Down the Mine



From Dublin Review of Books:

Orwell’s account of his visit to Crippen’s mine in Bryn, near Wigan, a superb piece of journalistic writing, forms the second chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier and has also been anthologised separately as “Down the Mine”. The chapter focuses alternately on the miners who dig the coal and those who unthinkingly consume it, the latter portrayed primarily as the comfortable, even the decadent classes – as if coal was not burned too in redbrick terraced houses in working class towns. Here are the fillers, who shovel the freshly mined rocks onto a conveyor belt from a kneeling position, splendid, heroic creatures in spite of the cruelly demanding labour they are engaged in:

They really do look like iron – hammered iron statues – under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men they are. Most of them are small … but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender, supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.

And here are the uncaring rich, who warm themselves in their drawing rooms and studies on the products of the miners’ labours, oblivious to the grinding effort that has gone into filling their grates:

… it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Litt. Supp., and the Nancy poets [Spender, Auden, Day Lewis etc, a favourite Orwell smear] and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

Orwell brought to Wigan his intelligence, connections brokered by his political (chiefly Independent Labour Party) friends in London, some convictions about socialism gleaned from his reading, no doubt some knowledge of local conditions based on specific research, and certain attitudes to exploitation, power and the possibility of political change which we might surmise were as much informed by his experience of the oppressive regime of colonial Burma as by parliamentary politics in 1930s Britain (in which he took little enough interest). What he did not bring with him was any particular understanding of the British working class, of their history, traditions, aspirations or modes of organisation.

“The Romantic Englishman”, Enda O’Doherty, Dublin Review of Books