Following in George Orwell’s footsteps to tell stories of people living in poverty in today’s Britain
Ros Wynne Jones has been writing the weekly Real Britain column in the Daily Mirror through the Tory age of austerity. Passionate about people falling through the margins, she took inspiration from George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier for an ambitious digital project. Working with a community editor, a photographer and a digital designer, they produced The Wigan Pier Project.This is how — and why — they did it
In April 2015, the Daily Mirror’s general election coverage found me in a church in Wigan with the local MP Lisa Nandy and the Rev Denise Hayes.
“It is wicked what this Government is doing,” Rev Hayes said. “We have children with hypothermia. We have had to open a satellite food bank because people were walking miles from town with bags of heavy tins. None of the houses round here have carpets. You see sheets and towels on an asphalt floor. The levels of poverty are soul destroying.”
Denise looked at the paperback I was carrying, The Road to Wigan Pier. “I think Orwell would weep if he saw Wigan now,” she said.
So began the germ of an idea to recreate Orwell’s route 80 years after he had made his famous journey through the Midlands and north of the country in 1936. I wanted to knock on every door he’d stopped at, visit every community and see how things had changed. Since the Thirties, things had got immeasurably better with the advent of the welfare state and the NHS. Yet this was the fifth year since David Cameron had announced the ‘Age of Austerity’. In towns like Wigan up and down the country, that age was blatantly starting to bite.
I started with two questions. Firstly, I’d seen on that trip to Wigan how hated Orwell’s book was, even — especially — by people who had never read it. I didn’t want this to be a “live like common people” experiment as Pulp would have it.
Would it be possible to make a journey that wasn’t peering in at poor people as they believed the writer Eric Blair had? In 2018, how could we empower people instead of just creating more ‘poverty porn’?
Secondly, as a huge (but essentially Luddite) fan of multi-media and interactive journalism:
Was it possible to create something that lived off the page using the kinds of technology Orwell was so wary of?
It took until January 2017 to get the journey underway, and it has taken another 18 months to launch it. For me, the Wigan Pier Communities Editor Claire Donnelly and photographer Andy Stenning, it’s been a long, hard road of foodbanks, homeless shelters, freezing, damp homes, advice centres, bus stops, parks, pubs and shopping centres through snow, rain and heatwave — but we’ve loved it (almost) every step of the way thanks to the people we have met in every town and city.
Retracing Orwell’s steps has not just shown us a microcosm of the many millions of people living in poverty in post-austerity Britain. It’s shown us the best of Britain, the people who run the foodbanks and support their neighbours despite having very little themselves. The people who are somehow managing to survive the worst an austerity-obsessed government can throw at them with their dignity intact.
Meanwhile, local people who had no idea they were living in a house that once put up George Orwell have taken us in with great humour and hospitality. You could probably trace our journey along Orwell’s route from Coventry to Birmingham, Stourbridge, Wolverhampton, Penkridge, Stafford, Stoke-on-Trent, Macclesfield, Rudyard Lake, Manchester, Wigan, Liverpool, Sheffield, Barnsley, and Leeds by the number of times the kettle went on in every town.
In building our Wigan Pier Project, we’ve also had a huge amount of goodwill from across what was then Trinity Mirror and is now Reach. This has been a massive multi-platform effort, given backing early on by Alison Gow, Editor-in-Chief of Reach Digital, and Ann Gripper, Exec Editor of Mirror Online, as well as by Mirror print editors Alison Phillips, Lloyd Embley, and Peter Willis and managing editor Aidan McGurran.
A huge learning curve for me was made simpler by finding Adam Walker — a journalist turned digital guru, who eschewed the Shorthand platform to write his own code — working in Wales Online’s Cardiff office. After spotting Adam’s interactive site commemorating the Aberfan disaster, it was clear it needed to be him.
Meanwhile, Claire Donnelly, a brilliant former Mirror journalist who lives in West Yorks, has ensured that throughout we have been telling co-authored first-person stories where contributors have a proper sense of control and agency.
Pictures are vitally important in this too. Veteran photographer Andy Stenning usually spends more time in warzones than damp-infested houses, but we knew his portraits would show people with their dignity intact.
When we looked for film-makers to collaborate on our five-minute films, instead of a London agency we chose Northern Heart Films a young agency based in Darwen, a few miles from Wigan. The result has been a series of six tender but also hard-hitting films that feel as if they genuinely speak on behalf of people falling through the cracks.
We’ve been supported by regionals along the route from the Birmingham Post to the Stoke Sentinel, Liverpool Echo and Leeds Online — and The Mirror’s beautiful, incredible archive mirrorpix has been mined with real patience by Ivor Game. Meanwhile, the brilliant Reach Data Unit have used new research from the University of Portsmouth’s project A Vision Of Britain Through Time to visualise the data differences between the 1930s and now in every town and city we stopped in with real flair. And our social media gurus in London and the regions have helped reinvent our material for Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
In a changing newspaper world where we are all guilty of disappearing into silos, I wanted this to be a genuine print-digital collaboration. So, it was important that throughout our journey we produced great content for the Daily Mirror print title too. The pieces featured in the ‘stories’ element of the site have all appeared in the Mirror over the past 18 months as a series of essays, keeping readers up to date with our journey and telling them of our findings in each town and city we stopped in.
And while we’ve been building the site we’ve also been running the first person stories from the project the ‘people’ section in a kind of beta form on the mirror site at mirror.co.uk/wiganpier80.
We’ve had people working on this from every bit of the country — Claire in West Yorks, Andy in Manchester, Adam in Cardiff, Alison Gow in north Wales, Ivor in Watford, and not forgetting our London colleagues. It was even subbed in Yorkshire by Dick Porter.
But the collaborations have been going on well beyond Reach borders. We’ve worked with incredible people from places like the Trussell Trust, Shelter, Disabled People Against Cuts, Unite the Union and Unite Community, Unison, Church Action on Poverty, Citizens UK, Writing on the Wall, Together TV and dozens of refugee charities and other amazing organisations. MPs including Lisa Nandy, Lucy Powell, Jess Phillips, Rachel Reeves and Lou Haigh, whose constituencies fell along our route, offered help, tea and contacts.
The Orwell estate has been extraordinarily generous, allowing us to use Orwell’s text and photographs as the gift of the estate of the late Sonia Brownell Orwell, who married the writer as he lay dying in hospital. Orwell’s son Richard Blair has been generous with his time and support, and both the Orwell Foundation and the Orwell Society have been fantastic sources of comradeship and expertise.
And Eric Blair, whose 115th birthday it would have been this week, has been the most amazing travelling companion — that second-hand orange Penguin classic that I first took to Wigan now held together with sellotape.
Most importantly — to every person who has been featured or who will feature in our Wigan Pier Project — thank you. You should have more voice and more say in what our country is and who it stands for, but at the moment, you don’t. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and struggles with us.
After Orwell’s journey through the deprivations of the 1930s, his generation built the welfare safety net. Now that safety net is in tatters, and it’s our generation’s turn to be the difference.
Orwell never saw the proofs of The Road to Wigan Pier because he’d gone off to fight fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He was fed up of writing about injustice and wanted to go and fight it. Some days, 80 years on, I know how he feels.
Join our journey at wiganpierproject.com