Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Road to Wigan Pier

Well played, Wigan. That was an exciting FA Cup final and although I always support the underdog (unless the underdog is playing Sunderland), I was especially pleased for Wigan. And as an unrelated flower point, I did like the white rose buttonholes, although it looked like only Dave Whelan's and his wife's survived the game!

I went to a friend’s wedding in Wigan earlier this year, and I was excited to have an excuse for another George Orwell pilgrimage. After today, as far as I’m concerned, this has been Wigan’s year!

Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier after living with working class families in industrial towns in the north of England; the first half of the book is an account of his visits and his observations and the second half is an essay on the issues of class and socialism that come up in his work. I read it one summer holiday while I was at university, around the time I was devouring all of his books that I hadn’t read before – Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Burmese Days, Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia and A Clergyman’s Daughter. I’m pretty sure Coming Up for Air was the last book I read, a year or so later. I bought most of these second hand from bookshops in Greenwich and Camden, and managed to get all four volumes of the collected letters and journalism second hand too. My main recollection of The Road to Wigan Pier is Orwell’s account of following coal miners as they worked, and the way in which he was treated differently because he was seen as a gentleman:

Even with miners who described themselves as Communists I found that it needed tactful manoeuvrings to prevent them from calling me 'sir'; and all of them, except in moments of great animation, softened their northern accents for my benefit. I liked them and hoped they liked me; but I went among them as a foreigner, and both of us were aware of it. 

I couldn’t believe it when I walked along the canal and saw Wigan Pier for the first time. It looks like a pair of metal skis. I was flicking though my old copy of The Road to Wigan Pier in the car, and I couldn’t resist posing for cheesy picture with my book. I’m sure Orwell would roll his eyes if he saw that photo, so I won't include it here.

There’s a new pub called The Orwell just across the canal. I don’t think Orwell went to a pub while he lived in Wigan, but I expect he’d still be pleased with the recognition. They did a great, strong pot of tea – and that, he would appreciate.

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