The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
It's 75 years since George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier appeared and to mark the anniversary Stephen Armstrong has retraced Orwell’s route through northern England.
The first half of the writer’s book is a vivid and disturbing description of the often dreadful conditions in working- class communities trying to survive the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The second offers an extended account of Orwell’s views on socialism and what he took to be the obstacles in the way of making it a reality in mid-20th century Britain.
There’s no doubt that the first half of Orwell’s book is the better of the two. Although his conclusion, that we urgently need “an effective Socialist party … with genuinely revolutionary intentions … [and] numerically strong enough to act” is spot-on, there is much in the second half that is irrelevant, silly or simply untrue.
Orwell inveighs against vegetarians, describing them as “food-cranks” who are “out of touch with common humanity.”
And he castigates other elements of the socialist movement as “high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers.” At one point he makes the ridiculous assertion that socialism “has produced no songs worth singing.”
Thus the second half is something of an embarrassment and Armstrong seems to share this assessment.
He devotes seven of his book’s eight chapters to the powerful descriptive section of Orwell’s book and only the final, somewhat half-hearted, chapter to Orwell’s less impressive ruminations on what he perceived as the ills of British socialism.
Gathering information on the eve of the riots that broke out across the country in August 2011, Armstrong visits the cities and streets Orwell traversed in 1936 and in some cases meets the grandchildren of the people Orwell described in his book.
It makes for sobering reading. Orwell’s book opens with a memorable description of going down a pit that conveys the claustrophobia and physical extremes endured by coalminers.
With the mines gone, Armstrong signs up with an employment agency for work as a food production operative and he gives a powerful account of the deadening, mind-numbing nature of the work.
And work in 21st- century Britain is no guarantee against poverty. “In the mid-1990s, the majority of those in work were on benefits. Today, the majority are in work.”
Armstrong highlights the plight of those workers employed on “zero-hours contracts,” the contemporary equivalent of the system in which “casual dockers were herded into a cage each morning to beg for work” and recounts the stories of jobcentre staff allegedly “given targets of three people a week to refer for sanctions.” In other words, getting their benefits stopped for “not looking for work.”
Yet this country, with its burgeoning numbers of working poor, zero-hours contracts and aggressive benefits sanctions, is one in which only 12 private schools account for 10 per cent of British MPs.
Overall, Armstrong paints a vivid picture of how many of the gains of 1945 have already been lost — and what else stands to be lost in the absence of “an effective Socialist party with genuinely revolutionary intentions.”
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