I like Orwell, I do. I immensely enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London, Coming up For Air, and of course was deeply disturbed as a child by Animal Farm, and studied 1984 to death at various stages in my school life. If you’re in any way acquainted with English Literature, particularly as taught in the British education system, you’re going to know at least a bit about Orwell, and that’s as it should be. I have a confession about this book, however – I haven’t finished it, and I’m not sure I’m intending to. Maybe in another week or so I’ll get a second wind on it, but I’ve hit a wall, I’m ashamed to say.
It started positively enough – there’s a definite echo of Down and Out In Paris and London as he goes undercover, in sections of society that would have been all but invisible to his readership. He expresses a deep admiration for the miners he encounters; their physical prowess and endurance in particular. He explodes commonly-held perceptions of the time; that the working class live in squalor because they are inherently dirty; that giving miners facilities to wash in would be a waste of money; that miners earn more than enough money, and many more absurdities.
Reading it so long after it was written, it’s the attitudes he is challenging that are shocking now, and the interest lies in the way in which he goes about exploring these issues. It’s the minutiae of life that he gives the reader priviledged access to; the food, what people worry about, how many people in a house, gender relations, where the toilets are etc. It brings to mind the TV documentary format: person from a familar cultural background to ours goes into a situation which is thought to be culturally dissimilar, explores these differences and finds similarities. The point is to expose something that is hidden and misunderstood, and in exposing it to understand it better; to make it familar and human, rather than alien and ‘other’. Better understanding of our fellow men can only be a good thing, especially in the face of extreme social inequality and unfounded prejudice, and the beginning of The Road to Wigan Pier is a sympathetic and in-depth account of the people Orwell meets in his forays into the northern mining towns, and his own reactions to living as they do. So far so good. So why the halt in reading?
I think my problem came when we diverged from the documentary format of Down and Out.. and started going into the political ins and outs, pros and cons of working-class and upper class Socialism. Most of this is interesting, but you get the feeling that Orwell himself hasn’t really made up his mind about what he thinks, hence all the to-ing and fro-ing and repetition in his arguments, which drags after the first ten pages or so. This section is also where Orwell’s own prejudices are more obvious, and this renders it difficult and uncomfortable reading. I should say that I don’t think Orwell was a snob – as all the books in his canon will attest – but there is no avoiding the fact that he is a fan of generalisation, which sometimes feels too easy to come anywhere close to the truth. Are we looking for the truth, though? Maybe not. But I feel a bit let down. The sudden change in format and subject matter makes the book feel disjointed; more like two books/studies in one, and I preferred the first half. This is, however, simply a personal preference for narrative over argument. I’m willing to accept responsibility.