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Work : Summaries & Interpretations : Road to Wigan Pier
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Work : Summaries & Interpretations : Road to Wigan Pier

Index

Part 1 (below)

Part 2

Part 1

In the first part of this book Orwell tries to give the reader a detailed view of the conditions of the poor and unemployed. In the first chapter of the first part, Orwell describes the Brooker family. They belong to the so-called "wealthy" among the poor ones. In their house, they have installed a cheap lodging-house and a tiny shop. Both Mr and Mrs Brooker are already pensioners, and with the rent they get for the rooms, they can afford at least enough to eat. Generally, the people who live in this lodging house are unmarried or very old and also pensioners. Orwell himself spends a couple of weeks in this house during his researches. In the second chapter he describes the life of the miners. Their working conditions are very bad, for they work underground, where it is very hot, dusty, and where the miners have just a minimum of space. The work is also very dangerous, the coal-miners often handle dynamite and the tunnels aren't very stable. Orwell describes how he went down to see the working conditions underground there. He describes that the place where the coal is dismantled is not just right at the elevator, but often lies some miles away from it. And the tunnel is often only three to four feet high. This means that the miners not only have to work under the hardest conditions, but also have to "travel", this means going to the working place in the minersí jargon, for about half an hour. Orwell, who is not trained, needed about one hour to get there. ("After half a mile it gets an unbearable agony", 1/2 P 23). In the next chapter Orwell takes a look at the social situation of the average miner. First of all he looks at the hygienic situation of the miners, for many people believe that miners generally do not wash. But in fact only every third mine has a bath or shower for the miners. The situation in the homes of the miners is even worse. Only a couple of houses in the industrial region have bathrooms. The rest of the coal-workers have to wash in small basins. The miners also have very little time, although they work only seven hours a day. But actually getting to the pit, and the travelling underground can take up to three hours. So the average miner has about four hours of leisure time, including washing, dressing and eating. Then there is the common belief that miners are comparatively well paid, about ten to eleven shillings a week. But this is very misleading, because only the "coal getter" is paid this rate, whereas for example the "dattler" is paid eight to nine shilling per shift. But one also has to look at the conditions the miners are paid for. So the "getter" is paid for the tons he extracts. On the one hand he is dependent on the quality of the coal, and when the machinery breaks down it may rob him a day or two of earnings. Another fact is that miners certainly do not work six days a week. In 1936 the average earning of the miners per shift actually was 9s 1¾d. But even this sum is just a gross earning; there are all kinds of stoppage which are deducted from the minerís wage every week. In total, these stoppages make up around 4s 5d per week.

The next chapter deals with the housing situation in those districts. Generally, the houses all look the same. The main problem is the housing shortage in this region. So people are ready to accept any dirty hole, bugs, blackmailing agents and bad landlords, just to get a roof over their heads. And as long as the housing shortage exists, the local authorities cannot do anything to make the existing houses more liveable. The authorities can condemn a house, but they cannot pull it down till the tenant has another house to live in. But there is another problem resulting from this one. The landlord will surely not invest more money that he can help in a house that is going to be pulled down in the future. Orwell has made notes of dozens of houses in this region, and here are two examples:
House in Wigan, near Scholes quarter:
Condemned house, four rooms (two up, two down) + coal hole, walls falling to pieces, water comes into upstairs rooms in quantities, downstairs windows will not open. Rent 6s, Rates 3s 6d total 9s 6d.
House in Barnsley, Peel Street:
Back to back (front house facing street, back house facing yard), two up and two down + large cellar, all rooms are about 10 square feet, living room very dark, gaslight at 4½d a day, distance to the lavatory 70 yards (lies in the yard), four beds for eight persons (parents, two girls, one 27, young man, and three children), bugs very bad, smell upstairs almost unbearable. Rent 5s 7½d including rates.
Another problem in these regions is that whole rows of houses are undermined, and the windows often are ten to twenty degrees off the horizontal. Because of the bad housing situation there are also so-called "caravan dwellers". In Wigan alone, which has a population of 85,000, there are about 200 caravans, inhabited by about 700 people. In the whole of Britain there might be around ten thousand families living in caravans. The worst thing about those caravans is that the people who live in such a place don't even save money, because the rent can make up to ten shillings! Despite this problems the city of Barnsley, for example, built a new town hall for 150,000 pounds, although there is a need of over 2,000 houses, not to mention public baths (the public baths in Barnsley contain nineteen men's slipper baths - in a town with 70,000 inhabitants, largely miners who do not have baths at home).

The next chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier deals with unemployment. In 1937 there were about two million unemployed. But this number only shows how many persons are receiving the dole. One has to take this number and multiply it by at least three to get the number of persons actually living on the dole. But there is a large number of people that have a work, but who from a financial point of view might as well be unemployed, because they are not drawing anything that can be described as a living wage. Together with the pensioners in the industrial regions that make around fifteen million poor and underfed people. In Wigan alone there are around 30,000 drawing or living on the dole. So every third person in Wigan is dependent on social help. The money that the families get varies from twenty-five to thirty shillings per week. One organisation that helps the unemployed is the NUWM (National Unemployed Workers Movement). This organisation helps the unemployed spend their time.

In the sixth chapter of the book, Orwell takes a look at the food of a family living on the dole, or on a very low wage. Generally, the food of an average family costs fifteen shillings a week, including fuel for cooking. Of course, these families could live on even less money, but especially in the poor families one can see the trend not to buy the cheapest, and most nutritious things, but rather to buy something " tasty", in order to forget oneís dull life. This trend results in a general physical degeneration among the poor people. So, for example, in industrial towns the mortality is at a very high level. Another fact that can be observed is that hardly anyone, except children of course, has his own teeth. In the next chapter Orwell criticises the ugliness of the industrial towns (e.g.: Birmingham, Coventry, Norwich Market.....)

Part2

In the second part Orwell describes his personal idea of socialism, and what socialism is like in England. The general idea of Orwellís is that socialism and communism are no longer movements of the working class. The movement is lead by the middle-class, the bourgeoisie. But firstly he explains how the English class-system works. In Britain it isn't possible to determine the class of a person by simply looking at his income. In England the tradition plays a very important part, and therefore one can find middle-class persons with an income up to 2,000 pounds a year, and down to 300 pounds a year. The things that make up a middle-class person are his behaviour, birth and profession. The people around 400 pounds led a life on two social levels; so, for example, they had a standard of living comparable to a well-situated worker, but knew everything about good behaviour, how to give a servant a tip, how to ride a horse, about a decent dinner, although they could never afford a servant or a good dinner. One could say that they are struggling to live genteel lives on what are virtually working-class incomes. So the colonies (India and Africa) are very attractive to this social caste, for the people would earn as much as in England (if they had a job in the administration or army), and could afford a servant and many things more and, what was most important, they could act like big gentleman. Another aspect of the class-system in Britain is the almost inherited rejection of the lower classes. Orwell here tells a story of his early boyhood, when he felt that lower-class people were almost subhuman, that they had coarse faces, hideous accents, gross manners, and that they hated everyone who was not like themselves. This rejection somehow results from the time before the war (World War One) when it was impossible or at least very dangerous for a well-dressed person to go through a slum street. Whole quarters were considered unsafe because of hooligans. But nevertheless the rejection of the lower-class also has physical roots. So the children of the middle-class were always taught that the working-class smelled. And this is obviously an impassable barrier, for no feeling of like and dislike is so fundamental as a physical feeling. Class hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot. But what about those middle-class people whose views are not reactionary but "advanced"? Beneath his revolutionary mask, is he so much different from the other? Are there any changes in his habits, his taste and his manners, his ideology, as it is called in the communist jargon? Is there any change at all except that he votes Labour or Communist? It can be observed that the middle-classed communist still associates with the middle-class, still lives among the middle-class, and his tastes are those of a bourgeois person. The main thing Orwell criticises is that middle-class communists and socialists often speak against their own class, but that they evidently have the behaviour and manner of a middle-class person. The socialists who make propaganda for "proletarian solidarity" generally don't even have a lot of contact with the class they are "fighting for". The only contact with the working-class that socialists generally have is with the lower-class intelligentsia at the various political workshops. Generally, Orwell says that socialism is a nearly impossible thing.




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