Maconie's shamed me into reading The Road to Wigan Pier. I could never get on with Orwell's fiction but I thought I'd give this a try.
The first part gives us the facts and figures of northern working class life in the thirties. You can't argue with them. Orwell lives for a while in a crowded boarding house. He goes down mines.
The most revealing thing for me was not the overcrowding or the squalor or the danger of the work, but just how fit you had to be to be a miner. Not only was the work bloody hard but just to get to the coalface could involve miles of walking underground, bent double, banging your head, breathing in that lovely underground air. Just thinking about it makes me feel claustrophobic and knackered. And the miners had to do it fueled by a really basic unnourishing diet.
I'm slowly getting through the second part where Orwell gets all political. Attitudes of different classes to each other are analysed.
There is some unintentional light relief. Thank God for that because I can't read a book without there being some light relief, intentional or not.
According to Orwell, in the thirties middle class people believed that the working class were inherently dirty. They smelt, not through lack of bathing opportunities but because that's the way they were.
When Orwell was thirteen...
"I was in a train coming from a market town, and the third-class carriage was packed full of shepherds and pig-men who had been selling their beasts. Somebody produced a quart bottle of beer and passed it round; it travelled from mouth to mouth, everyone taking a swig. I cannot describe the horror I felt as that bottle worked its way towards me. If I drank from it after all those lower-class male mouths I felt certain I should vomit; on the other hand, if they offered it to me I dared not refuse for fear of offending them - you see here how squeamishness works both ways. Nowadays, thank God, I have no feelings of that kind. A working-man's body, as such, is no more repulsive to me than a millionaire's. I still don't like drinking out of a cup or bottle after another person - another man, I mean: with women I don't mind - but at least the question of class does not enter. It was rubbing shoulders with tramps that cured me of it. Tramps are not really very dirty as English people go, but they have the name for being dirty, and when you have shared a bed with a tramp and drunk tea out of the same snuff-tin, you feel that you have seen the worst and the worst has no terrors for you."
This, written in all seriousness, is hilarious. Whether it would have been so funny to a reader 70 years ago is another matter. Orwell is travelling third class because his family are lower middle class, not really that well off. Why the farm workers should want to offer him some of their beer, I don't know. The passing round of the bottle seems to me to be a bonding thing, you were part of the gang if you were offered it. The only reason they would offer it to a thirteen year old middle class boy would be to humiliate him. "Come on, lad, drink up, this'll put hairs on your chest!" They obviously didn't offer it to him, were not in the slightest bit interested in making a fool of him. He was not so central to the plot as he thought. This is Orwell's unintentional humour.
On a more serious note, Orwell's predilection for sharing tins of tea with female tramps is perhaps a clue as to how he contracted the tuberculosis which led to his early death.
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