(Picture source: Wikipedia)
Today, 21st January, was the day that George Orwell died in 1950 after a three-year battle against tuberculosis. Penguin Books, who publish his writings, have designated the day “Orwell Day” in his honour (as a way of publicising his books, hopefully to sell a few more!)
Orwell is best known for his books “Animal farm” and “1984”, both of which I read at school and which are both critiques of totalitarianism, particularly Soviet Russia. And, as a consequence, Orwell is widely thought of as an anti-communist. But that is something of a distortion of his life and views. He was a socialist, and I don’t think that ever changed. But he unlike most left wing intellectuals during the 1940’s and 1950’s he wasn’t taken in by Soviet propaganda and, was able to see how they had betrayed the socialist cause. His position was informed by his experience in Spain serving with the POUM militia and during the Barcelona “May Days”, when the Spanish Communists fought and supressed the POUM and anarchist revolutionaries who had a strong presence in the city. His experiences are chronicled in his book “Homage to Catalonia”, a favourite of mine since I first read it in my late teens.
Orwell lived in Hampstead for a while and I wrote about this after we’d stayed there recently and came across a couple of plaques celebrating his time there. (We stayed in Hampstead again during our most recent trip to London just over a week ago, and had our breakfast in the cafe which used to be the bookshop where he once worked). But Orwell also has a connection with Wigan. He visited the town in the 1930’s during his tour of the depressed northern industrial towns that resulted in his book “The Road to Wigan Pier”, published by the Left Book Club in 1937.
At the time Wigan was the centre of the Lancashire coal field and the main industries, coal mining, cotton spinning and weaving and steel and iron manufacturing, were all severely depressed. Living conditions for working people were generally very poor and with extremely high unemployment it was difficult for many Wiganers to put food on the table.
Take the figures for Wigan, which is typical enough of the industrial and mining districts. The number of insured workers is round about 36,000 (26,000 men and 10,000 women). Of these, the number unemployed at the beginning of 1936 was about 10,000. But this was in winter when the mines are working full time; in summer it would probably be 12,000. Multiply by three, as above, and you get 30,000 or 36,000. The total population of Wigan is a little under 87,000; so that at any moment more than one person in three out of the whole population — not merely the registered workers — is either drawing or living on the dole. Those ten or twelve thousand unemployed contain a steady core of from four to five thousand miners who have been continuously unemployed for the past seven years.
And writing about the environment in and around the town
I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag-heaps, and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag-heaps in the distance, stretched the ‘flashes’ – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits.
Orwell had an agenda and he sought ought the worst conditions, deliberately staying in a guest house that wasn’t typical of the homes of ordinary Wiganers and painted a grim picture of the town that many local people felt, and indeed still feel, was unfair. But there is no denying that it was “grim up north” during the 1930’s as these pictures of Wigan taken during the period show.
(Famous picture of an unemployed worker in Wigan in the 1930’s)
“Wigan pier” was a music hall joke, invented by George Formby Senior (the father of the more famous Georg Formby junior) who came from the town. Wigan is 20 miles from the sea, but it has a canal and the “pier” was one of the small jetties used to load coal onto barges. Local people embraced the legend and today an area on the canal, just outside the town centre is known as Wigan Pier.
Orwell is remembered in Wigan by a plaque located at the site of the lodging house where he stayed,
which is now a patch of waste land.
There’s also a pub named after him on he banks of the canal in the area still known today as “Wigan Pier”.
Things have changed since the 1930’s. The traditional industries are long gone. And although there is no denying that living conditions have improved dramatically, unemployment is high and the town, like much of the north of England, have been badly hit by economic recession and government cutbacks. I wonder what Orwell would make of Wigan now?
A recent book by Stephen Armstrong – The Road to Pier Revisited – does what it says on the tin. Here’s a video where the author discusses his book at the RSA