‘The road from Mandalay to Wigan is a long one and the reasons for taking it are not immediately clear.’ – George Orwell, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.
Last week I heard on the news that a life-size statue of George Orwell had been erected outside BBC Television Centre in London; apparently it is the only statue of the author and political commentator in any public place. I can’t imagine there being an effigy of the man on anybody’s mantelpiece next to the Royal Doulton figurines, so this may well be the only statue in existence.
This unveiling at BBC HQ coincided with Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ being chosen as the October/November read by the book group I belong to. I had thought it a strange deviation from our usual selections (mostly fiction – anything goes except chick -lit), but I had read the book about 25 years ago when I spent one summer devouring everything Orwell had written, and I had found it interesting, if rather depressing. I was happy to give it another go.
As with most books which we read more than once, the experience is different each time. I was struck by the richness of the language Orwell used to create a realistic but almost poetic picture of some of the people and places he encountered in the 1930s in working-class communities, mainly (though not exclusively) in the north of England. Here is a marvellous example:
‘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.’
‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ is a book of two parts and it is a great shame that the descriptive style of the beginning – more akin to Orwell’s works of fiction – doesn’t continue all the way through; if it had, more than just two of us in the book group might have read to the end! The second part of the book is all about Orwell’s socialist political views, his thoughts on the north/south divide, and includes a lot of not very interesting details such as room measurements in working class homes and the links between tidiness and number of children in a family.
The thing that struck me most about the book was how little it actually had to do with Wigan in particular. Other places, including various towns in Yorkshire and Wales, receive as many mentions, and not one of the photographs is of Wigan. So why the title? To Orwell, Wigan Pier symbolised decay and loss. It was in 1936 when he spent time in the town, seven years after the ‘Pier’ had been removed for scrap. The locals had forgotten the exact spot on which it had stood, and Wigan Pier – formerly an emblem of thriving industry and plentiful employment – had slipped out of sight and into the past.
So what was Wigan Pier? It was actually a coal tippler – a metal construction – on the bank of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. It was used to transfer the coal from the many mines in the area onto waiting canal barges, and these vessels would carry the ‘black diamonds’ to Liverpool and from there to other parts of the country. In its late 18th century heyday, the canal must have been the equivalent of an aquatic motorway of its time. Coal was king in Wigan, and the north of England was heavily industrialised. By the late 19th century, railways had taken over most of the coal transportation and canals began to slip into disuse.
The ‘Pier’ at Wigan was left standing for decades, part joke, and obsolete until it was finally scrapped. The photograph below, which I took about 10 years ago when visiting ‘The Way We Were’ Wigan heritage museum, shows the dismantling of the defunct tippler back in 1929. A replica made by students at the local college was installed in 1986 on what is thought to be the same spot, and it still attracts visitors who want to be photographed next to the Orwellian icon; apparently, some people become quite annoyed when they read the information plaque and discover it is only a replica.
This canal-side area just outside of Wigan town centre, and a very short walk from the town’s two train stations, was almost desolate at the time of my visit on a recent Sunday afternoon. Apart from an occasional appearance by cyclists and dogs with their human walking companions, there was nobody else around. It felt quite surreal in such a quiet spot to reflect on the intense noise and frenetic activity which would once have been there. The Kittywake, a narrow boat which offers leisure trips during the warmer months, was tucked away in her undercover mooring for the duration of the winter.
The Way We Were Museum had enjoyed a few years of popularity during the nineties and early noughties, and was a favourite with primary schools who brought their young charges to experience the mock Victorian classroom complete with super strict (‘resting’ actor) teacher in charge.
Coach loads of older people who still remembered their childhoods at the time of Orwell’s writing would also head to Wigan to reminisce. The attraction, which was located within the former canal terminal buildings, closed a few years ago when visitor numbers started to drop. It is now boarded up and neglected, the cycle of rise, fall, revival and decline repeated across the decades and centuries. Below are a few photographs I took at the museum which depict life in industrial Wigan in bygone times.
In his book, Orwell describes vividly the Leeds and Liverpool canal where it passed through Wigan
‘I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All around was the lunar-landscape of slag-heaps……the canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs… the lock gates wore beards of ice…..nothing existed except shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.’
As the photographs below show, the canal has been reinvented as a place for leisure and relaxation and is a popular place to walk. Pretty former lock-keepers’ cottages line the now pristine pathway and behind them a former mill has been converted into swanky apartments.
To end the afternoon, I decided to venture about a mile outside of the town to visit one of the local ‘flashes’ – former pit shafts which were later flooded over – described by Orwell as follows.
‘…in the distance stretched the ‘flashes’ – pools of stagnant water that has stretched into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits……the’ flashes’ were covered with ice the colour of raw umber…’
Scotsmans’s Flash is now a wildlife conservation area enjoyed by local people and a centre for water activities. I wonder what Orwell would make of Wigan now, without a coal mine in sight but with the ‘Pier’ – or a version of it – still standing witness to what once was.