Back on the road to Wigan Pier: politics and poverty in the UK


It is the 75th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he travelled to the north of England to see how ‘the poor’ lived. In his new book, The Road to Wigan Pier: Revisited, author Stephen Armstrong retraces the journey made by Orwell in 1937. He spoke to Dr Matthew Taunton, Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

Produced by Will Viney.

A dreadful room in Wigan where all the furniture seemed to be made of packing cases and barrel staves and was coming to pieces at that; and an old woman with a blackened neck and her hair coining down denouncing her landlord in a Lancashire- Irish accent; and her mother, aged well over ninety, sitting in the background on the barrel that served her as a commode and regarding us blankly with a yellow, cretinous face. I could fill up pages with memories of similar interiors.

Matthew Taunton: This podcast revisits a classic piece of social and political non-fiction. In describing the unemployment the poor standards of housing and nutrition, as well as the sheer drudgery of daily in northern England, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier is still a shocking book to read. A powerful documentary of enduring literary and political significance. It has inspired writer and journalist, Stephen Armstrong, to walk Orwell’s road to Wigan to see how much has changed since Orwell’s time. Stephen, what made you want to write your book?

Stephen Armstrong: It was an assumption that things have changed but that we’d lost something, I felt for various reasons, to do with a friend of mine who was at that point working in charities on poverty and ethnicity, she was doing one of these very New Labour projects, and what she found doing this research into Somali communities and using white working class communities almost as a control, just to see how much worse it was to be Somali, she didn’t think it was worse to be Somali that in fact there was a community structure around Somali communities, that the mosque was a centre of relaxation, that there were hubs which that would save money and that everyone got together. She was working to white working class people were just alone on Prozac alone in council flats. This was in 2010. Here are the children of the people that Orwell met, maybe they are materially better off but what’s happened to the community and the soul? And, if you go back, you find that they’re not necessarily materially better off and that there’s different forms of poverty; poverty has gone away and returned in a different form.

MT: OK, so we’ve thought of a number of themes that we can discuss that Orwell addressed in his original book and you come back to, at various extents. The first of these, is a question that is constantly raised in the reception of Orwell’s book which is about the working classes smell.

SA: Yes, the most controversial line in the book.

MT: Orwell was, throughout his life, plagued by accusations that he said the working classes smell and constantly said ‘no, I never said that.’ But actually what he talks about is that there’s a middle class, bourgeois prejudice against the working classes that they might smell. You talk in your book about the contemporary relevance of these class prejudices.

SA: I’m not the only person who is writing at the moment who has made this point. Owen Jones makes it very well in Chavs. This idea of the deserving and undeserving poor. That there are people that are in a terrible state and deserve to be because they are bad people. And quite often there is this sense of squalor and poverty and smell attached to that particular king of poor, in certain writings, particularly with Victorian writers. It goes away, it goes away a lot in the ’50s and ’60s, but then it seems to be returning. It is now acceptable to talk about ‘hoodies’ and ‘chavs’ and dirty, smelly, unemployed people who drink themselves to death – binge Britain  – this conception that there are people  wallowing in misery.

Orwell’s advantage is that he talks as an Etonian schoolboy directly to the elite of his times. He would have been on first name terms with a lot of those people. Often it’s worth seeing Orwell’s writing as being a letter.  Someone once said that ‘The Lion and the Unicorn‘ is about Orwell’s attempt to make Conservatives vote Labour, to make Conservatives Socialists. You can see that with some of what he’s doing, he’s very direct.

MT: Absolutely,  it certainly has that polemical feel in mind. I also feel that it’s difficult to read some sections of Orwell’s book without thinking that they are inflected with a kind of contempt for the people that he is describing, certainly the famous scene which Orwell’s book opens with, in the tripe shop, where he describes a really disgusting scene of poverty. He really does insist that these people smell quite strongly and are very dirty, for all that it might not be their fault.

SA: There are lots of ways to look at Wigan Pier with regard to Orwell and people disagree an enormous amount. When I began the book I though it was a very minor and neglected part of his canon and I’d read and been influenced by it but I hadn’t read it for years. I’d gone back to 1984 a number of times, but I never went back to Wigan. But then I realised quite how important it was for a lot of people. What I say about Wigan Pier is my view and people agree and people disagree. I think you can see Orwell making a journey whilst he’s writing the book, but it’s not just journey to the north of England, it’s almost a philosophical journey that he’s making. And he does begin the book with his Down and Out in Paris and London nose, he does go to the worst parts of Wigan and he comes across this Tripe shop and there’s some debate in Wigan about how realistic that depiction of the tripe shop was, but he goes through the book and he does an about flip. I find the tripe shop scene is one we all remember but there’s a scene later on that I find the most difficult, which is the scene in which he idealises the working class household to a mythical degree. He has father with his pipe by the fire, the manly coal miner, the mother doing the knitting and the children behaving themselves. Neither of those images are real, neither are accurate depictions of what is happening in north-west England at that time, but he goes straight from contempt to worship without passing points in between. What he learns on the road to Wigan pier is, perhaps, gave him the passion to go to Spain and fight for the International Brigade. There he learnt about Stalin’s purges and he comes back to write two of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. He may not have taken that journey had he not done Wigan Pier, which was a commission, it wasn’t a passion book, he almost went up there reluctantly. Of course, if you’re going to walk to the north west of England as I did, then I found people that were absolutely the Daily Mail‘s worst enemy. They were people who who had not worked for 19 years, were drinking the lot away and didn’t care, and they were the best fun. If you spend 6 months in terrible conditions and the ones who lit up your day were the ones that came in and said, ‘y’ know, fuck it, this is what I am. I might be dead in 10 years but at least I’ve had a good life.’ As you say, what we have is a series of portraits of people none of which are necessarily useful in understanding in knowing what is going on. In Orwell’s time, we saw periods of grim employment broken up by periods of unemployment. Now what we are seeing is a life of unemployment broken up by government schemes. And that’s partly because we have gutted the industrial heart of the first industrialised nation. The expectation then is on the people who are educated, trained, working in factory and pits, when that is gone, what are they supposed to do? A lot of the arguments have been about mobility: ‘You’ve got to follow the jobs, it’s a globalised world – the jobs are here, keep moving.’ But people don’t really want to leave their parents, they don’t want to leave everything behind.

Wigan used to be a mill town, then it became a pit town. Get rid of the mills, then get rid of the pits, now you you have to do food processing. Now they have food processing centres into the town. Each time a new demand is made everyone does it, they do it really well. Obviously, not in some kind of idealised, desperate to work thing, but because people want money and work stops you having a terrible time, and it keeps getting hoofed away again. And they keep turning up and joining the army, they keep dying for to Britain. The war memorial in Wigan, go there on Remembrance Sunday, it’s covered in poppies from children whose fathers died recently. Where I grew up, that’s not there. The wars ended in 1945. There is that sense that people are prepared to give a great deal for their community and there isn’t necessarily recognition of that exchange. Either as an idealised form or as a scumbag form. Real people aren’t necessarily there.

MT: Because you actually went to work in one of these food processing factories, just as Orwell went down the pits in Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell describes in great detail the hardships of this life of industrial toil. In your book you deal with a post-industrial landscape, it’s quite a different set of problems. There are continuities but Orwell talks about how ugly Wigan has been with these slag heaps, this coal mining industry, and how brutal and often short is the life of a coal miner. And you’re dealing with a situation where people have become rather nostalgic for that, in a way, for that industrial life.

SA: There’s a bit to the research that I didn’t really get into the book properly and it’s a point that I found it difficult to properly make. Quite often I’d meet older people, particularly in Wigan, so I remember when I went into the food processing factory, I was staying with these people and I met a woman who had been too young to been around to be in Orwell’s time but she was saying if you stood here where we are now you couldn’t see the centre of Wigan because of the constant smoke and the constant darkness because you couldn’t see anything from here. It’s much cleaner now, it’s much better.

When I went and worked in the food processing plant the chances of me dying were effectively zero, when Orwell went down the pit he could have died. Health and safety rules, for all that they’re mocked by Jeremy Clarkson, what they do is they stop people going deaf, they stop people dying, and I had to wear my ear muffs and so on, and if I wasn’t wearing them the floor supervisor would tell me, ‘no, you’ve got to go home now, you’ve got to obey these rules.’ There are certain elements of the safety net in which things are far better. Conversely, a lot of the work that people would have had then, when they got the work, would be proper job as we’d understand it. You’d start work, you’d be an apprentice, you’d work, often in backbreaking, horrific conditions for a short period of time and then you’d die. But in this food processing plant there were no jobs. What there was were short-term contracts, zero-hour contracts, for short periods. So it’s hard to work out. Perhaps this is a failing of my book. Orwell does a chapter on how ugly northern cities are and I chose to make this chapter – I copied his chapter plan – about racism and immigration, perhaps I should have dealt with that horrid darkness had been lifted…

The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes–an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea!

MT: Orwell there, reflecting on why the poor are not happy to live on brown bread and raw carrots. Stephen Armstrong, you write very interestingly in you r book about attitudes to food, both among the working class and among the intelligentsia now and on these attitudes developed over time.

SA: I think that Orwell is interesting because he champions particular conception sof people against who he considers to be his enemies. The book The Road to Wigan Pier was commissioned by Victor Gollanacz for the New Left Book Club. Orwell’s audience at that point you could probably sum up in the same way as we’d sum up The Guardian readers today. But they were referred to as New Statesman readers in those days, when the New Statesman still had a circulation. in the second half of the book he goes into them in a particularly aggressive way, labeling them as bearded, sandal-wearing, nudists, vegetarians. His bile pours out and he’s defending what he perceives to be the diet of the working class against these letters of earnest, Fabian, paternalism. He says in ‘Books and Cigarettes’, ‘smoke, because what else are you going to do?’

You also have this glut of cheap carbohydrates that floods the market that causes its own problems. Jamie Oliver is quite an interesting person in this whole contemporary version of this debate where he used the war rations issued by the Ministry of Food to live on and made the argument that at that point Britain was as healthy as it has ever been. Some people think that the only way to make people eat healthily is to literally have a Ministry of Food and issue food out to the people for their best interests. Orwell obviously wouldn’t have any truck with that idea at all.

MT: It’s a really interesting questions that Orwell is asking about the degree to which a paternalistic, social democratic state should dictate the working classes of that country what they should eat. This is a debate in which the grounds really shifted over the early part of the century. Because the Edwardian period was characterised in particular by a celebration on the part of social reform of cheap food, of white bread. This was the argument in the Edwardian for free trade was that unregulated global market in wheat was providing the poor with cheap bread and that was the best thing for the poor and then after the First World War which involved massive state intervention intervention into to ever aspect of people’s lives, that war economy which saw the state expand its influence hugely. More so social democratic idea of the healthiness food and the quality of the food, so you get the foundation of the milk board in response to a series of fatalities, particularly infant fatalities from drinking adulterated milk. So from that celebration of the cheap loaf of the Edwardian period you get, emerging in the period that Orwell  is writing, you get the idea of the state regulation of the market for food in order to maintain its quality. And that’s quite similar to what you were saying to what you were saying before about health and safety regulations. Orwell seems quite ambivalently positioned in relation to those sort of debates. He both wants to celebrate that cheap carbohydrates but he also complains about what he calls the post-war development of luxuries – ‘fish-and-chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea, and the Football Pools’ – he says these things have averted revolution in some ways. These are cheap palliatives that we feed the working classes so that they don’t rise up.

SA: One of the other things I really like about that passage is where he talks about kids in Manchester getting Saville Row suits on hire purchase so they can look like Clark Gable. Often with The Road to Wigan Pier we have a almost Victorian sense of these hovels but also you keep getting these glimpses of what is also going on. If you look at the ’30s – the idea of the consumer society, hire purchase is essentially the ’30s credit card, buying Saville Row suits is like buying Nikes on a credit card. It’s the same thing that Orwell is reacting against with his, as you say, his almost puritan attitude. He’s caught up in this quite despairing position, yet you find the despair much more now, which intellectually complicated and compromising argument, because the .liberal left has a beautiful propensity to tie itself up in the most beautiful of Gordian Knots.  If you look at the University of Chicago, the monetarist set of ideas, free-market liberalism in terms of choice, against the idea that the state can interferes and imposes. What Margret Thatcher was very good at doing was articulating that into a way that hit the English working class. The idea that you shouldn’t be told what to do by the government. ‘Buy your council house, why should we tell you what how to live, why should we force these things upon you? You have the freedom.’ Freedom and choice become political words. What people are doing is making political arguments over people’s health. Whereas I think you find that people broadly speaking don’t want to poison themselves. There are always going to be people who are going to drink themselves to death, there are always going to be people who are going to smoke too much, but most people most of the time have a vague idea of what they ought or ought not to be eating.

MT: Orwell seems to me quite ambivalent about the idea of a big socialist, collectivist state. He talks at several points about what he calls ‘the beehive state’, he says this is one of the things that people often object to about socialism, that it’s going to be one of these huge bureaucracies that’s going to watch what you’re eating, what you’re reading, what you’re watching, how you’re educated. But he says the beehive state is inevitable in a highly industrialised society and the choice isn’t between a beehive state and a ‘not-beehive state’, it’s between a socialist beehive state and a fascist beehive state. He makes this very…

SA: …1930s sort of argument.

MT: Yes, which is extremely perceptive in that the people he derides as ‘the bourgeois left’ weren’t making those kinds of arguments. He certainly doesn’t seem an enthusiastic supporter of the beehive as a model of society, So I think in certain respects he would have understood those cod Thatcherite arguments – ‘why are you interfering with my life, oh government?!’

SA: There’s a lot of people that would argue that had Orwell lived would have been a high-church by the time reached later writing. You can certainly see the Daily Telegraph writers like Peter Oborne as the true inheritors of Orwell’s direction. Oddly, if you search for The Road to Wigan Pier in the British media, the newspaper that quotes from The Road to Wigan Pier most commonly is The Daily Telegraph and not the same author, lots of different authors. Oborne wrote an editorial just after the riots which I thought was, I think, Orwellian. He poured scorn on everybody in this beautiful invective. Orwell assumes the existence iof the beehive state because of his time place. I suppose what I found, conversely, is that it was – and I think you spoke off-mic about Orwell calling for a new socialist party in The Road to Wigan Pier – there were moments when writing the book in August 2011 when you could see something Peter Oborne was writing or something Danny Dorling and you did get a sense that there was a third or fourth perspective which was this one-nation view. This was practical – ‘we understand what you’re talking about but can’t we just fix things, please? Can we have a party which can just fix things’ The thing that Orwell had at that time was that he was arguing against a spectrum of perspectives. Whilst he was walking the road to Wigan pier, Keynes was writing his master work. The welfare state wasn’t conceived of but there were developments in that regard. There was Marxism. There was Fabianism. There was fascism. There were different strands of political ideas. The ideas of socialism that Orwell was arguing for and against don’t really exist anymore, no one those ideas forward in the political debate in any meaningful way. The people who are making a difference tend to be working within a few square miles. There are people in towns and cities who are doing incredible things, who are rethinking structures of care at a non-impositional, really creative way. Who are working from community centres. Now these people are disempowered, they’re struggling financially but they have a very interesting set of values and ideas which are learned and created from experience rather than from ideology. I think the most interesting thing will be to see, and I don’t think anyone will, how you could bring these ideas together into something – ‘communitarianism’, or something similar. Into a set of ideas that are not imposed from above but flourish up from below and that were nonetheless rich in learning and experience.

MT: OK, Steve, with that in mind lets wrap up by thinking about Orwell’s relationship to the left,. And if we can, the legacy of his ideas. Not just his ideas but his mode of address for the left now. It seems to me that, apart from people like Peter Oborne, there are all sorts of commentators from across the political spectrum, including Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens until recently, who have taken on the mantel of somebody who is on the left but spends most of the time chastising their comrades on the left.

SA: The arch-contrarian.

MT: Yes, Orwell’s book came in two parts. The first part was a detailed description of his time in Wigan and other northern cities. And the second part was a long chastisement of carious left wingers who he described as ‘vegetarians with wilting beards, Bolshevik commissars, earnest ladies in sandals, shock-haired Marxists chewing , escaped Quakers, birth control fanatics and Labour party back-stairs crawlers. Socialism, at least on 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.’

SA: That bit is one of my favourite bits of the book. He just unleashes.

MT: But your book doesn’t have a bit where you tell off everyone who are getting it wrong.

SA: But I think that, and this is just my opinion, I don’t perceive there being a coherent set of ideas that you’d call the left anymore. If you were to ask, ‘what does the Labour Party stand for?’ I think it is, broadly speaking, the same economic principles of all the other parties. If you were to ask, ‘what is the equivalent to the Communist Party?’ The Socialist Workers’ Party? It’s 50 people and a newspaper. I’m not sure that there is this current of ideas, of thing being thrown up. One of the obvious proofs of this is that when Orwell traveled he was largely helped out by trade union officials and independent Labour Party and Communist Party members. The only organisations that I could find on the ground when I went were people like Oxfam, small-scale local charities and the church, and that was pretty much it. There were no trade unions to speak of. If you speak to the national offices and they’d be fighting survival-related campaigns. I bumped into, by accident, the an MP in Wigan. She’s young, she didn’t know that there was a national union of rail workers and she’d just been to speak to them. You’re a Labour MP you ought to a vague awareness of the National Union of Rail Workers! For her this union had stopped existing but there were these old men that had listened to her talk. Where Orwell had encountered this intense, student union-style debate, all across the country and at every level, I’m not sure you’d know who to tilt at now. I’d tilt at the past of the Labour Party, I tilt to the ideas they came up with in the 50s and the 90s, to a degree. But I don’t know who you tilt to now.

MT: I think that, in some ways, the bile of the anti-Communist left, of the non-Communist left as they were called, who very much took their queue from Orwell and Koestler, in trying to develop a mode of discourse that was social democratic and socialist but virulently anti-Communist, I find echoes of that in some of the writings about Islamism you see now. In the sense that people like Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens were always very concerned about people on the left seemed to be sympathetic to radical Islam. And that seems to be a structure and a way a way of talking about talking about politics that has come down from that particular form of non-Communist left writing that comes from Orwell. That’s just one kind of echo.

SA: I agree. Having heard you say that I think you’re right. Again, I don’t think it’s feasible in the context of this book, if I were to criticise the left in Britain really hard over recent years, and I’ll get shot in the face for this… I’d say there is an obsession about Islam and Iraq in the left. I was speaking to a woman in Bradford who really lived in just the worst conditions and at one point when I was talking to her she said, ‘I don’t know why you’re talking to me about this.This is boring. No one is interest in this. My kid goes to school learns more about Africa and Iraq than he does about his own estate.’ If you’re living in a really really impoverished council estate, if you’re having your benefits cut, if you’re having Bright House coming round to reclaim your television and your furniture, if you’ve got very little hope apart from debt. I’m not sure whether proving who was right in the Blair-Bush axis is the most important thing anymore. I think it’s time we moved on.


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