Social Commentary 1


THE ROAD TO WHALAN PIER

In the Army, as a Military Policeman, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life when I have been important enough for this to happen to me[1].  I’m sure it wasn’t anything personal, merely the maintenance of a mindset that supports taking a position against authority figures; us versus them.  In many ways our Aussie character epitomises the attitude that figures of authority such as policemen and magistrates are there to make our lives difficult and are merely organs of the state, representatives of the ‘Haves’, oppressors of the “Have-Nots’.  That  same ‘larrikin’ ideal fostered the Spirit of the ANZAC as we forged our nation in the crucible of early 20th Century warfare.[2]

Today in Australia we suffer under a class divide as real as that which existed in England when orders were cut for Captain Arthur Phillip to found a penal colony at Botany Bay[3].  The only difference is that it is no longer so visible or omnipresent, or shameless.  But it is there all the same.  We may not have the easily identified dividing lines of accent and education, but that weapon of the ruling classes, poverty, still takes its toll.

We have come a long way in a social sense and many of the class distinctions are no longer fashionable, or ‘politically correct’ as we say today.  Nonetheless there is a very real perception of  one’s position in our society based upon factors such as where you live, what you do for a living and to our shame, what you look like.  If you are fat, coloured or ‘effete’[4] you are often playing catch up when it comes to seeking employment or even just getting a fair go in general.

It is even more obvious that a class distinction exists if you are of one of these groups and come from a working class area.  In Sydney you only have to say the words ‘Mount Druitt’ to strike fear and loathing in the hearts of otherwise warm and wonderful people.  People who have never been there and would never dream of setting foot within the boundaries of the 2770 postcode will pity you, fear you, ignore you or even despise you. [5]

One man who understood the injustice of class distinctions and the ridiculousness of such prejudices was Eric Arthur Blair, better known as author and essayist George Orwell.  Although Orwell is best remembered for his last two novels, ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’, he wrote extensively during the decade before World War 2 about poverty, injustice and the class divide existent in the England of the 1930s.[6]

Blair wrote under the pen name George Orwell because he fully understood the predicament in which he would place himself and more particularly his family and friends if he were to publish his work under his own name. [7] Educated by scholarship at Eton, Blair knew first hand the risks faced by someone of his class, the ‘lower upper middle class’, if it were to become public knowledge that he had spent time as a dishwasher and a tramp while researching his semi-autobiographical, ‘Down and Out In Paris and London’.

Orwell had ‘been there, done that’ and was no stranger to hunger, poverty and hardship.  He acknowledged that he was there by choice, not bad luck or birth but he also believed it was worse for him in many ways, coming from a middle class background, than it was for those who knew nothing else.

On this point Orwell speaks at length in his classic work, ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’, explaining that the greatest fear of those ‘with something to lose’ is to lose it, whereas those who have never had it before are blissfully ignorant.  He also felt that being poor was not as simple as the more cashed up of the middle and upper classes might think.  In fact, it was very, very complicated.  Keeping up appearances required far more effort and concentration than merely trying to survive as best as one could.  Orwell explains how you are even too embarrassed to run into your laundress for fear she might think you are taking your shirts elsewhere when in reality you simply can’t afford her services.  In fact there is every likelihood you may have pawned most of them to fund your last meal![8]

I must confess to feeling a definite affinity with Orwell.  He was as patriotic as any of his class at the beginning of the First World War, penning a jingoistic poem “Awake! Young Men of England”.  As keen as I was to serve my country when I joined the Australian Regular Army as an Army Apprentice at the age of 16.  Orwell served the Empire as a Police Inspector in Burma, I served my country as a Military Policeman.  It was only later in our careers that both of us lost our ‘shine’ to become somewhat more jaded and critical.

We share further experiences, also.  Orwell learnt first hand about poverty as a dishwasher in a Paris hotel, I’ve washed dishes in a Kings Cross hospital kitchen.  Like Orwell, I have worked in a bookshop, sold insurance and taught English while living overseas, often to make just the barest of livings.  I also come from a proud working class family of soldiers and miners from the County of Durham, one of the locations Orwell studied when he travelled north at the direction of publisher Victor Gollancz in January 1936.  His brief was to study the plight of the poor, particularly the miners of Northern England.  The result of that investigation was ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’ .

Written in two distinct parts, the book opens with Orwell describing in detail the living conditions of miners, their families and their wages, employment conditions and hardships.  The second part is a political essay warning of the encroachment of Fascism and the failures of his preferred political system, Democratic Socialism, as it was being applied at that time.  Orwell believed that Socialism was not about wages and unemployment as many others felt.  He drilled to the core of Socialism and said it was all about liberty and justice.  For all.[9]

With Fascist dictators in control of  Italy and Germany and threatening to take over Spain, Orwell was well aware that the Second World War was inevitable as things stood.  He argued that the mere words  ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ had the power to ‘draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.’  These people scared off the average middle class person that the movement needed to survive.  Worse, those most needed people were being driven further to the right and into the arms of the Fascists.

The poor, he said, were too busy being poor and surviving every day to form any ideas of political change.  That required people with education and sufficient surplus time and wealth to be able to take action.  The same holds true today as anyone who wishes to run for public office must either enjoy the support of a political party or be sufficiently well heeled so as to support themselves during the long and expensive campaigning process.  Orwell also pointed out that the few working class men able to move up to the middle classes often did so by way of the Trade Union movement and in doing so allied themselves with the upper classes.  This is still true in 2008 and the current crop of Federal Members of Parliament who are former Trades Union officials gives substance to this theory. [10]

The attitudes of the middle classes towards those lower on the socio economic ladder in the 1930s are still prevalent today.  Many believed then that the unemployed are simply lazy and don’t wish to work or that single mothers actively seek out their situation and prefer to be alone and bringing up a child or two[11].  How familiar is that to our ears nowadays?  Those who didn’t have to raise a family on the minimal amount doled out would shake their heads and wonder what the ungrateful wretches were whining about.  Yet even the sovereign of the day King George V had suggested those who criticised the miners for striking over their pay and conditions should try and raise their families on the meagre pittance paid them.[12]

Today we have a new government in Canberra who made much during the election run up of the plight of ‘Working Families’, yet of whom do they speak?  Middle class families with both parents (or more politically correctly – partners) employed with children in school and or Day Care.  Definitely not the non-working families and single parents or the shame of our time, our Aged Pensioners.  My parents dread the thought of one of them passing on before the other.  The reason has more to do with  the financial hardship of living off a single persons’ pension of $280 a week than the grief of separation after fifty years of marriage!  For those groups there is no suggestion of increasing their incomes by any realistic amount, yet  they still have to get from A to B, eat, clothe and medicate or educate as well as put a roof over their heads.

Orwell put it well when he wrote of how the poor are not expected to have anything of value.  They weren’t then and they aren’t today.  There are people living in public housing who also make middle class incomes and they shouldn’t be there.  There are people who draw unemployment benefits and yet they work and are paid cash in hand and that is wrong[13].  Just as wrong as teenage girls who get themselves pregnant to take advantage of the $4,000 Baby Bonus and ongoing Parenting Benefit payments[14].

Orwell understood why people who could barely afford enough food to sustain life would spend money on ‘luxuries’ such as cigarettes or feed for their homing pigeons.  It was because they had nothing worth very much in their lives and they simply  craved a taste of something more than just the bare necessities of survival.  It hasn’t changed today and often the poorest are not the wisest and so are easy prey to fast talking ‘easy credit’ providers that just drag the poor into more debt.  Spiralling debts and the unending poverty cycle.  They go hand in hand as callous opportunists take advantage of the most vulnerable of our society today as in the 1930s.

When Orwell spoke of Socialism, he spoke of a brand of Socialism that was waiting to be implemented.  He felt that what passed for Socialism in his day was nothing of the sort.  It was focused on wages and employment conditions and as such at the mercy of the employers and the share holders of the companies that relied on the labour of it’s employees.  The employers were scared of losing their wealth, privilege and position; scared of becoming poor and working class and surely if they increased the wages of their workers that would happen, they would face ruin in no time at all!

The answer was to ignore the pleas of the working classes and to manipulate the laws so that the employers held the upper hand, much as Churchill had done during the General Strike of 1926[15].  Parallels could be drawn with the actions of our previous Federal Government and their implementation of the recently revoked ‘Work Choices’ legislation.  But will the new administration do more for the working classes?  Or will they court the ‘big end’ of town as their party predecessors did when they were in government more than a decade ago and as our current State government is doing with its penchant for Public-Private Partnerships and back handers from developers?

How representative of the working man and woman are our current governments?  Previous Prime Ministers are today all extremely wealthy men and so too is the current Prime Minister[16].  How much ‘mortgage stress’ does he feel?  When was the last time he had to worry about paying the rent or filling the fridge?  He has suggested that MPs forego their pay rise this year.  Given they received twice the CPI last year when everyone else stayed treading water as fuel and mortgages rose around us like an incoming tide it is the least the government can do.  Of course Mr Abbott, the former Minister for Health and now a backbencher on ‘just $127,000 per annum’ is aghast at the notion.  Afterall, as he said, ‘we have families to feed and mortgages to pay’. [17] So does most of Australia and some of us are feeding six people and paying off a mortgage on a quarter of what he is paid![18]

Orwell knew first hand how hard life was for the working class because he had placed himself in their shoes, literally[19].  He also understood his own class and where he came from and where he would always belong.  He knew that forcing the classes together was not the answer, the belief  held by many that they would ‘fall about one another’s necks like long lost brothers’[20] was never going to happen.  Today in Australia a Prime Minister may snatch his photo opportunity sitting in a pub having a beer with some working class voters but no matter how hard he lets them slap his back there is no way they will ever be on the same level.  In a way, that is to be expected and quite alright as, Orwell once observed, the working classes often prefer to follow, so long as they have proper leadership.[21]

Orwell took something from the humour of the working classes when he titled his book, ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’. Wigan’s Pier was a jetty on the canal yet it was often a saying used to make light of the fact that since you couldn’t afford a holiday by the sea, so you would pretend and have one at Wigan Pier.  The suburb where I live, Whalan, is one of the satellite suburbs alongside Mount Druitt in the 2770 post code.  It doesn’t have a pier either.  It has a very large population of working class people and people who for many reasons are recipients of Centrelink benefits.  No doubt there are some, perhaps many, who are making all they can of the system we have.  But not most.

Most of the people of Whalan are the same as the working classes of Northern England in 1936.  Hard working, unsophisticated people who might not be considered high-brow, but who have something of the same qualities Orwell admired in the miners and other working class people he met.  Education opportunities have improved considerably since his day both in Wigan and here in Whalan.  We do enjoy far better living conditions and standards than did the working classes of 1936, but then so we should.

Since then our citizens have fought several wars, both military and societal.  We have striven to improve our lives and our standards of living, each generation doing a little better on the whole than the last.  All the same, there is still much to be done.  Those of us who can do something, should do so.  Whatever that may be and however we might contribute.  Of course that begins to sound like Socialism, a philosophical levelling of the playing field.  The danger is that in levelling the playing field, some of us who felt we were at the high end will find ourselves sliding downhill towards the place we truly belong, the working class.  That is the risk we take when we try and improve our society, when we strive for true liberty and justice for all.

Orwell was not afraid of falling from the middle class to the one below.  He had experienced poverty and hunger and knew it was a nuisance, but not the end of the world.  As he said,

‘…we of the sinking middle class, – may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches.’


Bibliography

Orwell, George. ‘Down And Out In Paris And London’ Victor Gollancz 1933

Orwell, George.  ‘Burmese Days’, Victor Gollancz 1935

Orwell, George.  ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter’, Victor Gollancz 1935

Orwell, George.   ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’, Victor Gollancz 1936

Orwell, George.  ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’, Victor Gollancz 1936

Orwell, George.  ‘Coming Up For Air’, Victor Gollancz 1939

Orwell, George.  ‘Animal Farm’, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd 1945

Orwell, George.  ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd 1949

Orwell, George. ‘George Orwell: Essays’ Penguin Classics London. 2000

  • ‘Why I Write’, Gangrel (No4 Summer) 1946
  • ‘The Spike’,  Adelphi, April 1931
  • ‘A Hanging’, Adelphi, August 1931
  • ‘Shooting An Elephant’, New Writing, No2 Autumn 1936
  • ‘Bookshop Memories’, Fortnightly, November 1936
  • ‘Marrakech’, New Writing, Christmas 1939
  • ‘Charles Dickens’, I.T.W. 1939
  • ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, Horizon, March 1940
  • ‘My Country Right or Left’ 1941
  • ‘The Lion And The Unicorn’ 1940

Bowker, Gordon. George Orwell. Little Brown.  2003

Buddicom, Jacintha. Eric & Us. Finlay Publisher. 2006

Flynn, Nigel.   George Orwell. The Rourke Corporation, Inc. 1999

Larkin, Emma.  Finding George Orwell in Burma. Penguin.  2005

Leif, Ruth Ann,  Homage to Oceania. The Prophetic Vision of George Orwell. Ohio State U.P. 1969

Meyers, Jeffery. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. W.W.Norton. 2000

Slater, Ian.  Orwell: The Road To Airstrip One. W.W. Norton & Company Inc, New York  1985

Smith, D. & Mosher, M.  Orwell for Beginners. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative. 1984

http://george-orwell.org


[1] A paraphrasing of the opening sentence to Orwell’s ‘Shooting An Elephant’. “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” Orwell, George 1936. ‘Shooting An Elephant’, New Writing, No2 Autumn 1936

[2] Australian Government Culture and Recreation Portal ‘ ANZAC Day’ http://www.acn.net.au/articles/anzac/

[3] Cathcart, Michael 1993 ‘Manning Clark’s History of Australia’ Melbourne University Publishing.

[4] By ‘effete’, I include men and women discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, yet intend no disrespect to any member of these communities.

[5] Hansard, Legislative Assembly of the ACT: 2001 Week 6 Hansard (14 June) Page 1782

[6] See the Bibliography for a complete list of Orwell novels, books and essays referred to for this article.

[7] Slater, Ian. 1985 “Orwell: The Road To Airstrip One” W.W. Norton & Company Inc, New York ISBN 0-393-01908-X

[8] Orwell, George. 1933 ‘Down And Out In Paris And London’, Victor Gollancz

[9]On Socialism as it was at the time Orwell wrote in TRTWP “We have reached a stage when the very word ‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers.”

[10] ‘Of the 88 sitting federal Labor MPs, 42 are former full-time union officials, 32 are former staffers of Labor parliamentarians and four are former full-time ALP officials. There is some overlap with some members fitting two categories, but it still leaves only seven having careers outside the party machinery before winning seats in Parliament.’  Sheehan, Paul 2007 ‘Looking For the Ruthless Party Boys’  Sydney Morning Herald 5/11/07

[11] “…[A] middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the ‘lower classes’.”  Orwell, George. 1937 ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’

[12] David Sinclair, Two Georges: The Making of the Modern Monarchy (Hodder and Stoughton, London 1988) p.105

[13] Bissett, Kevin 2008 ‘Tenants Rorting Public Housing’ The Daily Telegraph 1/1/08 and  ‘Public Housing Rorts Cost $53m a Year’  Sydney Morning Herald, 3/4/08

[14] Switzer, Renee. 2007 ‘Extra Baby Bonus?  Teen Abortions Fall’, The Age 21/10/07

[15] Peter Mathias, The First Industrial Nation, Routledge, pp. 449, ISBN 978-0-415-26672-7

[16] Packham, Ben 2007. ‘Rudd Eyes $5 Million Holiday Shack’ Herald Sun 8/10/07

[17] Karvelas, Patricia and Jamie Walker, 30 January 2008, ‘Ex-ministers feel the pinch’ The Australian

[18] Centrelink Rate of Benefit for two adults and three children (same family size as Mr Abbott) approximately $1297 per fortnight or $33,722 per annum consisting of  Parenting Allowance, New Start/Austudy and Family Tax Benefit A&B.  $37,700 for two adults and four children  Source www.centrelink.gov.au

[19] Orwell, George 1931 ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, Victor Gollancz.  Orwell knew poverty and real hunger first hand.  He also knew he could survive being poor as he had done it first hand and this had a profound effect on his politics and philosophy.

[20] Orwell uses this analogy in ‘Down and Out In Paris And London’ and other essays as well as in ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’.  Interestingly the author’s father who grew up in a working class home in the north of England in the 1930s also used to use this almost exact same phrase and yet he has never read any of Orwell’s writing.

[21] In ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’ Orwell mentions reading about the Paris Commune and how the ringleaders were chosen for execution from amongst their comrades based on the fact they ‘looked intelligent’ or could read or were able to ‘pronounce their aitches’.  He makes the very important observation that the ringleaders more than likely were middle class, as they had the opportunity to think about revolution rather than working to survive.


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