Stephen Armstrong, the journalist and critic, will be a guest speaker at the inaugural Orwell Society AGM on April 28, to which all members are invited.
How can The Road to Wigan Pier, a slim, hastily researched piece of reportage, still have such resonance that, seventy-five years after publication, the Daily Telegraph should urge its readers to buy a copy in 2009, 2010 and 2011 – all in opinion pieces by different small ‘c’ conservative writers? Because it’s Orwell and because it’s terrifyingly appropriate today.
Why does Orwell still matter so much? Perhaps it’s because, in fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he was a writer who acted on his beliefs. Perhaps it’s because he was the arch contrarian and so, since his death in 1950, he has gradually become a secular saint, a touchstone for the political left and right alike and a point of reference for taking a critical stance on almost anything. In the United States, the battle over healthcare reform had the Tea Party quoting at length from 1984, convinced that Barack Obama was Big Brother, whilst the BNP quoted Orwell in its defence of David Starkey’s attacks on immigration. On the left, everyone from John Pilger to anarchists find comfort and encouragement in Orwell’s words. In Sheffield, I came across an ex-steelworker with two tattoos – one of the white rose of Yorkshire and one of Orwell’s face. He’s not alone. Google “Orwell tattoo” and see what you find.
John le Carre, at the opening of his recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor (2010), sends his protagonist Peregrine spinning from the cloistered walls of Oxbridge academia after he delivers a series of lectures called “A Stifled Britain” in which he asks: “Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addictions to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement were happily in place in 2009?”
Receiving no response from the blank student faces staring up at him, le Carre’s protagonist provides the answer himself: “no, Orwell would emphatically not have believed it. Or if he had he would have taken to the streets, He would have smashed some serious glass.”….
Orwell arrived in Wigan on a cold Saturday morning early in February 1936, commissioned by his publisher Victor Gollancz to write about the conditions of the unemployed but finding himself drawn as much to the privations of miners, dockers and steelworkers who still clung to their jobs. Between January and March 1936 he visited Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield and produced a passionate polemic that helped fuel the debate on poverty and responsibility, and ultimately helped lead to the development of the welfare state.
Following his path isn’t a new idea. The journalist Bea Campbell did the same in 1981 in Wigan Pier Revisited. In 2011, both the BBC and the Observer sent reporters on the same road. All the same, seventy-five years on it seemed worthwhile to visit the grandchildren of the families Orwell had known, to see what had changed for the better and what had changed for the worse.
In some ways, we are living in bleaker times than 1936. Then, the unemployment rate was falling slowly from its 1932-3 peak of over 22 per cent. Although this figure seems incomparably high, in numerical terms this means 2.23 million unemployed in January 1936, down from 2.98 million in January 1933. Today, unemployment is rising – in November 2011 it stood at 2.62 million or 8.3 per cent.
According to the House of Commons library, government changes to the way unemployment rates are measured over the past thirty years mean that 1933’s 2.9 million unemployed, as measured by today’s standards, hovered at just below 10 per cent.
Then there’s leadership. When Orwell started out, the coalition prime minister was Stanley Baldwin who, in 1919, had donated one-fifth of his personal wealth to the Treasury to help pay off the national debt and try to create jobs. Compare this to the MPs’ expenses scandal… In total, seventy MPs were implicated, helping themselves to hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money. The idea that MPs would help pay off the national debt from their own purse seems like an insane fantasy. For Orwell it was recent history.
Extracted from the introduction to The Road To Wigan Pier Revisited, by Stephen Armstrong, published by Constable. All rights reserved.