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.
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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism