A rainy day at Wigan Pier. Photo: Getty Images.
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Wigan Pier and beyond: “So who is Orwell for?”

Written on the cusp of 1984, the feminist writer Beatrix Campbell argues that we needn't fear for Orwell's "common decency".

It's an odd thought that Britain's best-selling modern writer and, according to recent polls, the most highly esteemed, was a socialist who was best known for his anti-socialism. Though a friend of mine has pointed out that George Orwell is a best-seller because his books are set texts for thousands of children, nonetheless 1984 is Orwell's year and we are going to see some unseemly body snatching, with the Right and Left both claiming his satires as prophecies, and as prophecies belonging to them. It tells us something about the state of England.

On the side of the Right are Orwell's anti-Sovietism, his conservative anti-modernism and his celebration of English common sense. The Left also has its anti-Sovietism, but, more importantly, Orwell articulates Left paranoia about the use of power and about popular discontent with the State. For still few on the Left can conceive of a socialism which isn't about State power and thus Orwell utters a scepticism about the popularity of socialism which the Left itself cannot own to. In this second term of Thatcherism, of populism grounded in the common sense of decency, domesticity and anti-democracy, Orwell has gained a new meaning.

We will be seeing young men from the generation of 1968 who marched against the invasion of Cambodia and against the internment of Republicans in Northern Ireland saying “we must claim patriotism for the Left”, as Orwell did. We'll be hearing veteran libertarians repeating calls for a new morality and taking seriously, as does his biographer Bernard Crick, his notions of “common decency”.

What then does Orwell's present-day “meaning” tell us about the state of England? He is popular because he is conservative, because he is a pessimist who doesn't much like women and who knows little about the working class. That fits with the spirit of our times. If there is anything the Right and the Left share it is a pessimism about the people and their political proclivities.

Perhaps Orwell is also popular because you don't have to have read him to know what he is on about. I've just spent a year or so living with The Road to Wigan Pier. I couldn't remember having read it when Virago publishers suggested that I make the return journey up the road. But I thought I must have. Throughout the journey I would ask if people had read Wigan Pier and most who said “yes” also said “but I can't remember when — it must have been at school”. (Only a few remembered what it said and most of them had the original Left Rook Club edition on their shelves. Typically they remembered the first half of the book, the documentary account of his travel through the unemployed North, and ignored the second half — a rash rant about socialism. I imagine many of his re-visitors are going to enjoy the second half and forget the first.

When I did get round to reading Orwell — and today you can't admit to not having read his work — it was a disturbing experience. That is mainly because he wasn't talking to me, the daughter of working-class parents in the North, though a journalist now; or to people like me. Although much of his work is about “the masses”, we, the masses, are the objects in his narrative. He is the subject. That's the case in Wigan Pier and again in 1984. Some of the best material in Wigan Pier is his personal-political stream of consciousness about being an upper-class gent finding himself on the same side as the lower orders. It is a good record of his outrage, not of what life felt like for the working-class people he appears to describe.

Yet part of Orwell's outrage is that he sees the working class as a class without a voice, without an idea, without resources. It's a class without consciousness; it's a degenerate class.

There might seem little in this view of the working class that a compassionate, upper-class Tory would not share; and indeed both Right and Left do share the myth, most clearly articulated in Orwell's critique of modern socialism, of the working class as both corrupt and unconscious. Raymond Williams, in his unsurpassed little book Orwell, traces the depiction of the working class in Animal Farm and 1984 as “powerful but stupid” and an “apathetic mass”, people who “have never learned to think”. Those expressions come from the pens of Orwell's apostles and from the mouth of every pious activist complaining that people don't come to meetings these days because they are too busy watching videos; that, unlike the middle class, they are corrupted by consumer goods.

Orwell's understanding of power — the actual theme of most of his works — depends on his view of the masses. And in 1984 our first meeting with the “proles” demonstrates his view. Three men are standing reading a newspaper, two others are studying it over their shoulders. “Winston could see absorption in every line of their bodies. It was obviously some serious bit of news they were reading.” But what was it? The lottery! The proles are a rabble of Daily Star readers and Rangers supporters (all men, of course).

If these men are socialist at all, their vision is merely of a “society with the worst abuses left out”. Orwell warns us in Wigan Pier that socialism can't be reduced to economic justice and reform, but he never “imagines” what a non-reductionist socialism would look like. He has a problem there because the interest groups which have challenged modern economic reductionism are precisely those for whom Orwell reserves his vintage vitriol: “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit juice drinkers”.

So who is Orwell for, in this jamboree year, when both Right and Left will be slugging it out to claim him for themselves as if, like the Bible or Capital his books were necessary to their litany? I can see why he has been recruited for the Right. But what is the Left doing trying to reclaim his “common sense”, his elevation of moral clichés which make up our common sense? Today's commonsense politics, which Orwell appears to represent so neatly, are the consensus politics that reproduce passivity and dependence in the working class. They are not about producing politics — as ideas or action — but about managing politics.

In the end Orwell abandons socialist politics for a kind of southern suburban consensus in which many of his characters face a hopeless future because the only political processes that Orwell can imagine (outside war) can neither touch the exercise of power nor can they change “consensus man” himself. This politics about what is good and valuable in life depends on nostalgia, in which the past is always better than the future. It is thus a politics of pessimism. Orwell's writing in fact, as Williams shows, creates “the conditions for defeat and despair”.

It is odd that Orwell should see so little about how people can change, since he himself was transformed by his own contact with the oppressed. Yet there remains a gap between his feeling for the people and his thought about political action by the people. This is all the more ironic since in Wigan Pier and, later, in The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell is prescient enough to put “everyday life” on to the political agenda and to demand a cultural revolution. He does not see how, if changing everyday life and pursuing a cultural revolution do become prime political objectives, this in itself will expand the parameters of politics in ways that will necessarily disturb the eternal verities of his common sense.

For what, in his common sense, would Orwell have made of the Greenham Common women, the kind he loved to hate, who have maintained a majority against nuclear missiles despite the state machine, the blunders of the Labour Party at the last election and the “normal” lapse into apathy of the masses? It took all those bearded and bright ecologists to alert the nation to the pollution of the planet — when Orwell just thought, like much of the macho Left, that such types were naive and silly.

As for women generally, Orwell either sees them as disturbing sexual magnets with whom pleasure promises peace but produces punishment; or they are crazy, woolly, ugly old crackpots whose radicalism takes them to the edge of society. He must, of course, reject feminism for in his time too it offered a critique of all those “decent” suburban values he holds dear. Feminism is Orwell's Achilles' heel, and he pays dearly for it. For he is left without those ingredients which do transform limited economic objectives into radical aspirations precisely for the reasons that he has rejected them (they are nakedly emotional and vulgarly unsophisticated). What Orwell offers instead is a radical re-possession of key words in consensus politics — patriotism, decency and justice.

In Orwell’s future, there is no opposition that succeeds, there is only surrender. After all, Winston Smith embraces his own defeat. His “completion” as a character comes with his embrace of Big Brother. His self-hatred has no resolution in the present, nor in politics or in protest; it only finds peace in the past. Throughout his work, Orwell mobilises nostalgia for an Edwardian England when a pint was a full pint and vehicles went on four legs and domestic life was decent. It's a forgetful kind of memory which is constantly recruited to serve conservatism. Childhood memories are falsified memories which bury the pain of the past, but they make up so much of the substance of Orwell's critique, his bad temper about the present and his panic about the future.

In 1984 and in Wigan Pier, Orwell's polemic is less about history than about accommodating flight from modern life. We find it again in Coming Up for Air. It's a commonplace and popular theme in English culture: Englishness is the rustic village where every season is summer, everybody's mum makes jam, everybody's dad does the pools and neighbours look after the old folks.

Typically, both Right and Left are susceptible to this myth. The Right draws on Victorian truths and the Left on a do-it-yourself ideology of community and craft. Not surprisingly, Orwell's commonsense Englishness finds force with both. But the trouble I have with these traditions is that they are conservative and that they lie about the condition of most people then — an exhausted, insanitary and subordinate condition — by turning it into a romantic myth.

What's in that way of life for a woman like me? What was ever in it for working-class women? Come to think of it, there wasn't much to it for working-class men either. Modern life may feature all those things Orwell doesn't like — electronics, state surveillance, mass media, birth control. But it is also about greater mass participation in politics than ever before. Women of my age and class — mid '30s — have skills to sell, sexual pleasure to seek and satisfy and a vote. As like as not we have a trade union card as well, children, our own name on the rent book. We haven't had that before, not all at the same time.

That's a function of politics of course. It's also an expression of a new form of resolution of the historic settlement between men and women. It is less and less at women's expense while more and more it demands not only the transformation of the female condition but of the masculine way of life too.

Just as Orwell's future ascribes an un-changed role to the sexes, so it is for the different classes. He imagines a prole class forever sad and subordinate, doomed to drink and gambling, gossip and superstition. The working class is, of course, in the image of its men, its apparently degenerate sex. In Orwell, the future is always worse, and always brings the consummation of coercive power. And his new vocabulary of absolute state power is his great contribution to the torture. There is in Orwell's projection no future for democracy, for all his artful celebrations of our democratic way of life. In foreseeing the future of power he only saw negative force, not power mediated or modified by a countervailing popular force. In foreseeing the future, he didn't see us.

16 December 1983

Beatrix Campbell is a writer, broadcaster, campaigner and playwright.
RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era