“I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan.”– George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
You can take the boy out of Wigan, so the saying goes, and you can place him as far away as Chorley, but even prolonged exposure to the more refined cuisine of South Lancashire’s most cosmopolitan market town can never, it turns out, satiate his longings for pie.
Orwell may well have found my hometown ‘dreadful’ (lodging above a tripe shop in the middle of a depression probably didn’t help), but he only spent a month or so there, nowhere near long enough to develop the local pie habit. In fact, although Orwell references tripe thirteen times in his book The Road to Wigan Pier, pies don’t even get a mention. Nor do pasties, bakes, sausage rolls, tarts, flans or even quiches.
You’d almost think he hadn’t really stayed in Wigan at all but had, through a combination of some sort of railway timetabling error and his notorious myopia, sojourned somewhere else altogether, somewhere less pie-obsessed, perhaps, like Walkden, Oldham or Moreton-in-Marsh. No, Orwell left Wigan as blithely free from pie-addiction as he arrived. Orwell had it easy, though. He had the benefit of a palate made complex and appreciative of exotic culinary diversity by his years in India, Oxfordshire, Burma, Paris and London.
While rough Northerners like me were being weaned from suspiciously pie-flavoured breast milk onto more solid, crusty fare, the young Orwell was sampling a veritable smorgasbord of international dishes: chutneys and curries, filets mignon, various sorts of flambé and probably, given his schooling, an awful lot of Eton Mess.
Growing up in Wigan, I stood no chance. If only, I sometimes think, if only my hometown’s preferred snack had been something less addictive, calorific, stodgy and harmful to the arteries, like lentil dhal or crystal meth, I’d be a different person today.
Last Bank Holiday Monday morning found me at my keyboard, a sort of pound-shop (or, rather, Pound Bakery) Orwell, riddled with self-disgust, crippled by a sense of utter futility and blinded by a perpetual blizzard of my own psoriatic skin flakes. It’s the dead hour between morning meds and reveille. I’m sat at the little table in Service-user D’s tiny dining-room, staring bleakly out at a newbuild Chorley housing-estate spackled with drizzle.
Despite sacred vows to myself, I have yet again breakfasted on a Hollands meat and potato pie. I have also drunk too much coffee, smoked too many cigarettes and taken too much codeine. I find myself in a peculiar but by no means unfamiliar state: nothing means much anymore, the odds are gone, and all the uses of this world seem flat, stale and unprofitable.
Until lunchtime, that is, when a flicker of meaning might be inspired by a flat steak and a sausage roll from Handley’s on Pall Mall!
In my younger and more pretentious days, I might’ve referred to this as some sort of existential crisis. Now, having put away childish things, and the dark glass having cleared up somewhat, I see it for what it is: it’s the life of pie.
Murderers carry the legacy of Cain; I bear the legacy of Wigan.
In the early days of my exile to Chorley I was a little apprehensive. Pie shops appeared to be rather thin on the ground. Admittedly, there were – and remain – two at the top of our street, but to a Wiganer that represents comparative dearth. You find your way about, though. You adapt to new surroundings. You learn, most importantly, where all the pie shops are.
Not a day goes by, it seems, without some recourse to savoury pastries of some sort. I find it difficult to pass Bowen’s or Handley’s without popping in for a cheese and onion, meat and potato or, at the very least, a small whist to keep me going until lunchtime.
I also occasionally augment the huge number of shop-bought pies that I consume with home-made versions of my own. This weekend, for example, I used some Jus-Rol ready-made pastry to convert the remains of some Jamaican jerk pork into a couple of interesting Caribbean pasties. There was a scrap of pastry left over, so I quickly fried some onions and mushrooms, bunged in some cheese, and invented the cheese, onion and mushroom pastie. It’s very like the traditional cheese and onion pastie but enlivened considerably by the presence of mushrooms.
In my defence, and just in case you were beginning to think that I was some sort of pastry-monster hell-bent on self-destruction, I did have a brief period, and quite recently, too, of comparative abstinence from filled baked goods.
We had that two-day heatwave back in April, if you recall, and for at least 48 hours I was a committed devotee of the salad in all its various forms. When I wasn’t slugging olive oil onto green leaves, I was to be found drizzling balsamic vinegar onto grated radishes, dipping crudités into reduced-fat humous or pepping up a bowl of sliced tomatoes with lemon juice.
It didn’t last, though.
Just as the weather broke, and we were plunged back into the usual Ice Age, so did my resolve. Salads are crunchy, tasty and nutritious but they are not pies, or pasties. Hell, they aren’t even sausage rolls. They’re just verdant opportunities for a bit of belated and utterly insincere virtue-signalling on my part. As soon as the sunshine buggered off, so did any spurious lard-avoidance and I was back to a very different kind of five-a-day.
It’s a bleak existence, though, the life of pie. It may be residual bits of Catholicism sloshing about inside me – a Wigan Catholicism, ironically, which I ingested daily along with multiple pies – but the guilt induced is horrific.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been wallowing in industrial quantities of guilt ever since I was a small child, having had it drummed into me very early on that, first and foremost, everything I ever do, say or think is wrong and, secondly, that pleasure is for other people better equipped to deal with it than me.
But there is no guilt quite like pie-guilt, particularly in these enlightened times of ubiquitous salads, fat-free lard, and sensible dietary advice. It not only corrodes the soul but, unlike sexual depravity or telling lies, also clogs the arteries and leads to extravagant weight gain.
If Dante had hailed from Wigan rather than Florence, there’d be a special section of a circle of the Inferno set aside just for pie-eaters, probably one along from the General Gluttons, where in addition to “wallowing in a vile, putrid slush produced by a ceaseless, foul, icy rain”, the pie-eaters, tormented by the knowledge that they’ve had their last baked savoury also have to stare eternally upwards at people taking their first bite of a meat and potato pie on their way out of Greenhalgh’s on a cold Tuesday in November.
The Wigan version, I suppose, of a jackboot stamping on a human face forever.