Watching coal-miners at work, you realise momentarily what different universes different people inhabit. Down there where coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lord’s, that the Nancy poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal,’ but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I, sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. [...] You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are diving your car forward (pp. 29-30).
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 Literary Sup., and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comerade 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 (pp. 30-31).
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Orwell: On the Invisible Underbelly of our Consumption
I'm currently finishing a book project in which I briefly discuss the way in which the liturgies of consumerism also feed off the invisible--vast networks of production and distribution which are almost entirely hidden from view, and about which we rarely ask. This brought to mind Orwell's straight-shooting analysis of Western (especially British) culture's dependence upon coal, which also seemed to "magically" appear in the grate of the homes of the middle class. Here are two exemplary passages from The Road to Wigan Pier: