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The Road To Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937) 232 p.

After returning from Burma in 1927, George Orwell found that his beliefs and prejudices had been completely upturned after witnessing the evil brutality of the British imperial system. He decided he wanted “to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants.”

He ended up spending much time amongst the working class, and the result of that was his excellent book Down And Out In Paris And London, which I read last year and greatly enjoyed. The Road To Wigan Pier continues in this vein, but was written several years later after Orwell had established himself as a writer and distilled his outrage into a coherent socialist philosophy. He was commisioned by an organisation called the Left Book Club to carry out a report on the living conditions of the unemployed in England’s industrial North. This investigation comprises the first half of the book; the second comprises Orwell’s reflections upon that situation, and what must be done about it.

I preferred the first half of the book to the second, as Orwell throws himself into the atrocious hovels and slums of Wigan and Sheffield, making his usual wry and witty observations. (“There are also houses of what is called the ‘blind back’ type, which are single houses, but in which the builder has omitted to put in a back door – from pure spite, apparently.”) Orwell’s famous dedication to clear, concise writing makes him endlessly entertaining and readable, and he comes up with some marvellous similes.

The second half of the book was less entertaining; it is largely a political essay, which I don’t mind, but like many essays in Shooting An Elephant it is quite dated. Orwell wrote this book in the late 30s when socialism was still considered a feasible possibility in many parts of society, and while fascism was running rampant across Europe. He very clearly thought the next major struggle in the world would be between Fascism and Socialism, not Capitalism and Communism. Reading through it, I was mostly struck by how wrong Orwell turned out to be. He spends much of his time arguing why socialism had failed to gain many adherents, and one of his points is that many people disliked industrialism and mentally associated it with socialism. Orwell himself, while believing it to be “here to stay,” is also quite critical of what he calls “the machine-society.” He then later says:

There is no chance of righting the conditions I described in the earlier chapters of this book, or of saving England from Fascism, unless we can bring an effective Socialist party into existence. It will have to be a party with genuinely revolutionary intentions, and it will have to be numerically strong enough to act. We can only get it if we offer an objective which fairly ordinary people will recognise as desirable. Beyond all else, therefore, we need intelligent propaganda. Less about ‘class consciousness,’ ‘expropriation of the expropriators,’ bourgeois ideology,’ and ‘proletarian solidarity,’ not to mention the sacred sisters, thesis, antithesis and synthesis; and more about justice, liberty and the plight of the unemployed. And less about mechanical progress, tractors, the Dneiper dam and the latest salmon-canning factory in Moscow; that kind of thing is not an integral part of Socialist doctrine, and it drives away many people whom the Socialist cause needs, including most of those who can hold a pen.

No such Socialist party came about, yet England was not consumed by Fascism. And how were the conditions in northern England righted? Through technological advances and the progress of the machine-society which Orwell so disapproved of. There is clearly still an imbalance of wealth in England today, but to compare the houses of the working class now with the houses of the working class of eighty years ago is to compare modern luxury with medieval squalor. Television, broadband Internet, mass-produced clothing, central heating, affordable white goods, hot water, subsidised medical care and unfailing electricity combine to create what the miners and labourers of Orwell’s day would regard as paradise.

Curiously enough, Orwell actually touched upon in the first half of the book:

And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

The difference, of course, is that the modern British welfare state (which I am not particularly familiar with the history of, but which appears to exist in a limited form in The Road To Wigan Pier) ensures that nobody is actually starving, even if they have been unemployed their entire lives. Whether or not the “cheap luxuries” of today seem superior to those of Orwell’s time because of my own modern vantage point, or because they actually are, is hard to say. Perhaps eighty years from now we will all have robot butlers and want for nothing, and consider having to work forty hours a week to have been a cruel and terrible fate.

Then, however, there’s the fact that our own cheap luxuries are not a result of the industrial process having been perfected, but rather because the Western world simply bucked its “working” class status onto East Asia. Now the same thing is happening in China, as hundreds of millions are lifted out of poverty and expect higher living standards, and manufacturers look to Vietnam or Indonesia or somewhere else where people are still poor and will work for a dollar a day. What happens when everybody on Earth is rich and prosperous? I can’t find the exact quote, but somewhere in The Road To Wigan Pier Orwell mentions that the whole world is a raft flying through space, which contains more than enough for everybody to live comfortably. This may have been true at the time, but it certainly isn’t today; the one or two billion OECD citizens are living well beyond their means, let alone the five billion in the developing world. Either we will exhaust the planet’s resources and collapse into a prolonged Dark Age of death, misery and poverty, or we will expand space travel and harvest the resources of other planets to provide for the billions of new TV-watching, Coke-drinking people who will be created once the developing world finishes developing, which will certainly happen within the next fifty years. And, ironically enough, the most likely push for that more optimistic outcome will be capitalist thirst for raw materials.

As you can see, Orwell gets me thinking. I didn’t enjoy The Road To Wigan Pier quite as much as Down And Out In Paris And London, but it’s still an excellent book and a valuable historical document.

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard: Volume I (2001) 773 p.

I usually read short story anthologies in one go, but I wisely decided not to with this gargantuan beast, which I’ve been struggling through piece by piece since I was reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Why I thought it was a good idea to read such an enormous volume of work from an author whom I’d never sampled before I have no idea.

J.G. Ballard was quite famous, however, and I had heard of him. He was so renowned for the tone of bleak alienation in his books that a word was coined: “Ballardian,” meaning “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.” Most of the stories in this anthology were written in the 1950s and 1960s, and there’s often a strong sense of a rigid consumerist post-war society, trapped between the stifling customs of the past (wives pour their husband a stiff drink when he gets home from work etc.) and the bleak ugliness of modern cities, architecture and ways of living.

By and large they are not only tedious, but bleak and depressing. One can’t fairly fault Ballard for writing bleak stories, if that’s his stock in trade, but it was a bit of a drag to read through thirty-nine of them. He seems particularly obsessed with abstract things like time, sound and vision, and if a story is set in his fictional desert city of Vermilion Sands, it’s an instant tip-off that it’s going to be a boring trudge through some crappy story about musical statues or audio technicians or something like that.

There are a few good stories in there; I particularly enjoyed Concentration City (about a man trying to escape a city that stretches on forever), The Watch-Towers (about life in a town dominated by mysterious observation towers) and The Venus Hunters (about an astronomer who falls in with a scientist claiming to have met Venusian explorers). On the whole, though, I regretted reading this book shortly after beginning it, and only finished it through sheer determination. Note to self: do not buy “the complete” anything of an author you haven’t read before.

The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, Vol I at The Book Depository

When I first moved in with Kristie in Essendon it was only with the intention of staying for a few nights, until Jamie’s house in Sunshine became available. That sorry saga is still being played out, but with Jamie being evicted from the charming Brunswick townhouse by his DINK hosts, Chris languishing in Perth, and my own fate unsecured after Kristie’s lease expires in July and she takes off to Europe, we started rent hunting.

This would have been around Easter – in fact, yes, I spun the idea to Jamie at the Cornish Arms on the long weekend. So that was, what, two months ago? And yet we only recently found a place.  It was a pain in the fucking ass, and I must say that in the age of the Internet I have no idea why any potential landlord still goes through real estate agents to find prospective tenants rather than using gumtree or craigslist. You can still get them to sign legal leases, so what is the point of a real estate agent anymore – somebody who serves as a pointless middleman? The house we eventually found was on gumtree and leased directly from the landlord, who was happy to give us a flexible lease considering that he’s bulldozing it to build a block of flats in about six months.

Chris was all set to move over, after his two week visit to Perth stretched into a three month visit, but then he was suddenly struck down with glandular fever and had to go to hospital to have a bunch of tests done. Between this and his bike being stolen (which he still hasn’t receieved an insurance payout for) I’m beginning to think he may have been a bloodthirsty dictator in a past life. (Actually, Hirohito died about nine months before he was born.) So he’s still waiting, and meanwhile it’s me and Jamie and Glenn, whom Jamie rescued from the crappy couchsurfing backpacker sharehouse he stayed in after Brunswick (where, amongst other things, he got bedbugs, had his Mac stolen, and had a knife pulled on him). Glenn’s friend Dylan is also staying with us, and Jamie’s friend Dave – who is planning to live in Sunshine with us – has a lease expiring in about a month. So I’ve gone from living in domestic bliss with my girlfriend, with a nice bedroom and warm bed and homecooked meal every night, to sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a male sharehouse. It is, as Orwell would say, like being a goldfish tossed into a tank of pike. But I need to learn to fend for myself sooner or later, and this is what I want. I have a good forty or fifty years to live with a girlfriend or wife; there’s only so many years of your life where you can live in a sharehouse with friends.

The house is in Camberwell, a very prosperous part of the city right next to Toorak, Melbourne’s traditional ivory tower suburb. The streets are lined with auburn trees and the houses are mostly large and regal. It vaguely reminds me of Hampstead in London – it’s where the old money lives. It’s a pretty decent house, quite new, palatial bathrooms and partially furnished, and about 400 bucks rent a week (for the whole house, not per person). There’s a semi-attached house out the back where an Asian girl and an Indian guy live, which has proved to be a little weird. Apparently Glenn woke up one morning and walked out into the living room, to find the Indian sitting at the coffee table doing some work.

“What are you doing in here?” he asked.

The interloper jumped at that and said “Oh… um… sorry, I didn’t think anyone was home.”

“Dude, that’s so much worse!” Glenn yelled, before kicking him out. This was not the first nor last intrusion, but he seems to have gotten the message lately. So all in all it’s a good house.

It is, however, not a good spot for my job. In Essendon I was fifteen minutes away from the airport; now I’m about 45. Every afternoon and evening I face a long, chilly commute down the Citylink tollway, watching the distant skyscrapers grow nearer, going past them on the Bolte Bridge, and then watching them grow just as distant again. I’ve started going around the boom gate in the long-term carpark to shave ten minutes off my commute, instead of parking in the staff carpark and waiting for the shuttle bus. But it still sucks. It’s also getting unbearably cold; I had a 7 am start yesterday, and was riding along in the 6 am darkness wearing thermal underwear, my thick bike jacket and a scarf, and was still freezing. I couldn’t feel my hands and feet for about half an hour afterwards. I was considering getting a car for the winter months, but tolls (which motorbikes don’t have to pay) would cost me at least twelve dollars a day. This is literally highway robbery, and Perth’s freeway is thus far the only thing Perth does better than Melbourne.

I’ve rapidly become sick of working in retail anyway. It’s the same thing every day: “Hi, how’s it going, would you like a bag for that, which account was that on, would you like a receipt, have a good day!” I hope I won’t come across as arrogant if I say I’m better than that. They’ve also made me go from casual to part-time, so that my pay has gone from $20 an hour to $16. Meanwhile Jamie and Glenn both just got pay raises, and are both on at least $50,000 a year. Jamie’s friend Dave is on at least $70,000. It’s time for me to stop working in crappy minimum wage jobs and start building a career. Even the shittiest entry-level position writing copy for things I don’t care about would pay better than a dead-end retail job. And I wouldn’t have to get up at 3 am on winter mornings. So I’ve started jobhunting, even though I can only do it when visiting Kristie, since there’s no Internet in our Camberwell house. I do have an iPhone now (a good rule of thumb is that whenever an awesome new piece of technology comes out, it takes about five years for it to become ubiquitous and affordable enough for people like me to own it) and that’s OK for Facebook and such, but browsing the Internet on it is cramped and tedious. It also has a shitty camera, which is a shame, because there’s a lot of nice stuff in Melbourne to randomly snap photos of. The iPhone 4’s is fantastic, but I’m using Jamie’s old 3G.

Since I had to change phones anyway I switched from Vodafone to Optus, since Vodafone’s constant fuckery was starting to irritate me. Turns out Optus is just as bad; the only places I really have decent reception are at the airport and in the CBD. Technology infrastructure in Australia is hopeless. Although with Optus I do get free Facebook and Twitter, and signed up to Twitter purely because of that. I’m “mitchedgeworth” if you feel like following me.

I finally got in trouble for my (lack of) license plate today, because there was a booze bus on the way to work. I explained to the cops that I’d been trying to get it replaced, and that I’d filed a police report and spoken to VicRoads and such, to which I receieved a surly “And how are we supposed to know that?” From the words that just came out of my mouth, I thought. What the fuck did they want me to do? I’ve been chasing this fucking thing for months and received virtually no help from any government employee between the Indian and the Pacific. When I finally did get my documents together and went to a licensing centre, I was told I needed to bring the bike, even though they’d previously told me I didn’t have to. So I have to wait weeks for the next available appointment. Needing to make an appointment just to hand in forms is also stupid.

I’m perpetually disappointed with government services (police, VicRoads, visa bureaus and consulates all over the world) and yet I’m also perpetually disappointed with private companies (Chris’ insurance company, Worldbridge, CityLink). Everyone’s an asshole and nobody wants to help you out. What the world needs more of is not love, but common human decency.

Anyway, they let me off with a warning but told me to replace them by the end of the financial year. Which will also be the first time I have some money in my pocket thanks to the tax office. I was looking at my payslip the other day and was flabbergasted to find that I’ve earnt $7000 since working at this bookstore and saved nary a cent of it. Somehow – between rent and groceries and booze and mattresses and winter coats and scarves and books and restaurant meals and comedy shows and train fares – it’s all slipped away. I know I said I wanted to start enjoying life again instead of constantly scrimping and saving like I was for the last three years, but ideally I’d like to enjoy life and put aside some money for future adventures. Hence the jobhunt.

I never know how to finish these things. I’ve been idly flicking through books of famous people’s journals at work (Michael Palin, Christopher Isherwood, George Orwell) and keeping a daily diary seems tempting, but I suspect it would reveal a depressingly tedious routine to my life. Lord knows these occasional updates are dull enough.

Archive Calendar

June 2011