The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)

Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led – to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. (Chapter 1)

This was Orwell’s second book of social reportage.

Like 1933’s Down and Out in Paris and London it is in two parts, but in a different way. The first hundred pages comprise a detailed but selective account of his journey to the North of England to see the results of the Depression and mass unemployment for himself. The second half switches tone completely to become a long account of his own intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism.

By 1936 social reporting had become a respectable intellectual activity. J.B. Priestly had published a successful book about England north of the Trent two years earlier. The Mass-Observation social research organisation was to be founded the following year. The new wave of young writers and poets, led by W.H. Auden, had been writing about the landscape of modern industrial England and on the social impact of the depression since around 1930. Quite radical left-wing attitudes were widely held among the intelligentsia, the trade unions and ordinary workers. Indeed, Orwell was commissioned to write this book by radical publisher Victor Gollancz, and it was published by his Left Book Club.

Part one

Like Down and outWigan pier is obviously based on Orwell’s real experiences, but artfully arranged and edited to create a certain impression.

For example, it is artful that the book opens with a semi-comic account of the cramped and dirty lodging house-cum-tripe shop kept by permanently filthy Mr Brooker and the sofa-bound and obese invalid Mrs Brooker. The tales of their moaning and mean-mindedness, alongside pen portraits of the other inhabitants of the house, repeat Down and Out‘s technique of combining close observation with comedy to create an atmosphere of seediness and petty-minded poverty.

But the passage also has the structural function of easing you into the subject matter and into ‘the north’, by numerous casual asides and observations. Using the techniques of the imaginative writer.

The next chapter switches tone to begin a serious examination of both the working conditions, pay and economic importance of coal mining to Britain. It includes Orwell’s famously gruelling description of a coal miner’s working day. If the book had opened like this it would have seemed too much like a worthy left-wing pamphlet. The Brooker chapter’s function is to soften the blow and allow you to settle in with humour and human foibles before he deals you the hard-hitting description.

Chapter 2 is a gripping and detailed account of his trips down coal mines to give a visceral description of the appalling back-breaking work involved. Chapter 3 continues the coal mining theme with more detail about the work, which then morphs into a breakdown of miners’ earnings and outgoings, showing how wretchedly they are paid.

Chapter 4 is a grim description of the really appalling condition of northern slum housing. The small rooms, windows that don’t open, no heating, no hot water, no toilets, back to back housing where you have to walk 200 yards to the nearest toilet, in all weathers, and then queue. The families of five, six, seven or more people sleeping in two beds.

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. (Chapter 4)

Chapter 5 is a detailed analysis of unemployment figures (if you include the dependents of the unemployed, then truly huge numbers, probably over ten million, were in dire poverty). It goes on to analyse the complicated structure of the dole payments made in the 1930s.

Let’s face it, almost all of this material is of historical interest. Coal has almost ceased to be mined in this country. Now almost every aspect of our lives is dominated by oil, which is extracted in much better-paid conditions and in far-away countries. There is unemployment, there is a long-term underclass in this country, but it is very difficult to get information about them. Much council housing may be grim but nowhere near as squalid as the Victorian slums gone rotten which Orwell describes.

There is a note of relevance in an interesting section at the end of chapter 5 which describes Orwell’s puzzlement at how this period of mass unemployment and demoralisation has oddly coincided with the rise of cheap luxuries: off-the-peg clothes and cheap movies were an innovation in his generation. Sweets and crap food are cheap, whereas meat and vegetables remained expensive. He saw for himself that some families barely had enough to feed themselves, but that every single household had a radio.

Similarly, maybe, to our own times when even the poorest of the poor have a mobile phone and a TV. Orwell considers the common media studies argument that these devices were ways for the ruling classes to keep the workers sated and distracted with cheap gewgaws, but I agree with his preferred analysis, that it is just the market working logically.

People want luxuries, the unemployed want to live in a fantasy of Hollywood stars and celebrities, no matter how poor they are, people will prefer cheap fattening foods and dinky devices to a nourishing diet and the fine arts.

People are people, even the poorest want to look like Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber. You have to begin from that basis, from a realistic assessment of human nature. not from some fantasy of a revolution-wishing proletariat which is just gagging to be fed classical concerts and agit-prop theatre.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even ‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet.

And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organized gambling has now risen almost to the status of a major industry. Consider, for instance, a phenomenon like the Football Pools, with a turnover of about six million pounds a year, almost all of it from the pockets of working-class people. I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler, Locarno, Fascism, and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury.

And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life. (Chapter 5)

Chapter 6 continues the theme, focusing on food but lamenting that a) the northern working classes prefer cheap luxuries – tinned peas, fish and chips, sweetened milk – to more straightforward nutritious food; but then conceding that when you are unemployed and demoralised little luxuries are vital to keeping your spirits up.

Orwell goes on to speculate that the preference for cheap luxuries might be a contributory factor to why the physiques of the poor are so stunted. Nobody over thirty has any of their own teeth. Even children’s teeth are blue and carious. Orwell repeatedly admires many of the miners’ wonderful physiques, but they are nearly all short men (for the obvious reason that the mine shafts are generally only 4 or 3 feet high).

The men are stunted and ill; you never see a good-looking working woman. Where are the six-foot heroes he read about as a boy? Grimly, he concludes, ‘buried in the Flanders mud’.

If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. (Chapter 6)

D.H. Lawrence, also, lamented the stunted ugliness of body, face and manner of the Nottinghamshire working class he grew up among.

An hour walking bent double to the coalface, seven and a half hours hard labour, an hour walking back and then the walk back to a slum house with no bath or hot water

An hour walking bent double to the coalface, seven and a half hours hard labour, an hour walking back to the lift to the surface, and then a couple of miles walk back to a slum house with no bath or hot water, every day, for thirty years or more

Part two

In part two of the book Orwell describes in some detail his intellectual development towards a belief in socialism.

This is, frankly, plain weird and pretty disappointing. Although it contains many striking sentences and sheds light on social changes from his Edwardian childhood through the 1930s, nonetheless it is an intensely personal, even cranky, set of opinions. It is not the clear and logical manifesot you would like it to have been.

For a start, Orwell focuses to an embarrassing extent on how the main difference between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is smell, sweat and dirt. He tells quite a few stories, which we really don’t need to hear, about how, as a snobbish little boy, the thought of swigging from bottles others had drunk from made him feel sick, how the sight of soldiers marching past made him nauseous – because of their proletarian sweat.

Again and again Orwell is distracted from any kind of theoretical ideas by the immediacy of his physical feelings of repulsion. For example, there is a fascinating section about his experiences in Burma as an officer in the Imperial Police. This makes the astonishing claim that many if not all Anglo-Indian officers thought the Empire was a bad thing, realising there was absolutely no justification for us to be ruling over foreigners in their country.

But anecdotes about the handful of officers who ever dared break the taboo about discussing the subject are sidetracked with an equally long disquisition (a page) comparing the average Burmese body (smooth, brown, hairless) and English body (ugly, clumsy, podgy, hairy in embarrassing places). Orwell is obsessed by bodies.

Here’s a typical passage which is a) characteristically well written b) conveys powerful thoughts with energy but c) is so completely personal and autobiographical as to be way out of place in a general essay about politics.

When I came home on leave in 1927 I was already half determined to throw up my job, and one sniff of English air decided me. I was not going back to be a part of that evil despotism. But I wanted much more than merely to escape from my job. For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable remembered faces – faces of prisoners in the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had snubbed, of servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moments of rage (nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally: Orientals can be very provoking) – haunted me intolerably.

I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same. I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself.

I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to ‘succeed’ in life to the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying. (Chapter 9)

Most of what Orwell writes is readable because he writes it in the clear, crisp prose of a man educated at Eton, who then went on to serve in the Imperial Police, a man trained to getting to the point, to writing crisp reports for his school masters and then military superiors.

And his prose is backed up with his almost pathological need to tell the complete honest truth, no matter how embarrassing to himself, which is a large part of what makes it psychologically compelling. He so regularly flays himself, his own opinions and sensations, that he can’t help winning you over.

Each page is littered with fascinating insights into the society of his time and its attitudes, not least where it reveals what we today would consider – despite his claims to be a progressive thinker – attitudes of astonishing racism and everyday sexism.

But there are also long passages dealing with attitudes, caricatures, personas and social ‘types’ which have completely vanished, satirising stereotypes which you have to look up on Google to understand. Maybe these were acute and funny in his day but they now read like long woolly padding.

It is only when you meet someone of a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what
your own beliefs really are. If you are a bourgeois ‘intellectual’ you too readily imagine that you have somehow become unbourgeois because you find it easy to laugh at patriotism and the G. of E. and the Old School Tie and Colonel Blimp and all the rest of it.

But from the point of view of the proletarian ‘intellectual’, who at least by origin is genuinely outside the bourgeois culture, your resemblances to Colonel Blimp may be more important than your differences. Very likely he looks upon you and Colonel Blimp as practically equivalent persons; and in a way he is right, though neither you nor Colonel Blimp would admit it. So that the meeting of proletarian and bourgeois, when they do succeed in meeting, is not always the embrace of long-lost brothers; too often it is the clash of alien cultures which can only meet in war. (Chapter 10)

Orwell is almost always incredibly anecdotal, his insights based on highly personal opinions, experiences, conversations and so on. The more I read the more I realised that Orwell’s factual books lack three things which characterise modern political discourse.

1. They are utterly untheoretical: the terms bourgeois and proletariat and intellectual are chucked about without any definitions or precision, let alone any of the vast weight of radical theory which began to be generated, I suppose, in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, Orwell goes out of his way to disparage anyone who studies or uses Marxist terminology:

As for the technical jargon of the Communists, it is as far removed from the common speech as
the language of a mathematical textbook. I remember hearing a professional Communist speaker address a working-class audience. His speech was the usual bookish stuff, full of long sentences and parentheses and ‘Notwithstanding’ and ‘Be that as it may’, besides the usual jargon of ‘ideology’ and ‘class-consciousness’ and ‘proletarian solidarity’ and all the rest of it. After him a Lancashire working man got up and spoke to the crowd in their own broad lingo. There was not much doubt which of the two was nearer to his audience… (Chapter 11)

2. No sense of the complexity of social groupings. Modern marketing and advertising from the 1960s onwards have led to sophisticated ways of categorising western societies not only into social classes but into groups and types with their own specific interests (the grey pound, the gay community), not to mention the influx of immigrants who now have to be taken account of.

Twenty years of internet marketing have gone hand in hand with the growth of identity politics to create a sense of a society teeming with special interest groups. Reading Orwell’s division of society into a ruling upper class, a bourgeois class, and a proletariat is like reading a fairy tale. When he does talk about other social groupings they read like Bateman cartoons, the most simple of stereotypes. For example, there is a long sequence where he says the average person is put off ‘socialism’ because it seems to attract so many cranks:

In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured ‘Socialists’, as who should say, ‘Red Indians’. He was probably right – the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary
man, a crank meant a Socialist and a Socialist meant a crank. (Chapter 11)

It’s quite funny but hopelessly anecdotal (and note the thread of intense physical repulsion which runs like a vein through all Orwell’s writings). It’s interesting as social history but useless as any kind of argument. Passages like this are really a kind of ‘higher gossip’, it’s a story told in the pub – ‘You know I was on the bus the other day…’. It’s almost as far from political argument as you can get.

3. Numbers: Modern political discourse is absolutely saturated by numbers, be it percentages of the population or particular groups who say they want this or that, in countless opinion polls, or amounts of money required to support the NHS, Britain’s schools or hospitals or prisons or drug rehabilitation centres.

Modern political discourse is saturated with statistics and it feels quaint and old fashioned to read a supposedly political essay which revolves around the author’s memories of childhood, of school, of his early jobs, and then in adult life how his sense of smell or hygiene is offended by workers and foreigners.

4. Using literature as evidence Lacking theoretical precision, lacking a sociological or economic understanding of the complexity of modern society, lacking a grasp of agricultural or industrial production, Orwell’s most repeated tactic is ad hominem attacks on the failings of other writers.

Chapter 10 sets out to answer the question ‘What is socialism?’ but very disappointingly falls away into a string of shallow hits at contemporary writers or social stereotypes (he really hates naturists, sandal-wearers, vegetarians, fruit juice drinkers and feminists).

He slags off the high profile Roman Catholic converts of the day (G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox – notably omitting the more famous – to us – Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene). He calls Auden ‘a gutless Kipling’; he thinks George Bernard Shaw’s plays show that Shaw is averse to revolutionary socialism from below and only wants to impose his own sense of order and discipline from above.

Fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb’s autobiography gives ‘unconsciously, a most revealing picture of the high-minded Socialist slum-visitor’. Henri Barbusse (author to the First World War classic, Le Feu) is criticised for his mindless claims that he wants to bayonet the bourgeoisie. A certain Prince Mirsky who stayed in exile in England for a while before returning to the USSR and writing an excoriating criticism of the British intelligentsia, is quoted at length. William Morris is a ‘windbag’.

Orwell claims it is a common phenomenon that intellectuals and writers heartily support the downtrodden, the urban poor and so on… until there’s the remotest chance that the downtrodden might actually stand up for themselves and start to change things, at which point they turn into the most reactionary of conservatives. And his proof for this assertion? The novels of John Galsworthy.

Chapter 11 sets out to address what he sees as a common objection to socialism, which is ordinary people’s dislike of the mechanisation of life and society. This is represented in an astonishingly vague abstract way via – once again – purely literary authors. The utopia of Samuel Butler (in Erewhon, 1872) is contrasted with a lengthy critique of the idea of ever-increasing mechanisation proposed in the sci-fi novels of H.G. Wells, and both contrasted with the dystopian vision of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

This is fine as literary chat but is useless as political analysis.

What is Socialism?

It is really striking that nowhere does Orwell present or discuss the policies of actual political parties, neither the British Liberals, Conservatives nor Labour Party, let alone any parties from the continent.

Instead the entire debate is frame either in terms of Orwell’s own very personal experiences or by way of paraphrasing authors old or contemporary.

He continually tells his readers that the only possible choice for the sensible modern person is Socialism, we must put aside our differences and adopt Socialism, now is the time to promote Socialism etc etc. But as to what Socialism actually is, he only gets around to addressing on a handful of occasions, and his definitions are tragically banal:

  • Socialism means justice and common decency. (Chapter 11)
  • The essential aims of Socialism are justice and liberty. (Chapter 12)
  • We have got to fight for justice and liberty, and Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the
    nonsense is stripped off it. (Chapter 13)
  • I suggest that the real Socialist is one who wishes – not merely conceives it as desirable, but actively wishes – to see tyranny overthrown. (Chapter 14)
  • Socialism means the overthrow of tyranny. (Chapter 14)
  • The Socialist movement has not time to be a league of dialectical materialists; it has got to be a league of the oppressed against the oppressors. (Chapter 14)
  • All that is needed is to hammer two facts home into the public consciousness. One, that the interests of all exploited people are the same; the other, that Socialism is compatible with common decency. (Chapter 14)

Pitifully inadequate. How many sceptics do you think were won over by these trite formulations?

Interesting as social history and literary gossip, the long second part of The Road To Wigan Pier is a desperately disappointing failure to present even the most basic tenets of socialism or give any idea how it could be implemented or brought about.

Illustration by H. Lanos to When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells which Orwell uses at length in his discussion of the mechanisation of modern society

Illustration by H. Lanos to When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells which Orwell uses at length in his discussion of the mechanisation of modern society

Postscript – Orwell and cranks

Orwell’s hatred of ‘cranks’ is itself cranky. He is obsessed with a whole raft of alternative life style nudists, vegetarians, feminists and sandal wearers. These kinds of people come in for farm more criticism than the bankers, financiers, big businessmen, conservative politicians who you might have thought ought to be the targets of his ire.

And then there is the outer-suburban creeping Jesus, a hangover from the William Morris period, but still surprisingly common, who goes about saying ‘Why must we level down? Why not level up?’ and proposes to level the working class ‘up’ (up to his own standard) by means of hygiene, fruit-juice, birth-control, poetry, etc. (Chapter 10)

The middle-class I.L.P.’er and the bearded fruit-juice drinker are all for a classless society so long as they see the proletariat through the wrong end of the telescope; force them into any real contact with a proletarian – let them get into a fight with a drunken fish-porter on Saturday night, for instance – and they are capable of swinging back to the most ordinary middle-class snobbishness. (Chapter 10)

The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. (Chapter 11)

The only thing for which we can combine is the underlying ideal of Socialism; justice and liberty. But it is hardly strong enough to call this ideal ‘underlying’. It is almost completely forgotten. It has been buried beneath layer after layer of doctrinaire priggishness, party squabbles, and half-baked ‘progressivism’ until it is like a diamond hidden under a mountain of dung. The job of the Socialist is to get it out again. Justice and liberty! Those are the words that have got to ring like a bugle across the world. For a long time past, certainly for the last ten years, the devil has had all the best tunes. We have reached a stage when the very word ‘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.  (Chapter 12)

It would help enormously, for instance, if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly! (Chapter 14)

It is fatal to let the ordinary inquirer get away with the idea that being a Socialist means wearing sandals and burbling about dialectical materialism. (Chapter 14)

Orwell’s quite vitriolic dislike of faddists and cranks and of all the left-wing writers he disagrees with, of Catholic converts and communists, of proletarian writers and high-minded reformers, of writers and the entire London literary scene as a whole, is itself a (quaintly English) symptom of the hopeless lack of unity and infighting which has so often bedevilled the parties of the Left, and which in his day paralysed their opposition to Mussolini and Hitler and, on a much more serious level, was a key element in the defeat of the republic in the Spanish Civil War.

His rhetoric often operates on precisely the kind of visceral physical insults which he was later to condemn in Stalinism. For example, he is very prone to calling people he despises fat:

  • Mrs Brooker used to lament by the hour, lying on her sofa, a soft mound of fat and self-pity… (Chapter 1)
  • Ideally, the worst type of slum landlord is a fat wicked man, preferably a bishop, who is drawing an immense income from extortionate rents. (Chapter 4)
  • ‘I think running water is much more attractive in moor and mountain country than in the fat and sluggish South.’ (from a letter written to him by a friend which he quotes in Chapter 7)
  • The white man is generally ill-shaped, and when he grows fat he bulges in improbable places. (Chapter 9)
  • Please notice that this essentially fat-bellied version of ‘progress’ is not an integral part of Socialist doctrine; but it has come to be thought of as one… (Chapter 12)
  • Barring wars and unforeseen disasters, the future is envisaged as an ever more rapid march of mechanical progress; machines to save work, machines to save thought, machines to save pain,
    hygiene, efficiency, organization, more hygiene, more efficiency, more organization, more machines–until finally you land up in the by now familiar Wellsian Utopia, aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World, the paradise of little fat men. (Chapter 12)
  • Brave New World belongs to a later time and to a generation which has seen through the
    swindle of ‘progress’. It contains its own contradictions (the most important of them is pointed out in Mr John Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power), but it is at least a memorable assault on the more fat-bellied type of perfectionism. (Chapter 12)
  • Clearly I do not, in a sense, ‘want’ to return to a simpler, harder, probably agricultural way of life. In the same sense I don’t ‘want’ to cut down my drinking, to pay my debts, to take enough exercise, to be faithful to my wife, etc., etc. But in another and more permanent sense I do want these things, and perhaps in the same sense I want a civilization in which ‘progress’ is not definable as making the world safe for little fat men. (Chapter 12)
  • This [opposition to socialism] is traceable to two main causes. One is the personal inferiority of
    many individual Socialists; the other is the fact that Socialism is too often coupled with a fat-bellied, godless conception of ‘progress’ which revolts anyone with a feeling for tradition or the rudiments of an aesthetic sense. (Chapter 13)

Instead of criticising pretty much every group he could identify and every author he’d ever read, Orwell should have been trying to unite as many disparate groups as possible by hammering out an anti-fascist, anti-Right wing platform which could be agreed on by the widest possible range of parties and groups.

This is precisely what he tries to do in the final chapter of the book, by saying that the ‘comrades’ need to tone down the anti-bourgeois rhetoric because it is precisely the petty bourgeois office workers and commercial travellers and clerks that they need to win over to the cause.

Alienate them by telling them they are capitalist running dogs and you push them into the Fascist camp. But these exhortations to unity come at the end of nearly a hundred pages of unrelenting criticism and vituperation. Too little, too late.

And above all, there is a huge, a vast chasm in the book which is where he should have been explaining just exactly what he means in practical terms by Socialism and how it would be brought about and just why it is in the direct personal interest of a floor walker or commercial traveller, the clerks and drapers and civil servants and millions of other petty bourgeois to espouse it and fight for it.

Part one – conditions of miners in the North – priceless reportage and still shocking to this day.

Part two – his own personal views about Socialism – a desperately confusing rag-bag of personal anecdote, obsessions and ringing rhetorical calls for Justice, totally devoid of any practical policies.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I prefer the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)

Poverty is what I’m writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. (p.9)

This is George Orwell’s first published book. It is a book of two halves – a tale of two cities, in fact.

Eric Blair

George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair. Eric was born in India in 1903 to an Imperial civil servant father. The family returned to England in 1907 and sent young Eric to prep school then to, surprisingly, managed to wangle him a scholarship to Eton. Good at sports (not least because of his gangling six-foot-two height) Eric’s poor academic record made it seem unlikely he’d get into Oxbridge so the decision was made to send him to join the Imperial Police Force in Burma in 1922.

Eric served for five years before quitting and returning to England in 1927, determined to make a career as a writer. (His time in Burma and his growing disillusionment with the empire is described in chapter 9 of The Road to Wigan Pier; a huge amount of background knowledge and observation went into his first novel, Burmese Days.) Eric took odd jobs while scratching together drafts of novels, but found it easier to write essays and factual descriptions.

By the late 1920s Eric was living in London and fascinated by the East End. He made the first of numerous forays into the world of the doss house, the spike or the kip, the very basic lodgings provided for tramps. It fed something in him to turn his back on his genteelly upper-class milieu and confront really grinding poverty. In fact, in Wigan Pier he explains that he returned from Burma feeling guilty at being one of the oppressors; he thought he could only throw off his guilt by really sinking himself into the life of the oppressed. The sights, sounds and people he met provided the material for the second – London – section of Down and Out in Paris and London.

In 1928 Eric went to live in a ragamuffin hotel in a poor quarter of Paris hoping, in the traditional manner, to become a writer. He stayed for nearly two years. The area is named the Coq d’Or quarter in the book, and he claims he lived there for a year and a half (p.14). Eric managed to sell some journalistic pieces to French journals, was ill and hospitalised for a while and, upon his release, had all his money stolen from a lodging house.

The first hundred pages of Down and Out detail the sights and sounds and smells of this shabby area, of the squalid hotel and its impoverished but colourful inhabitants. In the opening chapters, robbed of almost all his cash, Eric is living in complete poverty off what he could pawn, often going completely hungry for days on end. Then he teams up with an ex-waiter, an émigré Russian named Boris and, after many hopes and disappointments, he finally gets a job for a glorious month or so working very long hours but with a regular income, as a plongeur at a swanky hotel-restaurant off the Rue de Rivoli.

Against his better judgement he is persuaded by Boris to quit this job to help at a new venture, the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, which turns out not even to have been properly wired, plumbed or decorated. Eric helps with all this work while, yet again, virtually starving. Finally the auberge opens and he finds himself working even longer hours, in the furnace-like kitchen where the super-harassed staff and cook spend 17-hours a day shouting abuse at each other and preparing awful food.

Eventually, Eric can’t stand the squalor, the stress and the lack of sleep any more and cables a friend in London. The friend (referred to only as B.) sends back a fiver and the promise of a job in England looking after an invalid. Eric quits the auberge, says goodbye to Boris, packs his bags and takes the cross-Channel ferry back to Blighty in chapter 24.

Here Eric is devastated to find the invalid has upped stumps and gone to the continent, so he is once again thrown on his uppers, pawns his suit and changes into the smelliest old clothes and tries his luck at a variety of filthy doss houses. For the last 80 or so pages the narrative switches to London and the towns around it, detailing the squalid conditions in the different sorts of kips in and around London, as well as his encounters with other tramps and the short-lived friendships he makes.

This second part lacks the charge and joie de vivre of the first half. The irrepressible Russian optimism of Boris brings the Paris section to life, and also the hotel is a permanent base whose inhabitants he gets to know very well, drinking and carousing with them (when he is in funds). Also the depiction of the life of a plongeur in a smart hotel is genuinely fascinating, even gripping. You get a strong flavour of Paris with descriptions of trams and night noises and dawn over the city.

By contrast the second section is not really about London at all, since many of the kips are out of town. And because he is constantly on the move (many of the doss houses only let tramps stay for one night), even when he meets other tramps and gets to know them a bit, it is only for fleeting encounters. There are no real friends such as Boris, and none of the warm camaraderie of the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. Instead the dominant theme is of large groups of extremely poor, old and sick men stripping bare in squalid bath rooms, their bodies covered in sores and rashes, all of them forced to ‘wash’ in a couple of filthy metal bath tubs.

Eric Blair becomes George Orwell

The book marks Eric’s first use of the pen-name George Orwell. Apparently he didn’t want to publish it under his own name as he didn’t want his family or friends or literary contacts to know the squalor he’d been living in. He wanted to disassociate himself from his earlier scattered articles. And he had come to consider the surname ‘Blair’ as being ‘too Scottish’.

So he submitted a list of four possible pen-names to his agent and they both agreed on George Orwell, George sounding hearty and patriotic, Orwell from the river in Suffolk not far from Southwold where his parents had by this stage bought a house and where he often stayed. (The other three were P. S. Burton, Kenneth Miles and H. Lewis Allways.)

Anyway, the name has become set in stone and it shows the essentially comical and absurd transmutations of language and culture that a sleepy little river in Suffolk has come to be the adjective educated people around the world now use to describe a dystopian vision of a crushingly totalitarian future – Orwellian.

Aspects of poverty

Taken together these 200 pages provide a vivid picture of the life of poverty in the capital cities of the two main Western democracies in the early 1930s. The book established Orwell as a great writer of social reportage, a genre he was to excel in.

Early on in the Paris section Orwell lists the characteristics of poverty (chapter 3 – the entire text is available online courtesy of the fabulous George Orwell – The Complete Works website – I’ll link off to the relevant sections of the text, as appropriate).

For a start people think poverty must be very simple, but being poor is surprisingly complicated. You have to work out dodges and wheezes both to scrounge money or food, and to avoid the unnecessary commitments you can no longer afford. You have to fib to the laundress why you no longer send her your laundry; to the tobacconist why you no longer buy your baccy from him. You pay for a handful of vegetables but discover one of the coins is Belgian, which they refuse and, since you have no others, have to slink off without paying, covered in humiliation. You find yourself lying to people, and Orwell hated lying. (It is notable that Orwell’s humiliations are not ours e.g. bringing food home to eat in the hotel room is obviously a source of deep shame for him, whereas it’s commonplace today). Shops full of delicious food (this is Paris!) make you realise how starving hungry you are. Your starving mind tells you just to grab a baguette and run, but you are too afraid to even do that. Your self-loathing deepens.

To some extent all of this is compensated for by the one great positive aspect of poverty – it abolishes care for the future, because there is no future. There is only day-to-day survival, to eke out the little money you have, to calculate how to eat, drink and find somewhere to sleep, and then to waste the day working through the thousand and one mean dodges required to stay alive.

Comedy & character

One of the blurbs of an older edition describes it as being ‘a savage portrait of the lower depths’. It’s true that the dwelling on the hunger, squalor and humiliation of utter poverty is grim, but this is to overlook the fact that the book is full of humour. He describes the couple who live in his shabby hotel and make a living by the Seine selling the postcards in bags which usually include pornographic photos – only theirs contain pictures of the chateux of the Loire, which, when they open them, the purchasers are too embarrassed to return and ask for their money back.

The majority of the Paris experience describes his shared tribulations with his friend Boris, a Russian emigre whose bumptious optimism, encyclopedic knowledge of the military campaigns of Napoleon, swanking references to his many old mistresses, and incessant bad luck make him a triumphantly comic character.

When Orwell finally finds a job as a plongeur or kind of washer-up-cum-food-server in the hellish bowels of a swanky Paris hotel, his revelations of how filthy the whole behind-the-scenes operation is may come as a shock to many people (I’ve worked in posh pubs and in the kitchen at Royal Ascot where I quickly overcame my horror at the casual lack of hygiene of food preparation; what people don’t know won’t hurt them – probably).

He gives a particularly gloating description of how the best steak will be pawed and padded and its gravy licked first by the maitre d’, then by the waiter, their unwashed filthy fingers more likely than not drenched in hair oil and nicotine, and only once they’re satisfied will they wipe their fingermarks off the plate with a cloth and sally forth to present it as a work of art to the oblivious customer.

Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it. (p.72)

This isn’t ‘savage’; it is gloating at the way the rich are abused behind their backs. He gleefully claims that all French cooks without exception spit into the soup they’re making. The communist Magyar waiter at his next job tells Orwell that he sometimes wrings a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup ‘just to be revenged on a member of the bourgeoisie’ (p.101).

Orwell’s dissection of the hotel’s complex class system which demarcates, the maitre d’, the cooks, the waiters, and the plongeurs like himself is fascinating, wonderful reporting of an unknown world, and full of humorous touches. Take the Italian waiter who, after a big slanging match with a plongeur who has accidentally broken a wine bottle, threatens to cut the offender with a razor, lets forth a last stream of Italian abuse and farts contemptuously as he exits the first of the swing doors out of the fiery kitchen — only to completely transform his demeanour into stylish subservience as he exits the second door into the hotel dining room, gliding like a swan across the swish floor to the customer’s table where he presents the much-pawed dish with balletic grace, and standing attentively to serve. He was, Orwell, comments, a natural aristocrat (p.61). This and almost all of the scenes are wonderfully humorous and human.

Orwell gleefully explains how the food served at the hotel is average to poor – all the ingredients bought at local markets and the prices at least doubled; the wine is common vin ordinaire poured into posh bottles. The waiters live on tips and one of the many dodges among waiters is to get commission from champagne brands for every cork returned to them. The management are therefore at a loss what to do with the faddish American who orders for dinner a glass of hot water and salt. In the end they serve it and charge a ludicrous 25 Francs which the American pays without a murmur.

This comes among a sequence of broad humour at the expense of American guests who, Orwell suggests, deserve to be ripped off for their wealth, their faddishness and their lack of taste, who ‘seemed to know nothing whatever about food’ (p.74). It is an indicator of just how far away Orwell is from us that one of his prime proofs of how swinish Americans are is their habit of eating ‘disgusting American “cereals”‘ (p.74), a habit which had pretty much conquered the western world by the time I was a boy and shows no sign of going away.

An entire chapter, 17, is a wonderful description of the weekly piss-up in the cellar bar of the cheap hotel he lodged in, the Hotel des Trois Moineaux, with thumbnail portraits of the villainous characters who lived there and each got drunk in their own way. The ex-soldier who started the evening as a communist but got progressively more patriotic the more he drank, until he was easily baited into launching into a raucous version of La Marseillais until he is pinned down by two jokers while a third suddenly shouts ‘Vive l’Allemagne’ in his face and the whole room roars with laughter at his helpless rage – all this is deliberately comic and poignant, in fact the chapter is a masterpiece of mood and description.

Or take Charlie’s story about how he nearly got caught out in scam to diddle food from one of Paris’s hospital for pregnant mothers, in chapter 18. This is a straightforward comic anecdote.

Consideration of these two chapters brings out how short all of the chapters are. The Penguin paperback text stretches to 185 pages in total, divided into 38 chapters = an average of 4.8 pages per chapter. It is, then, a book of snapshots and anecdotes.

Typical is the pen portrait of Bozo the screever which makes up chapter 30. Less warm and funny than one of the Paris sections, it is nonetheless eye-opening and poignant on a number of levels.

Comparing Paris and London

All day I loafed in the streets, east as far as Wapping, west as far as Whitechapel. It was queer after Paris; everything was so much cleaner and quieter and drearier. One missed the scream of the trams, and the noisy, festering life of the back streets, and the armed men clattering through the squares. The crowds were better dressed and the faces comelier and milder and more alike, without that fierce individuality and malice of the French. There was less drunkenness, and less dirt, and less
quarrelling, and more idling. Knots of men stood at all the corners, slightly underfed, but kept going by the tea-and-two-slices which the Londoner swallows every two hours. One seemed to breathe a less feverish air than in Paris. It was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange, as Paris is the land of the bistro and the sweatshop. (Chapter 25)

Politics

In chapter 22 Orwell gathers his thoughts on the life of a plongeur, considered as a kind of slave.

He presents two ideas. The weaker one is the idea that the upper classes and the liberal intelligentsia are both terrified of the mob and believe their best way of preventing a revolution in which they’ll be shot, their house burned, their precious library despoiled or end up forced to work in a lavatory, is to keep the terrifying working class in its place by forcing it to work all the hours God sends. This may have been a plausible interpretation in his day, but it’s not clear if there is a working class in that way any more. I read lots about the ‘gig economy’ these days but if people continue to work long hours in catering, retail and – especially – out in the fields picking crops, it is because there is a slander margin on these activities and they continue to be, despite all the crap about robots taking over, very labour intensive.

His second point is more pertinent, for he attacks the whole basis of ‘luxury’ and ‘hotels’. Are they really needed? I agree with him that they’re not, and that the so-called ‘luxury’ they provide is in fact trashy and fake – airport luxury, Dubai luxury. But then I am a Puritan like Orwell, I share his honesty, his hatred of cant and jargon, and his physical revulsion at luxury and comfort.

But having just got back from a holiday in Spain, from reading the daily papers with their ads for luxury products and holidays, and from watching daytime TV at the gym where it is beamed onto half a dozen screens, I can confidently say that we are in a minority. There will continue to be hotels and restaurants and bars and cafes because lots and lots of people like being served. Every day in Starbucks and all the other coffee chains, and food shops, and restaurants etc, people in the rich West like to be served. And from what I’ve seen of Arab countries, of Turkey and Greece, of India and south-east Asia, it is a universal pleasure to take a seat at an outdoors table, order a little coffee or chai, light up a cigarette and watch the world go by.

Luxury, no matter how fake, continues because people want it and enjoy it. It feeds the human spirit to be able to ‘take your ease at your inn’, to quote Falstaff.

London Labour

Orwell is on safer ground when presenting sociological material. Chapter 32 is a brief consideration of London slang and swear words. It starts with the slang for different types of beggars and the tools of their trade. This immediately put me in mind of Henry Mayhew’s epic and classic account of the livelihoods of the London poor in the 1840s, London Labour and the London Poor, a veritable encyclopedia listing and categorising hundreds of types of street worker, along with their stories and trade secrets in five enormous volumes. Orwell’s slender chapter is like a snowdrop next to an iceberg in comparison.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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