reluctant to accept the development of machines and its effect on society is frighteningly parallel to the present day invasion of the computer, its advantages and disadvantages, and gives an insight to our own future.
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