Walking the canal: the road to Wigan Pier

Walking the canal: the road to Wigan Pier

It had been six years since I last walked this stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, at the start of a plan to walk the length of the canal in stages – a project completed in July the following year. Now I was reprising one of the most attractive stretches of the canal – between the small town of Burscough Bridge and Wigan – this time in the company of two friends, Bernie and Tommy. Continue reading “Walking the canal: the road to Wigan Pier”

Animals: silent or screaming?

Animals: silent or screaming?
Dead elephant
Villagers look at the body of a dead elephant knocked down by a train in Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary in northeast India

The other day I wrote about John Gray’s The Silence of Animals. The silence of animals, says Gray, is not the same as the silence pursued by human beings.  The silence of animals is not a literal silence, for most sentient animals inhabit vivid sound worlds. It is, however, a world without the kinds of turmoil and torment that humans experience.

But today we listened to ‘The Roaring Crowd’, an episode from the excellent Radio 4 series Noise: A Human History.  In the programme Professor David Hendy, in the ruins of the Colosseum, conjured up the power of the roaring Roman crowd and told a story of animals in torment.

On days when there was a big event at a Roman arena, mornings were reserved for the venatio, or animal hunts. Since an important object of the entertainment was to celebrate the superiority of Roman power over enemies, in 55BC Pompey hit on what he thought would be a real crowd-pleaser. A century earlier, Rome had crushed the great Carthaginian Republic, so why not remember that triumph symbolically by recalling Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who waged war against Rome by bringing 38 war elephants over the Alps, by massacring a few dozen pachyderms Pompey had expressly shipped to Rome.  Truly, a spectacle no one would ever forget.

But things didn’t go quite as Pompey expected. Hendy gave us Pliny the Elder’s account of what happened, revealing just a hint that Romans saw animals as having human characteristics, thoughts, and emotions.  Pliny wrote:

Pompey’s elephants, when they had lost all hope of escape, tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and his munificence carefully devised for their honour, and bursting into tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey for which he soon afterwards paid the penalty.

Plutarch records that a staggering five hundred lions were killed on that day, but that the elephant fight was ‘a most terrifying spectacle’. Cicero, who was present, wrote to a friend that for several days there had been two animal hunts a day:

The last day was that of the elephants, and on that day the mob and crowd were greatly impressed, but manifested no pleasure. Indeed the result was a certain compassion and a kind of feeling that that huge beast has a fellowship with the human race.

Gladiators Fighting an Elephant in an Arena
Gladiators Fighting an Elephant in an Arena: 17th century Italian engraving

Seneca, too, recalled the slaughter:

Pompey … according to report, was conspicuous among the leaders of old for the kindness of his heart, [but] thought it a notable kind of spectacle to kill human beings after a new fashion. Do they fight to the death? That is not enough! Are they torn to pieces? That is not enough! Let them be crushed by animals of monstrous bulk! Better would it be that these things pass into oblivion lest hereafter some all-powerful man should learn them and be jealous of an act that was nowise human. O, what blindness does great prosperity cast upon our minds!

The elephants, wrote Cassius Dio, ‘were pitied by the people when, after being wounded and ceasing to fight, they walked about with their trunks raised toward heaven, lamenting so bitterly as to give rise to the report that they did so not by mere chance, but were crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Africa, and were calling upon Heaven to avenge them’.

And so they were: Seven years later, Pompey was stabbed to death in Egypt.

In this episode of Noise, David Hendy also recalled George Orwell’s famous account of the death of an elephant when he was serving as a civil servant in Burma in 1936.  Orwell was called upon to shoot an elephant that had run amok; the memory of its dying never left him :

It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open — I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock. In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die.

Orwell’s conclusion is a dry assessment of where the elephant stood in the colonial hierarchy:

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

It hasn’t been just John Gray’s book and David Hendy’s radio essay that have had me thinking about animal consciousness.  A few days before that I had read One of Us, an interesting essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan from Lapham’s Quarterly.  He remarks at the outset that:

These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly.

The most striking example of this came last July when a group of scientists gathered at Cambridge University for the first annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference. Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, spent the latter part of his career studying consciousness and in 1994 published a book about it, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The scientific search for the soul.  The upshot of the meeting was the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which was publicly proclaimed by three eminent neuroscientists, David Edelman of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, Philip Low of Stanford University and Christof Koch of the California Institute of Technology.

The declaration concludes that:

Non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

The question of whether animals are conscious has a long history, embracing philosophers, biologists and psychologists. If you’re interested, both Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy have detailed accounts of the evolution of the debate online. In his essay, John Jeremiah Sullivan goes right back to those Ice Age artworks that I had the good fortune to see recently :

Trying to recapture the thought life of prehistoric peoples is a game wise heads tend to leave alone, but if there’s a consistent motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago, it’s animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else – lion or bird or bear. Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom. They were beings in a world of countless beings. Taking their lives was a meaningful act, to be prayed for beforehand and atoned for afterwards, suggesting that beasts were allowed some kind of right. We used our power over them constantly and violently, but stopped short of telling ourselves that creatures of alien biology could not be sentient or that they were incapable of true suffering and pleasure. Needing their bodies, we killed them in spite of those things.

Sullivan argues that only with the Greeks does the notion emerge of a formal divide between our species and every other animal on earth:

Today in Greece you can walk by a field and hear two farmers talking about an alogo, a horse. An a-logos. No logos, no language. That’s where one of their words for horse comes from. The animal has no speech; it has no reason. It has no reason because it has no speech. Plato and Aristotle were clear on that. Admire animals aesthetically, perhaps, or sentimentally; otherwise they’re here to be used. Mute equalled brute. As time went by, the word for speech became the very word for rationality, the logos, an identification taken up by the early Christians, with fateful results. For them the matter was even simpler. The animals lack souls.

Or, as Rene Descartes put it two millennia later, they ‘eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing’. Man, on the other hand, thinks.

conscious animal

In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin made the intriguing claim that among the naturalists he knew it seemed that the better one got to know a certain species, the more each individual animal’s actions appeared attributable to ‘reason and the less to unlearnt instinct’. Scientists were beginning to suspect that animals were rational.  Since Darwin, it’s largely been scientists who have probed the question of animal consciousness – and the clear trend in all their investigations has been towards more consciousness.  As Sullivan succinctly puts it: More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed.

This was made starkly clear in last year’s Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which stated unequivocally that those ‘neurological substrates’ necessary for consciousness belong to ‘all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses’.  Though what consciousness actually is, is anyone’s guess.  In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay, ‘What Is It Like To Be a Bat?’, in which he suggested that animal consciousness occurs when ‘there is something that it is to be that organism – something it is like for the organism’. Sullivan comments:

The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that.

There’s that wonderful passage on animal minds in Montaigne’s ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, where he writes about playing with his cat and wonders who is playing with whom. He finishes with a witty and deceptively profound final sentence: ‘We divert each other with monkey tricks’.

Meaning he and the cat. Both human being and cat are compared with a third animal. They are monkeys to each other, strange animals to each other. (The man is all but literally a monkey to the cat.) All three creatures involved in Montaigne’s metaphor are revealed as points on a continuum, and none of them understands the others very well. This is what the study of animal consciousness can teach us, finally – that we possess an animal consciousness.

Which is, more or less, what John Gray argues in The Silence of Animals.

As for morality – and recalling those screaming, dying elephants, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham once wrote: ‘The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?’

See also

Back to Wigan Pier?

The Orwell at Wigan Pier

The Orwell at Wigan Pier

In June 2009, walking the Leeds-Liverpool canal, I arrived at the Orwell pub at Wigan Pier to find the place shuttered and empty – it  had closed in January that year.  A converted three-storey grain warehouse, The Orwell was seen as a key feature of the Wigan Pier redevelopment when it opened as a national tourist attraction in 1985. But the venue struggled with the credit crunch, the decline in the pub trade and, particularly, the closure of the other major Wigan Pier attraction, the museum of Victorian life.

It was seventy-five years ago this month, notes David Sharrock in today’s Observer, that George Orwell set out from London on a mission instigated by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, to investigate the ‘distressed areas’ of northern England.  He ended up in lodgings in Wigan: an old Etonian gaining an education in poverty, squalid housing, unemployment and general misery.

Cover of the original Left Book Club edition

The impressions he recorded in The Road To Wigan Pier may seem at times those of a traveller ‘venturing among savages’, but Orwell’s book was an important contribution to awareness of the extent of the North-South divide at the end of the 1930s and fuelled a revulsion against glaring inequality that led ultimately to the Labour landslide in the 1945 general election and the establishment of the welfare state.

‘Today the book seems curiously relevant to our own distressed times’, writes Sharrock. ‘An Old Etonian prime minister, in a cabinet stuffed with public school boys, has embarked upon the most radical reduction of public spending in generations, making cuts that have prompted robust criticism of their pace and scale. North and south are pulling apart once more … We are witnessing the longest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, according to Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, and its effects fall heavier on the north.’

Two years after publication of The Road To Wigan Pier, Picture Post sent the pioneer of photojournalism, Kurt Hutton, to Wigan to document what he saw. The Observer has a gallery of his famous photos, three of which are featured below.

The diary kept by Orwell during his stay in Wigan can be read in full here.  I have selected these extracts:

11 February 1936

Wigan in the centre does not seem as bad as it has been represented – distinctly less depressing than Manchester. Wigan Pier said to have been demolished. Clogs commonly worn here and general in the smaller places outside such as Hindley. Shawl over head commonly worn by older women, but girls evidently only do it under pressure of dire poverty. Nearly everyone one sees very badly dressed and youths on the corners markedly less smart and rowdy than in London, but no very obvious signs of poverty except the number of empty shops. One in three of registered workers said to be unemployed.

Last night to Co-Op hall with various people from the N. U. W. M. to hear Wal Hannington speak. A poor speaker, using all the padding and clichés of the Socialist orator, and with the wrong kind of cockney accent (once again, though a Communist entirely a bourgeois), but he got the people well worked up. Was surprised by the amount of Communist feeling here. Loud cheers when Hannington announced that if England and U.S.S.R went to war U.S.S.R would win. Audience very rough and all obviously unemployed (about 1 in 10 of them women) but very attentive. After the address a collection taken for expenses – hire of hall and H.’s train-fare from London. £1-6-0 raised, not bad from about 200 unemployed people.

You can always tell a miner by the blue tattooing of coal dust on the bridge of his nose. Some of the older men have their foreheads veined with it like Roquefort cheese.

(Wal Hannington was a founding member of the Communist Party and its offshoot, the NUWM (National Unemployed Workers’ Movement), from its formation in 1921 to its end in 1939.  In 1937, his book The Problem of the Distressed Areas was published by Victor Gollancz, also in the Left Book Club series).

12 February 1936

Terribly cold. Long walk along the canal (one-time site of Wigan Pier) towards some slag-heaps in the distance. Frightful landscape of slag-heaps and belching chimneys. Some of the slag-heaps almost like mountains – one just like Stromboli. Bitter wind. They had had to send a steamer to break the ice in front of the coal barges on the canal. The bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks. All the “flashes” (stagnant pools made by the subsidence of disused pits) covered with ice the colour of raw umber. Beards of ice on the lock gates. A few rats running slowly through the snow, very tame, presumably weak with hunger.

13 February 1936

Housing conditions in Wigan terrible. Mrs H. tells me that at her brother’s house (he is only 25, so I think he must be her half brother, but he has already a child of 8), 11 people, 5 of them adults, belonging to 3 different families, live in 4 rooms, “2 up 2 down.”

All the miners I meet have either had serious accidents themselves or have friends or relatives who have. Mrs Hornby’s cousin had his back broken by a fall of rock – “And he lingered seven year afore he died and it were a-punishing of him all the while” – and her brother in law fell 1200 feet down the shaft of a new pit. Apparently he bounced from side to side, so was presumably dead before he got to the bottom. Mrs H. adds: “They wouldn’t never have collected t’pieces only he were wearing a new suit of oilskins.”

15 February 1936

Passing up a horrible squalid side-alley, saw a woman, youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing as I was.

This moment was translated into the memorable passage in chapter 1 of  The Road To Wigan Pier:

The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

David Sharrock comments that this was ‘a rare moment, in a book about human sympathy, of connection between the man raised to be an officer of the empire and the proletariat that, however much he wished to embrace, repelled him still’.

18 February 1936

In the early morning the mill girls clumping down the cobbled street, all in clogs, make a curiously formidable sound, like an army hurrying into battle. I suppose this is the typical sound of Lancashire. And the typical imprint in the mud outline of a clog-iron, like one half of a cow’s hoof. Clogs are very cheap. They cost about 5/- a pair and need not wear out for years because all they need is new irons costing a few pence.

20 February 1936

This afternoon with Paddy Grady to see the unemployed miners robbing the “dirt-train,” or, as they call it, “scrambling for the coal.” A most astonishing sight. We went by the usual frightful routes along the colliery railway line to fir-tree sidings, on our way meeting various men and women with sacks of stolen coal which they had slung over bicycles. […]

When we got there we found not less than 100 men, a few boys, waiting, each with a sack and coal hammer strapped under his coat tails. Presently the train hove in sight, coming round the bend at about 20 mph. 50 or 70 men rushed for it, seized hold of the bumpers etc. and hoisted themselves onto the trucks. It appears that each truck is regarded as the property of the men who have succeeded in getting onto it while it is moving. The engine ran the trucks up onto the dirt-heap, uncoupled them and came back for the remaining trucks. There was the same wild rush and the second train was boarded in the same manner, only a few men failing to get on to it. As soon as the trucks had been uncoupled the men on top began shovelling the stuff out to their women and other supporters below, who rapidly sorted out the dirt and put all the coal (a considerable amount but all small, in lumps about the size of eggs) into their sacks. Further down the “broo” were the people who had failed to get onto either train and were collecting the tiny fragments of coal that came sliding down from above. […]