Today, I am lazy, and have outsourced most of my blog-writing duties to George Orwell. We continue our readings from Chapter 7 of The Road to Wigan Pier, with Orwell talking about the social conditions in the working-class areas of the industrial north:

Take for instance the different attitude towards the family. A working-class family hangs together as a middle-class one does, but the relationship is far less tyrannical. A working man has not that deadly weight of family prestige hanging round his neck like a millstone. I have pointed out earlier that a middle-class person goes utterly to pieces under the influence of poverty; and this is generally due to the behaviour of his family–to the fact that he has scores of relations nagging and badgering him night and day for failing to ‘get on’. The fact that the working class know how to combine and the middle class don’t is probably due to their different conceptions of family loyalty. You cannot have an effective trade union of middle-class workers, be-cause in times of strikes almost every middle-class wife would be egging her husband on to blackleg and get the other fellow’s job….

In a working-class home–I am not thinking at the moment of the unemployed, but of comparatively prosperous homes–you breathe a warm, decent, deeply human atmosphere which it is not so easy to find elsewhere. I should say that a manual worker, if he is in steady work and drawing good wages–an ‘if’ which gets bigger and bigger–has a better chance of being happy than an ‘educated’ man. His home life seems to fall more naturally into a sane and comely shape. I have often been struck by the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working- class interior at its best. Especially on winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sewing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat–it is a good place to be in, provided that you can be not only in it but sufficiently of it to be taken for granted.

This scene is still reduplicated in a majority of English homes, though not in so many as before the war. Its happiness depends mainly upon one question–whether Father is in work. But notice that the picture I have called up, of a working-class family sitting round the coal fire after kippers and strong tea, belongs only to our own moment of time and could not belong either to the future or the past. Skip forward two hundred years into the Utopian future, and the scene is totally different. Hardly one of the things I have imagined will still be there. In that age when there is no manual labour and everyone is ‘educated’, it is hardly likely that Father will still be a rough man with enlarged hands who likes to sit in shirt-sleeves and says ‘Ah wur coomin’ oop street’. And there won’t be a coal fire in the grate, only some kind of invisible heater. The furniture will be made of rubber, glass, and steel. If there are still such things as evening papers there will certainly be no racing news in them, for gambling will be meaningless in a world where there is no poverty and the horse will have vanished from the face of the earth. Dogs, too, will have been sup- pressed on grounds of hygiene. And there won’t be so many children, either, if the birth-controllers have their way….

Curiously enough it is not the triumphs of modem engineering, nor the radio, nor the cinematograph, nor the five thousand novels which are published yearly, nor the crowds at Ascot and the Eton and Harrow match, but the memory of working-class interiors–especially as I sometimes saw them in my childhood before the war, when England was still prosperous– that reminds me that our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in.

One reads with horror Orwell’s description of the "Utopia" awaiting far in his future. A century from Orwell’s time is only twenty years from now. And while some of his vision has come to pass (invisible heaters, furniture of rubber, glass, and steel), horses are still with us, and so are dogs.

But now contrast Orwell’s discussion of the working-class family with this discussion of the British riots. Some things have gone better than expected. Some things have gone worse.

The Atlantic has an amazing gallery of photographs from North Korea. Every photograph in the set is striking, but none more than the first one.

Pyongyang at dusk
The North Korean capital of Pyongyang at dusk

There is a surreal, science-fictional quality to this photograph. All of the buildings have a similar blue-gray color, streaked with mold and decay. Every window seems to be dark. A single automobile lurks at the bottom margins of the shot, with a lonely pair of pedestrians nearby. Were it not for their presence, this would seem to be a dead city, the victim of some apocalyptic evacuation. And I experienced a delirious shiver of ostranenie when I realized that perhaps the strangest thing about the city was that it bore no scar of advertising.

The Pyongyang of this photograph doesn’t seem like a real place. It seems rather like a pure archetype, an image of the Stalinist wasteland that has populated the Western imagination of the Soviet states since the 1950s. It seems impossible for any real city to be so desolate. This is a city where the worst thing we can imagine has already happened. This is the London of 1984. This is City 17.

And yet.

My in-laws lived their entire lives in Communist Romania, under the dictator Ceausescu until his deposal in 1989. They have fond memories of this time, and will often tell me wistfully of how peaceful and orderly their world was before the turbulence of the revolution. My wife remembers playing with her sisters while they stood in line to buy milk, and pinching the baby so that people would let them move forward in line. They had to wait in line for milk, because it was rarely available and tightly rationed, but this was normal and expected. She has pictures of herself, dressed in a new dress with her hair up in bows, singing the anthem beneath the portrait of Ceausescu on the schoolhouse wall. They lived in what we would consider dire poverty and repression, but these facts did not define their lives. They managed to get married, to have children, to play with their classmates and dress in new clothes, to sing songs and bicker with their sisters.

This is not to say that there were no difficulties, that we should envy the Communist system, or that we should make light of its crimes. It is rather to marvel at the resiliency of those who lived there. Though they lived in a dystopia, they still lived. No one told them that it was a dystopia and that they were obliged to be unhappy. And unburdened by that knowledge, many of them were happy.

Another striking photograph from the set above shows two female soldiers walking hand-in-hand down a crowded street. They aren’t looking at the photographer. They aren’t performing at a state-sponsored event meant to honor the regime. Nor are they characters in a drama meant to impress on us the horror of their situation. They’re living their lives.