Orwell on miners; the working-class; and unemployment in the 30s

I’m reading George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, as a re-tweet from my diligent twitter friend Sam_Crisp alerted me to the fact that the University of Adelaide is periodically releasing out-of-copyright e-books (and Orwell, having been dead 50 years  is now out of copyright in Australia. I think he’d be pleased with that, actually).

Wigan Pier, which was written in and around a number of mining towns and heavy industrial cities in Northern England, has got a number of fantastic passages and I thought I’d just highlight a few of them. The opening chapter describes his time lodging with a couple who ran a boarding house/store type establishment and it is a pure and unmitigated horror. Bugs, horrible food, cold and smelly, five men to a room coming and going at different times; it’s a kind of unimaginably Dickensian existence that you wouldn’t believe unless it were described to you by someone who actually lived it, as Orwell did. He was something of an investigative novelist, a slower counterpart of the investigative journalist and it allowed him to get a real sense of (what Latour would call) the whole State of Affairs. There something in his perfect descriptions that is very much an ancestor of Latour’s own methodological approach. There is no ‘expanation’ lacking after one has read an Orwellian description; everything is entirely laid bare.

In chapter 2 he outlines in captivating prose just how tough it is being a miner – how much your whole body is moulded into the task of mining, no doubt coming to define your very existence:

Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal  a few yards away. I had not realized that before he even gets to work he may have had to creep along passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus. In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal; But as the seam is worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit bottom. If it is a mile from the pit bottom to the coal face, that it probably an average distance; three miles is a fairly normal one; there are even said to be a few mines where it is as much as five miles. But these distances bear no relation to distance above ground. For in all that mile or three miles as it may be, there is hardly anywhere outside the main road, and not many places even there, where a man can stand upright… what I want to emphasize is this. Here is this frightful business of crawling to and fro, which to any normal person is a hard days work in itself; and it is not part of the miner’s work at all, it is merely an extra, like the City man’s daily ride in the Tube. The miner does that journey to and fro, and sandwiched in between there are seven and a half hours of savage work. I have never travelled much more than a mile to the coal face; but often it is three miles, in which case I and most people other than coal-miners would never get there at all. This is the kind of point that one is always liable to miss. When you think of the coal-mine you think of depth, heat, darkness, blackened figures hacking at walls of coal; you don’t think necessarily of those miles of creeping to and fro. There is the question of time, also. A miner’s working shift of seven and a half hours does not sound very long, but one has got to add on to it at least an hour a day for ‘travelling’, more often two hours and sometimes three. Of course, the ‘travelling’ is not technically work and the miner is not paid for it; but it is as like work as makes no difference. It is easy to say that miners don’t mind all this. Certainly, it is not the same for them as it would be for you or me. They have done it since childhood, they have the right muscles hardened, and they can move to and fro underground with a startling and rather horrible agility… But it is quite a mistake to think they enjoy it. I have talked about this to scores of miners and they all admit that the ‘travelling’ is hard work; in any case when you hear them discussing a pit among themselves the ‘travelling’ is always one of the things they discuss. It is said that a shift always returns faster than it goes; nevertheless the miners all say that it is the coming away after a hard day’s work, that is especially irksome. It is part of their work and they are equal to it, but certainly it is an effort. It is comparable, perhaps, to climbing a smallish mountain before and after your day’s work.

And yet such tiring work often leaves them barely above the poverty line, to say nothing of the precarity of the nature of miners work. They were quite often at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of work and supply/demand (in other words, at the mercy of capital) and what did they get for it? Mostly, poverty. More than that though, as members of the working-class they were kept perpetually down. If they were injured or out of work, to collect their allowance, they had to spend interminable hours waiting around at the mercy of the disburser. Orwell describes the effects of this treatment in the closing of Chapter 3:

This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man don into a passive role. he does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of the mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that ‘they’ will never allow him to do this, that, and the other.

The last passage I wanted to reporoduce here has to do with unemployment, as a great number of people in the 30’s (and today) were out of work or did not get enough work to support themselves fully. Having spent all of one year in a state of chronic underemployment, living off my parents essentially, I totally and completely empathise with the out-of-work and the underemployed. Here’s Orwell describing the effects of it, and countering the myth that unemployment is a time for productive self-directed work or leisure. Keep in mind this is pre-WWII:

But there is no doubt about the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment upon everybody, married or single, and upon men more than upon women. The best intellects will not stand up against it. Once or twice it has happened to me to meet unemployed men of genuine literary ability; there are others whom I haven’t met but whose work I occasionally see in the magazines. Now and again, at long intervals, these men will produce an article or a short story which is quite obviously better than most of the stuff that gets whooped up by the blurb-reviewers. Why, then, do they make so little use of their talents? They have all the leisure in the world; why don’t they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude — and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home — you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.

A magnificent summary.