Sunday, June 5, 2011 | Categories: Michael's Essays
On this weekend, 75-years-ago, George Orwell went wandering around the northwest of England, to places like Barnsley, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool. It was the height, or rather the depth, of the Great Depression. Orwell was pretty much broke.
He had accepted a small advance from a left-wing London publisher to see if there was a book to be written about the living conditions of coal miners and their families.
He spent two months in the north, talking to the miners, living with them, checking out the dismal little villages and the horrific coal pits, constantly taking notes.
He returned to London and for the next nine months did nothing but write. The book when published the following year was called, The Road to Wigan Pier .
It was to become one of the most famous documents of social literature of the 20th Century. Critics called it "beautiful and disturbing." Orwell described - in grisly and haunting detail - the lives of the miners in their stygian hell below ground and the lives of their families in mind-numbing poverty above.
To most people, the idea of even going down a mine, let alone working there is unimaginable. The miners breathed coal dust and gas fumes. They had to crawl on all fours sometimes for a much as a mile to reach the coal seam, and were often crushed or broken by cave-ins.
Up top, Orwell found families of eight and nine or more living in hovels with one or two rooms. Sons and daughters had to sleep separately in shifts because there weren't enough beds.
All of the houses had outdoor toilets two or three hundred yards away and shared by as many as 40 or 50 people. The rents were stiff, and there was little money for food. A miner even had to buy his own lamp and if he was sidelined by illness or accident, his family was often forced to leave their hovel.
It was a hellish vision of a Britain struggling in depression with government unable or unwilling to do anything for the growing hordes of poor people. It was a devastating assessment of the hidden poor and not unlike the book published in 1889 by a New York City police reporters named Jacob Riis. His revelations of the urban poor was called, How the other half lives; Studies among the tenements of New York .
Or it was like Emile Zola's novel of a French miners strike Germinal published in around the same time. The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two parts.
The first section is the reportage, describing the living and working conditions of the miners of Northern England.
The second part of the book becomes a personal polemic by Orwell that is driven by an angry analysis of the depression and its causes, as he saw them. It was an open attack on the class prejudice that thrived in British society of the time. Orwell believed that England would either turn into a socialist country or would be engulfed by the rising tide of European fascism.
But at the same time, he accused the middle class socialists of which he was one, of ignoring the plight of the poor because they found them as a class to be repugnant. He dismissed such parlor socialists as "the fruit juice drinkers."
He argued that only when the bourgeoisie joined with working class people would the class system itself ever change. Well, the attack caused quite a stir among Orwell's fellow Socialists but he didn't care. By the time the book was published, he was off in Spain fighting fascism.
His book has an unnerving relevance to the situation in Britain and the world today. Unemployment is high in Britain and the rest of Europe and is getting worse. In Spain it's something over 20 per cent. Jobs, especially in manufacturing, continue to disappear. The labor of the poor continues to be exploited. It's not too much of a stretch to compare the coal mines of Barnsley and Wigan of the '30s, to the sweatshops of China and Thailand today.
But where are the Orwells of today.
Modern journalism pays little attention to the lives and stories of the poor and the so-called working poor. There are studies and surveys and learned papers on the plight of the poor, but little in the way of hard reporting . For example, we only report on what is happening inside the labor movement when there is a postal strike or the threat of one.
Aside from the American writer and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, I don't see a lot of reporting on the ordinary daily lives of the poor and working poor in our midst.
Given the chaos of the economy, the uncertainties, the insecurities of being poor in this century, we need a new generation of chroniclers of the working class. Perhaps we need them now more than ever.