In January 1937, under the instructions from his publisher, Victor Gollanez, Orwell set out to investigate “distressed areas” (Source: Observer, 2011) in order to write a study of unemployment in the depressed areas of northern England. A year later, this resulted in The Road to Wigan Pier, a “classic literary journey” (Source: Sawant, 2011) that “has long been considered an important semi-documentary for living and working conditions in the north-west of England during the 1930s.” (Source: Pearce, 1997).
Down the Mine is the second chapter of Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.
In this chapter Orwell “goes down a coal mine and tires to understand what it’s like to be coal miner. These coal miners were powering British society at the time – coal created everything” (Source: Krznaric, 2012).
Orwell “takes us to the very core of the mine and miner’s life which is like inferno… a descent into a coal mine” (Source: Sawant, 2011).
“He detailed the dirt and confusion of a coal mine, sketching a detailed portrait of a dark world and how it relates to ours” (Source: Paul, 2012).
Orwell reports that:
Their working conditions are very bad, for they work underground, where it is very hot, dusty, and where the miners have just a minimum of space. The work is also very dangerous, the coal-miners often handle dynamite and the tunnels aren’t very stable…
He describes that the place where the coal is dismantled is not just right at the elevator, but often lies some miles away from it. And the tunnel is often only three to four feet high. This means that the miners not only have to work under the hardest conditions, but also have to “travel”, this means going to the working place in the miners’ jargon, for about half an hour. Orwell, who is not trained, needed about one hour to get there. (Source: http://www.k-1.com/Orwell/site/work/summaries/rtwp.html)
“the documentation of miner’s picture toiling at the coal face is brilliant one…The second chapter takes us to the interior of the work in the mine. One feels that the mine is like hell. The narrator feels that most of the things one imagines in hell are there heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and above all, unbearably cramped space. The filler’s do the super human job. They look as though their bodies are made up of iron. The narrator documents the stupendous work of the miners deftly :
But the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. They really do look like iron-hammer, iron statues-under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. But nearly all of them have the noblest bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinew thigh, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. You can never forget the spectacle once you have seen it – the line of bowed, kneeling figures, sooty black all over, driving their huge shovels under the coal with stupendous force and speed. (Orwell 1937 p. 21).
There is danger at every step to the life of a miner of the explosion of the poisonous gas, of falling of the roof. This documentation of an electrically-driven coal cutter, running horizontally instead of vertically, with teeth, a couple of inches long is also superb. The narrator feels that miner’s world is a different universe.” (Source: Sawant, 2011)
INSPIRATION/ PROCESS/ TECHNIQUE/ METHODOLOGY
The Road to Wigan Pier became regarded by many as “a remarkable piece of writing, executed with a kind of unemotional honesty which Orwell rarely equalled” (Source: Sawant, 2011).
“Orwell’s technique is to describe as simply and matter of fact as possible the experience of journeying into the mine as it happened to him. In a series of striking images, he evokes the descent into the coal mine, the painful walking to the coal face, the heat and noise, the sheer physical drudgery in cramped and dangerous conditions. The chapter has force and vigour, so the feel of the mine is ineradicably communicated. Hence for its picturesque documentation, the chapter has been separately published as ‘Down the Mine’ (Source: Sawant, 2011).
“by 1936 he had made a small reputation for himself as an authority on poverty, and so he was commissioned by Victor Gollancz to visit the industrial North and write a book about working-class conditions there. It was Orwell’s first real experience of this class: his Down and Out companions had been tramps and beggars, but in Lancashire and Yorkshire he met an altogether different category of the poor – workers, men who wanted to work, but who had no jobs. He found in these men qualities that he valued – pride, dignity, generosity, strength, class solidarity – and when he returned to London he wrote a book about them that is both a celebration of their virtues and an angry polemic against their sufferings – The Road to Wigan Pier. On his trip to the North he had found what his novels lacked – heroes. In the second part of Wigan Pier Orwell turned from his myth of the workers to his myth of himself: the road of his personal history that had led through Eton and Burma, Paris and London, to his rendezvous with the English proletariat in Wigan, where he had found the emotional kinship with working people that he called ‘Socialism’. It was a kind of conversion experience, that’s clear: but to call it a political conviction is to mistake feeling for thought. Wigan Pier contains not a single political idea: it is all feelings, including some feelings that point in very un-socialist directions: nationalist feelings, Luddite feelings, anti-intellectual feelings, and running right through the personal narrative, a deep distrust for political parties and indeed for all politics, which Orwell never lost. The word ‘Socialism’ turns up a good deal in these later pages of Wigan Pier, but the nearest Orwell comes to a statement of what socialism means to him is in this sentence: ‘economic injustice will stop the moment we want it to stop … and if we genuinely want it to stop the method adopted hardly matters.’ This is scarcely a political statement, as Wigan Pier is scarcely a political book: rather, it is a personal, moral one, like Auden’s, prayer for ‘new styles of architecture, a change of heart’. But politics don’t happen in the heart.” (Source: Hynes 1980)
The Road to Wigan Pier was “The first of Orwell’s books that had a direct political reference and at the same time it was his first public confession towards socialism. He visited the depressed North in order to tell his readers of the prosperous South about the conditions of their fellow citizens. He knew that the environment he was describing was an exotic landscape to some and almost entirely unfamiliar to the middle class audience he was trying to reach and his main interest was the reduction of psychological barriers between them and the working class. For Orwell a main reason why people feared the workers was because they did not understand him. It was this which he wanted to change” (Source: Stolz, fhdskjhfskj :18)
Part two is Orwell’s polemic on what he saw and experienced. I found this part of the book filled with passion, anger and justifications. Orwell always makes sure to explain the reasoning behind his arguments and even apologises for his background. Part two consists of political theories, language, class distinction and the personal journey Orwell experienced whilst researching part one. (Source: Anita Treso, http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/RZRYY3UMPHOX0/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt#RZRYY3UMPHOX0)
Reading Orwell’s ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’ and its amazing that so much of it could be describing today. (Source: @junctionsid, 2012)
Look at chapter two of Road to Wigan Pier. It’s humbling that our living standards rest on the shoulders of those miners. (Source: @DouglasCarswell)
Really, though – this book sucks. I couldn’t finish it. I got to within about 50 pages of the end, but realized that I was just disconnecting my brain and reading through the words without any real comprehension. I was hoping for a more narrative tale of experiences amongst the downtrodden working class, and that’s pretty much what the first chapter or so was, but then from there it meanders off into dated rantings about the class struggle in post-WWI/pre-WWII England. There’s pages and pages of breakdowns of miners’ wages or dole payouts in shillings and pence, and really I don’t even know how much money that would be NOW, let alone 70 years ago (do they even still use shillings??), so it wasn’t too interesting, and it goes downhill from there. (Source: Damon, http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30553.The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier#other_reviews)
Gareth Lindsay @observationsetc – Being in the port glasgow library is like the modern day equivalent of what George Orwell must have felt like writing the road to wigan pier.
Found it fascinating… Orwell was a careful and dedicated journalist. I’ll never sing gospel songs about the coalminers again with out feeling his descriptions of the workers in those mines. Then he gives insight into the class prejudices of his time. The book helped to connect the dots in my understanding of England in that time and the transition from “lord of the seas” to it’s present as a political allay of the U.S. (Source: Sandy, http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30553.The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier)
In August 2012, lawyer Charles Abraham, represented nearly 3000 South African gold miners in a case against leading companies for alleged negligence, subsequently resulting in them contracting lung disease. Abraham began a presentation to media in Johannesburg by reading Orwell’s essay Down the Mine, describing the grim conditions endured by miners in 1930s Britain. 75 years ago Orwell observed:
More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins.
Abrahams claimed that “”The same divide exists. The middle class have got absolutely no idea of what the ordinary life of a miner is on any single day.” Today, South Africa, rated the most unequal society in the world, stands accused of the same wilful ignorance towards the “poor drudges underground” who make lives of privilege possible. (Source: Smith, 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/aug/22/south-africa-goldminers-lawsuit-negligence)
Renowned modern sculpture-artist Henry Moore became distressed by the poverty he saw post World War II consequently producing art that included “moving depictions of miners” that some regard as “the visual complement to George Orwell’s famous description in Down the Mine.” (Source: Molyneux, 2010: http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11299
When 3 coal mine workers died in 2007 trying to rescues 6 colleagues tramped in collapsed cave, journalist Jeffery Feldmen, declared “Given the growing tragedy at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah, it is a timely moment to look again at George Orwell’s 1937 masterpiece The Road To Wigan Pier, particularly chapter 2: an essay he had published separately under the title ‘Down The Mine.’ Most people know Orwell for his writings on fascism or even for his writings on writing. And yet, perhaps the greatest lines Orwell ever wrote are found in his brilliant description of the ‘savage work’ of coal mining… I simply cannot even comprehend what it must be like to walk a mile, two or even three underground in a tunnel the width and darkness of my cramped New York City apartment closet.” (Source: Feldmen, 2007: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-feldman/coal-mining-as-seen-by-ge_b_60957.html)
Impressions Gallery is running the exhibition 40th Anniversary Exhibition: Roads to Wigan Pier, through to January 2013. It features six photography graduates, taking Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier as their starting point to record and document social aspects of the North of England. The resulting non-judgemental, yet sometimes shocking, photographs show us a way of life that was in terminal decline. This picture of Orwellian dystopia acts as an elegy of the northern urban landscape and its people, on the brink of irrevocable social and cultural change. Today, in-post industrial Britain, we are perhaps inclined to forget the recent past as many of the symbols of poverty and neglect have been replaced by regeneration. The exhibition will incorporate original text from the photographers interspersed with quotes from Orwell’s 1930s comments on the miner’s life, class, slums, unemployment and malnutrition. Roads to Wigan Pier serves as a timely reminder of what it is like to have “the dull, evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you”. (Source: http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=50).
Black lung was prevalent and most of the miners contracted this disease. Coal mining is dirty filthy job I saw my Father come home every day covered with coal dust. I made a vow that I would never go to a coal mines to work. Organized labor came into being, thanks to the United Mine Workers and John L. Lewis. This changed pay and mine conditions for the miner. Prior to the union, life was not easy. Folks had to “make do”, which in my opinion made stronger and better people. This life did me no harm it made me a better person who appreciates what I have today, I am sure others who have experienced this life can give testament to that. I made this web site for those who have experienced this life and can appreciate what it means to be a coal miner’s son or daughter. (Source: Roger Philpot in Paul, http://www.downtoearthnw.com/blogs/down-earth/2012/jul/20/friday-quote-coal-miners-son-his-own-words/)
REFERENCES/ FURTHER READING
Feldmen, J. (2007), Coal Mining As Seen By George Orwell, Huffington Post (online), available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-feldman/coal-mining-as-seen-by-ge_b_60957.html
Good Reads, The Road to Wigan Pier, available at: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30553.The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier
Hynes, S. (1980), The Unhappy Vicar. Review of Orwell: The Transformation by Stansky, P. & Abrahams, W. London Review of Books [Online] vol. 2 no. 1: 26-28. Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v02/n01/samuel-hynes/the-unhappy-vicar, Accessed 1 November 2012.
Impressions Gallery, 40th Anniversary Exhibition: Roads to Wigan Pier, available at: http://www.impressions-gallery.com/exhibitions/exhibition.php?id=50
Molyneaux, J. (2010), Henry Moore: young radical, Socialist Review (online), available at: http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11299
Paul, available at: http://www.downtoearthnw.com/blogs/down-earth/2012/jul/20/friday-quote-coal-miners-son-his-own-words/ from: Philpot, R., 20th Century Coal Mining, Where Coal Miners Worked and Lived, available at: http://www.rogerphilpot.com/coalminerwebsite.html
Pearce, R. (1997), Revisiting Orwell’s Wigan Pier. History, 82: 410-428.
Sawant, N. (2011), The Road to Wigan Pier: Labryinth of Poverty, The Criterion: An International Journal in English, Available at: http://www.the-criterion.com/V2/n3/Sawant.pdf
Smith, D. (2012), South African gold miners file lawsuit against industry giants for negligence, The Guardian (online), available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/aug/22/south-africa-goldminers-lawsuit-negligence
Stolz, B. (2005), George Orwell’s Documentary Work – Focusing on “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “The Road to Wigan Pier” as examples, GRIN Verlag.
Krznaric, R. (2012), Why George Orwell is my empathy hero, available at: http://www.romankrznaric.com/outrospection/2012/02/12/1548
Symons, J., 1989. Orwell speak. Review of The Politics of Literary Reputation: The Making and Claiming of ‘St George’ Orwell by Rodden, J. London Review of Books [Online] vol. 11 no. 21 pp. 20-21. Available fromhttp://www.lrb.co.uk/v11/n21/julian-symons/orwellspeak[Accessed 1 November 2012].
Smith, D. (2012), Simmering resentment at heart of South Africa’s place of gold, The Guardian – Final Edition, Nexis UK (online).
“South Africa; Anglo American – a Giant Corporation Between a Big Rock and a Very Hard Place”, Africa News (2012), Nexis UK, (online).
The road to Wigan Pier Revisited, available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yx1ZzTN58mQ –“75 years on from George Orwell’s iconic journey, Stephen Armstrong and Danny Dorling discuss why poverty and inequality persist in the UK today.”