The Road to Wigan Pier (Anglais) Broché – 26 janvier 2012
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After his success with Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell got commissioned by the influential Left Book Club (Victor Gollancz one of the editors)to write a book about unemployment in the industrial and empoverished northern part of England. This was the mid 30s, the recent depression had led to high unemployment and endless misery in England as elsewhere.
GO went there and dug in and lived with workers and in boarding houses and crawled through mines (though he was about twice as tall as a miner should be) and talked to people and read statistics and reports.
The outcome is an oddity. Part 1 is a solid piece of investigative reporting and journalistic sociology. Chapter 1 is along the lines of Down and Out, an account of life in a boarding house in the North. Start with chapter 2 if you are squeamish. The hygienic conditions are worse than anything in Down and Out.
The following chapters in part 1 give us decsriptions of the life of miners and work in the coal mines, of the miners' leisure time, health, work safety, accidents, the housing conditions in the fearful northern slums (worse than the slums in India and Burma, says GO, because of the cold dampness), of unemployment and malnutrition, of food and fuel, of the uglyness of industrial countries at the time. The strongest chapter in this part, in my opinion, is the one on unemployment and its psychology. This subject is timeless. Even if the slums have changed, the essential condition of unemployment is surely unchanged.
So far so good and in line with the job description.
But then the man went and added a second part which deals in first place with himself, an autobiography and history of the thought of GO. Having grown up as a son of shabby genteels, he was raised on contempt for the working class. Public school education enforced the attitude. After school and after WW1, GO took a job in the imperial police in Burma and there learned to hate the system. He quit after 5 years and went into a personal crisis, a kind of horror vacui and hatred against his self. He goes on search of redemption as told with some embellishment in Down and Out. He tries to anihilate his social persona, but learns it does not work that way. The North England job gives him a chance to reconsider his position. He philosophizes about socialism and the classes. Interesting to us (at least to me), but shocking to the Left Book Club.
They decide to publish it anyway, but Gollancz adds a foreword where he thinks he needs to warn his club members that here is somebody who does not walk the line of good doctrinarism. Very odd.
By the way, did you know that quite likely fish and chips and the football pools have averted revolution in England by providing 'panem and circenses'? Says Orwell, and I love him for that kind of insight.
(This concludes my Orwell cycle, unless I decide to re-visit Burma and Catalonia.)
Orwell raises issues that could as easily apply today pertinent to those dedicated to "change" the conditions of those of whom they have little grasp. That's the only depressing thing about the book: so little has changed in so much time.
Some observations on the then-growing fascist movement in Europe are eye-openers too.
Read it and weep? Or read it and LEARN!
The first half of the book stands as a remarkable piece of journalism revealing untold squalor. Coal was the oil of its day and people wanted it in quantity and they wanted it cheap and they did not want to know what it took to produce it. It is difficult to decide what is grimmer, the work beneath the earth or the housing to which the miners returned at night. Especially mean is the fact that the privilege of a family of eight living in two leaky, barren rooms, two hundred yards from an outdoor privy, extracted most of the household wages. Orwell's urgent prose does not let anyone look away.
Orwell then turns to a discussion of class differences, the bourgeois and Socialists. He portrays a culture saturated in a class system that will be difficult to eradicate any time soon, one in which the different classes have different values, fears and perspectives that obstruct understanding and reconcilation. Socialism, which had both its bourgeois and proletariat adherents, had yet to get its act together. Rather dyspeptically, Orwell saw it as a lightening rod for all the modern trends taken up in rejection of the old ways: feminism, vegetarianism, free love, humanitarianism, atheism, pacifism, to name a few. The Socialists fell feverishly upon their new orthodoxies with a zeal Orwell suggests would drive the public towards Fascism. He does not reject Socialism-in the end he equates it with common decency, but he wants it to get its act together in light of his views. In this essay lies the Orwell either side of the divide loves or hates, the Orwell who defies easy categorizing. In it also lies the eloquent, precise voice that makes reading him a pleasure despite wanting to say, "Look, here, there is nothing wrong with being vegetarian (or feminist or whichever of your sacred cows he's dealt some withering words)."
Secondly, Orwell did not write this book "for the socialists" in the sense that some of the other reviews imply. He wrote the first half of the book-an analysis of living/working conditions of coal miners in North England- by request of the Left Book Club, a British socialist organization. The second half of the book- a critique of socialism and socialists- was not requested by the club, in fact, it prompted a rebuttal from a representative of the organization in the original release (which is included as an introduction in other editions of the book.)
The half of the book about the miners and their lives is heartbreakingly poignant, described well by the other reviews. Read them. The second half is a well reasoned constructive critique of socialism and socialists. Orwell points out that most of those middle-class folk who claim to be socialists, in actuality, are not: they wouldn't be willing to lower their own standard of living for the sake of elevating those in poverty. He points out that the alternate view of "why don't we just elevate the standard of living for EVERYONE?" is a bit of a Jesus complex that would never work. He goes on to compare "bearded juice-drinking Marx-quoting Socialists" to the likes of pushy evangelical Christians, saying that most Socialists actually harm their cause and turn others away from socialism rather than converting them. Hillarious, wether you are a critic or friend of socialism (assuming that you have a sense of humor...)
The one complaint I have about this book is that Orwell states that socialism is "obviously" the only cure for the ills of the coal miners described in the first half of the book. He never says how or why. One could extrapolate that socialism could alleviate the housing shortage by providing subsidized housing in the mining towns, and that it could improve the conditions in the mines by applying industry standards to how the mines are run. Wether this would actually be the case could be argued, but the author doesn't even bother to give any support to his claim.
Overall a great book- read both parts!
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