To George, from Sunny Wigan
by Christopher Norris
At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked . . . . She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye . . . . [Her face] wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen.
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
His eyes caught mine, him on the morning train,
Northbound, next station Wigan, me
Up early, jobs to do,
Clothes slung on, hair not fit to see,
And kneeling, stick in hand, with that blocked drain
To clear, the kind of stuff that he,
Scoop-ready, took as cue
To tell the outside world that we
Poor plebs were padlocked to our ball-and-chain.
I know, I know, all part of his campaign
To shock the shameless bourgeoisie,
To give a close-up view
Of how we live, a woman’s knee
On cold, hard stones as just the thing to gain
A bit of extra sympathy
For us hell-dwellers who
Seem so far gone in misery
That, somehow, we’ve no reason to complain.
What grates when they go slumming to maintain
Their street cred and their pedigree
As our brains-retinue
Is just how often that esprit
De parti prolétaire sounds like disdain
For working-class identity,
Or what they take as true
Marks of it, like my making free
To meet his gaze with gestures so profane.
We get it constantly: ‘you live in vain,
Waste lives in routine labour, flee
The troubling thought that you,
So long downtrodden, might yet be
The very class best placed to ease the pain
Of age-old servitude, the cri
De coeur of your sad crew,
If only you’d promote your plea
With works and days less brutally mundane’.
It’s what we hate, that old class-hopper’s bane
Of thinking they’ve a special key
To others’ life-worlds through
Their reading, thinking, Ph.D.
In urban politics, enormous brain,
Or all the myths that guarantee
The many and the few
Won’t gel, the few on their quick spree
Up North, the many on their darkling plain.
One fantasy I like to entertain
Is how they might get uppity
When gawped at in their zoo,
Those Wigan folk – give him a flea
In his left ear, and then proceed to cane
That book’s dyspeptic parti pris,
The doleful tale it drew
From sifting through our life-debris,
Like me outside in curlers, stick up drain.
Give him this tip from me: next time you deign
To come, do meet the family,
Spare us an hour or two,
And let the lived reality
Sink in, the squalor but, as well, the strain
Of stoic humour that can see
The joke yet still say ‘screw
Your Wigan Pier stuff’ when the glee
Proclaims ‘down south’ the jester’s home domain.
Please know your nitty-gritty leaves a stain
Of patronage on all that we
Drain-pokers might accrue
Of self-respect, autonomy,
Or books, books, books as our road to attain
The kind of knowledge you would-be
Déclassé types won’t do
Much good with till your family tree
Sprouts new red leaves: then head up North again!
Christopher Norris is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.