Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier Relevant Today

In college, I was assigned George Orwell's 1937 book about coal miners called The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell had lived with the miners in England for a full year and the experience affected him deeply enough to write an entire book on the subject. Reading it was a political awakening for me and has been a powerful undercurrent for most of my political views even today.

I've read the final paragraph a million times:
"It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an 'intellectual' and a superior person generally. For 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 Lit. Supp., and the poets 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." - George Orwell, 1937
I often forget that in 2005 we still get a lot of our energy from coal and the work to extract it is nearly as dangerous as seven decades ago. Hell, the entire DC Metro system would grind to a halt without West Virginia coal miners. All of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to these poor drudges underground.
That passage leaves a lump in your throat.
I read Germinal last winter. Conditions were far more horrific then, but mining still remains unhealthy, extremely dangerous, and very hard work. Thanks for the Orwell quote; he's dead on about the "invisible" underpinnings of society.
I'm a little dumbstruck that we still use miners at all. We've got machines that can land on Mars, take rock samples, and fly them back to earth, but men and women are still digging coal out of the earth by hand?
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