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George Orwell > The Road to Wigan Pier > Chapter 7

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 7

As you travel northward your eye, accustomed to the South or East, does not
notice much difference until you are beyond Birmingham. In Coventry you
might as well be in Finsbury Park, and the Bull Ring in Birmingham is not
unlike Norwich Market, and between all the towns of the Midlands there
stretches a villa-civilization indistinguishable from that of the South. It
is only when you get a little further north, to the pottery towns and
beyond, that you begin to encounter the real ugliness of industrialism--
an ugliness so frightful and so arresting that you are obliged, as it were,
to come to terms with it.

A slag-heap is at best a hideous thing, because it is so planless and
functionless. It is something just dumped on the earth, like the emptying
of a giant's dust-bin. On the outskirts of the mining towns there are
frightful landscapes where your horizon is ringed completely round by
jagged grey mountains, and underfoot is mud and ashes and over-head the
steel cables where tubs of dirt travel slowly across miles of country.
Often the slag-heaps are on fire, and at night you can see the red rivulets
of fire winding this way and that, and also the slow-moving blue flames of
sulphur, which always seem on the point of expiring and always spring out
again. Even when a slag-heap sinks, as it does ultimately, only an evil
brown grass grows on it, and it retains its hummocky surface. One in the
slums of Wigan, used as a playground, looks like a choppy sea suddenly
frozen; 'the flock mattress', it is called locally. Even centuries hence
when the plough drives over the places where coal was once mined, the sites
of ancient slag-heaps will still be distinguishable from an aeroplane.

I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All
round was the lunar landscape of slag-heaps, and to the north, through the
passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the
factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a
mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of
innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag-heaps in the distance,
stretched the 'flashes'--pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the
hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The
'flashes' were covered with ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were
muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore beards of ice. It seemed
a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except
smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes, and foul water. But even Wigan is beautiful
compared with Sheffield. Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be
called the ugliest town in the Old World: its inhabitants, who want it to
be pre-eminent in everything, very likely do make that claim for it. It has
a population of half a million and it contains fewer decent buildings than
the average East Anglian village of five hundred. And the stench! If at
rare moments you stop smelling sulphur it is because you have begun
smelling gas. Even the shallow river that runs through the town is-usually
bright yellow with some chemical or other. Once I halted in the street and
counted the factory chimneys I could see; there were thirty-three of them,
but there would have been far more if the air had not been obscured by
smoke. One scene especially lingers in my mind. A frightful patch of waste
ground (somehow, up there, a patch of waste ground attains a squalor that
would be impossible even in London) trampled bare of grass and littered
with newspapers and old saucepans. To the right an isolated row of gaunt
four-roomed houses, dark red, blackened by smoke. To the left an
interminable vista of factory chimneys, chimney beyond chimney, fading away
into a dim blackish haze. Behind me a railway embankment made of the slag
from furnaces. In front, across the patch of waste ground, a cubical
building of red and yellow brick, with the sign 'Thomas Grocock, Haulage

At night, when you cannot see the hideous shapes of the houses and the
blackness of everything, a town like Sheffield assumes a kind of sinister
magnificence. Sometimes the drifts of smoke are rosy with sulphur, and
serrated flames, like circular saws, squeeze themselves out from beneath
the cowls of the foundry chimneys. Through the open doors of foundries you
see fiery serpents of iron being hauled to and fro by redlit boys, and you
hear the whizz and thump of steam hammers and the scream of the iron under
the blow. The pottery towns are almost equally ugly in a pettier way. Right
in among the rows of tiny blackened houses, part of the street as it were,
are the 'pot banks'--conical brick chimneys like gigantic burgundy
bottles buried in the soil and belching their smoke almost in your face.
You come upon monstrous clay chasms hundreds of feet across and almost as
deep, with little rusty tubs creeping on chain railways up one side, and on
the other workmen clinging like samphire-gatherers and cutting into the
face of the cliff with their picks. I passed that way in snowy weather, and
even the snow was black. The best thing one can say for the pottery towns
is that they are fairly small and stop abruptly. Less than ten miles away
you can stand in un-defiled country, on the almost naked hills, and the
pottery towns are only a smudge in the distance.

When you contemplate such ugliness as this, there are two questions
that strike you. First, is it inevitable? Secondly, does it matter?

I do not believe that there is anything inherently and unavoidably
ugly about industrialism. A factory or even a gasworks is not obliged of
its own nature to be ugly, any more than a palace or a dog-kennel or a
cathedral. It all depends on the architectural tradition of the period. The
industrial towns of the North are ugly because they happen to have been
built at a time when modem methods of steel-construction and smoke-
abatement were unknown, and when everyone was too busy making money to
think about anything else. They go on being ugly largely because the
Northerners have got used to that kind of thing and do not notice it. Many
of the people in Sheffield or Manchester, if they smelled the air along the
Cornish cliffs, would probably declare that it had no taste in it. But
since the war, industry has tended to shift southward and in doing so has
grown almost comely. The typical post-war factory is not a gaunt barrack or
an awful chaos of blackness and belching chimneys; it is a glittering white
structure of concrete, glass, and steel, surrounded by green lawns and beds
of tulips. Look at the factories you pass as you travel out of London on
the G.W.R.; they may not be aesthetic triumphs but certainly they are not
ugly in the same way as the Sheffield gasworks. But in any case, though the
ugliness of industrialism is the most obvious thing about it and the thing
every newcomer exclaims against, I doubt whether it is centrally important.
And perhaps it is not even desirable, industrialism being what it is, that
it should leam to disguise itself as something else. As Mr Aldous Huxley
has truly remarked, a dark Satanic mill ought to look like a dark Satanic
mill and not like the temple of mysterious and splendid gods. Moreover,
even in the worst of the industrial towns one sees a great deal that is not
ugly in the narrow aesthetic sense. A belching chimney or a stinking slum
is repulsive chiefly because it implies warped lives and ailing children.
Look at it from a purely aesthetic standpoint and it may, have a certain
macabre appeal. I find that anything outrageously strange generally ends by
fascinating me even when I abominate it. The landscapes of Burma, which,
when I was among them, so appalled me as to assume the qualities of
nightmare, afterwards stayed so hauntingly in my mind that I was obliged to
write a novel about them to get rid of them. (In all novels about the East
the scenery is the real subject-matter.) It would probably be quite easy to
extract a sort of beauty, as Arnold Bennett did, from the blackness of the
industrial towns; one can easily imagine Baudelaire, for instance, writing
a poem about a slag-heap. But the beauty or ugliness of industrialism
hardly matters. Its real evil lies far deeper and is quite uneradicable. It
is important to remember this, because there is always a temptation to
think that industrialism is harmless so long as it is clean and orderly.

But when you go to the industrial North you are conscious, quite apart
from the unfamiliar scenery, of entering a strange country. This is partly
because of certain real differences which do exist, but still more because
of the North-South antithesis which has been rubbed into us for such a long
time past. There exists in England a curious cult of Northemness, sort of
Northern snobbishness. A Yorkshireman in the South will always take care to
let you know that he regards you as an inferior. If you ask him why, he
will explain that it is only in the North that life is 'real' life, that
the industrial work done in the North is the only 'real' work, that the
North is inhabited by 'real' people, the South merely by rentiers and their
parasites. The Northerner has 'grit', he is grim, 'dour', plucky, warm-
hearted, and democratic; the Southerner is snobbish, effeminate, and lazy
--that at any rate is the theory. Hence the Southerner goes north, at any
rate for the first time, with the vague inferiority-complex of a civilized
man venturing among savages, while the Yorkshireman, like the Scotchman,
comes to London in the spirit of a barbarian out for loot. And feelings of
this kind, which are the result of tradition, are not affected by visible
facts. Just as an Englishman five feet four inches high and twenty-nine
inches round the chest feels that as an Englishman he is the physical
superior of Camera (Camera being a Dago), so also with the Northerner and
the Southerner. I remember a weedy little Yorkshireman, who would almost
certainly have run away if a fox-terrier had snapped at him, telling me
that in the South of England he felt 'like a wild invader'. But the cult is
often adopted by people who are not by birth Northerners themselves. A year
or two ago a friend of mine, brought up in the South but now living in the
North, was driving me through Suffolk in a car. We passed through a rather
beautiful village. He glanced disapprovingly at the cottages and said:

'Of course most of the villages in Yorkshire are hideous; but the
Yorkshiremen are splendid chaps. Down here it's just the other way about--
beautiful villages and rotten people. All the people in those cottages
there are worthless, absolutely worthless.'

I could not help inquiring whether he happened to know anybody in that
village. No, he did not know them; but because this was East Anglia they
were obviously worthless. Another friend of mine, again a Southerner by
birth, loses no opportunity of praising the North to the detriment of the
South. Here is an extract from one of his letters to me:

I am in Clitheroe, Lanes. ... I think running water is much more
attractive in moor and mountain country than in the fat and sluggish South.
'The smug and silver Trent,' Shakespeare says; and the South-er the
smugger, I say.

Here you have an interesting example of the Northern cult. Not only
are you and I and everyone else in the South of England written off as 'fat
and sluggish', but even water when it gets north of a certain latitude,
ceases to be H2O and becomes something mystically superior. But the
interest of this passage is that its writer is an extremely intelligent man
of 'advanced' opinions who would have nothing but con-tempt for nationalism
in its ordinary form. Put to him some such proposition as 'One Britisher is
worth three foreigners', and he would repudiate it with horror. But when it
is a question of North versus South, he is quite ready to generalize. All
nationalistic distinctions--all claims to be better than somebody else
because you have a different-shaped skull or speak a different dialect--
are entirely spurious, but they are important so long as people believe in
them. There is no doubt about the Englishman's inbred conviction that those
who live to the south of him are his inferiors; even our foreign policy is
governed by it to some extent. I think, therefore, that it is worth
pointing out when and why it came into being.

When nationalism first became a religion, the English looked at the
map, and, noticing that their island lay very high in the Northern
Hemisphere, evolved the pleasing theory that the further north you live the
more virtuous you become. The histories I was given when I was a little boy
generally started off by explaining in the naivest way that a cold climate
made people energetic while a hot one made them lazy, and hence the defeat
of the Spanish Armada. This nonsense about the superior energy of the
English (actually the laziest people in Europe) has been current for at
least a hundred years. 'Better is it for us', writes a Quarterly Reviewer
of 1827, 'to be condemned to labour for our country's good than to
luxuriate amid olives, vines, and vices.' 'Olives, vines, and vices' sums
up the normal English attitude towards the Latin races. In the mythology of
Garlyle, Creasey, etc., the Northerner ('Teutonic', later 'Nordic') is
pictured as a hefty, vigorous chap with blond moustaches and pure morals,
while the Southerner is sly, cowardly, and licentious. This theory was
never pushed to its logical end, which would have meant assuming that the
finest people in the world were the Eskimos, but it did involve admitting
that the people who lived to the north of us were superior to ourselves.
Hence, partly, the cult of Scotland and of Scotch things which has so
deeply marked English life during the past fifty years. But it was the
industrialization of the North that gave the North-South antithesis its
peculiar slant. Until comparatively recently the northern part of England
was the backward and feudal part, and such industry as existed was
concentrated in London and the South-East. In the Civil War for instance,
roughly speaking a war of money versus feudalism, the North and West were
for the King and the South and East for the Parliament. But with the
increasing use of coal industry passed to the North, and there grew up a
new type of man, the self-made Northern business man--the Mr Rouncewell
and Mr Bounderby of Dickens. The Northern business man, with his hateful
'get on or get out' philosophy, was the dominant figure of the nineteenth
century, and as a sort of tyrannical corpse he rules us still. This is the
type edified by Arnold Bennett--the type who starts off with half a crown
and ends up with fifty thousand pounds, and whose chief pride is to be an
even greater boor after he has made his money than before. On analysis his
sole virtue turns out to be a talent for making money. We were bidden to
admire him because though he might be narrow-minded, sordid, ignorant,
grasping, and uncouth, he had 'grit', he 'got on'; in other words, he knew
how to make money.

This kind of cant is nowadays a pure anachronism, for the Northern
business man is no longer prosperous. But traditions are not killed by
facts, and the tradition of Northern' grit' lingers. It is still dimly felt
that a Northerner will 'get on', i.e. make money, where a Southerner will
fail. At the back of the mind of every Yorkshireman and every Scotchman who
comes to London is a sort of Dick Whittington picture of himself as the boy
who starts off by selling newspapers and ends up as Lord Mayor. And that,
really, is at the bottom of his bumptiousness. But where one can make a
great mistake is in imagining that this feeling extends to the genuine
working class. When I first went to Yorkshire, some years ago, I imagined
that I was going to a country of boors. I was used to the London
Yorkshireman with his interminable harangues and his pride in the sup-posed
raciness of his dialect (' "A stitch in time saves nine", as we say in the
West Riding'), and I expected to meet with a good deal of rudeness. But I
met with nothing of the kind, and least of all among the miners. Indeed the
Lancashire and Yorkshire miners treated me with a kindness and courtesy
that were even embarrassing; for if there is one type of man to whom I do
feel myself inferior, it is a coal-miner. Certainly no one showed any sign
of despising me for coming from a different part of the country. This has
its importance when one remembers that the English regional snobberies are
nationalism in miniature; for it suggests that place-snobbery is not a
working-class characteristic.

There is nevertheless a real difference between North and South, and
there is at least a tinge of truth in that picture of Southern England as
one enormous Brighton inhabited by lounge-lizards. For climatic reasons the
parasitic divi-dend-drawing class tend to settle in the South. In a
Lancashire cotton-town you could probably go for months on end without once
hearing an 'educated' accent, whereas there can hardly be a town in the
South of England where you could throw a brick without hitting the niece of
a bishop. Consequently, with no petty gentry to set the pace, the
bourgeoisification of the working class, though it is taking place in the
North, is taking place more slowly. All the Northern accents, for instance,
persist strongly, while the Southern ones are collapsing before the movies
and the B.B.C. Hence your 'educated' accent stamps you rather as a
foreigner than as a chunk of the petty gentry; and this is an immense
advantage, for it makes it much easier to get into contact with the working

But is it ever possible to be really intimate with the working class?
I shall have to discuss that later; I will only say here that I do not
think it is possible. But undoubtedly it is easier in the North than it
would be in the South to meet working-class people on approximately equal
terms. It is fairly easy to live in a miner's house and be accepted as one
of the family; with, say, a farm labourer in the Southern counties it
probably would be impossible. I have seen just enough of the working class
to avoid idealizing them, but I do know that you can leam a great deal in a
working-class home, if only you can get there. The essential point is that
your middle-class ideals and prejudices are tested by contact with others
which are not necessarily better but are certainly different.

Take for instance the different attitude towards the family. A
working-class family hangs together as a middle-class one does, but the
relationship is far less tyrannical. A working man has not that deadly
weight of family prestige hanging round his neck like a millstone. I have
pointed out earlier that a middle-class person goes utterly to pieces under
the influence of poverty; and this is generally due to the behaviour of his
family--to the fact that he has scores of relations nagging and badgering
him night and day for failing to 'get on'. The fact that the working class
know how to combine and the middle class don't is probably due to their
different conceptions of family loyalty. You cannot have an effective trade
union of middle-class workers, be-cause in times of strikes almost every
middle-class wife would be egging her husband on to blackleg and get the
other fellow's job. Another working-class characteristic, disconcerting at
first, is their plain-spokenness towards anyone they regard as an equal. If
you offer a working man something he doesn't want, he tells you that he
doesn't want it; a middle-class person would accept it to avoid giving
offence. And again, take the working-class attitude towards 'education'.
How different it is from ours, and how immensely sounder! Working people
often have a vague reverence for learning in others, but where 'education'
touches their own lives they see through it and reject it by a healthy
instinct. The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures
of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work
at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a 'job' should
descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one
working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will
leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on
ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the
notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely
contemptible and unmanly. The idea of a great big boy of eighteen, who
ought to be bringing a pound a week home to his parents, going to school in
a ridiculous uniform and even being caned for not doing his lessons! Just
fancy a working-class boy of eighteen allowing himself to be caned! He is a
man when the other is still a baby. Ernest Pontifex, in Samuel Butler's Way
of All Flesh, after he had had a few glimpses of real life, looked back on
his public school and university education and found it a 'sickly,
debilitating debauch'. There is much in middle-class life that looks sickly
and debilitating when you see it from a working-class angle.

In a working-class home--I am not thinking at the moment of the
unemployed, but of comparatively prosperous homes--you breathe a warm,
decent, deeply human atmosphere which it is not so easy to find elsewhere.
I should say that a manual worker, if he is in steady work and drawing good
wages--an 'if which gets bigger and bigger--has a better chance of
being happy than an 'educated' man. His home life seems to fall more
naturally into a sane and comely shape. I have often been struck by the
peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working-
class interior at its best. Especially on winter evenings after tea, when
the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender,
when Father, in shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the
fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her
sewing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the
dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat--it is a good place to be in,
provided that you can be not only in it but sufficiently of it to be taken
for granted.

This scene is still reduplicated in a majority of English homes,
though not in so many as before the war. Its happiness depends mainly upon
one question--whether Father is in work. But notice that the picture I
have called up, of a working-class family sitting round the coal fire after
kippers and strong tea, belongs only to our own moment of time and could
not belong either to the future or the past. Skip forward two hundred years
into the Utopian future, and the scene is totally different. Hardly one of
the things I have imagined will still be there. In that age when there is
no manual labour and everyone is 'educated', it is hardly likely that
Father will still be a rough man with enlarged hands who likes to sit in
shirt-sleeves and says 'Ah wur coomin' oop street'. And there won't be a
coal fire in the grate, only some kind of invisible heater. The furniture
will be made of rubber, glass, and steel. If there are still such things as
evening papers there will certainly be no racing news in them, for gambling
will be meaningless in a world where there is no poverty and the horse will
have vanished from the face of the earth. Dogs, too, will have been sup-
pressed on grounds of hygiene. And there won't be so many children, either,
if the birth-controllers have their way. But move backwards into the Middle
Ages and you are in a world almost equally foreign. A windowless hut, a
wood fire which smokes in your face because there is no chimney, mouldy
bread, 'Poor John', lice, scurvy, a yearly child-birth and a yearly child-
death, and the priest terrifying you with tales of Hell.

Curiously enough it is not the triumphs of modem engineering, nor the
radio, nor the cinematograph, nor the five thousand novels which are
published yearly, nor the crowds at Ascot and the Eton and Harrow match,
but the memory of working-class interiors--especially as I sometimes saw
them in my childhood before the war, when England was still prosperous--
that reminds me that our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in.

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