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.
LRB 8 May 1997 | PDF Download