Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Road to Wigan Pier

The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell
$10.36 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 0156767503
If there's a bad book by George Orwell, I haven't read it yet. He's the acclaimed author of 1984, Animal Farm, Burmese Days, and a host of other late English classics. This is a strange piece of investigative journalism he produced in 1937. It concerns coal mining, the working poor, and above all: socialism. The Road to Wigan Pier is almost unknown now, but at the time it was written it was much discussed and highly controversial.
He begins in the town of Wigan, England by describing the boarding houses rented by the poor. The modern equivalent would be the "projects" in major US cities, considered a symbol of 
urban blight and racial inequality. Here, the working class is forced to live in overcrowded, squalid conditions shared with contagious diseases while underfed on cheap and often rotten food.
Conditions get worse when we get to work, mostly in the coal mines. After dropping down a pitch dark elevator shaft at 60 miles per hour, men had to crawl for miles on their knees in underground caverns to reach the coal face. Accidents were frequent, the air was hot and thick with black coal dust which wound up in the miners' lungs and covering every square inch of their bodies.
This work was done because it was a critic industry in England, yet the poor guys who made the sacrifices involved were so poorly compensated that they were practically beggars. For example, the "traveling" time it took to get from the mouth of the mine to the coal face, all that crawling through the tunnels, took hours and was non-paid. Workers had to rent their tools and headlamps. After all this they barely made enough to buy groceries and pay the rent on their shithole apartments.
It may seem strange to read what would now be classified as 
a "current affairs" book seventy years after it was written. What surprised me the most was how relevant the whole thing was to modern times. The social problems Orwell described mostly still exist today, and his remarks on unemployment, welfare, and housing shortages kept me thinking about this year's headlines.
He ends with a few chapters on socialism, which he considered such elementary common sense that he was amazed it hadn't been 
enacted yet. 
"The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system."
The Road to Wigan is a sad reminder that some things never change. This book is, unfortunately, fading into obscurity; but still vibrant and deeply rewarding.

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