The Road to Wigan Pier, read by Jeremy Northam, review

24 Apr

The Jeremy Northam Blog would like to welcome new contributer Amy Cockram, who has reviewed Jeremy’s latest audiobook for us.

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Passing up a horrible squalid side-alley, saw a woman, youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing I was.

“Diaries,” George Orwell (edited by Peter Davison)

I like to start my reviews by declaring any bias that I have. That I like and admire the work of Jeremy Northam is no surprise, but I also like and admire George Orwell. I had to teach a seminar on Orwell during an abortive stint as a teaching assistant when I was a student, and this instilled in me an enjoyment of and admiration for his writing (this didn’t always happen; I loathed some things I had to teach). I know Orwell’s most iconic fiction – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm – but I developed a personal preference for his journalism and essays. I would recommend his brilliant essay Politics and the English Language to anyone who writes, and I dread to think how many of his guidelines I will probably break in just this one piece of writing. So, given my admiration for Orwell, after Jeremy Northam read Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia – both of which have been reviewed by Gill on this blog – I found myself hoping that he would also read The Road to Wigan Pier for CSA Word. I am very happy that my wish came true.

George Orwell

The event that Orwell described in his diary above is also related, in a slightly changed form, in The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s diary entries from 31st January 1936 to 25th March 1936 record his experiences researching the book, which was first published in 1937. He spent these couple of months in 1936 travelling around the poverty-stricken industrial areas in the North of England, staying in cheap lodging houses and with working-class families, to see the conditions in which people were living and working. Orwell witnesses the gruelling and invaluable  – and yet scarcely valued – work that the coal miner does and comes to admire him more than any other man. What starts as an insight into extreme poverty becomes a tract against the iniquities of the British class system, before evolving into an essay in support of beleaguered Socialism. In its own way it is as political as Homage to Catalonia, but without all the acronyms.

It is interesting to hear and read The Road to Wigan Pier retrospectively, as some of Orwell’s descriptions foreshadow changes – not always for the better – in British society, while other fears have thankfully not come to fruition. The roots of Nineteen-Eighty-Four are clear in his fears over the possible rise of Fascism. Orwell is afraid that words are “feeble things,” ill-suited to adequately convey the misery he witnesses, but his words and Jeremy Northam’s voice together are very powerful indeed.

Orwell finds that the road to Wigan Pier is paved with coal and disappointment. He responds to a critic who accuses him of vilifying humanity:

Mr Orwell was “set down” in Wigan for quite a while and it did not inspire him with any wish to vilify humanity.  He liked Wigan very much – the people, not the scenery.  Indeed, he has only one fault to find with it, and that is in respect of the celebrated Wigan Pier, which he had set his heart on seeing.  Alas! Wigan Pier has been demolished, and even the spot where it used to stand is no longer certain.

The site of Wigan Pier (pictured in 1939)

Orwell is disappointed to find that Wigan Pier is no longer there, but this is nothing compared to people who have been disappointed by life. The young woman whom he sees trying to unblock her drain, fully aware of how destiny has cheated her, is the rule rather than the exception. The road to Wigan Pier is essentially a road to nowhere that leaves people adrift in hopeless poverty. The early chapters are bleak and show the landlord-forsaken, crumbling housing in which many people live.

Jeremy Northam

I would listen to Jeremy Northam read the phone book, as the cliche goes. There are occasions in The Road to Wigan Pier when he is obliged to recite costs of food, rent and housing conditions. I am aware that this sounds dry, but it isn’t. Orwell’s writing is a fascinating historical document which reveals how unbearably harsh conditions were for people living in poverty in the 1930s, and yet, somehow, bear it they did because they saw no better alternative. I have ancestors who were coal miners in Wales, so Orwell’s description of going into the mines was a fascinating and troubling insight into the conditions under which my relations would have toiled.

What, above all, saves this from dryness is the clarity of Orwell’s prose, and the empathy with which he writes about the people he meets. It is clear in his writing that Orwell liked and respected the people of Yorkshire and Lancashire: he doesn’t vilify humanity, but he does condemn the poverty in which they live. Jeremy Northam’s sensitive reading, bringing out Orwell’s anger at conditions and his scathing mockery of middle and upper-class attitudes, is perfectly suited to Orwell’s voice. All bias aside, I cannot think of an actor who would be better suited to bringing Orwell’s prose to life. The Road to Wigan Pier gives Jeremy less opportunity to display his range of accents and comic talent than did Down and Out in Paris and London (which remains my favourite Orwell performance of his). Jeremy Northam gets to do the occasional Northern dialect, but it is mainly George Orwell’s mockery of class prejudice – with which, he admits, he is partially complicit – that gives Jeremy the chance to adopt some snarky posh accents and bring out some humour. Where in Down and Out in Paris and London he had the opportunity to add some broad colour to Orwell’s narrative, here he works in subtle tones and shading.

At the risk of sounding greedy and asking for more, please can Jeremy Northam read Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying next? Thanks!

Thank you also to Gill for giving me the chance to write a guest post on her excellent blog.

The Road to Wigan Pier audiobook from CSA Word is unabridged (7 hours and 37 minutes, 6CDs). It is available on CD and as a download. You can hear a sample here.

© Amy Cockram, all rights reserved.

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Many thanks to Amy for a great post. I hope it will be the first of many. You can read more from Amy at her excellent blog Stuff and Nonsense.

10 Responses to “The Road to Wigan Pier, read by Jeremy Northam, review”

  1. Jillian Chantal April 24, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    Sounds like a wonderful listen. I confess I was afraid it would be too depressing but you make it sound like it would be worth the time. Of course, Mr. Northam’s voice is something I love to listen to as well!

    • Amy Cockram (@amycockram) April 24, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

      I won’t lie to you, Jillian, it is a bleak listen. I think it’s also a fascinating historical record though, and Jeremy reads it beautifully.

      • Jillian Chantal April 25, 2012 at 3:10 am #

        ahhh. Thanks for that info. Bleak is something I need to gird myself for.

  2. Roe Tifft April 24, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    Superb review, could not be bettered. Cheers to the reviewer and cheers to Jeremy and Orwell. Cheers to Gill as well for bringing all three together. I hope Jeremy gets to read more and varied writers. He deserves it.

    • Jules April 24, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

      Great review, thanks Amy !!!
      Although I must confess I was blown away by Jeremy’s reading of the first chapter of this book … and was then a bit disappointed that the characterisation Orwell used in the opening scene at the tripe shop was absent from the rest of the book! But Jeremy’s reading made me stick with it ….and as usual I’m glad I did.

  3. LauraP April 25, 2012 at 12:20 am #

    Thanks for the great review, Amy! Very informative for those of us who don’t know much about Orwell’s non-fiction. (Mr N’s trying his hardest to fill in the gaps in my education, I think.)

    Although I’d gladly listen to Jeremy read the phone book, it’s good to know this new audiobook isn’t that dry. I enjoyed his reading of Homage to Catalonia very much–despite the alphabet soup of political party acronyms–and I’m looking forward to this book too.

    Welcome to the ranks of JN Blog contributors! I’m a big fan of your blog Stuff and Nonsense, so it’s wonderful to have you writing here as well.

  4. Martina April 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    Inspiring review Amy, many thanks! You´ve really whet my appetite – although I was inclined to spare that one after struggling my way through ‘Homage to Catalonia’ which was a bit too much war-, political- and men-stuff for my liking. I utterly adore Mr. Orwell for his bravery to immerse in person into those hard living conditions full of deprivation and his almost brutal frankness in reporting…no light fare! But there is also that fine humour and Jeremy is simply perfect to convey the meaning of George Orwell`s writing. Sorry, I cannot bite back the badly stressed but oh so true phrase that he could read the phone book to me.. ;-)
    Thanks also to Gill for providing this place! :-)

    • Martina April 25, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

      Whoops, I did a Lapsus Linguae, I meant to say ‘I utterly a d m i r e …” not “adore”, that would be a touch too much…sorry… :-(

  5. theatricaleb September 13, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

    Finished listening to an Audible download of Road To Wigan Pier today and it is a truly astounding book. I think, had I encountered it 80 years ago, it would have been life-changing. Plus there is still so much that is completely relevant now and it is interesting to see how much of Orwell’s future prognosis has come to pass. I am sure that much of my enjoyment of the work was due to Jeremy’s excellent and impassioned narration. The second part moves from social observation to political ideology and, had I been just reading, I possibly would have got lost and given up. However, having the audio made it feel as though the different ideas and perspectives were being explained just to me(!) and I now have a far better understanding of the politics of the time.
    Excellent audiobook.

    • Gill Fraser Lee September 13, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

      So glad you enjoyed it and I totally agree, Jeremy brings the book alive so wonderfully well and makes it so much more accessible and enjoyable. Thanks for your comment

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