I was in Wigan the other day – a flying visit, really – for a weekend of events to celebrate George Orwell. Eighty years on from The Road to Wigan Pier‘s publication, townspeople, local dignitaries and the Orwell Society were putting on a show. Several, in fact.
Though I was snowed under with work, I’d figured out a way to get involved on the Saturday. Via bus, a National Express coach to Manchester and a 35-minute train ride, I could set out at 5pm on the Friday night and be at Wigan town centre’s Premier Inn five hours later.
Next morning I rose early, took photos of the town before the shops opened and joined my friends for what was arguably the main event of the weekend. At the Sunshine House Community Hub – a truly admirable venture, for which the society has been raising money – Wiganers gave us their take on Orwell’s social commentary.
It wasn’t the relentless pat on the back you might think.
The Sunshine Writers Group, who’d been working with poet Louise Fazackerley from their base at Sunshine House, put together a series of dramatic pieces, which made up the morning’s centrepiece. I’d heard about Wiganers’ ambivalence towards Orwell, and one guy’s poem summed it up brilliantly:
“Some thought his book was a load of crap, and some folk said it put Wigan on t’ map.”
Much as I love the book, I could sympathise with those in the first camp.
Here’s the thing. Fifty years after Orwell ventured north to write about the working class, I was a teenager in Thatcher’s Britain – in the depressed north-east, to be precise. Traditional heavy industry had keeled over and the region was struggling badly.
I knew what it was like to live in relative poverty (though, thanks to the post-1945 welfare state, not absolute poverty; it’s not like I was going hungry or anything). I was also a bright, ambitious lad, given to reading ‘posh’ broadsheet newspapers from time to time.
Quite often, the colour supplements would run stories about my part of the world. They’d send one of their journalists – Pippa Posh-Lefftye, say – to interview the hoi polloi about what a ghastly time they were having, and the resulting spread would always boast moody, black-and-white photographs of craggy men in flat caps, smoking Woodbines and possibly petting a whippet.
They did one from my home town once. Some geezer told them his neighbourhood was nicknamed ‘Little Chicago’ and, straight-faced, they quoted him. That’s if they weren’t making it up to begin with.
Look, I’m not knocking Orwell. I think he was a genius, and from what I heard at Wigan’s old library on Saturday afternoon – when two Orwell scholars explained the background to his odyssey – his Left Book Club tome exposed the scandalous conditions that miners and other working people had to suffer.
But it seems to me that, even today… no, especially today, what with unpaid internships and all… journalism is dominated by people with little conception of working-class life. We saw it after the Brexit vote. We saw it in America, after Trump’s election. (And if I’d had the courage to bet with my gut, rather than listening to the media, I’d have made a fortune at the bookies, both times.)
We saw it today, when Conservative politician George Osborne, a man who’s never even been a proper journalist, became editor of London’s Evening Standard.
So I don’t blame those Wiganers who resent an Old Etonian telling them about their own town. I’m just sad that, 80 years on, my own profession is still – at a national level, certainly – largely the preserve of the privileged.