The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell (1937)

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On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table
I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only
the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant
meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where
people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless
muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances. The most dreadful thing about
people like the Brookers is the way they say the same things over and over
again. It gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all, but a
kind of ghost for ever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole. In the end Mrs
Brooker’s self-pitying talk–always the same complaints, over and over,
and always ending with the tremulous whine of ‘It does seem ‘ard, don’t it
now?’–revolted me even more than her habit of wiping her mouth with bits
of newspaper. But it is no use saying that people like the Brookers are
just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens
and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products
of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the
civilization that produced them. For this is part at least of what
industrialism has done for us. Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first
steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under
the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth
century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led
–to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people
creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. It is a kind of duty to
see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you
should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay
there too long.

The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps,
chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed
by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly
cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly
through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey
slum houses running at right angles to the-embankment. At the back of one
of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up
the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose
was blocked. I had time to see everything about her–her sacking apron,
her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train
passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale
face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and
looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the
second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have
ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that’ It
isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the
slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not
the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was
happening to her–understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it
was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum
backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

But quite soon the train drew away into open country, and that seemed
strange, almost unnatural, as though the open country had been a kind of
park; for in the industrial areas one always feels that the smoke and filth
must go on for ever and that no part of the earth’s surface can escape
them. In a crowded, dirty little country like ours one takes defilement
almost for granted. Slag-heaps and chimneys seem a more normal, probable
landscape than grass and trees, and even in the depths of the country when
you drive your fork into the ground you half expect to lever up a broken
bottle or a rusty can. But out here the snow was untrodden and lay so deep
that only the tops of the stone boundary-walls were showing, winding over
the hills like black paths. I remembered that D. H. Lawrence, writing of
this same landscape or another near by, said that the snow-covered hills
rippled away into the distance ‘like muscle’. It was not the simile that
would have occurred to me. To my eye the snow and the black walls were more
like a white dress with black piping running across it.

Although the snow was hardly broken the sun was shining brightly, and
behind the shut windows of the carriage it seemed warm. According to the
almanac this was spring, and a few of the birds seemed to believe it. For
the first time in my life, in a bare patch beside the line, I saw rooks
treading. They did it on the ground and not, as I should have expected, in
a tree. The manner of courtship was curious. The female stood with her beak
open and the male walked round her and appeared to be feeding her. I had
hardly been in the train half an hour, but it seemed a very long way from
the Brookers’ back-kitchen to the empty slopes of snow, the bright
sunshine, and the big gleaming birds.

The whole of the industrial districts are really one enormous town, of
about the same population as Greater London but, fortunately, of much
larger area; so that even in the middle of them there is still room for
patches of cleanness and decency. That is an encouraging thought. In spite
of hard trying, man has not yet succeeded in doing his dirt everywhere. The
earth is so vast and still so empty that even in the filthy heart of
civilization you find fields where the grass is green instead of grey;
perhaps if you looked for them you might even find streams with live fish
in them instead of salmon tins. For quite a long time, perhaps another
twenty minutes, the train was rolling through open country before the
villa-civilization began to close in upon us again, and then the outer
slums, and then the slag-heaps, belching chimneys, blast-furnaces, canals,
and gaso-meters of another industrial town.

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