On the road again

The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell's tour of the industrial North, changed the way many of us thought of Britain. In the author's centenary year, Paul Vallely retraces his footsteps

The thing about Wigan Pier is that it isn't there. Indeed it never was. The idea began as a joke. The story goes that a train bound for Southport a century agostopped in fog 15 miles from the coast. Peering out, the passengers could make out the shape of what was in fact an elevated railway gantry, which led to a small jetty from which trucks tipped coal into barges on the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The land beneath the gantry was flooded, as it often was. In the swirling mist it resembled one of the piers that were then newly fashionable in seaside resorts.

"Are we at Southport?" a passenger enquired of a man in a signal box.

"Nay lad," replied the railwayman. "That's Wigan Pier tha' cun see."

The tale is probably apocryphal. But that did not stop George Formby Senior, who lived about a mile from the gantry, using the gag in his music-hall act. The name Wigan Pier became famous throughout the land. So much so that when George Orwell set out on a tour of the industrial north in 1936 and found himself in Wigan, he set his heart on seeing the celebrated landmark. "Alas! Wigan Pier has been demolished," he wrote, "and even the spot where it used to stand is no longer certain."

It did not stop him entitling the book that was to be his first best-seller The Road to Wigan Pier. It was as if – in a book whose aim was to chronicle the abject poverty brought to the English working classes by the mass unemployment and deflation of the Great Depression – the non-existent object now stood as a symbol of the decay of the industrial North.

Perhaps, too, it stood for a journey to something else which, in the end, turned out not to be there: socialism. At least, that's the neat conceit that Peter Davison, the editor of the 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, offers us.

You can expect a lot more of this. Next month is the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell, regarded by some as perhaps the most influential political writer of his time – or at any rate the one who was "more memorably and influentially right than anyone" about the politics of the 20th century, in the words of one scholar. Stand by to be deluged with a tide of Orwelliana. Penguin is re-jacketing all his books. There will be a South Bank Show and a BBC drama documentary. And a new, 500-page biography has been written by the critic DJ Taylor, concentrating on the myths and paradoxes that surround Orwell.

Of all of these, one is central. Having been commissioned by the leftist publisher Victor Gollancz to write about working-class life in the depressed North, Orwell produced 100 pages of scathing indictment of the squalor, decay and despair in the slum housing of Wigan and the conditions under which its miners worked. His fans describe it as an account of unblinking honesty, fury and great humanity.

His description of the filthy tripe-shop in which he lodged is a masterpiece of obsessive physical disgust. The people who live there "go creeping round like black beetles". By contrast the miners, more lyrically, are "noble" men with "arms and belly muscles of steel", who live in "sane and comely" working-class homes. What characterises it all is the power of the plain style of writing and his mastery of it. "Good prose," he observed elsewhere, "should be transparent, like a window pane."

Yet what a more attentive reading of the book shows is the loaded nature of his technique. Consider the adjectives deployed on just the opening page: beastly, defiled, not rightful, useless, hideous, squalid. And he is only at this stage talking about the room and its furniture. Even the "flabby" cheese takes on a moral significance.

They were not impressed in Wigan. "The trouble was that he equated reality with squalor," says the local historian Geoffrey Shryhane, who has a weekly column in the Wigan Observer where he has been monitoring the town's reaction to Orwell for more than 40 years. Local folk still recall how Orwell, when he arrived in Wigan, at first lodged with John and Lily Anderton at 72 Warrington Road, but moved because their house was insufficiently sordid.

"When I were a lad," says Bernard Coyle, who is 77 and has spent 42 years as a borough councillor, "there was a warren of streets of terraced houses without bathrooms or toilets. But I never saw the kind of squalor depicted in the book."

But did Orwell set out to be fair? Though he professed to "like Wigan very much – the people, not the scenery", there is surprisingly little celebration in his account. He went into a pub only once – when he was carried there after collapsing as he emerged from a mine. For Orwell there is no laughter or glasses tinkling, no sounds of a piano from the lounge bar, no song of the variety hall or fellow feeling from the football match – nothing that might concede that it was possible that the benighted objects of his anger and pity might wring any joy or satisfaction from their grim little lives.

For the upper-middle-class old Etonian writer, this was "a journey into a strange northern land", according to the Orwell academic Dr Chris Hopkins of Sheffield Hallam University. "His upbringing, and Edwardian sense that he was mixing with the Great Unwashed, did battle with his 1930s political sense of a Heroic Proletariat."

More than that, says Hopkins, "he reported the worst as if it were the average." Orwell enthusiasts defend that. "It's a propagandist technique," says Professor Davison. "He wanted things to be better."

This is just one of Orwell's contradictions. Writing should be transparent and tell the truth. But words, he knew, can be used to obscure the truth. The road from Wigan Pier led on to Animal Farm and thence to Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the abuse of language, the debasement of ideas and the manipulation of the state have become commonplace – as the rewriting of the history of US and UK government attitudes towards Iraq has so recently showed.

So where, I wondered as I arrived in Wigan, would Orwell go if he returned today? Perhaps, pursuing the "reality equals squalor" approach, he would seek out an area like Platt Bridge, where he would encounter the relative poverty of today's unemployed – a "working class" that has become a "benefits class", with rates of burglary and violent crime more than double national average, and where the BNP has begun to fiddle about at the edges of Wigan's all-white community, among whom asylum-seekers are the new issue.

Or perhaps he would venture, as I did, up the Three Sisters – the razed remnants of the "Wigan Alps", three massive conical mountains of colliery waste – and gaze, under the tutelage of the mining historian Ian Winstanley, at the transformed face of the town. The chimneys and headgear of 1,000 pits once spotted the landscape, but now all around are swathes of green – replanted woods and reclaimed fields.

The town laid out below us was like an index to the changes of modern Britain. The mining and much of the manufacturing has gone. Heinz still provides 2,000 jobs making baked beans there. But the service sector is the big new employer. Other well-known Wigan firms include the Tote, Girobank, the North West Tourist Board and the Tidy Britain Group.

And then there is JJB Sports, the £467m sports-goods retail giant built up by a local lad made extraordinarily good. Dave Whelan, a former professional footballer, began with a market stall after breaking his leg in an FA Cup final. He is a colourful, abrasive and controversial figure, simultaneously admired and resented in the town where, characteristically, he has bought the rugby league, rugby union and football clubs and brought them together in a brash new stadium topped with a giant architectural quiff of an arch, back and front.

This is a man who has bought Wigan Athletic's success – the team has just been promoted, for the first time ever, to the First Division of the Nationwide League. He is demanding a new motorway junction to be opened by his headquarters. He wants, local legend has it, to "Tippex Wigan off the map and replace it with Whelan". There is something of empire about it all.

George Orwell wouldn't have liked Dave Whelan. In the book, he derides "the self-made Northern businessman... the type whose chief pride is to be an even greater boor after he has made his money than before... we are bidden to admire him because though he might be narrow-minded, sordid, ignorant, grasping and uncouth... he knew how to make money."

But if men like Whelan have covered the landscape with gargantuan warehouse sheds – blocks of monocolour, the colour of the rain-laden sky, which sprawl characterless across vast acreages – they also create jobs. Unemployment in Wigan has recently dropped below the regional and national averages for the first time since 1959.

Not that they are that keen on Orwell at JJB. The marketing director is a Wiganer born and bred. "What he wrote still colours people's views of Wigan," says Winston Higham, who has only recently returned to the town after a career designing sets for rock bands. "People think it's all terraces from here to Liverpool and Manchester. In fact, the town is surrounded by green fields and golf courses – 75 per cent of Wigan borough is rural. It's only 20 minutes from the coast, Manchester airport, Haydock and the Trafford Centre, and 30 minutes from the theatres, concert halls and clubs of Liverpool and Manchester. The Lake District is 40 minutes away. It's a great place to live. But if Wigan is going to grow it's got to leave Orwell behind and sell all that."

Parts of its history are saleable, too. By and large Wigan avoided the redevelopment excesses of the Sixties. It has retained an attractive town centre in which handsome Edwardian red-brick municipal buildings sit by Tudor-style façades added in the Thirties. It has a £26m shopping gallery – opened by that doyenne of retail therapy, Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1991 – in which a traditional market hall stands among new, light arcades. It is an agreeable, ordinary, modest little place.

But there is a final irony. Confronted with the fact that what the world knew best about Wigan was its pier – a symbol of non-existence spun out of a joke based on a misunderstanding – the local council decided that the best thing it could do was to build a replica of the town's most famous absent presence. In 1986 the Queen arrived to open a non-working model of, not the whole gantry but just the coal "tippler" at the end of it, which sticks out into the canal by a bare couple of feet.

The surrounding "Wigan Pier Experience" – a couple of museums and associated tourist attractions – has since won no fewer than 23 national awards, including the Oscar of tourism, the British Tourist Authority's "Come to Britain" award. Here schoolchildren fulfil national curriculum requirements, families have "fun days", OAPs reminisce and sing old songs, and corporate entertainment managers hire rooms with conversation-stimulating backdrops.

As for the poor, the public now flock in to play them. In the museum's Victorian schoolroom, stern mistresses, wielding canes, bark and bully visitors through a lesson from the pre-Orwell era. Writing is on slates. Learning is by rote. Tourists from the 21st century, wearing their JJB designer sports-gear, queue and wait to be summoned back to a more orderly and repressive past in which selected individuals are publicly humiliated before their peers. The second time around, history comes as farce and the Big Brother it brings to mind is more Channel 4 than George Orwell.

"It seems funny to celebrate Orwell for highlighting all our bad points, but Wigan wouldn't be anywhere near as famous without him," says the Wigan Pier Experience's manager, Carole Tyldesley. "In the end George Orwell has proved to be a strong marketing tool."

Thus Wigan finally exacts its revenge.

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