Last Stand

Stephen Smith

  • Solidarity on the Water front: The Liver pool Lock-Out of 1995-96 by Michael Lavalette and Jane Kennedy
    Liver Press, 147 pp, £5.95, December 1996, ISBN 1 871201 06 3

Reporting on the Liverpool dock-workers’ dispute in its early days, I was billeted in Wigan. It was December 1995, and an international football match was being played at Anfield. There were no rooms to be had on Merseyside that night. Had I been by myself, I would have turned up on the doorstep of my aunt’s house in Wallasey, which is a mile or two from the docks, but she couldn’t put up an entire television crew. So we made increasingly wide orbits of Liverpool by car before fetching up at a family establishment in darkest Lancashire. I was curious to see how far accommodation for the footloose investigator had come on since George Orwell laid his hat at the noisome tripe shop and lodging-house where we encounter him at the beginning of The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell was sharing with three others and had to sleep with his legs doubled up to avoid kicking his neighbour. I had a room to myself – the hotel’s somewhat unlikely conference room, such was the shortage of digs – and my only worry was the possibility of collapsing the campbed I had been given. Orwell was disturbed at five in the morning when his roommate, Mr Reilly, got up to go to his job as a colliery mechanic. My sleep was interrupted by a lamp which burnt brightly all night long: it was intended to light the way to a fire-escape for conference-goers, and no means could be found of switching it off.

Orwell’s report on the ‘industrial districts’ of the North, published exactly 60 years ago, includes an encounter with some dockers in a ‘frowzy firelit kitchen’:

This was Saturday night and a hefty young stevedore was drunk and was reeling about the room. He turned, saw me and lurched towards me with broad red face thrust out and a dangerous-looking fishy gleam in his eyes. I stiffened myself So the fight was coming already! The next moment the stevedore collapsed on my chest and flung his arms round my neck. ‘’Ave a cup of tea, chum!’ he cried tearfully: ‘’ave a cup of tea!’ I had a cup of tea. It was a kind of baptism. After that, my fears vanished.

When you open The Road to Wigan Pier, you rise and shine with Orwell at his lodgings, and come across him in trepidation at the thought of his breakfast. The meals, he said, were uniformly disgusting, but to set himself up for a hard day’s footslogging, he ate bacon and a pale fried egg and the unforgettable butties of his landlord: ‘bread-and-butter which had often been cut overnight and always had thumb-marks on it. However tactfully I tried, I could never induce Mr Brooker to let me cut my own bread-and-butter; he would hand it to me slice by slice, each slice gripped firmly under that broad black thumb.’ It may have been something to do with this, but I didn’t mind about missing out on a full Wigan breakfast: we wanted to film the Liverpool pickets as the men who had taken over their work drove past them and through the dock gates at the start of their shift.

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