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George Orwell > The Road to Wigan Pier > Chapter 8

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 8

The road from Mandalay to Wigan is a long one and the reasons for taking it
are not immediately clear.

In the earlier chapters of this book I have given a rather fragmentary
account of various things I saw in the coal areas of Lancashire and
Yorkshire. I went there partly because I wanted to see what mass-
unemployment is like at its worst, partly in order to see the most typical
section of the English working class at close quarters. This was necessary
to me as part of my approach to Socialism, for before you can be sure
whether you are genuinely in favour of Socialism, you have got to decide
whether things at present are tolerable or not tolerable, and you have got
to take up a definite attitude on the terribly difficult issue of class.
Here I shall have to digress and explain how my own attitude towards the
class question was developed. Obviously this involves writing a certain
amount of autobiography, and I would not do it if I did not think that I am
sufficiently typical of my class, or rather sub-caste, to have a certain
symptomatic importance.

I was born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle
class. The upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the eighties and
nineties, with Kipling as its poet laureate, was a sort of mound of
wreckage left behind when the tide of Victorian prosperity receded. Or
perhaps it would be better to change the metaphor and describe it not as a
mound but as a layer--the layer of society lying between L2000 and L300 a
year: my own family was not far from the bottom. You notice that I define
it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making
yourself understood. Nevertheless, the essential point about the English
class-system is that it is not entirely explicable in terms of money.
Roughly speaking it is a money-stratification, but it is also
interpenetrated by a sort of shadowy caste-system; rather like a jerrybuilt
modem bungalow haunted by medieval ghosts. Hence the fact that the upper-
middle class extends or extended to incomes as low as L300 a year--to
incomes, that is, much lower than those of merely middle-class people with
no social pretensions. Probably there are countries where you can predict a
man's opinions from his income, but it is never quite safe to do so in
England; you have always got to take his traditions into consideration as
well. A naval officer and his grocer very likely have the same income, but
they are not equivalent persons and they would only be on the same side in
very large issues such as a war or a general strike--possibly not even

Of course it is obvious now that the upper-middle class is done for.
In every country town in Southern England, not to mention the dreary wastes
of Kensington and Earl's Court, those who knew it in the days of its glory
are dying, vaguely embittered by a world which has not behaved as it ought.
I never open one of Kipling's books or go into one of the huge dull shops
which were once the favourite haunt of the upper-middle class, without
thinking 'Change and decay in all around I see'. But before the war the
upper-middle class, though already none too prosperous, still felt sure of
itself. Before the war you were either a gentleman or not a gentleman, and
if you were a gentleman you struggled to behave as such, whatever your
income might be. Between those with L400 a year and those with L2000 or
even L1000 a year there was a great gulf fixed, but it was a gulf which
those with L400 a year did their best to ignore. Probably the
distinguishing mark of the upper-middle class was that its traditions were
not to any extent commercial, but mainly military, official, and

People in this class owned no land, but they felt that they were
landowners in the sight of God and kept up a semi-aristocratic outlook by
going into the professions and the fighting services rather than into
trade. Small boys used to count the plum stones on their plates and
foretell their destiny by chanting, 'Army, Navy, Church, Medicine, Law';
and even of these 'Medicine' was faintly inferior to the others and only
put in for the sake of symmetry. To belong to this class when you were at
the L400 a year level was a queer business, for it meant that your
gentility was almost purely theoretical. You lived, so to speak, at two
levels simultaneously. Theoretically you knew all about servants and how to
tip them, although in practice you had one, at most, two resident servants.
Theoretically you knew how to wear your clothes and how to order a dinner,
although in practice you could never afford to go to a decent tailor or a
decent restaurant. Theoretically you knew how to shoot and ride, although
in practice you had no horses to ride and not an inch of ground to shoot
over. It was this that explained the attraction of India (more recently
Kenya, Nigeria, etc.) for the lower-upper-middle class. The people who went
there as soldiers and officials did not go there to make money, for a
soldier or an official does not want money; they went there because in
India, with cheap horses, free shooting, and hordes of black servants, it
was so easy to play at being a gentleman.

In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is
far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above
the level of the dole. Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending
nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable
extravagance. Practically the whole family income goes in keeping up
appearances. It is obvious that people of this kind are in an anomalous
position, and one might 'be tempted to write them off as mere exceptions
and therefore unimportant. Actually, however, they are or were fairly
numerous. Most clergymen and schoolmasters, for instance, nearly all Anglo-
Indian officials, a sprinkling of soldiers and sailors, and a fair number
of professional men and artists, fall into this category. But the real
importance of this class is that they are the shock-absorbers of the
bourgeoisie. The real bourgeoisie, those in the L2000 a year class and
over, have their money as a thick layer of padding between themselves and
the class they plunder; in so far as they are aware of the Lower Orders at
all they are aware of them as employees, servants, and tradesmen. But it is
quite different for the poor devils lower down who are struggling to live
genteel lives on what are virtually working-class incomes. These last are
forced into close and, in a sense, intimate contact with the working class,
and I suspect it is from them that the traditional upper-class attitude
towards 'common' people is derived.

And what is this attitude? An attitude of sniggering superiority
punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred. Look at any number of Punch during
the. past thirty years. You will find it everywhere taken for granted that
a working-class person, as such, is a figure of fun, except at odd moments
when he shows signs of being too prosperous, whereupon he ceases to be a
figure of fun and becomes a demon. It is no use wasting breath in
denouncing this attitude. It is better to consider how it has arisen, and
to do that one has got to realize what the working classes look like to
those who live among them but have different habits and traditions.

A shabby genteel family is in much the same position as a family of
'poor whites' living in a street where everyone else is a Negro. In such
circumstances you have got to cling to your gentility because it is the
only thing you have; and meanwhile you are hated for your stuck-up-ness and
for the accent and manners which stamp you as one of the boss class. I was
very young, not much more than six, when I first became aware of class-
distinctions. Before that age my chief heroes had generally been working-
class people, because they always seemed to do such interesting things,
such as being fishermen and blacksmiths and bricklayers. I remember the
farm hands on a farm in Cornwall who used to let me ride on the drill when
they were sowing turnips and would sometimes catch the ewes and milk them
to give me a drink; and the workmen building the new house next door, who
let me play with the wet mortar and from whom I first learned the word
'b----'; and the plumber up the road with whose children I used to go out
bird-nesting. But it was not long before I was forbidden to play with the
plumber's children; they were 'common' and I was told to keep away from
them. This was snobbish, if you like, but it was also necessary, for
middle-class people can-not afford to let their children grow up with
vulgar accents. So, very early, the working class ceased to be a race of
friendly and wonderful beings and became a race of enemies. We realized
that they hated us, but we could never understand why, and naturally we set
it down to pure, vicious malignity. To me in my early boyhood, to nearly
all children of families like mine, 'common' people seemed almost sub-
human. They had coarse faces, hideous accents, and gross manners, they
hated everyone who was not like themselves, and if they got half a chance
they would insult you in brutal ways. That was our view of them, and though
it was false it was understandable. For one must remember that before the
war there was much more overt class-hatred in England than there is now. In
those days you were quite likely to be insulted simply for looking like a
member of the upper classes; nowadays, on the other hand, you are more
likely to be fawned upon. Anyone over thirty can remember the time when it
was impossible for a well-dressed person to walk through a slum street
without being hooted at. Whole quarters of big towns were considered unsafe
because of' hooligans' (now almost an extinct type), and the London gutter-
boy everywhere, with his loud voice and lack of intellectual scruples,
could make life a misery for people who considered it beneath their dignity
to answer back. A recurrent terror of my holidays, when I was a small boy,
was the gangs of' cads' who were liable to set upon you five or ten to one.
In term time, on the other hand, it was we who were in the majority and the
'cads' who were oppressed; I remember a couple of savage mass-battles in
the cold winter of 1916-17. And this tradition of open hostility between
upper and lower class had apparently been the same for at least a century
past. A typical joke in Punch in the sixties is a picture of a small,
nervous-looking gentleman riding through a slum street and a crowd of
street-boys closing in on him with shouts ''Ere comes a swell! Let's
frighten 'is 'oss!' Just fancy the street boys trying to frighten his horse
now! They would be much likelier to hang round him in vague hopes of a tip.
During the past dozen years the English working class have grown servile
with a rather horrifying rapidity. It was bound to happen, for the
frightful weapon of unemployment has cowed them. Before the war their
economic position was comparatively strong, for though there was no dole to
fall back upon, there was not much unemployment, and the power of the boss
class was not so obvious as it is now. A man did not see ruin staring him
in the face every time he cheeked a 'toff', and naturally he did cheek a
'toff' whenever it seemed safe to do so. G. J. Renier, in his book on Oscar
Wilde, points out that the strange, obscene burst of popular fury which
followed the Wilde trial was essentially social in character. The 'London
mob had caught a member of the upper classes on the hop, and they took care
to keep him hopping. All this was natural and even proper. If you treat
people as the English working class have been treated during the past two
centuries, you must expect them to resent it. On the other hand the
children of shabby-genteel families could not be blamed if they grew up
with a hatred of the working class, typified for them by prowling gangs of

But there was another and more serious difficulty. Here you come to
the real secret of class distinctions in the West--the real reason why a
European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist,
cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is
summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of
uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The
words were: The lower classes smell.

That was what we were taught--the lower classes smell. And here,
obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or
dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling. Race-hatred,
religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect,
even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion
can-not. You can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you
cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks--habitually
stinks, I mean. However well you may wish him, however much you may admire
his mind and character, if his breath stinks he is horrible and in your
heart of hearts you will hate him. It may not greatly matter if the average
middle-class person is brought up to believe that the working classes are
ignorant, lazy, drunken, boorish, and dishonest; it is when he is brought
up to believe that they are dirty that the harm is done. And in my
childhood we were brought up to believe that they were dirty. Very early in
life you acquired the idea that there was something subtly repulsive about
a working-class body; you would not get nearer to it than you could help.
You watched a great sweaty navvy walking down the road with his pick over
his shoulder; you looked at his discoloured shirt and his corduroy trousers
stiff with the dirt of a decade; you thought of those nests and layers of
greasy rags below, and, under all, the unwashed body, brown all over (that
was how I used to imagine it), with its strong, bacon-like reek. You
watched a tramp taking off his boots in a ditch--ugh! It did not
seriously occur to you that the tramp might not enjoy having black feet.
And even 'lower-class' people whom you knew to be quite clean--servants,
for instance--were faintly unappetizing. The smell of their sweat, the
very texture of their skins, were mysteriously different from yours.

Everyone who has grown up pronouncing his aitches and in a house with
a bathroom and one servant is likely to have grown up with these feelings;
hence the chasmic, impassable quality of class-distinctions in the West. It
is queer how seldom this is admitted. At the moment I can think of only one
book where it is set forth without humbug, and that is Mr Somerset
Maugham's On a Chinese Screen. Mr Maugham describes a high Chinese official
arriving at a wayside inn and blustering and calling everybody names in
order to impress upon them that he is a supreme dignitary and they are only
worms. Five minutes later, having asserted his dignity in the way he thinks
proper, he is eating his dinner in perfect amity with the baggage coolies.
As an official he feels that he has got to make his presence felt, but he
has no feeling that the coolies are of different clay from himself. I have
observed countless similar scenes in Burma. Among Mongolians--among all
Asiatics, for all I know--there is a sort of natural equality, an easy
intimacy between man and man, which is simply unthinkable in the West. Mr
Maugham adds:

In the West we are divided from our fellows by our sense of smell.
The working man is our master, inclined to rule us with an iron hand, but
it cannot be denied that he stinks: none can wonder at it, for a bath in
the dawn when you have to hurry to your work before the factory bell rings
is no pleasant thing, nor 'does heavy labour tend to sweetness; and you do
not change your linen more than you can help when the week's washing must
be done by a sharp-tongued wife. I do not blame the working man because he
stinks, but stink he does. It makes social intercourse difficult to persons
of sensitive nostril. The matutinal tub divides the classes more
effectually than birth, wealth, or education.

Meanwhile, do the 'lower classes' smell? Of course, as a whole, they
are dirtier than the upper classes. They are bound to be, considering the
circumstances in which they live, for even at this late date less than half
the houses in England have bathrooms. Besides, the habit of washing
yourself all over every day is a very recent one in Europe, and the working
classes are generally more conservative than the bourgeoisie. But the
English are growing visibly cleaner, and we may hope that in a hundred
years they will be almost as clean as the Japanese. It is a pity that those
who idealize the working class so often think it necessary to praise every
working-class characteristic and therefore to pretend that dirtiness is
somehow meritorious in itself. Here, curiously enough, the Socialist and
the sentimental democratic Catholic of the type of Chesterton sometimes
join hands; both will tell you that dirtiness is healthy and 'natural' and
cleanliness is a mere fad or at best a luxury.[According to Chesterton,
dirtiness is merely a kind of 'discomfort' and therefore ranks as
self-mortification. Unfortunately, the discomfort of dirtiness is chiefly
suffered by other people. It is not really very uncomfortable to be
dirty--not nearly so uncomfortable as having a cold bath on a winter
morning.] They seem not to see that they are merely giving colour
to the notion that working-class people are dirty from choice and
not from necessity. Actually, people who have access to a bath will
generally use it. But the essential thing is that middle-class people
believe that the working class are dirty--you see from the passage
quoted above that Mr Maugham himself believes it--and, what is
worse, that they are some-how inherently dirty. As a child, one of the most
dreadful things I could imagine was to drink out of a bottle after a navvy.
Once when I was thirteen, I was in a train coming from a market town, and
the third-class carriage was packed full of shepherds and pig-men who had
been selling their beasts. Somebody produced a quart bottle of beer and
passed it round; it travelled from mouth to mouth to mouth, everyone taking
a swig. I cannot describe the horror I felt as that bottle worked its way
towards me. If I drank from it after all those lower-class male mouths I
felt certain I should vomit; on the other hand, if they offered it to me I
dared not refuse for fear of offending them--you see here how the middle-
class squeamishness works both ways. Nowadays, thank God, I have no
feelings of that kind. A working man's body, as such, is no more repulsive
to me than a millionaire's. I still don't like drinking out of a cup or
bottle after another person--another man, I mean; with women I don't mind
--but at. least the question of class does not enter. It was rubbing
shoulders with the tramps that cured me of it. Tramps are not really very
dirty as English people go, but they have the name for being dirty, and
when you have shared a bed with a tramp and drunk tea out of the same
snufftin, you feel that you have seen the worst and the worst has no
terrors for you.

I have dwelt on these subjects because they are vitally important. To
get rid of class-distinctions you have got to start by understanding how
one class appears when seen through the eyes of another. It is useless to
say that the middle classes are 'snobbish' and leave it at that. You get no
further if you do not realize that snobbishness is bound up with a species
of idealism. It derives from the early training in which a middle-class
child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die
for his country, and to despise the 'lower classes'.

Here I shall be accused of being behind the times, for I was a child
before and during the war and it may be claimed that children nowadays are
brought up with more enlightened notions. It is probably true that class-
feeling is for the moment a very little less bitter than it was. The
working class are submissive where they used to be openly hostile, and the
post-war manufacture of cheap clothes and the general softening of manners
have toned down the surface differences between class and class. But
undoubtedly the essential feeling is still there. Every middle-class person
has a dormant class-prejudice which needs only a small thing to arouse it;
and if he is over forty he probably has a firm conviction that his own
class has been sacrificed to the class below. Suggest to the average
unthinking person of gentle birth who is struggling to keep up appearances
on four or five hundred a year that he is a member of an exploiting
parasite class, and he will think you are mad. In perfect sincerity he will
point out to you a dozen ways in which he is worse-off than a working man.
In his eyes the workers are not a submerged race of slaves, they are a
sinister flood creeping upwards to engulf himself and his friends and his
family and to sweep all culture and all decency out of existence. Hence
that queer watchful anxiety lest the working class shall grow too
prosperous. In a number of Punch soon after the war, when coal was still
fetching high prices, there is a picture of four or five miners with grim,
sinister faces riding in a cheap motor-car. A friend they are passing calls
out and asks them where they have borrowed it. They answer, 'We've bought
the thing!' This, you see, is 'good enough for Punch'; for miners to buy a
motor-car, even one car between four or five of them, is a monstrosity, a
sort of crime against nature. That was the attitude of a dozen years ago,
and I see no evidence of any fundamental change. The notion that the
working class have been absurdly pampered, hopelessly demoralized by doles,
old age pensions, free education, etc., is still widely held; it has merely
been a little shaken, perhaps, by the recent recognition that unemployment
does exist. For quantities of middle-class people, probably for a large
majority of those over fifty, the typical working man still rides to the
Labour Exchange on a motor-bike and keeps coal in his bath-tub: 'And, if
you'll believe it, my dear, they actually get married on. the dole!'

The reason why class-hatred seems to be diminishing is that nowadays
it tends not to get into print, partly owing to the mealy-mouthed habits of
our time, partly because newspapers and even books now have to appeal to a
working-class public. As a rule you can best study it in private
conversations. But if you want some printed examples, it is worth having a
look at the obiter dicta of the late Professor Saintsbury. Saintsbury was a
very learned man and along certain lines a judicious literary critic, but
when he talked of political or economic matters he only differed from the
rest of his class by the fact that he was too thick-skinned and had been
born too early to see any reason for pretending to common decency.
According to Saintsbury, unemployment insurance was simply 'contributing to
the support of lazy ne'er-do-weels', and the whole trade union movement was
no more than a kind of organized mendicancy:

'Pauper' is almost actionable now, is it not, when used as a word?
though to be paupers, in the sense of being wholly or partly supported at
the expense of other people, is the ardent, and to a considerable extent
achieved, aspiration of a large proportion of our population, and of an
entire political party.

(Second Scrap Book)

It is to be noticed, however, that Saintsbury recognizes that
unemployment is bound to exist, and, in fact, thinks that it ought
to-.exist, so long as the unemployed are made to suffer as much as

Is not 'casual' labour the very secret and safety-valve of a safe
and sound labour-system generally?

... In a complicated industrial and commercial state constant
employment at regular wages is impossible; while dole-supported
unemployment, at anything like the wages of employment, is demoralizing to
begin with and ruinous at its more or less quickly arriving end.

(Last Scrap Book)

What exactly is to happen to the 'casual labourers' when no casual
labour happens to be available is not made clear. Presumably (Saintsbury
speaks approvingly of 'good Poor Laws') they are to go into the work-house
or sleep in the streets. As to the notion that every human being ought as a
matter of course to have the chance of earning at least a tolerable
livelihood, Saintsbury dismisses it with contempt:

Even the 'right to live' ... extends no further than the right to
protection against murder. Charity certainly will, morality possibly may,
and public utility perhaps ought to add to this protection supererogatory
provision for continuance of life; but it is questionable whether strict
justice demands it.

As for the insane doctrine that being born in a country gives some
right to the possession of the soil of that country, it hardly requires

(Last Scrap Book)

It is worth reflecting for a moment upon the beautiful implications of
this last passage. The interest of passages like these (and they are
scattered all through Saintsbury's work) lies in their having been printed
at all. Most people are a little shy of putting that kind of thing on
paper. But what Saintsbury is saying here is what any little worm with a
fairly safe five hundred a year thinks, and therefore in a way one must
admire him for saying it. It takes a lot of guts to be openly such a skunk
as that.

This is the outlook of a confessed reactionary. But how about the
middle-class person whose views are not reactionary but 'advanced'? Beneath
his revolutionary mask, is he really so different from the other?

A middle-class person embraces Socialism and perhaps even joins the
Communist Party. How much real difference does it make? Obviously, living
within the framework of capitalist society, he has got to go on earning his
living, and one cannot blame him if he clings to his bourgeois economic
status. But is there any change in his tastes, his habits, his manners, his
imaginative background--his 'ideology', in Communist jargon? Is there any
change in him except that he now votes Labour, or, when possible, Communist
at the elections? It is noticeable that he still habitually associates with
his own class; he is vastly more at home with a member of his own class,
who thinks him a dangerous Bolshie, than with a member of the working class
who supposedly agrees with him; his tastes in food, wine, clothes, books,
pictures, music, ballet, are still recognizably bourgeois tastes; most
significant of all, he invariably marries into his own class. Look at any
bourgeois Socialist. Look at Comrade X, member of the C.P.G.B. and author
of Marxism for Infants. Comrade X, it so happens, is an old Etonian. He
would be ready to die on the barricades, in theory anyway, but you notice
that he still leaves his bottom waistcoat button undone. He idealizes the
proletariat, but it is remarkable how little his habits resemble theirs.
Perhaps once, out of sheer bravado, he has smoked a cigar with the band on,
but it would be almost physically impossible for him to put pieces of
cheese into his mouth on the point of his knife, or to sit indoors with his
cap on, or even to drink his tea out of the saucer. I have known numbers of
bourgeois Socialists, I have listened by the hour to their tirades against
their own class, and yet never, not even once, have I met one who had
picked up proletarian table-manners. Yet, after all, why not? Why should a
man who thinks all virtue resides in the proletariat still take such pains
to drink his soup silently? It can only be because in his heart he feels
that proletarian manners are disgusting. So you see he is still responding
to the training of his childhood, when he was taught to hate, fear, and
despise the working class.

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