I've recently read quite a few books by George Orwell (The Clergyman's Daughter, Coming Up For Air, Keep and The Aspidistra Flying), having previously read Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia, and am rapidly coming to the conclusion that he's one of my favourite writers. This was only the second time I've sampled his non-fiction.
Before I discuss my thoughts on the book I want to mention how much I enjoy Orwell's writing style. In his essay Politics and the English Language (1946), Orwell wrote about the importance of precise and clear language, and provides six rules for writers:
• Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
• Never use a long word where a short one will do.
• If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
• Never use the passive where you can use the active.
• Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
• Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These rules seem to me to inform his style that I perceive to be simple and powerful.
Onto the book itself, in the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell catalogues the poverty he encounters in the north of England during the depression of the 1930s. In the second half, and written whilst Fascism is on the rise in Europe, he outlines his Socialist solution.
Orwell appears to be unfailingly honest - both about what he encounters amongst the poor families of the north of England (his description of the Brookers' boarding house is powerful and evocative) and his own prejudices.
A word on his prejudices, he refers to homosexuals as "pansies" and discusses the "cranks" that gravitate towards Socialism which include - in his words - fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sandal wearers, sex maniacs, Quakers, nature-cure quacks, feminists and vegetarians. He is honest enough, elsewhere in the book, to acknowledge the difficulty anyone encounters trying to escape their social background - these prejudices suggest to me he was, in some respects, a very traditional person. I think this self awareness makes him more endearing and probably more clear-sighted whilst also jarring with me, as I fall into at least two of his crank categories.
A lot of his thoughts and observations still resonated with me as a reader in 2012. Specifically his ideas on class prejudice and language. That said, I think he was also fairly naive when he wrote this book. His political education would continue in Spain, as documented in Homage to Catalonia, when he would fight a real war against Fascism, and where he encountered Russian propaganda and the rivalries between the various Republican factions. I would recommend reading the two books back-to-back.
I preferred the first half of the book, with its clear eyed depictions of poverty, which is more interesting than his political musings in the second half. The second half is interesting, but his tendency to repeat himself, his personal prejudices and his political naivety, undermine this half of the book. That said, it's well worth reading for anyone interested in the era, or in Orwell's writing - I find both fascinating.