Photo-a-Day (Thursday, 9th February, 2023)
Photo: Dennis Seddon (Sony DSC-WX500)
A Book is Immortal.
It is often said that a book is immortal, how very true in the case of ‘The Road to Wigan Pier', the people of of Wigan know the truth of the saying to their cost. Wherever you travel in the world and you mention your place of birth it often becomes the topic of conversation . The book has done untold damage to the town since its publication in 1937 and that harm will continue because of books longevity. George Orwell claimed to like the people of Wigan, God knows what he would have written if he hadn't. The book will hang like an albatross round Wigan's neck for decades if not centuries to come.
On the 75th anniversary of the publication of the book The Wigan Observer carried a special feature. I was fortunate enough to be invited to contribute, mine was a very harsh critique . Quentin Kopp from the Orwell Society fought Orwell's corner. At an event at the Museum of Wigan to commemorate the anniversary, I pointedly didn't say celebrate. Mr. Kopp seemed less than pleased with my criticism of the work , I think it would be fair to use the phrase 'if looks could kill'; however I was, and still am, firm in my assertion that Orwell came to the north with an agenda and we're told, with a retainer in his back pocket.
My criticism was not of his writing, he is an outstanding descriptive writer and his chapters regarding coal mining were of great significance, and brought the terrible working conditions to the attention of the nation. After reading an article some time ago in The Wigan Observer regarding the refurbishment of The Pier complex I was delighted to see the name Orwell has been expunged . I have revisited the book, to see if I had been unfair in my opinion that his description of Scholes and Wallgate were largely exaggerated to the point of being biased in the pursuit of a good story!
I must say that on rereading or should I say listening again on ' Audiobooks’ I am even more determined in my opinion ; incidentally, many books are free including this one . I can recommend this method of ‘reading by ear’, particularly helpful to me as I'm a very poor reader and can easily lose concentration, this is not a problem with the spoken word . However back to the subject at hand; in chapter 4 he speaks of back to back houses and reports he was told during his research, of 36 people sharing a lavatory, this is not highlighted as Wigan I should add , he doesn't identify which town ; to be fair to Orwell he says a miner told him, and he doesn't know if this is true; why then include it? in a book that claims to be factual! he speaks of 'back to back houses’ frequently, and for clarity I would like to point out there were few if any of these dwellings in Wigan, we had hundreds, possibly thousands, of terraced houses where the back yards came 'back to back', these are not the same animal. Houses of that description share party walls on three of their four sides, with the front wall having the only door and windows. This may seem a trivial point but as many in Wigan use this terminology for the latter, I think it right to highlight the difference lest people draw the wrong conclusion , easily done as in the earlier chapters the book goes from town to town . The book has had a world-wide readership and of course most will see it as a report with facts and figures to be trusted. I say report because this is how the format of the first part of the work purports to sound. Also in chapter 4 He speaks of ' superior ' types , this is a bit rich coming from a man who likes to be thought of as an egalitarian , part of the chapter reads -
"'I found that the people in Corporation houses don't really like them. They are glad to get out of the stink of the slum, they know that it is better for their children to have space to play about in, but they don't feel really at home. The exceptions are usually people in good employ who can afford to spend a little extra on fuel and furniture and journeys, and who in any case are of 'superior' type. The others, the typical slum-dwellers, miss the frowsy warmth of the slum. They complain that 'out in the country', i.e. on the edge of the town, they are 'starving' (freezing)."
I hope I don't seem over sensitive , it's just that this book is an anathema to me ;' the slum dwellers', a phrase he throws about like confetti, are my parents, grandparents, auntie's and uncles ; so I'm sure you'll understand why it rankles so much. I was born 8 years after the book was published so obviously have no recollection of the period itself, however I was born in Scholes as were my parents and grandparents . On first reading the book at about the age of 13, I took it upon myself to ask questions from my extended family. I can assure you not one had a good word for Mr Orwell. They felt betrayed by someone who had gained the trust of many people from all over the north, whom they now see as an interloper from the south who damaged the reputations of many northern towns; none more than Wigan because of the title he chose for what I consider to be a biased and unfair depiction of my town .
I do not argue there was not great poverty in some areas, of course there was, that cannot be denied. Many houses were unfit for habitation, that is also true ; but I do take issue with his betrayal of the cleanliness of the dwellings. I have no doubt there were houses as he describes but they would be in a tiny minority, a minority he sort out diligently to suit his paymaster Victor Gollancz. That the vast majority of the houses were in need of repair or demolition is also a truism, but most were spotless; women mopping their steps on a daily basis even including an oblong of the pavement .
I think I can best show how unfair the book is by an article in The Wigan Observer on the13th March 1937, the same month as the publication of the book . The article reports that Mr. Bennett the Director of Education for Wigan was being interviewed on the wireless 'The National Programme'. The woman announcer who introduced Mr. Bennett to the microphone paid this tribute to Wigan - I paraphrase . "As you approach Wigan, the traveler will be shocked and surprised as he draws near to what must be to south countrymen, the most fabulous of all northern towns. For you come into it through suburbs filled with thoroughly good modern houses, none look jerrybuilt, all suggesting an air of social content, No Lancashire town can show as many well built small houses as can Wigan on it eastern side; indeed there is nothing about Wigan that looks as though it had fallen into decline. Wigan is not a cotton town though a certain amount of cotton is spun and woven there . It is a colliery town , the difference between a colliery town and a cotton town is the coal pits are kept well away from the town centre whereas cotton mills are always protruding themselves into the very heart of the towns of their choice.
The centre of Wigan is very attractive its shops are made out of old black and white timber houses. The centre of Wigan is still further dignified by its magnificent Parish Church and the Market Place adjoining it. Altogether the face of Wigan is anything but what musical hall comedians suggest; it isn't place where the collier beats his wife is a matter of course every Saturday. There are many things in which Wigan is a shining example to all the Lancashire boroughs." I am sure there is an amount of hyperbole in her comments, but what she has said, was said !
Can these two observations possibly be of the same town? I don't try to mitigate the poor housing conditions in Scholes and Wallgate in 1937, but fairness demands that if you are to give a balanced view of a town , you should show some of the good side too! As Cromwell said "paint me warts and all. "This programme didn't seek to gloss over Wigan’s problems, on the contrary, in Mr Bennett's address he mentions the high unemployment in Wigan, and says there were
11, 000 children of school age and confronts the free school meals issue.
The woman announcer , (the article doesn't give her name) entered Wigan from Chorley coming through Standish and presumably Wigan Lane , and I imagine left by the same route ; consequently didn't see the poor housing conditions in Scholes and Wallgate . I cannot but think had she visited these areas her judgment would have been more merciful and considered than that of Orwell .
This programme was not broadcast as a rebuttal of The Road to Wigan Pier it was a coincidence that it was broadcast in the same month as the publication of the book. Talking of rebuttal, I in my own tinpot way have written a rebuttal. The last chapter reads - I hope that some of the contents in this book leads readers to look at my home town with fresh eyes (mine) and in so doing see through the mist of bigotry and misinformation deliberately peddled by a one-time police officer from Burma. Today I think it could be described as 'fake news’. I may seem to have been dilatory in taking up the cudgel to right a wrong that incensed me on first reading it almost 60 years ago at St John Fisher Secondary Modern School, but is no less heartfelt for the delay. I hope I have managed to portray my love for Wigan ; to show why I have been moved to put pen to paper, or more correctly finger to i- pad . You see for me WIGAN has no PEER !
The book, if you can call it that, in truth a collection of articles, many of which have been published in The Wigan Observer and Past Forward Magazine which I know needs serious editing and refining, but if any reader would like to have a copy, in the raw, so to speak, go to Wigan Local History and Heritage Society click on to resources you'll find all the articles in their rough form , please forgive poor grammar and typos.
Although I seem to have upset George Orwell's devotees and I'm in danger of doing so again. I'm not alone in criticising the book , The Manchester Guardian carried this -"Set down in Wigan or Whitechapel Mr Orwell would still exercise an unerring power of closing his vision to all that is good in order to proceed with his wholehearted vilification of humanity." I would remind the devotees of his passion for freedom: one of the quotes attributed to him "Intellectual honesty is a crime in any totalitarian country; but even in England it is not exactly profitable to speak and write the truth.” and another "Freedom of speech is real ". If he has the right to that freedom, then so have I. I imagine he would defend my right to it, at least I hope he would !
You are so right Tom.He definitely came with an agenda,and like you say,wherever you go in the world people have read or heard about this book,in not altogether.truthfully written terms.
I'm glad they are going to start removing the uneven dangerous cobbles soon and redoing the tow path with a new modern surface.
I remember doing a pen-and-ink drawing of that very scene many years ago for my boss on the dept. I worked on at Debenhams; he was a Londoner and he loved Wigan. One of my best friends actually moved from London a few years ago to live here in Wigan, as did my daughter-in-law. Her family in London love my grandchildren's Lancashire accents! Not all Southerners are like Orwell.
Orwell himself perhaps came to realise the book was tendentious .
He later wrote , ' Gollancz is part of the Communism racket ' , and switched publisher immediately .
There is enough photographic evidence on the Album to illustrate the horrific poverty of the 30's was real enough , but it wasn't restricted to the north . See Arthur Elton's short documentary called ' Housing Problems ' filmed in Stepney in 1935 . ( You Tube ) .
A great place for filming - people are so interested in the past …leave well alone Wigan could make a lot of money allowing the film crews in. The past will never die in Wigan as long as Orwell’s book is still around to be studied. Whether the book is agreed with or not.
I totally agree with you Tom,it's some years since I read his memories of Wigan..he had no right to speak of his so called dirty Wigan,look at any photo of old Wigan and you will see women on their hands and knees cleaning the fronts of their houses,and no doubt inside would be just as clean,their was a lot of pride in Wallgate and Scholes inhabitants,
He did seem to enjoy deriding these areas,the silly man..and Tom,I bet you could write a book on Wigan,and it would be a better and nicer book to settle down with.
Apologies for the spelling of 'there'.
Maureen, your spelling of "their" houses was absolutely correct.
I can't understand why folks get so upset about a book that is actually so boring you will only ever read it once! And it only keeps becoming bought and read by folks who haven't read it when folks keep harping on about how it gives the town injustice, if folks had kept quiet and shrugged it off instead of moaning it would have died a death long ago, but no - now with Tom having another groan about this book there shall be another generation who will be intent on reading The Road to Wigan Pier - just to see what the fuss is all about. Then come December it will be up there in the top selling books of 2023, and because it is others will then be buying it to read also. Tom do you not realise every time you and others have a go at what George Orwell wrote you're actually keeping The Road to Wigan Pier up there in the top read books of the century.
Remember he was a writer of novels, and he only wrote this book when he got home so a lot of what he'd experienced some weeks previously would have been forgotten, and only relying on what at the time would mostly have been hastily written notes.
On doorsteps with buckets and mops
In paisley aprons
Having a good old gossip
Husbands , babies and nippers
Rolled down to their slippers .
With vowels as flat as their caps ,
Sucked pear drops
Stuck together in paper bags ,
And pipe smoke
Pervaded all their jackets
And waist coats
With gold watches in their pockets .
Perfectly captured, Poet.. I loved the bit about the pear-drops stuck together in a paper bag.... such perfect detail! I remember women with paisley pinnies....my Mam wore one although she never had rolled-down stockings, but I remember women who did. My Dad smoked a pipe and on the rare occasions I smell pipe tobacco these days it brings him straight back to me. However, he never owned a gold watch!
IRENE. Maureen is referring to.....
Their was a lot of pride, etc.
Sorry Irene,I put 'their' was a lot of pride..which should have been 'there' was a lot of pride.lol
I have a book of photos taken by the official Liverpool Photographer of the streets of Liverpool at about the same time as Orwell wrote about Wigan. It could be argued that the conditions in Liverpool were far worse than the conditions in Wigan.
If anyone wants to know why the Liverpool Dockers had a reputation for being militant they, only have to look through these photos to understand.
Irene, anyone in our family who had a persistent cough, would be told to "Gerrit up owd lad it met be a gowd watch"
You're absolutely right, Roy and Maureen....I hadn't noticed the "their" was a lot of pride, even though I'd read through the comment....what a wally I am! My apologies.
Brilliant, DTease! (And I bet "watch" was said in a Lancashire accent to rhyme with "match"! ) My son, as a young lad, always seemed to land "lucky" in life, and I often used to say, "If Our Jamie put his hand down the toilet he's come up with a gold watch!". Talking of Jamie and old sayings, when he was about 14 he had a Saturday job on Wigan Market, and when he got there in the early morning ready to set up, the old man who owned the stall used to say, "Well come on,lad, let's gerragate an' mek a doo-er!". Jamie is now 46 and still says that when he is about to start a job. Let's hope those old sayings never completely die out.
I remember old folk saying “ Cough it up it met be a shillin’ .. “
There’s was some very comical and yet wise sayings in days gone by. I miss all that from an older generation who had , it must be said very hard lives they needed a sense of humour to get through.
My Mam used to say "cough it up love,it might be a piano" lol
I remember folk in pubs saying get it down yer it will do thee good, then when you spewing up, them saying get it up tha feel better.
Good photo Dennis
Champagne socialists from the soft south . How did they make themselves understood ? Where on earth did they get that R sound in words like class or glass ( glarse ) ? . And when you need an R , in the word FIRE for example, properly pronounced with two syllables to rhyme with ' liar ' , they almost miss it out completely , making some Frenchified soft ending that
sounds something like ' far ' .
Tom , I think the publisher Gollancz edited that book to make it more severe than the writer intended . It wouldn't surprise me if more sympathetic passages were cut to suit the Left Book Clubs propaganda mission to promote Communism . I wouldn't let Orwell fill you with too much wrath or ' wroth ' as he might have said .
Some good reading there Tom, also some comical sayings in the comments.Love them, and so true to life poem. Poet.Thank you all.
Curl, have read your comment with interest ,of course you are entitled to your opinion, as I say in the last paragraph - if I have the right to freedom of speech (within certain constraints) then so have you. I can assure you that nothing I say or write will make a jot of difference to the sales of the book.
It regularly visited by professional reviewers this an example by Robsene , the full review can be seen on the internet this is one paragraph.
'Anyway, this is a book review, not a political rally, I digress. No matter where you land on the political spectrum, the first part of Road to Wigan Pier is essential reading. Not only as a history lesson, but also as a wildly entertaining vignette of working class life in the ’30s.' It's this sort of review that increase interest and sales and perpetuates the damage to our town.
I wonder if your parents and grandparents were castigated in the book would you be of the same opinion . If the thy were from the areas besmirched , Scholes and Wallgate in particular then I admire your forbearance with the author . You mention he wrote novels which he did , but The Road to Wigan ,along with others purports to be factual .
Anyway Cyril, let's be thankful we have Wigan World where we can express our opinions with candour and without malice or hard feelings.
Kind regards ,Tom.
Tom, yes, my father did come from Scholes, and remember that both he and my mother were very critical of Orwell and his book, though I don't think either had read it, probably just relying on what others said of it, and had those others just heard of what someone else had said about it too?
In his book Orwell does tell how he saw things as they actually were in the areas around town with the bad housing and poor sanitation, and yes Scholes and Wallgate are mentioned, but to me it didn't come across that he was criticising the people who lived there, he was wanting for better conditions for them to live, then tells how that the corporation didn't have anywhere better for the folks to go to either. We are back again to those days of bad landlords still wanting their rent and leaving folks to live in damp houses or squalor and the councils (corporations) not having anywhere better for these folks to go to.
In Orwell's memoirs of his stays at the boarding house and at the tripe shop I found some of the comments to be quite amusing, such as when the travelling salesman awoke to see the amount of dust and fluff on the light fittings of the bedroom and remarked "the dirty buggers." And when he was watching the man of the tripe shop of a morning emptying the gazunders with his right thumb deep down within the contents, and then, with no signs of him having washed his hands, buttering the bread at the table with the same thumb making a deep imprint in the bread.
He also writes that he found the people of the town to be quite hospitable, and with one family asking him to sit down and wanting to share their meagre meal with him. Though I did find some of the book to be boring and doubt I would read it in entirety again. Interestingly on a website, a Scottish man wrote that the book The Road to Wigan Pier had similarities to Among The Fife Miners By Kellogg Durland, I haven't read that book so cannot comment about that, but the foreword by Kellogg in his book makes interesting reading - see what you think.
The following entry appears in my private journal under the date of Kelty, June 29th, 1901 :
"Last winter I was interested in a club of working men in Edinburgh. They were all intelligent men who read the newspapers and discussed among themselves what they read. The publication of certain facts concerning the Fife miners aroused their interest in these men and led to a series of questions which I was unable to answer on the spot, so I visited the mining village of Kelty, talked with the men, and one of the managers, and went down a pit, carrying back to the Club sufficient material for an interesting and profitable discussion. My own interest was whetted. I wanted to see more of the miners. Their views on life must be so different from any that I have been used to. Professor G_____ had once said to me “You are a very good example of the educated, middle-class dilettante. You will never be worth your salt till you have done something with your hands.” When I wrote to him about a scheme for learning more about mines and miners he immediately replied with his enthusiastic approval. My idea was to cast my lot in with the miners and do everything that they do that I might become familiar with every phase of their life.
I planned to begin my experiment on Monday, July 1st, 1901.
There were several reasons why I selected Kelty . ... it is a typical Scottish mining village; the Gothenburg system of public houses is being tried there ; there is a flourishing co-operative store ; it borders on an agricultural district - Kinross around Loch Leven. Friday morning, June 28th, I left Edinburgh for Kelty and directly sought out _______ who told me that I might have difficulty in securing a place to stay in, as the village is very much over-crowded.
I got a 'crop' (hair cut) and bought my miner's lamp, ball of wick, flannel shirt, 'gravits,' tea flask and piece box. A first name is the order of the day here, and as my own is quite unpronounceable to the men I am advised to take another, and so for the sake of simplicity have adopted 'Bill.' I report for work at the pit head at 6.15, Monday morning." ( A few purely verbal changes and omissions are made to eliminate personal references.)
This was written in a journal intended for no other eyes than my own, at a time when the publication of my experiences, or any part of them, had not been considered or even seriously suggested.
As a social student sincerely interested in questions of the day I have several times sloughed off the commonly accepted hallmarks of gentility and thrown myself into places where I have jostled shoulder to shoulder with the unadorned realities of life. This for my own edification, never for purposes of publication, and indeed, publication has never been made of any of these experiences. My journals lie shelved in their entirety. As the days and weeks of the summer passed, friends who were watching the progress of my schooling among the hardy toilers of the pits began to urge publication; and at last, having been convinced that an account of some of the incidents of the summer might prove of interest, I decided to put them into some such form as that in which they now appear. They do not pretend at anything more than a collection of impressions by an unbiased, yet sympathetic, observer who has aimed to present them in a simple, straightforward way. Truth, and accuracy of detail have never been knowingly sacrificed to picturesqueness of effect or readableness. Incidents set down were all thought to be typical and fairly representative of a class.
Yes Tom, we should be thankful for wiganworld where we can all join in with discussions and openly express our opinions and still have good craic and banter.
Take care Tom - Best regards, Cyril.
Tom Walsh - " Wigan is not a cotton town though a certain amount of cotton is spun and woven there . It is a colliery town "
There were far more mills in Wigan than there's every been collieries and they employed thousands more workers too. Coal was almost entirely imported into Wigan from surrounding mining towns and villages.
it's almost like magic isn't it, whenever mines and coal are mentioned alongside Wigan - then along comes (Schhh-you know who) to try and disprove the fact that Wigan was built on coal.
Coal mining was the foundation of the life and industry in the local area for many years. In the 1840's there were over 1000 pit shafts within a 5 mile radius of Wigan town centre. Coal was taken via the Leeds and Liverpool canal and later by rail to power factories and to heat homes in the region and also nationally. From Don't go down the Mine. https://www.wigan.gov.uk/Resident/Libraries/Schools-Cultural-Service/Workshops/Coal-mine.aspx#:~:text=Coal%20mining%20was%20the%20foundation,the%20region%20and%20also%20nationally.
not seen in Tonkers the alternative history of Wigan, colour as you read Book 2.
Cyril , thank you for your reply . When I get chance I'll read the book you mention, or if's on Audio Books , will listen to it , which I much prefer.
The paragraph you highlight emptying the gazunders with his right thumb deep down within the contents, and then, with no signs of him having washed his hands, buttering the bread at the table with the same thumb making a deep imprint in the bread. In the same context he refers to -
'Several bottles of Worcester Sauce and a half-full jar of marmalade lived permanently on the table.' It may seem very pedantic of me but I'm as sure as sure can be that no lodging of that sort would have such a condiment ,more likely HP or even more likely it's cheaper sister Beetop , (when I was a child we had Beetop it was 3d cheaper! ) It's an inaccuracy such this ,and there are many ,slight though this one is ,makes it obvious to me that he comes from middle class background where Worcester Sauce would be part of the menu; and consequently has no understanding whatsoever of the working class. It shows to me that he not only uses poetic license, he abuses it.
I'm not the only critic of the work far from it ,Harry Pollitt ,Communist Party leader at the time of publication said " The Road to Wigan Pier was a snobbish portrayal of working class life . If ever snobbery had its hallmark placed upon it , it is by Mr Orwell.
Jack Hilton a working class writer in the 1930s and a friend of Orwell, in fact it was him who suggested that he visit Wigan , Hilton criticised the book claiming he went to Wigan ...he might well have stayed away as he only he only "wasted money, energy and wrote piffle ".
Thank you Cyril for taking the time read my article and commenting. I appreciate it .I'm glad you agree that we are fortunate to have Wigan Word , I for one would miss it terribly. I look forward to seeing it each day although I don't often comment I enjoy reading others contributions
Again best regards, Tom.
Bruce Almighty , the quote you mention was from The Wigan Observer 13th March 1937. reporting the radio programme of the previous week , I think I make it clear in the essay .Although I think it was a fair description .
Tom, I remember Beetop brown sauce which we also used, though I can't recall the last time I saw a bottle. In a web search it was made in Derbyshire by Hazlewoods which also made very good pickled onions, the factory closed in 1991. https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/nostalgia/rare-photos-give-amazing-behind-3109884
I forgot to say, the book Among Fife Miners is expensive at almost £20 plus P+P, because it is now printed on demand and posted from India, if Wigan library will have a copy I can't say.
Library staff can tell if there’s a book (out of print) in any library in Lancashire Cyril. I wanted a book about the ROF at Chorley which cost £90 to buy on the internet they sent for it for me from Chorley Library to Westhoughton Library. It’s worth enquiring…
The book sounds worth paying £20 to buy if interested. It sounds a good one for students too.
Veronica, there is some bad comments about the book having bad text with it being reprinted in India, and it's printed on demand which I've had one of those books before and some of the pages were similar to a photocopy and faint or distorted in places.
I remember some years ago enquiring about a book on Lord Leverhulme and when he had the fishing stations etc., on the Orkney Islands, anyhow Wigan didn't have the book, but Bolton had a copy and Wigan said I could order it and pay the fees for getting it, however Bolton wouldn't send it over and with me not residing in Bolton I could not go and register to borrow the book from there. Though there now seems to be a lot of new books been written about his time up there now, maybe other people had been enquiring of the book too because that had been out of print for a number of years. Though it's probably a lot better now for book sourcing.
That’s a shame Cyril. I am surprised. I’m a member of Wigan Library so I can’t understand that. I still have my card but not been for ages. In fact I went on their computers a few times.