Ghosts of Wigan Pier

This is from the i paper by Dean Kirby. I was surprised to see the image of Orwell’s son. The 1930s seem so much further away than living history. Orwell is also important today with the rise in alternative readings of Britain’s colonial past. 

When George Orwell was writing The Road to Wigan Pier – the classic account of social conditions in the North during the 1930s depression years – he stayed just a few hundred yards from the market in a lodging house above a tripe shop , which sold “great white folds” of the stuff alongside the “Ghostly translucent feet of pigs, already boiled.” But times have changed since the book was published 80 years ago this week. Modern Wigan is a global leader in food production and boasts that more than 3/4 of the industry’s top 25 companies have their base here – helping boost the town’s £4.2m economy. It is also the greenest metropolitan borough in Britain, the coalfields once witnessed by Orwell having since become havens for wildlife.

But concerns about the dreaded means test of the 1930s has ben replaced by concern about the Government’s austerity agenda in this rugby league town, which has been electing Labour MPs since 1918. In 2010, Wigan Council had to carry out the 3rd-worst budget cuts of any local authority in the country. By 2020 the council budget will have been cut by £160m, with concern, elsewhere in the North, about he future of services and social care.

The Road to Wigan Pier has a mixed legacy for Wigan,” says the town’s Labour Mp Lisa Nandy. “But then, as now, it was important that the reality of life for many people in towns like ours is exposed. The book brilliantly highlights the hardship Wigan experienced, but doesn’t really do justice to our many strengths – of which the biggest is still our warm, friendly, hard working people…

The real Wigan Pier, a former coal-loading jetty on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, whose name started as a music hall joke, is now the town’s flagship regeneration project. The council has a vision for transforming the buildings, including the former Orwell pub and The Way We Were Museum, into an “urban quarter” for business and pleasure.

The author’s son Richard Blair, 72, the patron of the Orwell Society, is looking out over the water at Wigan Pier while visiting the town for events to mark the 80th anniversary.

“It was a very honest book… My father came to Wigan and reported honestly on what he saw. I think the conditions in those days were poor, not just in Wigan, but everywhere. It was simply a tile he came up with, but unfortunately it became a metaphor for social problems in any industrialised town. That was never intended by him. Some people say my father did Wigan a disservice, but I think that’s rather untrue. He liked the people very much, especially the miners. He thought they were extraordinarily tough, friendly, resilient people,” he said.

He says Wigan, like other towns, has done tis best to reinvent itself since the 1930s – and that it is impossible to know what Orwell would have thought of it today.

Across town in Victoria Street, parishioners from St Mark’s Church are reminiscing about the old days as they gather for a women’s fellowship meeting. It was here that Orwell found “clean, decent people” in back to back houses with a “filthy, miry alley” who had to walk 50 yards to reach a lavatory.

“I was brought up around here,” says Mavis Lees, 72. “It’s changed over the years,but the church has always been here and we have the park across the road. I’m very proud  of Wigan and whenever I go on holiday, I always like coming home.”

Jean Lancaster, 83, adds “There used to be a pub on every corner here and the streets were full of houses. All the mill girls would walk along the road arm in arm. The streets were alive back then, but it’s still a nice place to live.”

The lodging house where Orwell stayed in a room that “stank like a ferret’s cage” is long gone; Wigan’s former slum houses were torn down decades ago. but back at the stall on the market, customers are still buying supplies of tripe for the weekend as they have always done, along with traditional black puddings,pies and ham on the bone.

“I’d like to seem more investment in Wigan, says the stallholder Denise Webster. “But we’ve had some good news recently and the market is going to be done up. Wigan is a good place to life. You can’t go wrong with a Wiganer. They’re very friendly. On the market, it’s always service with a smile.”

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