It’s a Saturday morning. I’ve recently been re-reading The Road to Wigan Pier. Propelled by two urges – the compulsion towards Orwellian reportage and simple nostalgia – I put my camera and a puncture repair kit in a rucksack and cycle the seven miles to Wigan. Impressionistic and subjective, I know, but following Orwell’s example of reporting stark, unadorned reality, this is what I saw.
Modern-day landmarks: cheap pubs and kebab shops
In the spirit of my mission, my eye is immediately drawn to the vomit on the steps of the Ibiza Bar on King Street just a few doors down from where, in the 1970s and early 1980s, besuited assistants at Kinley’s Haberdashery still pulled articles of gents’ apparel out of wooden drawers like a small-scale version of Are You Being Served? The Ibiza Bar, of course, is the old County Playhouse. Constructed in 1916 – the year of the Somme and Verdun – it’s probably had its fair share of step-vomit since opening, though I can’t help but feel that previous generations would have taken greater pains to clear away the evidence.
A bit further down the street is the Pound Pub, surely now the most symbolic business model in the country: as the rest of your life becomes unaffordable, you can at least get paralytic on cheap booze of dubious origins. You might take a wander down the street once you’re fully inebriated and have a vomit outside the Ibiza Bar, then replenish the now-empty belly-space at one of the conveniently located kebab shops.
King Street is, notoriously, one of the most drunken streets in the country. The national press used to feature photo-compilations of some of its annual Boxing Night fancy-dress excess in glorious colour, making it look like a 1980s Photo-Love version of the Fat Slags from Viz. It’s a 21st-century Gin Lane. Hogarth would’ve loved it.
Faded glory dystopia
On Wallgate, the Clarence Hotel – once a byword for smalltown opulence, even elegance – tarts its attractions in tinsel and jittery window-scrawl: DJs, live music, a list of prices per pint of sweet oblivion. It slumps disconsolately next to the even shabbier frontage of the Thai massage parlour, the bookie’s, the Euro Shop and the discount chippy.
One imagines the well-heeled commercial travellers of the 1910s emerging on November afternoons from trains at Wigan Wallgate and heading for the Clarence Hotel, rubbing their kid-skinned hands together at the prospect of a mutton chop, a pint of sherry and perhaps a hand of whist before bed. I wonder what they would have made of DJ Tony or, indeed, the Thai Spa next door.
The stark, clean, modern lines of the Betfred/Totesport building are on Chapel Lane these days but, cut down Green Street, and you see the weed-choked ruin of the old Totesport HQ – Westgate House – like something from a particularly dystopian map for Half-Life 2: deserted urban spaces, abandoned brutalism, ghosts of forgotten lives. Picture yourself running low on health and dashing for a med-kit as the head-crabbed form of Brenda from Accounts (1969–77) lurches towards you with her deadly spindle-fingers.
A section of the Leeds-Liverpool canal between New Springs and Scholes, drained between two locks, miasmic, reeking hideously in the mild weather, shopping trolleys and old prams stuck in the stinking silt.
Men that Orwell might recognise
And the people I encountered along the way? They were, as people tend to be, quite various, though I was struck by the sheer frequency of lonely, awkward men with shifty expressions, wearing soiled clothing and rolling fags.
They lingered canal-side, rolling fags, or loitered on Believe Square, rolling fags, or emerged guiltily from bars on King Street, rolling fags. In the town centre, on Standishgate and in Market Place, they flopped on benches under unconvincing trees, eyeing women and rolling fags. You’d have to take away their trainers, tracksuits and mobile phones, of course, and put them in worsted, but you could send these men back to the Wigan of the 1930s and they’d fit right in.
My walk to school in the late 1960s took me through the mentholated fumes from the Santus factory where they made Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls. As frail, mud-spattered nine-year-olds, we played school rugby on Wigan RLFC’s training pitch on the Scroggs near Central Park, trying to tackle and pass in the ghosted burly outlines of Billy Boston and Colin Clarke.
Nostalgic memories: le temps perdu
My most precious childhood memory is walking home past the Market Hall on a foggy, sodium-lit winter evening with my mum and my sister, clutching newly bought comics from the newsagent’s stall in Gorman’s Arcade and gazing in fascination at the freshly butchered hares hanging from hooks outside the butchers on the corner, heads severed, blood collecting in plastic bags.
In the early 1970s, bunking off church on quiet Sunday mornings, I traipsed around the town centre, slyly watching, fascinated, as groups of bleary-eyed feather-cut Northern Soul devotees flopped exhaustedly on their holdalls and drank pints of milk on the pavement outside the Casino or on the cobbles of the bus station.
Neither Central Park nor the Casino are there any longer, of course, their hallowed grounds now occupied by, respectively, the car park of Big Tesco and a bit of the Grand Arcade, though if you’re in TK Maxx, I’m told, you can sometimes hear the ghostly strains of Better Use Your Head by Little Anthony and the Imperials floating about the ether as you riffle through the discounted tat. But phantom soul classics aside, all is changed, changed utterly.
Wigan: the true north
Wigan – mines, mills, rugby and attitude. Nowhere more north, nowhere more northern. The true north. Quintessence of north.
Oh, sure, if you’re going to go all nit-picky and look at a map, you’ll see places higher up the page. Preston, Workington, Berwick-upon-Tweed: these are all further up the country, therefore, you might argue, rather pedantically, further north. But they’re not. Or at least only technically. If you head north from Wigan, you’ll notice, everything becomes just that bit more southern, or at least a bit Midlandsy. You get to Heskin, or Eccleston, and you might as well be in the Cotswolds or Market Harborough. Same if you go west, young man, or stray eastwards. And if you head south, obviously, then you’re going the wrong way and have clearly missed the point.
In all the ways that the words ‘north’ and ‘northern’ mean anything in the English language – apart, that is, from the fussily literal geographical sense – Wigan is furthest north, the English town most obviously and essentially northern.
Paul Morley, magisterial though he may be in his wonderful book The North, might argue that this honour belongs to Stockport, but he’s wrong. Stockport is infected with Cheshireness, so is, at certain points on afternoons in late Spring, pretty much in the Home Counties. And anyway, it has a pyramid, so is clearly part Egyptian.
Manchester might have more rain, and Strangeways, and the badlands of Newton Heath, but this just makes it a sort of very wet, swaggering tribute act to the seedier parts of London or New Jersey. Northern Soul: its epicentre, its Mecca, its spiritual lodestone was Wigan. Wigan, in all the most important social, emotional, psycho-geographical, metaphysical, metaphorical, historical and oneiric senses it is possible to be northern, is true north. Though, like I said, it’s not a competition.
‘Wigan’: an obvious evocative choice for Orwell
When George Orwell wrote a book about his 1930s explorations of grim, biting northern poverty and harsh working conditions, he didn’t call it ‘The Road to Chorlton Baths’ or ‘The Road to Bradford City Hall’. No, he was a dab hand with a title and knew full well what would most assuredly evoke the grit, squalor and desperation of his subject.
In the genteel southern drawing-rooms of book club subscribers from Taunton across to Cromer, only ‘Wigan’ had the necessary heft, evoking, as its two guttural syllables did, all the blighted, grimy misery of narrow, pitifully short lives lived, sort of, under a perpetual blanket of coaldust, mill-smoke and precipitating sweat.
The sections of The Road to Wigan Pier which deal specifically with Wigan are relatively scant, though memorable enough for the descriptions of the filth of the Brookers’ tripe shop, the ‘uniformly disgusting’ meals and the ‘labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles’. He spent three weeks in Wigan – his longest stay on the journey – then decamped to Sheffield, Leeds and Barnsley, clearly drawn by the mystical lure of the East.
Divided opinions on Wigan’s decline
Walking around Wigan in 2022, the rhetoric of the Conservatives’ ‘levelling up’ campaign echoing in your ears, you wonder what a time-travelling Orwell might make of the town. On the ‘I’m From Wigan Me’ Facebook page, people complain about the signs of decline constantly – empty, boarded-up shops, major retailers long gone from the town centre, proliferation of takeaway counters, nail bars, pound shops, charity shops.
As to who or what they blame for this descent into dystopia, they are divided. To many it’s the consequence of a lengthy history of anti-northern policy-making by a succession of Conservative administrations, not much of which was ameliorated by the Brown-Blair hiatus. Some cite decades of complacency and neglect by a Labour-dominated council who, they say, couldn’t get itself unelected if it tried.
Others point to the near-universal experience of town centres across the country and point the finger at our migration to online shopping and attendance at big out-of-town retail parks. ‘Use it or lose it’, they say. ‘Well, you didn’t use it, and now you’ve lost it. Enjoy your deliveries.’
Desperate to leave, always drawn back
I’m torn, I must confess. Like many a nostalgia-addict before me, I’m fiercely attached to memories of the town as it used to be. I read Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City when I was 17 and saw, in his prolix paeans to a Minnesotan smalltown life now gone, an analogue to my own home town, then in the process of going. Back then, like so many of my contemporaries, despite my fondness for the old place, I wanted nothing more than to get out into the big wide world and shake the smalltown dust from my shoes.
A long, weary 40 years later, I realise that Kerouac-influencer Thomas Wolfe was absolutely right: you can’t go home again. We should have realised – on those busy Saturday afternoons in the town centre in the 1960s and 1970s – that the river of the town’s life was Heraclitan: you would never dip your toe in that same river ever again. You don’t realise, though, when you’re young. You think things will remain as they were: your old school, the shops passed down through families, the pubs where you got served under age, your parents. But you weren’t the only one that left and, anyway, you’ve changed too.
Still, if you come from here, wherever you are, the compass points north, and for you, as Orwell understood, that can only mean the road to Wigan.
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