Saturday, October 27, 2007

Orwell, Only Another 85 Pages To Go

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.


  1. Perhaps he travelled 3rd class to avoid... The Man on the Train?

  2. Molly8:54 AM

    Things haven't changed much though, have they? Except no-one would offer you a slurp of your beer now. I reckon they would hide it under their coat. Or empty it in one gulp and smash you over the head with the empty tin. Ouch!

    Talking of sharing drinks, I was really thirsty the other day and I nipped into a Pret (Away in) a Manger and I picked up, what I thought was apple juice. Imagine my dismay when I realised that what I had picked up was actually 'Hippy Juice' - what on earth? Hippy Juice? Argh! Step away from the bottle! It actually tasted like the kind of orange juice that old lady's make at school fetes. Like one part squash to five hundred million parts water that is slightly warm. Apparently it is flavoured with flowers. Sigh. Funnily enough, I shared it around and people turned up their noses, I suspect, more for offering a drink that I had drunk out of, than the drink itself. A modern take on the story, but not as funny I'm afraid. Oh god, I'm babbling again. Sorry.

    Anyway, you should try this new hippy juice - it's great!! Said with much sarcasm.

    I do quite like Orwell, even though there are moments that annoy me. There's a real sweet passage in a book that he writes about a teacher that I copied out because it was really lovely. People go to the obvious tomes because they feel they have to don't they? Dip into the more obscure works like 'Keep The Aspidistra flying' and you'll find some interesting snippets. Still, whenever anyone is being horrible to me I still say, 'Do it to Julia' but no-one ever gets it. Sigh. Poor old Winston.

    I reckon you should say, 'Do it to Julia' to the man on the train. (MOTT) - Mott sounds like something rude.

  3. molly8:56 AM

    I can't believe I just wrote lady's like that. Sorry. I mean ladies. I spend my whole life correcting that and then do it myself. Arrrrrrgh. Must be the hippy juice.

  4. Bob - Unfortunately we're all lumped in the same class on our train. And no-one passes round their coffee.

    Molly - You'd have thought the Hippie Chippie, not Pret a Manger, would have first marketed Hippy Juice. Instead they sell "soft" drinks to make your chips go down with a burp.
    I'll probably try more of Orwell's novels as I like this - maybe I'm growing into him.

  5. Never mind Hippy Juice, it's those Innocent Smoothies that I can't stand. Not only are their adverts so twee even I can't take them, but I giggle every time I see them ever since someone pointed out "innocent smoothies" sounds like an exceptionally dodgy website.

  6. This post reminds me of the old signs that were/are? still nailed to walls outside the labour exchange: No Spitting.
    From the days of rampant TB as well as unemployment I guess. It used to bother me that "prohibited" wasn't used; because 'we' couldn't read? But I was an odd child...

  7. Good for you Geoff!

    I'm afraid I didn't finish this one, but I did 'Keep the Aspidistra flying' 'til the end.

    (Agree with Billy about the Innocents).

  8. Billy - In a few years time Innocent Smoothies will be Old Smoothies. And nobody will take any notice of them.

    Arabella - I've never understood how spitting on the ground could pass on TB. Sharing a bottle, I can see.

    Kaz - Gracie Fields always comes to mind whenever aspidistras are mentioned. I wonder if she had one on Capri?

  9. I remember at a wedding being asked "what class would you consider yourself to be?"

    Response: "a class too well bred to ask such impertinent questions"

  10. In Keats's time TB was "the breath of death" - so I think it's the way the disease is borne on the air, via the lungs through coughing etc that makes it so nasty.
    My mom had it as a child and spent months in Weston-Super-Mare in a sanitorium. I can't think of a more depressing place to have it!

  11. This is very interesting.
    Here in the Colonies we eschew the Class System and therefore it can be stated, in no uncertain terms, that we do not have any Class.

  12. Arabella, my dad spent months in Weston Super Mare convalescing with a badly broken leg - an injury he'd got working in a coal mine. Probably the same place (I can't imagine that there was more than one sanitorium in Weston). Small world, innit?

  13. HE: I think we've both proven that.

  14. Llewtrah - Did they have different tables for different classes of guests?

    Arabella - In that case they should have had a sign saying No Spitting, Coughing Or Sneezing. My grandad's three brothers died of TB so I should really know more about it. I better get started on that family tree.

    HE - Canada is a good example of the classless society our politicians think we should be aiming for.

    Betty - A sea view, too. Except the sea was about five miles out.

    MJ - You lot may have no class but you're so damn classy.

  15. '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'

    Nah - he picked that up from one of the sheep, Geoff. You don't think they'd leave the poor 'beasts' out when they're handing out the booze, do you??


    p.s. Left it late last night, the Hammers?

  16. The Black Sheep Brewery?

    Wemberley, Wemberley. We've got half a team and we're going to Wemberley.