The Road to Wigan Pier

The Road to Wigan Pier

According to Wikipedia:The Road to Wigan Pier is a book by the English writer George Orwell, first published in 1937. The first half of this work documents his sociological investigations of the bleak living conditions among the working class in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the industrial north of England before World War II. The second half is a long essay on his middle-class upbringing, and the development of his political conscience, questioning British attitudes towards socialism. Orwell states plainly that he himself is in favour of socialism, but feels it necessary to point out reasons why many people who would benefit from socialism, and should logically support it, are in practice likely to be strong opponents … The book grapples with the social and historical reality of Depression suffering in the north of England, – Orwell does not wish merely to enumerate evils and injustices, but to break through what he regards as middle-class oblivion …

According to a “write up” titled: Wigan Pier – Leeds and Liverpool Canal:Wigan Pier is the name given today to the area around the canal at the bottom of the Wigan flight of locks on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The original “pier” at Wigan was a coal loading staithe, probably a wooden jetty, where wagons from a nearby colliery were unloaded into barges. The name was brought to popular attention by George Formby Senior in the Music Halls of the early twentieth century. It was given more serous acclaim with the publication in 1937 of George Orwell’s book “The Road to Wigan Pier”. The original wooden pier is believed to have been demolished in 1929, with the iron from the tippler being sold as scrap … In the 1980s, the canal warehouses were restored and put into use as a museum, exhibition hall and pub. The nearby Trencherfield Mill was incorporated into the “Wigan Pier Experience”, with a waterbus linking it to the main site”.  

To be honest – when we visited and stayed with a relative of my wife over the weekend, not only did I little imagine I would be thinking about a book I have never read The Road to Wigan Pier, written by an author who back in the day I did read and who influenced me a lot, e.g. 1984 and Animal Farm, I didn’t even realise we would be going to Wigan and staying in one of the many apartments situated where cotton mills and workers dwellings once were (just behind Trencherfield Mill) and only a few minutes from the Pier, that long ago had been replaced by buildings and was a small jetty when there was a pier. While where I was staying was far from posh, none of the pre-war poverty alluded to in Orwell’s book seemed present. I thought the area was quite nice, and looking around at where I was staying, I saw little sign of human deprivation. We enjoyed walking along the canal (no longer used these days for industrial purposes), nice except for annoying disposal of rubbish, and I dare say, if we had kept going, we would have been wowed by outstanding open countryside, we began to get a whiff off.  

Regarding heritage, it was in your face (in a nice way). Right outside where we were staying there were impressive artifacts (e.g. ventilators of mining shafts and presses for the cotton mill), along with explanation boards, on display where the old mill was. And it got me thinking. Coal mines and cotton mills have long ceased to be and my mind wandered to when Wigan, these days with little sign of manufacturing, was a thriving industrial town, even though, if Orwell is to believed, trickle down of prosperity to the lower classes was limited at best. I noted, unsurprisingly, that Wigan is a nowadays safe Labour seat, but the bleak living conditions among the working class in Lancashire and Yorkshire in the industrial north of England before World War II statement could have just as easily applied to the East End of London, where my mother grew up, reports of which in my youth persuaded me to be a Labour supporter. I wonder if today’s Labour has lost its way given back in Orwell’s and my mother’s day there were grave social injustices that needed addressing; arguably there are now new unaddressed ones.

Besides having a good time visiting Wigan, I enjoyed reflecting on what once was, now is and might be in the future, and my thoughts returned to revisiting George Orwell and the Road to Wigan Pier.    

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