Many of you will know Kate Larson, the excellent Talbot’s House matron, who also happens to be the convener of the staff book club. It is another of those little, but significant, things which individuals organise to serve our special community and aims to bring together people in friendship to discover new books. George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier was the selection for last term, and although I did not make it to the club itself, I did make it my business to put last term’s book on my holiday reading list alongside a re-reading of Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius – and what a profitable pair they turned out to be.
George Orwell grew up in England during and after the First World War, attending Eton College from 1917 onwards. He then served in the Imperial police force in Burma in the 1920s, where he encountered real poverty and hardship for the first time, something which became a theme for his writing throughout his whole life. He had already written Down and Out in Paris and London, which some of you may have read, by the time he was commissioned by a left wing publisher in 1936 to visit the mining towns of the North of England and to report on what he found there. The Road to Wigan Pier is, for the most part, that report – and most shocking it is to read. Orwell spent four months lodging in people’s homes, usually four or five to a very small room, with no hot water or washing facility, little by way of food and with outside toilets, sometimes up to 200 metres away, shared between houses. In one chapter, Orwell lists some houses randomly from his notes to explain the basics of what they were like – here is one in Sheffield, but in all honesty you could take any you like as an example: they are all equally awful. It describes what was known as a back to back house – in other words, two houses in one – the front half opens on to the street; the back half opens on to the back yard – and a family lives in each half. The loo and the bins live in the yard. The effect of this is that if you live in the front half, you cannot reach the loo or the bins without walking down the whole street and then coming down the pathway to the back of the house. Worse still, there were houses called blind alley houses, which were in fact single houses, but had no back door, purely, it seemed to Orwell, out of the spite of the architect. So although you could see your own back yard, you could not get to it apart from by walking down the whole street and back. There were many thousands of these houses. Here is one. House in Peel Street. Back to back; two rooms upstairs, two down; living room 10ft square (that is about 3 square metres) with a copper and sink (this was for all the washing, food and people); the other downstairs room and both upstairs rooms the same size, all used as bedrooms. Living room very dark; distance to the toilet 70 metres; four beds in the house for eight people – two old parents, two adult girls (the oldest 27), one young man and three children. Parents have one bed; eldest son another; the remaining five people share the other two. Bugs very bad – “you can’t keep them down when it is hot”. Indescribable squalor in downstairs room and smell in upstairs room almost unbearable. Rent: 5s. 71/2d.
You should read this book, or at least the first half of it – it is not long. His most memorable passages are when he goes down the mines with the miners: these are genuinely eye-opening and make you question how on earth communities could have lived like this. Orwell finds it almost impossibly hard work, not to mention extremely frightening, to even get to the worksite in a mine, which involves a bus ride, a pitch-black lift down the mine shaft and then often over an hour’s walk 300 feet underground, stooping in half or on all fours in unbearable heat, before you even start working on the coal face itself. It is genuinely back-breaking work in appalling conditions, before a return in the evening, exhausted and filthy, to the sort of home I have just described.
And yet, there is one short passage that stands out above the others, when he describes something of the purity of such living: “I have often been struck”, he writes, “by the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working class interior at its best. Especially on winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in short sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the Racing Finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sewing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls, roasting himself on the rag mat – it is a good place to be in, provided you can be not only in it, but sufficiently of it to be taken for granted.”
Which takes me neatly on to Seneca, who was born around the time of Christ in Roman Spain. Like Orwell, he also had a privileged education, brought up as son of a Roman procurator, who also happened to be a leading authority on public speaking. Like Orwell, he was very academic and pursued his academia with passion. Also like Orwell, subsequent events had a major impact on his life: where Orwell had encountered poverty, Seneca encountered illness and this to some extent forced introspection and further study upon him. Both men became well-known, though Seneca, as tutor to the Emperor Nero, was by far the more powerful, before he was finally forced to commit suicide after being implicated in a plot to kill Nero himself. Seneca had also been the foremost philosopher of his day, following the school of the Stoics, and his letters to his friend and understudy Lucilius, which were written in order to be published, are well worth a read. The Stoics claimed to have found a way to true happiness by “living in accordance with nature”. This is not necessarily to be taken literally, but it does mean that material possessions are not at all important. Rather, it is not the acquisition of possessions that is important for happiness, but the “absence of need”. You can have almost limitless possessions and yet still be striving for more; or you can have almost none, and be happy in yourself because you have trained yourself not to need more. As Seneca writes in one of his letters, “It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he is yet to get, never what he has already.” It is a simple and compelling notion, and not unrecognisable from Orwell’s Sheffield family sitting around the fire after tea. There was, implies Orwell, a contentedness to that family who lived “in accordance with nature” (or to use Orwell’s words, “to be sufficiently of a place to be taken for granted”).
I like Stoicism hugely, and partly because it explains one of today’s inconvenient truths. Seneca, like Orwell, and like me and indeed you, came from a privileged starting point. (Orwell rather comically describes himself as “lower-upper-middle class” but at the very least, an Eton education represents a privileged upbringing of sorts!). Stoicism’s insistence upon “living in accordance with nature”, however, is entirely inclusive: it includes everybody, from rich man to pauper, provided that they work hard to enlighten themselves and to seek to understand what is really important in life, rather than just what looks good or seems easiest. More often than not, it is awkward to be privileged these days, so do consider reading these two books. In completely different, and bizarrely similar, ways, they offer us another choice: to make the most of our start for the benefit of others, rather than simply for ourselves.
I wish you all well this term; and hope that you find not only success for yourself, but also the joy of helping others.