Friday, February 04, 2005

The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell

The Road to Wigan Pier was published after Burmese Days, in 1937, and was commissioned by Orwell's publisher Victor Gollancz.

It is divided into two sections. The first part in a lot of ways takes up from where Down and Out in Paris and London left off. Orwell visits the industrial north, living with working class families and setting out into the coal mines, experiencing the life of a coal miner, albeit for a brief time. Descriptions of the horrendous working conditions remind you of how lucky most of us are to sit in air conditioned offices, the only exertions being the click of a mouse.

His humour is evident as well, as he doesn't always romanticise the miserable and downtrodden. He describes the ever-complaining landlord and lady of a rooming house he stayed in, how they never stop complaining about the same thing. One particularly revolting episode prompts the author to leave the rooming house. He comes down to the breakfast table one morning to discover that the chamber pot is sitting under the table!

Part two is entirely a political essay. In Down and Out in Paris and London Orwell tells a tramp that he knows nothing about politics. The Road to Wigan pier shows nothing but the opposite.

What is most extraordinary about part two is how much it mirrors Australian politics today. Orwell is a proponent of Socialism. He says its basic tenets - fairness, equality etc. - should be immediately appealing for all. What is going wrong then? He launches on a thorough critique of all the modern day socialist trendies, their books and intellectual poses (they seem to all be vegetarians, fruit juice drinkers and wear pistachio coloured shirts). Orwell says that none of this can have any appeal to the common worker or man on the street. Indeed, it is almost offensive to them.

The problem seems to be, as Orwell describes it, that they (the socialists) are rusted on upper class ideologues, determined to foment revolution on behalf of 'the workers'. Ironically, English class snobbery means that these upper classes secretly have a horror of the working classes. They despise the people they champion.

This is why Orwell at least had the honesty, as a socialist, to actually go and live with working class people (he describes his background as lower-upper-middle class) and discover for himself what they were really like as people - their ambitions, culture and ethics, amongst other things.

When I say there are parallels to today, I should put it in these terms. Our current so called culture wars have on the one side the derided 'latte' set (in Orwell's 1930's the pistachio coloured shirt set), who are pro republic, pro refugees, pro reconciliation, and are exemplified in a political party like the greens. Whereas on the other side we have the conservatives, who champion books like Keith Windshuttle's The Myth of Aboriginal History (I forget the exact title). Their most extreme political incarnation was in Pauline Hanson's One Nation. The absolute rage that Hanson supporters felt towards the 'politically correct' Keating agenda seems pretty similar to the distaste the average British worker of the 1930's had towards the condescending socialists of that time.

It is 1937. Orwell is wringing his hands in absolute angst. Fascism is forming its black clouds all over Europe. Reading part two in today's (2005) political climate will send shivers down your spine.

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