George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier has recently been the subject of a grand bust-up between the Chancellor and the BBC. The reference to the book by the BBC’s Assistant Political Editor Norman Smith in his coverage of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement led to accusations of bias and hyperbole.
But how much has changed since Orwell’s 1937 social investigation? Recent Fabian Society research into the food system for the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty highlights a number of concerning similarities.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell draws the reader’s attention to a letter published in the New Statesman extolling the virtues of eating “oranges and wholemeal bread”. Orwell responds viscerally, saying no “ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing,” going on to say, “the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food”. Orwell used food as a lens to look at how different people from different backgrounds and different incomes lived their lives.
This use of food as a lens into human experience continues in earnest today. Dr Wendy Wills, who will be giving evidence to the Fabian Commission’s second hearing, has written extensively on the juxtaposition between middle-class food priorities for presentation, self-preservation and health, and those of families on lower incomes who view food as a means to getting fed.
In the same book, Orwell presciently outlines another behavioural approach towards food that resounds today. While the “millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits”, Orwell wrote, “when you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food”. Instead, Orwell adroitly explained, “you want to eat something a little tasty”.
And so this is true today. In the first evidence hearing of the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, the retail industry analyst Clive Black explained the recent trend of the rise of the “affordable treat”. When times got harder over the recession and incomes were squeezed, Black posited, families cut back on expenditure. But despite cutting back on budgets, people still wanted a spot of indulgence from time to time. So they increasingly turned to a much cheaper alternative for leisure and luxury: food and drink. The result has been a burgeoning in the UK coffee trade, and a rise in revenue for fast food outlets and high-sugar, high-salt foods. So what Orwell called a desire for “something tasty”, market analysts now call the “affordable treat”.
In general food terms a lot has changed since The Road to Wigan Pier. Martin O’Connell from the Institute for Fiscal Studies explained to the Commission’s first evidence hearing that food prices had fallen consistently over the last 30 years, only to jump back upwards during the recession. Over this time, according to Kantar data, the average time spent cooking and preparing meals has halved. There are now 8,000 fast food outlets in the city of London alone. And since Orwell’s book was published, average life expectancies have risen by nearly a decade.
But many issues today might seem familiar to Orwell. An increasing number of people are having to turn to emergency community food support to put a meal on the table. Levels of inequality are back up to a similar level as in the 1930s. And as Orwell put it in The Road to Wigan Pier in a way that could refer to the fast food dominated high streets of today, when times are hard, “there is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you”.
Food is an integral fixture of all of our lives and a brilliant lens through which we view changes and trends in society. Over the coming months the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty will be asking how we can give more people access to nutritious, affordable, sustainable food in the UK. And while a few of us might find it uncomfortable to admit it, some of these issues are the same for us today as they were for Orwell when he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier.
Cameron Tait is Senior Researcher at the Fabian Society. The second evidence hearing for the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty will be held in parliament on Tuesday 9 December. The Commission will report in summer 2015