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George Orwell > The Road to Wigan Pier > Chapter 1

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 1

The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls' clogs
down the cobbled street. Earlier than that, I suppose, there were factory
whistles which I was never awake to hear.

My bed was in the right-hand corner on the side nearest the door.
There was another bed across the foot of it and jammed hard against it (it
had to be in that position to allow the door to open) so that I had to
sleep with my legs doubled up; if I straightened them out I kicked the
occupant of the other bed in the small of the back. He was an elderly man
named Mr Reilly, a mechanic of sorts and employed 'on top' at one of the
coal pits. Luckily he had to go to work at five in the morning, so I could
uncoil my legs and have a couple of hours' proper sleep after he was gone.
In the bed opposite there was a Scotch miner who had been injured in a pit
accident (a huge chunk of stone pinned him to the ground and it was a
couple of hours before they could lever it off), and had received five
hundred pounds compensation. He was a big handsome man of forty, with
grizzled hair and a clipped moustache, more like a sergeant-major than a
miner, and he would lie in bed till late in the day, smoking a short pipe.
The other bed was occupied by a succession of commercial travellers,
newspaper-canvassers, and hire-purchase touts who generally stayed for a
couple of nights. It was a double bed and much the best in the room. I had
slept in it myself my first night there, but had been manoeuvred out of it
to make room for another lodger. I believe all newcomers spent their first
night in the double bed, which was used, so to speak, as bait. All the
windows were kept tight shut, with a red sandbag jammed in the bottom, and
in the morning the room stank like a ferret's cage. You did not notice it
when you got up, but if you went out of the room and came back, the smell
hit you in the face with a smack.

I never discovered how many bedrooms the house contained, but strange
to say there was a bathroom, dating from before the Brookers' time.
Downstairs there was the usual kitchen living-room with its huge open range
burning night and day. It was lighted only by a skylight, for on one side
of it was the shop and on the other the larder, which opened into some dark
subterranean place where the tripe was stored. Partly blocking the door of
the larder there was a shapeless sofa upon which Mrs Brooker, our landlady,
lay permanently ill, festooned in grimy blankets. She had a big, pale
yellow, anxious face. No one knew for certain what was the matter with her;
I suspect that her only real trouble was over-eating. In front of the fire
there was almost always a line of damp washing, and in the middle of the
room was the big kitchen table at which the family and all the lodgers ate.
I never saw this table completely uncovered, but I saw its various
wrappings at different times. At the bottom there was a layer of old
newspaper stained by Worcester Sauce; above that a sheet of sticky white
oil-cloth; above that a green serge cloth; above that a coarse linen cloth,
never changed and seldom taken off. Generally the crumbs from breakfast
were still on the table at supper. I used to get to know individual crumbs
by sight and watch their progress up and down the table from day to day.

The shop was a narrow, cold sort of room. On the. outside of the
window a few white letters, relics of ancient chocolate advertisements,
were scattered like stars. Inside there was a slab upon which lay the great
white folds of tripe, and the grey flocculent stuff known as 'black tripe',
and the ghostly translucent feet of pigs, ready boiled. It was the ordinary
'tripe and pea' shop, and not much else was stocked except bread,
cigarettes, and tinned stuff. 'Teas' were advertised in the window, but if
a customer demanded a cup of tea he was usually put off with excuses. Mr
Brooker, though out of work for two years, was a miner by trade, but he and
his wife had been keeping shops of various kinds as a side-line all their
lives. At one time they had had a pub, but they had lost their licence for
allowing gambling on the premises. I doubt whether any of their businesses
had ever paid; they were the kind of people who run a business chiefly in
order to have something to grumble about. Mr Brooker was a dark, small-
boned, sour, Irish-looking man, and astonishingly dirty. I don't think I
ever once saw his hands clean. As Mrs Brooker was now an invalid he
prepared most of the food, and like all people with permanently dirty hands
he had a peculiarly intimate, lingering manner of handling things. If he
gave you a slice of bread-and-butter there was always a black thumb-print
on it. Even in the early morning when he descended into the mysterious den
behind Mrs Brooker's sofa and fished out the tripe, his hands were already
black. I heard dreadful stories from the other lodgers about the place
where the tripe was kept. Blackbeetles were said to swarm there. I do not
know how often fresh consignments of tripe were ordered, but it was at long
intervals, for Mrs Brooker used to date events by it. 'Let me see now, I've
had in three lots of froze (frozen tripe) since that happened,' etc. We
lodgers were never given tripe to eat. At the time I imagined that this
was because tripe was too expensive; I have since thought that it was
merely because we knew too much about it. The Brookers never ate tripe
themselves, I noticed.

The only permanent lodgers were the Scotch miner, Mr Reilly, two old-
age pensioners, and an unemployed man on the P.A.C. named Joe--he was the
kind of person who has no surname. The Scotch miner was a bore when you got
to know him. Like so many unemployed men he spent too much time reading
newspapers, and if you did not head him off he would discourse for hours
about such things as the Yellow Peril, trunk murders, astrology, and the
conflict between religion and science. The old-age pensioners had, as
usual, been driven from their homes by the Means Test. They handed their
weekly ten shillings over to the Brookers and in return got the kind of
accommodation you would expect for ten shillings; that is, a bed in the
attic and meals chiefly of bread-and-butter. One of them was of'superior'
type and was dying of some malignant disease--cancer, I believe. He only
got out of bed on the days when he went to draw his pension. The other,
called by everyone Old Jack, was an ex-miner aged seventy-eight who had
worked well over fifty years in the pits. He was alert and intelligent, but
curiously enough he seemed only to remember his boyhood experiences and to
have forgotten all about the modem mining machinery and improvements. He
used to tell me tales of fights with savage horses in the narrow galleries
underground. When he heard that I was arranging to go down several coal
mines he was contemptuous and declared that a man of my size (six feet two
and a half) would never manage the 'travelling'; it was no use telling him
that the 'travelling' was better than it used to be. But he was friendly to
everyone and used to give us all a fine shout of 'Good night, boys!' as he
crawled up the stairs to his bed somewhere under the rafters. What I most
admired about Old Jack was that he never cadged; he was generally out-of
tobacco towards the end of the week, but he always refused to smoke anyone
else's. The Brookers had insured the lives of both old-age pensioners with
one of the tanner-a-week companies. It was said that they were overheard
anxiously asking the insurance-tout 'how long people lives when they've got

Joe, like the Scotchman, was a great reader of newspapers and spent
almost his entire day in the public library. He was the typical unmarried
unemployed man, a derelict-looking, frankly ragged creature with a round,
almost childish face on which there was a naively naughty expression. He
looked more like a neglected little boy than a grown-up man. I suppose it
is the complete lack of responsibility that makes so many of these men look
younger than their ages. From Joe's appearance I took him to be about
twenty-eight, and was amazed to learn that he was forty-three. He had a
love of resounding phrases and was very proud of the astuteness with which
he had avoided getting married. He often said to me, 'Matrimonial chains is
a big item,' evidently feeling this to be a very subtle and portentous
remark. His total income was fifteen shillings a week, and he paid out six
or seven to the Brookers for his bed. I sometimes used to see him making
himself a cup of tea over the kitchen fire, but for the rest he got his
meals somewhere out of doors; it was mostly slices of bread-and-marg and
packets of fish and chips, I suppose.

Besides these there was a floating clientele of commercial travellers
of the poorer sort, travelling actors--always common in the North because
most of the larger pubs hire variety artists at the week-ends--and
newspaper-canvassers. The newspaper-canvassers were a type I had never met
before. Their job seemed to me so hopeless, so appalling that I wondered
how anyone could put up with such a thing when prison was a possible
alternative. They were employed mostly by weekly or Sunday papers, and they
were sent from town to town, provided with maps and given a list of streets
which they had to 'work' each day. If they failed to secure a minimum of
twenty orders a day, they got the sack. So long as they kept up their
twenty orders a day they received a small salary--two pounds a week, I
think; on any order over the twenty they drew a tiny commission. The thing
is not so impossible as it sounds, because in working-class districts every
family takes in a twopenny weekly paper and changes it every few weeks; but
I doubt whether anyone keeps a job of that kind long. The newspapers engage
poor desperate wretches, out-of-work clerks and commercial travellers and
the like, who for a while make frantic efforts and keep their sales up to
the minimum; then as the deadly work wears them down they are sacked and
fresh men are taken on. I got to know two who were employed by one of the
more notorious weeklies. Both of them were middle-aged men with families to
support, and one of them was a grandfather. They were on their feet ten
hours a day, 'working' their appointed streets, and then busy late into the
night filling in blank forms for some swindle their paper was running--
one of those schemes by which you are 'given' a set of crockery if you take
out a six weeks' subscription and send a two-shilling postal order as well.
The fat one, the grandfather, used to fall asleep with his head on a pile
of forms. Neither of them could afford the pound a week which the Brookers
charged for full board. They used to pay a small sum for their beds and
make shamefaced meals in a corner of the kitchen off bacon and bread-and-
margarine which they stored in their suit-cases.

The Brookers had large numbers of sons and daughters, most of whom had
long since fled from home. Some were in Canada 'at Canada', as Mrs Brooker
used to put it. There was only one son living near by, a large pig-like
young man employed in a garage, who frequently came to the house for his
meals. His wife was there all day with the two children, and most of the
cooking and laundering was done by her and by Emmie, the fiancee of another
son who was in London. Emmie was a fair-haired, sharp-nosed, unhappy-
looking girl who worked at one of the mills for some starvation wage, but
nevertheless spent all her evenings in bondage at the Brookers' house. I
gathered that the marriage was constantly being postponed and would
probably never take place, but Mrs Brooker had already appropriated Emmie
as a daughter-in-law, and nagged her in that peculiar watchful, loving way
that invalids have. The rest of the housework was done, or not done, by Mr
Brooker. Mrs Brooker seldom rose from her sofa in the kitchen (she spent
the night there as well as the day) and was too ill to do anything except
eat stupendous meals. It was Mr Brooker who attended to the shop, gave the
lodgers their food, and 'did out' the bedrooms. He was always moving with
incredible slowness from one hated job to another. Often the beds were
still unmade at six in the evening, and at any hour of the day you were
liable to meet Mr Brooker on the stairs, carrying a full chamber-pot which
he gripped with his thumb well over the rim. In the mornings he sat by the
fire with a tub of filthy water, peeling potatoes at the speed of a slow-
motion picture. I never saw anyone who could peel potatoes with quite such
an air of brooding resentment. You could see the hatred of this 'bloody
woman's work', as he called it, fermenting inside him, a kind of bitter
juice. He was one of those people who can chew their grievances like a cud.

Of course, as I was indoors a good deal, I heard all about the
Brookers' woes, and how everyone swindled them and was ungrateful to them,
and how the shop did not pay and the lodging-house hardly paid. By local
standards they were not so badly off, for, in some way I did not
understand, Mr Brooker was dodging the Means Test and drawing an allowance
from the P.A.C., but their chief pleasure was talking about their
grievances to anyone who would listen. Mrs Brooker used to lament by the
hour, lying on her sofa, a soft mound of fat and self-pity, saying the same
things over and over again.' We don't seem to get no customers nowadays. I
don't know 'ow it is. The tripe's just a-laying there day after day--such
beautiful tripe it is, too! It does seem 'ard, don't it now ?' etc., etc.,
etc. All Mrs Brookers' laments ended with' It does seem 'ard, don't it now?'
like the refrain of a ballade. Certainly it was true that the shop did
not pay. The whole place had the unmistakable dusty, flyblown air of a
business that is going down. But it would have been quite useless to
explain to them why nobody came to the shop, even if one had had the face
to do it; neither was capable of understanding that last year's dead
bluebottles supine in the shop window are not good for trade.

But the thing that really tormented them was the thought of those two
old-age pensioners living in their house, usurping floor-space, devouring
food, and paying only ten shillings a week. I doubt whether they were
really losing money over the old-age pensioners, though certainly the
profit on ten shillings a week must have been very small. But in their eyes
the two old men were a kind of dreadful parasite who had fastened on them
and were living on their charity. Old Jack they could just tolerate,
because he kept out-of-doors most of the day, but they really hated the
bedridden one, Hooker by name. Mr Brooker had a queer way of pronouncing
his name, without the H and with a long U--'Uker'. What tales I heard
about old Hooker and his fractiousness, the nuisance of making his bed, the
way he 'wouldn't eat' this and 'wouldn't eat' that, his endless ingratitude
and, above all, the selfish obstinacy with which he refused to die! The
Brookers were quite openly pining for him to die. When that happened they
could at least draw the insurance money. They seemed to feel him there,
eating their substance day after day, as though he had been a living worm
in their bowels. Sometimes Mr Brooker would look up from his potato-
peeling, catch my eye, and jerk his head with a look of inexpressible
bitterness towards the ceiling, towards old Hooker's room. 'It's a b-,
ain't it?' he would say. There was no need to say more; I had heard all
about old Hooker's ways already. But the Brookers had grievances of one
kind and another against all their lodgers, myself included, no doubt. Joe,
being on the P.A.C., was practically in the same category as the old-age
pensioners. The Scotchman paid a pound a week, but he was indoors most of
the day and they 'didn't like him always hanging round the place', as they
put it. The newspaper-canvassers were out all day, but the Brookers bore
them a grudge for bringing in their own food, and even Mr Reilly, their
best lodger, was in disgrace because Mrs Brooker said that he woke her up
when he came downstairs in the mornings. They couldn't, they complained
perpetually, get the kind of lodgers they wanted--good-class 'commercial
gentlemen' who paid full board and were out all day. Their ideal lodger
would have been somebody who paid thirty shillings a week and never came
indoors except to sleep. I have noticed that people who let lodgings nearly
always hate their lodgers. They want their money but they look on them as
intruders and have a curiously watchful, jealous attitude which at bottom
is a determination not to let the lodger make himself too much at home. It
is an inevitable result of the bad system by which the lodger has to live
in somebody else's house without being one of the family.

The meals at the Brookers' house were uniformly disgusting. For
breakfast you got two rashers of bacon and a pale fried egg, and bread-and-
butter which had often been cut overnight and always had thumb-marks on it.
However tactfully I tried, I could never induce Mr Brooker to let me cut my
own bread-and-butter; he would hand it to me slice by slice, each slice
gripped firmly under that broad black thumbs For dinner there were
generally those threepenny steak puddings which are sold ready-made in
tins--these were part of the stock of the shop, I think--and boiled
potatoes and rice pudding. For tea there was more bread-and-butter and
frayed-looking sweet cakes which were probably bought as 'stales' from the
baker. For supper there was the pale flabby Lancashire cheese and biscuits.
The Brookers never called these biscuits biscuits. They always referred to
them reverently as 'cream crackers'--'Have another cream cracker, Mr Reilly.
You'll like a cream cracker with your cheese'--thus glozing over the fact
that there was only cheese for supper. Several bottles of Worcester Sauce
and a half-full jar of marmalade lived permanently on the table. It was
usual to souse everything, even a piece of cheese, with Worcester Sauce,
but I never saw anyone brave the marmalade jar, which was an unspeakable
mass of stickiness and dust. Mrs Brooker had her meals separately but also
took snacks from any meal that happened to be going, and manoeuvred with
great skill for what she called 'the bottom of the pot', meaning the
strongest cup of tea. She had a habit of constantly wiping her mouth on one
of her blankets. Towards the end of my stay she took to tearing off strips
of newspaper for this purpose, and in the morning the floor was often
littered with crumpled-up balls of slimy paper which lay there for hours.
The smell of the kitchen was dreadful, but, as with that of the bedroom,
you ceased to notice it after a while.

It struck me that this place must be fairly normal as lodging-houses
in the industrial areas go, for on the whole the lodgers did not complain.
The only one who ever did so to my knowledge was a little black-haired,
sharp-nosed Cockney, a traveller for a cigarette firm. He had never been in
the North before, and I think that till recently he had been in better
employ and was used to staying in commercial hotels. This was his first
glimpse of really low-class lodgings, the kind of place in which the poor
tribe of touts and canvassers have to shelter upon their endless journeys.
In the morning as we were dressing (he had slept in the double bed, of
course) I saw him look round the desolate room with a sort of wondering
aversion. He caught my eye and suddenly divined that I was a fellow-
Southerner. 'The filthy bloody bastards!' he said feelingly. After that he
packed his suit-case, went downstairs and, with great strength of mind,
told the Brookers that this was not the kind of house he was accustomed to
and that he was leaving immediately. The Brookers could never understand
why. They were astonished and hurt. The ingratitude of it! Leaving them
like that for no reason after a single night! Afterwards they discussed it
over and over again, in all its bearings. It was added to their store of

On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table
I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only
the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant
meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where
people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless
muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances. The most dreadful thing about
people like the Brookers is the way they say the same things over and over
again. It gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all, but a
kind of ghost for ever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole. In the end Mrs
Brooker's self-pitying talk--always the same complaints, over and over,
and always ending with the tremulous whine of 'It does seem 'ard, don't it
now?'--revolted me even more than her habit of wiping her mouth with bits
of newspaper. But it is no use saying that people like the Brookers are
just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens
and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products
of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the
civilization that produced them. For this is part at least of what
industrialism has done for us. Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first
steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under
the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth
century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led
--to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people
creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. It is a kind of duty to
see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you
should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay
there too long.

The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps,
chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed
by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly
cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly
through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey
slum houses running at right angles to the-embankment. At the back of one
of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up
the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose
was blocked. I had time to see everything about her--her sacking apron,
her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train
passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale
face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and
looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the
second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have
ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that' It
isn't the same for them as it would be for us,' and that people bred in the
slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not
the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was
happening to her--understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it
was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum
backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

But quite soon the train drew away into open country, and that seemed
strange, almost unnatural, as though the open country had been a kind of
park; for in the industrial areas one always feels that the smoke and filth
must go on for ever and that no part of the earth's surface can escape
them. In a crowded, dirty little country like ours one takes defilement
almost for granted. Slag-heaps and chimneys seem a more normal, probable
landscape than grass and trees, and even in the depths of the country when
you drive your fork into the ground you half expect to lever up a broken
bottle or a rusty can. But out here the snow was untrodden and lay so deep
that only the tops of the stone boundary-walls were showing, winding over
the hills like black paths. I remembered that D. H. Lawrence, writing of
this same landscape or another near by, said that the snow-covered hills
rippled away into the distance 'like muscle'. It was not the simile that
would have occurred to me. To my eye the snow and the black walls were more
like a white dress with black piping running across it.

Although the snow was hardly broken the sun was shining brightly, and
behind the shut windows of the carriage it seemed warm. According to the
almanac this was spring, and a few of the birds seemed to believe it. For
the first time in my life, in a bare patch beside the line, I saw rooks
treading. They did it on the ground and not, as I should have expected, in
a tree. The manner of courtship was curious. The female stood with her beak
open and the male walked round her and appeared to be feeding her. I had
hardly been in the train half an hour, but it seemed a very long way from
the Brookers' back-kitchen to the empty slopes of snow, the bright
sunshine, and the big gleaming birds.

The whole of the industrial districts are really one enormous town, of
about the same population as Greater London but, fortunately, of much
larger area; so that even in the middle of them there is still room for
patches of cleanness and decency. That is an encouraging thought. In spite
of hard trying, man has not yet succeeded in doing his dirt everywhere. The
earth is so vast and still so empty that even in the filthy heart of
civilization you find fields where the grass is green instead of grey;
perhaps if you looked for them you might even find streams with live fish
in them instead of salmon tins. For quite a long time, perhaps another
twenty minutes, the train was rolling through open country before the
villa-civilization began to close in upon us again, and then the outer
slums, and then the slag-heaps, belching chimneys, blast-furnaces, canals,
and gaso-meters of another industrial town.

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