‘We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive…’
I absolutely adored Orwell’s description of being down and out in Paris and London, so it was only natural that I would eventually turn to that book’s spiritual sequel Road to Wigan Pier. To prepare for this insight into life in the northern slums, Orwell lived in Wigan and Sheffield for three months, calling in at various other Yorkshire and Lancashire hotspots along the way. People often talk about 1984 in hushed tones of reverence, such was that novels ability to predict the future. Road to Wigan Pier is perhaps even more prescient…
Orwell’s second work of non-fiction continues the themes of Down and Out In Paris and London, in a way that is more assertive and explosive. The hugely controversial second part of the book is not just a manifesto, but also a blistering takedown of why socialism isn’t taken seriously by the masses. This reasoned introspection could have been written yesterday and is sadly as relevant as ever. The left have not learned the lessons that Orwell tried to relay here, and while his two word description of socialism as justice and liberty may seem reductive, it is also worth remembering at a time when that end of the political spectrum has never been more fractured or mistrused. Orwell was a socialist, but he was smart enough to be able to play devil’s advocate, and he had the self awareness to try and make a lasting change. If only his comrades (a word that he rightly disparages as being exclusionary and vomit inducing) could take a leaf out of any of Orwell’s books.
Anyway, this is a book review, not a political rally, I digress. No matter where you land on the political spectrum, the first part of Road to Wigan Pier is essential reading. Not only as a history lesson, but also as a wildly entertaining vignette of working class life in the ’30s. The chapter on coal miners is particularly compelling, and Orwell’s clear admiration for these men is matched only by the quality of his writing. Despite clearly having an agenda, Orwell’s writing drips with honesty and authenticity, and he isn’t afraid to turn the harsh light of introspection onto himself. He frequently lists flaws of his character – both past and present – that shape his current viewpoint, and his attempt to tackle these defects head on is both commendable and refreshing. More importantly, it also makes for great writing.
Orwell’s greatest achievement was a propensity to see things for how they really were. He had an uncanny ability to strip any system down to its smallest parts and then lay it bare for all to see. This is why his books have not only endured, but still seem ahead of their time, even today.
Speaking as a teacher, it is a scandal that none of Orwell’s works are required reading on the English curriculum. One of the most important writers our fair isle ever produced.