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George Orwell > The Road to Wigan Pier > Chapter 9

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 9

When I was fourteen or fifteen I was an odious little snob, but no worse
than other boys of my own age and class. I suppose there is no place in the
world where snobbery is quite so ever-present or where it is cultivated in
such refined and subtle forms as in an English public school. Here at least
one cannot say that English 'education' fails to do its job. You forget
your Latin and Greek within a few months of leaving school--I studied
Greek for eight or ten years, and now, at thirty-three, I cannot even
repeat the Greek alphabet--but your snobbishness, unless you persistently
root it out like the bindweed it is, sticks by you till your grave.

At school I was in a difficult position, for I was among boys who, for
the most part, were much richer than myself, and I only went to an
expensive public school because I happened to win a scholarship. This is
the common experience of boys of the lower-upper-middle class, the sons of
clergymen, Anglo-Indian officials, etc., and the effects it had on me were
probably the usual ones. On the one hand it made me cling tighter than ever
to my gentility; on the other hand it filled me with resentment against the
boys whose parents were richer than mine and who took care to let me know
it. I despised anyone who was not describable as a 'gentleman', but also I
hated the hoggishly rich, especially those who had grown rich too recently.
The correct and elegant thing, I felt, was to be of gentle birth but to
have no money. This is part of the credo of the lower-upper-middle class.
It has a romantic, Jacobite-in-exile feeling about it which is very

But those years, during and just after the war, were a queer time to
be at school, for England was nearer revolution than she has been since or
had been for a century earlier. Throughout almost the whole nation there
was running a wave of revolutionary feeling which has since been reversed
and forgotten, but which has left various deposits of sediment behind.
Essentially, though of course one could not then see it in perspective, it
was a revolt of youth against age, resulting directly from the war. In the
war the young had been sacrificed and the old had behaved in a way which,
even at this distance of time, is horrible to contemplate; they had been
sternly patriotic in safe places while their sons went down like swathes of
hay before the German machine guns. Moreover, the war had been conducted
mainly by old men and had been conducted with supreme incompetence. By 1918
everyone under forty was in a bad temper with his elders, and the mood of
anti-militarism which followed naturally upon the fighting was extended
into a general revolt against orthodoxy and authority. At that time there
was, among the young, a curious cult of hatred of 'old men'. The dominance
of 'old men' was held to be responsible for every evil known to humanity,
and every accepted institution from Scott's novels to the House of Lords
was derided merely because 'old men' were in favour of it. For several
years it was all the fashion to be a 'Bolshie', as people then called it.
England was full of half-baked antinomian opinions. Pacifism,
internationalism, humanitarianism of all kinds, feminism, free love,
divorce-reform, atheism, birth-control--things like these were getting a
better hearing than they would get in normal times. And of course the
revolutionary mood extended to those who had been too young to fight, even
to public schoolboys. At that time we all thought of ourselves as
enlightened creatures of a new age, casting off the orthodoxy that had been
forced upon us by those detested 'old men'. We retained, basically, the
snobbish outlook of our class, we took it for granted that we could
continue to draw our dividends or tumble into soft jobs, but also it seemed
natural to us to be 'agin the Government'.

We derided the O.T.C., the Christian religion, and perhaps even
compulsory games and the Royal Family, and we did not realize that we were
merely taking part in a world-wide gesture of distaste for war. Two
incidents stick in my mind as examples of the queer revolutionary feeling
of that time. One day the master who taught us English set us a kind of
general knowledge paper of which one of the questions was, 'Whom do you
consider the ten greatest men now living?' Of sixteen boys in the class
(our average age was about seventeen) fifteen included Lenin in their list.
This was at a snobbish expensive public school, and the date was 1920, when
the horrors of the Russian Revolution was still fresh in everyone's mind.
Also there were the so-called peace celebrations in 1919. Our elders had
decided for us that we should celebrate peace in the traditional manner by
whooping over the fallen foe. We were to march into the school-yard,
carrying torches, and sing jingo songs of the type of 'Rule Britannia'. The
boys--to their honour, I think--guyed the whole proceeding and sang
blasphemous and seditious words to the tunes provided. I doubt whether
things would happen in quite that manner now. Certainly the public
schoolboys I meet nowadays, even the intelligent ones, are much more right-
wing in their opinions than I and my contemporaries were fifteen years ago.

Hence, at the age of seventeen or eighteen, I was both a snob and a
revolutionary. I was against all authority. I had read and re-read the
entire published works of Shaw, Wells, and Galsworthy (at that time still
regarded as dangerously 'advanced' writers), and I loosely described myself
as a Socialist. But I had not much grasp of what Socialism meant, and no
notion that the working class were human beings. At a distance, and through
the medium of books--Jack London's The People of the Abyss, for instance
--I could agonize over their sufferings, but I still hated them and
despised them when I came anywhere near them. I was still revolted by their
accents and infuriated by their habitual rudeness. One must remember that
just then, immediately after the war, the English working class were in a
fighting mood. That was the period of the great coal strikes, when a miner
was thought of as a fiend incarnate and old ladies looked under their beds
every night lest Robert Smillie should be concealed there. All through the
war and for a little time afterwards there had been high wages and abundant
employment; things were now returning to something worse than normal, and
naturally the working class resisted. The men who had fought had been lured
into the army by gaudy promises, and now they were coming home to a world
where there were no jobs and not even any houses. Moreover, they had been
at war and were coming home with the soldier's attitude to life, which is
fundamentally, in spite of discipline, a lawless attitude. There was a
turbulent feeling in the air. To that time belongs the song with the
memorable refrain:

There's nothing sure but
The rich get richer and the poor get children;
In the mean time,
In between time,
Ain't we got fun?

People had not yet settled down to a lifetime of unemployment
mitigated by endless cups of tea. They still vaguely expected the Utopia
for which they had fought, and even more than before they were openly
hostile to the aitch-pronouncing class. So to the shock-absorbers of the
bourgeoisie, such as myself, 'common people' still appeared brutal and
repulsive. Looking back upon that period, I seem to have spent half the
time in denouncing the capitalist system and the other half in raging over
the insolence of bus-conductors.

When I was not yet twenty I went to Burma, in the Indian Imperial
Police. In an 'outpost of Empire' like Burma the class-question appeared at
first sight to have been shelved. There was no obvious class-friction here,
because the all-important thing was not whether you had been to one of the
right schools but whether your skin was technically white. As a matter of
fact most of the white men in Burma were not of the type who in England
would be called 'gentlemen', but except for the common soldiers and a few
nondescripts they lived lives appropriate to 'gentlemen'--had servants,
that is, and called their evening meal 'dinner'--and officially they were
regarded as being all of the same class. They were 'white men', in
contradistinction to the other and inferior class, the 'natives'. But one
did not feel towards the 'natives' as one felt to-wards the 'lower classes'
at home. The essential point was that the 'natives', at any rate the
Burmese, were not felt to be physically repulsive. One looked down on them
as 'natives', but one was quite ready to be physically intimate with them;
and this, I noticed, was the case even with white men who had the most
vicious colour prejudice. When you have a lot of servants you soon get into
lazy habits, and I habitually allowed myself, for instance, to be dressed
and undressed by my Burmese boy. This was because he was a Burman and
undisgusting; I could not have endured to let an English manservant handle
me in that intimate manner. I felt towards a Burman almost as I felt
towards a woman. Like most other races, the Burmese have a distinctive
smell--I cannot describe it: it is a smell that makes one's teeth tingle
--but this smell never disgusted me. (Incidentally, Orientals say that we
smell. The Chinese, I believe, say that a white man smells like a corpse.
The Burmese say the same--though no Burman was ever rude enough to say so
to me.) And in a way my attitude was defensible, for if one faces the fact
one must admit that most Mongolians have much nicer bodies than most white
men. Compare the firm-knit silken skin of the Burman, which does not
wrinkle at all till he is past forty, and then merely withers up like a
piece of dry leather, with the coarse-grained, flabby, sagging skin of the
white man. The white man has lank ugly hair growing down his legs and the
backs of his arms and in an ugly patch on his chest. The Burman has only a
tuft or two of stiff black hair at the appropriate places; for the rest he
is quite hairless and is usually beardless as well. The white man almost
always goes bald, the Burman seldom or never. The Burman's teeth are
perfect, though generally discoloured by betel juice, the white man's teeth
invariably decay. The white man is generally ill-shaped, and when he grows
fat he bulges in improbable places; the Mongol has beautiful bones and in
old age he is almost as shapely as in youth. Admittedly the white races
throw up a few individuals who for a few years are supremely beautiful; but
on the whole, say what you will, they are far less comely than Orientals.
But it was not of this that I was thinking when I found the English 'lower
classes' so much more repellant than Burmese 'natives'. I was still
thinking in terms of my early-acquired class-prejudice. When I was not much
past twenty I was attached for a short time to a British regiment. Of
course I admired and liked the private soldiers as any youth of twenty
would admire and like hefty, cheery youths five years older than himself
with the medals of the Great War on their chests. And yet, after all, they
faintly repelled me; they were 'common people' and I did not care to be too
close to them. In the hot mornings when the company marched down the road,
myself in the rear with one of the junior subalterns, the steam of those
hundred sweating bodies in front made my stomach turn. And this, you
observe, was pure prejudice. For a soldier is probably as inoffensive,
physically, as it is possible for a male white person to be. He is
generally young, he is nearly always healthy from fresh air and exercise,
and a rigorous discipline compels him to be clean. But I could not see it
like that. All I knew was that it was lower-class sweat that I was
smelling, and the thought of it made me sick.

When later on I got rid of my class-prejudice, or part of it, it was
in a roundabout way and by a process that took several years. The thing
that changed my attitude to the class-issue was something only indirectly
connected with it--something almost irrelevant.

I was in the Indian Police five years, and by the end of that time I
hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably
cannot make clear. In the free air of England that kind of thing is not
fully intelligible. In order to hate imperialism you have got to be part of
it. Seen from the outside the British rule in India appears--indeed, it
is--benevolent and even necessary; and so no doubt are the French rule in
Morocco and the Dutch rule in Borneo, for people usually govern foreigners
better than they govern themselves. But it is not possible to be a part of
such a system without recognizing it as an unjustifiable tyranny. Even the
thickest-skinned Anglo-Indian is aware of this. Every 'native' face he sees
in the street brings home to him his monstrous intrusion. And the majority
of Anglo-Indians, intermittently at least, are not nearly so complacent
about their position as people in England believe. From the most unexpected
people, from gin-pickled old scoundrels high up in the Government service,
I have heard some such remark as: 'Of course we've no right in this blasted
country at all. Only now we're here for God's sake let's stay here.' The
truth is that no modem man, in his heart of hearts, believes that it is
right to invade a foreign country and hold the population down by force.
Foreign oppression is a much more obvious, understandable evil than
economic oppression. Thus in England we tamely admit to being robbed in
order to keep half a million worthless idlers in luxury, but we would fight
to the last man sooner than be rilled by Chinamen; similarly, people who
live on unearned dividends without a single qualm of conscience, see
clearly enough that it is wrong to go and lord it in a foreign country
where you are not wanted. The result is that every Anglo-Indian is haunted
by a sense of guilt which he usually conceals as best he can, because there
is no freedom of speech, and merely to be overheard making a seditious
remark may damage his career. All over India there are Englishmen who
secretly loathe the system of which they are part; and just occasionally,
when they are quite certain of being in the right company, their hidden
bitterness overflows. I remember a night I spent on the train with a man in
the Educational Service, a stranger to myself whose name I never
discovered. It was too hot to sleep and we spent the night in talking. Half
an hour's cautious questioning decided each of us that the other was
'safe'; and then for hours, while the train jolted slowly through the
pitch-black night, sitting up in our bunks with bottles of beer handy, we
damned the British Empire--damned it from the inside, intelligently and
intimately. It did us both good. But we had been speaking forbidden things,
and in the haggard morning light when the train crawled into Mandalay, we
parted as guiltily as any adulterous couple.

So far as my observation goes nearly all Anglo-Indian officials have
moments when their conscience troubles them. The exceptions are men who are
doing something which is demonstrably useful and would still have to be
done whether the British were in India or not: forest officers, for
instance, and doctors and engineers. But I was in the police, which is to
say that I was part of the actual machinery of despotism. Moreover, in the
police you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters, and there is an
appreciable difference between doing dirty work and merely profiting by it.
Most people approve of capital punishment, but most people wouldn't do the
hangman's job. Even the other Europeans in Burma slightly looked down on
the police because of the brutal work they had to do. I remember once when
I was inspecting a police station, an American missionary whom I knew
fairly well came in for some purpose or other. Like most Nonconformist
missionaries he was a complete ass but quite a good fellow. One of my
native sub-inspectors was bullying a suspect (I described this scene in
Burmese Days). The American watched it, and then turning to me said
thoughtfully, 'I wouldn't care to have your job.' It made me horribly
ashamed. So that was the kind of job I had! Even an ass of an American
missionary, a teetotal cock-virgin from the Middle West, had the right to
look down on me and pity me! But I should have felt the same shame even if
there had been no one to bring it home to me. I had begun to have an
indescribable loathing of the whole machinery of so-called justice. Say
what you will, pur criminal law (far more humane, by the way, in India than
in England) is a horrible thing. It needs very insensitive people to
administer it. The wretched prisoners squatting in the reeking cages of the
lock-ups, the grey cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred
buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos, the women and
children howling when their menfolk were led away under arrest--things
like these are beyond bearing when you are in any way directly responsible
for them. I watched a man hanged once; it seemed to me worse than a
thousand murders. I never went into a jail without feeling (most visitors
to jails feel the same) that my place was on the other side of the bars. I
thought then--I think now, for that matter--that the worst criminal who
ever walked is morally superior to a hanging judge. But of course I had to
keep these notions to myself, because of the almost utter silence that is
imposed on every Englishman in the East. In the end I worked out an
anarchistic theory that all government is evil, that the punishment always
does more harm than the crime and that people can be trusted to behave
decently if only you will let them alone. This of course was sentimental
nonsense. I see now as I did not see then, that it is always necessary to
protect peaceful people from violence. In any state of society where crime
can be profitable you have got to have a harsh criminal law and administer
it ruthlessly; the alternative is Al Capone. But the feeling that
punishment is evil arises inescapably in those who have to administer it. I
should expect to find that even in England many policemen, judges, prison
warders, and the like are haunted by a secret horror of what they do. But
in Burma it was a double oppression that we were committing. Not only were
we hanging people and putting them in jail and so forth; we were doing it
in the capacity of unwanted foreign invaders. The Burmese themselves never
really recognized our jurisdiction. The thief whom we put in prison did not
think of himself as a criminal justly punished, he thought of himself as
the victim of a foreign conqueror. The thing that was done to him was
merely a wanton meaningless cruelty. His face, behind the stout teak bars
of the lock-up and the iron bars of the jail, said so clearly. And
unfortunately I had not trained myself to be indifferent to the expression
of the human face.

When I came home on leave in 1927 I was already half determined to
throw up my job, and one sniff of English air decided me. I was not going
back to be a part of that evil despotism. But I wanted much more than
merely to escape from my job. For five years I had been part of an
oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable
remembered faces--faces of prisoners in the dock, of men waiting in the
condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had
snubbed, of servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moments of rage
(nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally:
Orientals can be very provoking)--haunted me intolerably. I was conscious
of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that
sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly
disapprove of, you will probably feel the same. I had reduced everything to
the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors
are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of
the oppressors yourself. I felt that I had got to escape not merely from
imperialism but from every form of man's dominion over man. I wanted to
submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them
and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to.
think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to
extraordinary lengths. At that time failure seemed to me to be the only
virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to 'succeed' in life to
the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly,
a species of bullying.

It was in this way that my thoughts turned towards the English working
class. It was the first time that I had ever been really aware of the
working class, and to begin with it was only because they supplied an
analogy. They were the symbolic victims of injustice, playing the same part
in England as the Burmese played in Burma. In Burma the issue had been
quite simple. The whites were up and the blacks were down, and therefore as
a matter of course one's sympathy was with the blacks. I now realized that
there was no need to go as far as Burma to find tyranny and exploitation.
Here in England, down under one's feet, were the submerged working class,
suffering miseries which in their different way were as bad as any an
Oriental ever knows. The word 'unemployment' was on everyone's lips. That
was more or less new to me, after Burma, but the driyel which the middle
classes were still talking ('These unemployed are all unemployables', etc.,
etc.) failed to deceive me. I often wonder whether that kind of stuff
deceives even the fools who utter it. On the other hand I had at that time
no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory. It seemed to me then
--it sometimes seems to me now, for that matter--that economic injustice
will stop the moment we want it to stop, and no sooner, and if we genuinely
want it to stop the method adopted hardly matters.

But I knew nothing about working-class conditions. I had read the
unemployment figures but I had no notion of what they implied; above all, I
did not know the essential fact that 'respectable' poverty is always the
worst. The frightful doom of a decent working man suddenly thrown on the
streets after a lifetime of steady work, his agonized struggles against
economic laws which he does not under-stand, the disintegration of
families, the corroding sense of shame--all this was outside the range of
my experience. When I thought of poverty I thought of it in terms of brute
starvation. Therefore my mind turned immediately towards the extreme cases,
the social outcasts: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes. These were
'the lowest of the low', and these were the people with whom I wanted to
get in contact. What I profoundly wanted, at that time, was to find some
way of getting out of the respectable world altogether. I meditated upon it
a great deal, I even planned parts of it in detail; how one could sell
everything, give everything away, change one's name and start out with no
money and nothing but the clothes one stood up in. But in real life nobody
ever does that kind of thing; apart from the relatives and friends who have
to be considered, it is doubtful whether an educated man could do it if
there were any other course open to him. But at least I could go among
these people, see what their lives were like and feel myself temporarily
part of their world. Once I had been among them and accepted by them, I
should have touched bottom, and--this is what I felt: I was aware even
then that it was irrational--part of my guilt would drop from me.

I thought it over and decided what I would do. I would go suitably
disguised to Limehouse and Whitechapel and such places and sleep in common
lodging-houses and pal up with dock labourers, street hawkers, derelict
people, beggars, and, if possible, criminals. And I would find out about
tramps and how you got in touch with them and what was the proper procedure
for entering the casual ward; and then, when I felt that I knew the ropes
well enough, I would go on the road myself.

At the start it was not easy. It meant masquerading and I have no
talent for acting. I cannot, for instance, disguise my accent, at any rate
not for more than a very few minutes. I imagined--notice the frightful
class-conscious-ness of the Englishman--that I should be spotted as a
'gentleman' the moment I opened my mouth; so I had a hard luck story ready
in case I should be questioned, I got hold of the right kind of clothes and
dirtied them in appropriate places. I am a difficult person to disguise,
being abnormally tall, but I did at least know what a tramp looks like.
(How few people do know this, by the way! Look at any picture of a tramp in
Punch. They are always twenty years out of date.) One evening, having made
ready at a friend's house, I set out and wandered eastward till I landed up
at a common lodging-house in Limehouse Cause-way. It was a dark, dirty-
looking place. I knew it was a common lodging-house by the sign 'Good Beds
for Single Men' in the window. Heavens, how I had to screw up my courage
before I went in! It seems ridiculous now. But you see I was still half
afraid of the working class. I wanted to get in touch with them, I even
wanted to become one of them, but I still thought of them as alien and
dangerous; going into the dark doorway of that common lodging-house seemed
to me like going down into some dreadful subterranean place--a sewer full
of rats, for instance. I went in fully expecting a fight. The people would
spot that I was not one of themselves and immediately infer that I had come
to spy on them; and then they would set upon me and throw me out--that
was what I expected. I felt that I had got to do it, but I did not enjoy
the prospect.

Inside the door a man in shirt-sleeves appeared from somewhere or
other. This was the 'deputy', and I told him that I wanted a bed for the
night. My accent did not make him stare, I noticed; he merely demanded
ninepence and then showed me the way to a frowsy firelit kitchen
underground. There were stevedores and navvies and a few sailors sitting
about and playing draughts and drinking tea. They barely glanced at me as I
entered. But this was Saturday night and a hefty young stevedore was drunk
and was reeling about the room. He turned, saw me, and lurched towards me
with broad red face thrust out and a dangerous-looking fishy gleam in his
eyes. I stiffened myself. So the fight was coming already! The next moment
the stevedore collapsed on my chest and flung his arms round my neck. ''Ave
a cup of tea, chum!' he cried tear-fully; ''ave a cup of tea!'

I had a cup of tea. It was a kind of baptism. After that my fears
vanished. Nobody questioned me, nobody showed offensive curiosity;
everybody was polite and gentle and took me utterly for granted. I stayed
two or three days in that common lodging-house, and a few weeks later,
having picked up a certain amount of information about the habits of
destitute people, I went on the road for the first time.

I have described all this in Down and Out in Paris and London (nearly
all the incidents described there actually happened, though they have been
rearranged) and I do not want to repeat it. Later I went on the road for
much longer periods, sometimes from choice, sometimes from necessity. I
have lived in common lodging-houses for months together. But it is that
first expedition that sticks most vividly in my mind, because of the
strangeness of it--the strangeness of being at last down there among 'the
lowest of the low', and on terms of utter equality with working-class
people. A tramp, it is true, is not a typical working-class person; still,
when you are among tramps you are at any rate merged in one section--one
sub-caste--of the working class, a thing which so far as I know can
happen to you in no other way. For several days I wandered through the
northern outskirts of London with an Irish tramp. I was his mate,
temporarily. We shared the same cell at night, and he told me the history
of his life and I told him a fictitious history of mine, and we took it in
turns to beg at likely-looking houses and divided up the proceeds. I was
very happy. Here I was; among 'the lowest of the low', at the bedrock of
the Western world! The class-bar was down, or seemed to be down. And down
there in the squalid and, as a matter of fact, horribly boring sub-world of
the tramp I had a feeling of release, of adventure, which seems absurd when
I look back, but which was sufficiently vivid at the time.

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