Published in 1937 after Orwell was commissioned to write it by the Left Book Club (whose purpose was to get people united against fascism), this book dives deeper into the poverty and misery he first explores in Down & Out in Paris and London. Orwell spends time in the industrial centers of North and South England, acting as a canary in their coal mines to warn us about the dangers of industrial capitalism with rampant unemployment causing people to resign themselves to a lifetime of living on the dole. Leaky roofs, cracked walls, bugs, inadequate space, windows that don’t open because the houses shift from all the excavation nearby– these are commonplace in the homes Orwell lodges in or visits. He honestly lays out his own middle class preconceptions, taught to view the underclass as something to loathe as a way to retain his tenuous grip on an upper class rung when his income nears the boundaries of the lower class. He complains of overflowing chamber pots left unattended under the dining room table and claims that these lower class people just plain smell bad (along with losing all their teeth). Class differences and having to get over prejudices are main obstacles to Orwell’s dream of socialism. He also tongue-in-cheek claims that socialism attracts the outcasts and cranks: vegetarians, pacifists, feminists, etc.
At first I found this offensive, then chuckled as I imagined women conspiring to make this myth take hold in order to not have to get up in the middle of the night to feed breakfast to departing miners:
Apparently the old superstition that it is bad luck to see a woman before going to work on the morning shift is not quite extinct. In the old days, it is said, a miner who happened to meet a woman in the early morning would often turn back and do no work that day.
So much of what Orwell writes is still very relevant today, including:
This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the salve of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that “they” will never allow him to do this, that, and the other.
Orwell notes that a shift has taken place over the last eight years, now that *everyone* is unemployed, it is no longer shameful:
To study unemployment and its effects you have got to go to the industrial areas… It is only when you lodge in streets where nobody has a job, where getting a job seems about as probable as owning an aeroplane and much less probable than winning fifty pounds in the Football Pool, that you begin to grasp the changes that are being worked in our civilisation. For a change is taking place, there is no doubt about that. The attitude of the submerged working class is profoundly different from what it was seven or eight years ago… The people have at any rate grasped that unemployment is a thing they cannot help… It makes a great deal of difference when things are the same for everybody.
Cheap luxuries as the opiate of the masses. I also appreciate his comment that the ruling class wasn’t savvy enough to have come up with this on their own, that it’s merely the effect of the market:
Of course the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish and chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution. Therefore we are sometimes told that the whole thing is an astute maneuver by the governing classes–a sort of “bread and circuses” business–to hold the unemployed down. What I have seen of our governing class does not convince me that they have that much intelligence. The thing has happened, but by an unconscious process– the quite natural interaction between the manufacturer’s need for a market and the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives.
Orwell definitely has a thing against canned food:
If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. But the process must have begun earlier than that, and it must be due ultimately to unhealthy ways of living, i.e. to industrialism. I don’t mean the habit of living in towns–probably the town is healthier than the country, in many ways–but the modern industrial technique which provides you with cheap substitutes for everything. We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.
Again railing against tinned food, but so much more. Fun to imagine Orwell’s reaction to how we live today.
The sensitive person’s hostility to the machine is in one sense unrealistic, because of the obvious fact that the machine has come to stay. But as an attitude of mind there is a great deal to be said for it. The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug–that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes. You have only to look about you at this moment to realise with what sinister speed the machine is getting us into its power.
To begin with, there is the frightful debauchery of taste that has already been effected by a century of mechanisation… as a single instance, take taste in its narrowest sense–the taste for decent food. In the highly mechanised countries, thanks to tinned food, cold storage, synthetic flavouring matters, etc., the palate is almost a dead organ… Wherever you look you will see some slick machine-made article triumphing over the old-fashioned article that still tastes of something other than sawdust. And what applies to food applies also to furniture, houses, clothes, books, amusements and everything else that makes up our environment. There are now millions of people, and they are increasing every year, to whom the blaring of a radio is not only a more acceptable but a more normal background to their thoughts than the lowing of cattle or the song of birds.