July 1st 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY 'Safe Schools' and every school's duty of care

CANBERRA OBSERVED Catholic education: not gone but Gonski'd

EDITORIAL Oh dear, Prime Minister, Brexit is harder now

ELECTRICITY Blueprint author did not ask about the weather

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Call for referendum after Taiwan court backs same-sex marriage

EUTHANASIA Death-dealing bills break out like hydras' heads

GENDER POLITICS New breed of young women takes on the United Nations

CULTURE AND HISTORY The past is a foreign country

LITERATURE The Road to Wigan Pier and the roads beyond

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY The 'Brisbane line' and other scandals

MUSIC Carla Bley: sophisticated lady

CINEMA Churchill: The regrets of a Lear

BOOK REVIEW Charting 15 years of changing emphases


GENDER POLITICS The Pied Pipers of gender dysphoria

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The Road to Wigan Pier and the roads beyond

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, July 1, 2017

There is not, and never was, a pier in Wigan, unless one uses the term with a great deal of irony. When The Road to Wigan Pier (Gollancz, 1937) was published, Wigan Pier was an almost forgotten demolished wharf on Wigan’s lifeline, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

Orwell was asked in a radio program in December 1943 if Wigan Pier existed. He replied: “Well, I am afraid I must tell you that Wigan Pier doesn’t exist. I made a journey specially to see it in 1936 and I couldn’t find it. It did exist once, however, and to judge from the photographs it must have been about 20 feet long.”

And a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Today, Wigan Pier is the area around the flight of locks on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. It’s a few hundred metres from the town centre. “Wigan Pier” is popular with locals and visitors, on whom the irony of having a pier, with its connotations of glitzy adornments and seaside fun – in Wigan – is not lost. Wigan has always been a tough industrial town, and is far from the ocean.

The most famous thing about Wigan, apart from its pier, is its rugby league team, the Wigan Warriors, said to be the most successful sporting team in the United Kingdom.. A “Wigan kiss” is a head butt. Wigan is not, traditionally, a soccer town, but Wigan Athletic did win the FA Cup once, in 2013.

The original “pier” at Wigan was a coal loading staithe, a north England word for a landing stage for loading cargo, a wooden jetty where wagons of coal from a nearby colliery were unloaded into barges on the canal that connects Wigan to the world. The original wooden pier is believed to have been demolished in 1929.

The places that have glittering piers are seaside resorts like Brighton, with its famous Palace Pier. Piers exist for amusement, not for loading coal. Blackpool, the Lancashire entertainment and holiday centre on the northwest coast of England, has three piers.

George Orwell made Wigan Pier famous. Indeed, in the literary world, Wigan is only famous for its non-existent pier. Wigan was, in days gone by, a grimy north of England industrial town. Its industries were coalmining and cotton milling. Poverty, even among the working poor, was prevalent in the Hungry Thirties. Most boys, as soon as they were able, went “down pit”. Formal education among the working class was despised as “soft”. In the Hungry Thirties, any sort of job was valued.

Although Wigan Pier and its connection with Orwell generate a modest tourist trade, the inference that Wigan is impoverished and backward is widely resented. Wigan remains, even today, more of a working-class town than other towns that have ascended the social ladder more successfully since the Hungry Thirties. Leeds, for example, is now one of Europe’s major financial centres.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell was an established freelance writer by then (1930). He was not, however, famous. He was known as a man of the left, but those on the left, like publisher (Sir) Victor Gollancz, who ran the Left Book Club, did not always like what he wrote. More to the point, Orwell did not promote the brand of socialism that Gollancz favoured. Orwell felt an affinity for writers such as G.K. Chesterton, who was his favourite author.

Orwell was not an intellectual, nor did he respect intellectuals. Orwell did not attend university. Although he won a scholarship to Eton, he did not do well in his studies, so he became a policeman. Orwell described himself as “shabby genteel”. He was just clinging on to the lower rungs of the upper-middle class social ladder. The colonial service allowed him luxuries, such as servants, that he could not afford had he stayed in England.

Orwell was posted to Burma, which for administrative purposes was part of India until 1937. Burma attained independence from Britain in January 1948. One would like to say that Burma, rid of colonialism, has blossomed under the rule of its indigenous government, but of course it has not. Perhaps there is a possibility of stability and growth under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi’s father, “Major General” Aung San, was regarded as founder of the Burmese nationalist movement. He was assassinated in 1947, six months before independence was attained. He also founded the Communist Party of Burma.

Some of Orwell’s best work was about Burma, including his first novel, Burmese Days (Harper, 1934). The story concerns a policeman like Orwell who was caught in a vicious social web of class and race. His classic tale of the damage colonialism does to both colonist and colonised, Shooting an Elephant (1936), is one of the best political essays produced in the 20th century. For many postwar high-school students reading Shooting an Elephant was a rite of passage.

A policeman shoots an elephant, which has been on a rampage, to appease the local crowd. The elephant is now harmless. The elephant is not easy to kill, even with a powerful rifle. Shooting this working elephant is somewhat akin to destroying an expensive piece of machinery because of a minor malfunction. The policeman shoots the elephant, not because he wants to, but because he is expected to do so. The notion of duty is also important, but it is a form of duty that twists and warps those who serve the colonial state.

The Road to Wigan Pier is not Orwell’s best book, but it is important. It marks a watershed in the way he sees himself and his country. He is a socialist, yet he is emerging as an anti-totalitarian socialist, a peculiar sort of socialist for his time. Victor Gollancz, for example, did not want to publish the second part of The Road to Wigan Pier in the edition for the Left Book Club. The first part is a sociological survey of Wigan, concentrating on its pervasive poverty. The second is about Orwell and his beliefs.

The yellow-jacketed Left Book Club editions appealed to what we would call trendies who “wore sandals and ate vegetarian food”. Mostly the Left Book Club editions were incredibly boring. These readers had little time for those who doubted the virtues of the Soviet empire.

If socialism could cure poverty, Orwell believed, then we should all be socialists, but corporate socialism as practised by local authorities in the North of England produced only a dehumanised form of existence that removed people from their roots. A workingman with his family around him in front of a glowing coal fire had a form of contentment that a new, raw council house could not match.

The Spanish Civil War (1936–39) split Europe into hostile camps. Orwell joined the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), a Spanish (more properly Catalan) ultra-left militia influenced by Leon Trotsky. Orwell saw frontline service and was shot through the throat by a sniper while he was in a trench. He was lucky to live; a trifle one way and his carotid artery would have been severed, killing him.

Orwell witnessed the suppression of the POUM by the Stalinists, helping to crystallise his anti-authoritarian and anti-Stalinist bent. Orwell was lucky to escape from the Soviet-directed secret police with his life. From this experience, Orwell was inspired to produce Homage to Catalonia (Secker and Warburg, 1938). His usual publisher, Gollancz, refused to publish the book; instead, Frederic Warburg, who published works by the independent (that is, anti-Soviet) left put it out. The Stalinist left ran a campaign to discredit the book; sales were dismal.

World War II, for which the Spanish Civil War was a precursor, descended on Europe. In World War II, Orwell did the things of which he was capable: writing and acting as an air-raid warden during the London Blitz, acts which hardly demonstrate a lack of commitment to the war. The writing, he readily admitted, was propaganda. Orwell’s poor health did not allow him to join the frontline services.

When did the writer of genius that we celebrate emerge?

Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (Secker and Warburg, 1945) was published in August 1945. The war in Europe had ended in May. The war in Asia would drag on for almost another month. Some six months later, Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech, warning against Soviet ambitions in Europe.

Animal Farm is a brilliant political tract, more so for the fact that many readers cannot identify who the animals represent. Many do not even realise that it is about the Russian Revolution. As a political allegory, it has few equals. Who can forget phrases such as “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” and “Four legs good, two legs bad”? Animal Farm is that rarest of things, a work of literature that is sui generis; in and of itself. The idea of a political allegory as a fairy story is, in itself, a masterstroke.

We use the expression “Orwellian” for sinister political intentions. These idioms are derived from Orwell’s final book, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker and Warburg, 1949). Orwell used Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (Dutton, 1924), which we know Orwell had read. Zamyatin was a Russian dissident who was exiled from Stalin’s Russia. To say that Orwell plagiarised We islike saying Shakespeare plagiarised Plutarch for Julius Caesar. The structure is there, but the brilliance in Nineteen Eighty-Four belongs completely to Orwell.

The very term “Orwellian” has become a badge of shame for governments that infringe on the liberties of their citizens. Big Brother has been co-opted by a popular television program where an omnipotent custodian dictates to contestants what they can and cannot do. “Thought Police” exist to tell us what is right and wrong thinking. One cannot help but think of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which directs us concerning what we may or may not say, essentially preventing us, by law, from “hurting other people’s feelings”. Trespassing on those mandatory social norms is a “Thought Crime”. “Newspeak” means a form of words that empties language of its meaning. It has come to mean, in everyday speech, confusing or deceptive bureaucratic jargon.

“Newspeak” is a degradation of language. People who cannot think cogently and cannot express themselves clearly are easier to dominate. “Doublethink”, one of the most durable of Orwell’s neologisms, refers to the ability to maintain two contradictory viewpoints or ideas in one’s head at the same time by deliberately ceasing to think of one of them.

In the 80 years since The Road to Wigan Pier was published, George Orwell has attained eminence as someone with whom anyone from high-school students to highbrows can readily empathise. His lonely death at the age of 46 from tuberculosis prevented him from enjoying his fame to the full.

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