Tag Archives: George Orwell

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.


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.


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.

The Road to Wigan Pier, read by Jeremy Northam

16 Mar

If you enjoyed Jeremy Northam’s excellent George Orwell audiobooks Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia, you’ll be delighted to hear he has recently recorded The Road to Wigan Pier.

If ‘peerless prose’ could apply to one writer alone, I’d accord it to Orwell – The Guardian

From the CSA Word website:

Audible’s ‘LISTEN OF THE WEEK’ – for 12th March


The Road to Wigan Pier is a graphic and biting polemic, peculiarly suited to the medium of spoken word. It charts Orwell’s observations of working-class life during the 1930s in the industrial heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire. His critical portraits of the harsh mining conditions and of social inequality, poverty and rising unemployment continue to carry a fierce political relevance, and would inform his major works of fiction, including Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.

It is available as a 6 CD set, or as a download (the download is available for UK Audible users only) and is 7 hrs and 37 mins in length. You can hear a sample here.

We’ll be posting a review, so watch out for that.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, read by Jeremy Northam

23 May

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell, read by Jeremy Northam

Orwell’s prose, Northam’s voice – it’s a marriage made in heaven and easily the most lucid breakdown around of the Spanish civil war.

Sue Arnold, Guardian, 21 May 2011

Jeremy Northam can hardly be said to be ubiquitous these days, so his new audiobook, Homage to Catalonia (published by CSA Word) is like a much longed for glass of sangria to his parched admirers.

Jeremy’s last audiobook for CSA Word was George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. You can read my thoughts about that here. I enjoyed it enormously, so I was delighted to discover Jeremy had been asked to read Orwell’s account of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

I must begin by exposing my ignorance. I knew nothing very much about the Spanish Civil War beyond having seen a documentary or two, and I can’t say I’ve ever been inspired to find out more. Until now. The ‘marriage made in heaven’ Sue Arnold describes has suddenly rendered the subject fascinating!

George Orwell spent from December 1936 until June 1937 in northern Spain, wanting to fight against fascism. He travelled to Barcelona, and more by luck than choice, joined the P.O.U.M. militia. The P.O.U.M. were an independent Trotskyist political party, opposed to Stalin.

At the beginning of his war experience, Orwell was, by his own admission, largely ignorant of the factions and complexities involved in the political situation. The novel charts both his discovery of the political reality and his disenchantment with Stalinist communism. Orwell’s experiences of fighting with (and the Stalinist repression of) the P.O.U.M. heavily influenced his political views, and his later novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four in particular.

I’m afraid, no matter how beautifully written or read, for me, politics alone is a dry diet, and being rather a dim bulb about such things, I did struggle to grasp the whys and wherefores. Happily, there is so much more to make this novel the great book it undoubtedly is.

The road wound between yellow infertile fields, untouched since last year’s harvest. Ahead of us was the low sierra that lies between Alcubierre and Zaragoza. We were getting near the front line now, near the bombs, the machine-guns, and the mud. In secret I was frightened. I knew the line was quiet at present, but unlike most of the men about me I was old enough to remember the Great War, though not old enough to have fought in it. War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold. It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy. The thought of it had been haunting me all the time I was in Barcelona; I had even lain awake at nights thinking of the cold in the trenches, the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours on sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot-tops. I admit, too, that I felt a kind of horror as I looked at the people I was marching among. You cannot possibly conceive what a rabble we looked. We straggled along with far less cohesion than a flock of sheep; before we had gone two miles the rear of the column was out of sight. And quite half of the so-called men were children–but I mean literally children, of sixteen years old at the very most. Yet they were all happy and excited at the prospect of getting to the front at last. As we neared the line the boys round the red flag in front began to utter shouts of ‘Visca P.O.U.M.!’ ‘Fascistas–maricones!’ and so forth–shouts which were meant to be war-like and menacing, but which, from those childish throats, sounded as pathetic as the cries of kittens. It seemed dreadful that the defenders of the Republic should be this mob of ragged children carrying worn-out rifles which they did not know how to use. I remember wondering what would happen if a Fascist aeroplane passed our way, whether the airman would even bother to dive down and give us a burst from his machine–gun. Surely even from the air he could see that we were not real soldiers?

George Orwell with the P.O.U.M. at the Aragon front (Orwell is the tall man, third from the left)

The reality of trench warfare is not the hand to hand combat Orwell imagines, but frustrating, cold and lice-ridden. Whilst on leave in Barcelona, Orwell is caught up in street fighting against, not fascists, but factions within what he assumed was his own side. His appreciation of the complex realities of the war, and his view of communism, are transformed. On his return to the front, he is shot in the throat and, back again in Barcelona, is forced to flee as the P.O.U.M. is outlawed. Orwell’s account of what really happened is at odds with the propaganda published at the time, and Homage to Catalonia is now regarded as one of the few honest, first-hand accounts of this aspect of the war.

Homage to Catalonia is a beautifully written, vivid account of  a man’s journey from idealistic naivety to enlightened disillusionment. There are edge-of-the-seat, life or death moments, and in amongst the chaos of war, characteristic wry humour. Though I can’t say I easily understood all the intricacies of the political situation (I did say I was a dim bulb!), for me, the Spanish civil war is no longer the ‘forgotten war’.

What can I say about Jeremy Northam’s skill in interpreting this book, in peppering it with wit, in creating a perfect voice for George Orwell that, most of all, filled me with great admiration and affection for this brilliant, endearing and passionate man? I ran out of superlatives to describe Jeremy’s work a long time ago, so I’ll just say: I really can’t think of anyone who could have read this book better. CSA Word told me:

… we were thrilled when he consented to be the voice of young Orwell during one of the most important formative periods for the the author, … Homage to Catalonia. Jeremy’s skill can sustain an intense unabridged production like the Down and Out audiobook and the longer text of Homage, something which may not come as easily as you’d think, even to experienced actors. We want readers to feel like they are listening to the thrilling man himself when they listen to our Orwell non-fiction, and this is what Jeremy delivers.

If you enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London and want to meet Mr Orwell again (under rather different circumstances, but very much the same man), I highly recommend Jeremy’s reading of Homage to Catalonia.

Homage to Catalonia from CSA Word, read by Jeremy Northam, is unabridged  (8 hours, 7 CDs). At the time of writing, it is available on CD from Amazon UK. When it becomes more widely available, I will update you.

by Gill

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