The Wigan Nightingale

by John Holbo on September 2, 2007

I’m enjoying Bryan Talbot’s new – not exactly a graphic novel, is it? Alice in Sunderland [amazon]. Subtitled: ‘an entertainment’. Visit the official site of this ‘dream documentary’, call it what you will.

Anyway, it is set in the Sunderland Empire – that is, a theater – and the rabbit onstage explains to the lout in the audience, who is, oddly, a George Formby fan:

George Formby played here, and his father before him, from whom Chaplin steals his stick-twirling routine. All great northern comedy is drawn from tragedy. One of the biggest ever Music Hall stars, George Formby Senior – the Wigan Nightingale – is born into dire poverty and learns his trade as a singing beggar. His songs and jokes are punctuated by a hacking cough – a symptom of the tuberculosis that kills him in his forties – which he cleverly works into his act.

That’s fairly black. To be a tubercular Music Hall performer, hacking away on stage. The book says Formby, Sr., invented ‘Wigan Pier’ – see also, George Orwell – as part of a running gag to the effect that Wigan was a classy seaside resort, as opposed to a landlocked mining town. I never knew that. (Is it true? Talbott warns us that everything in the book is true except for one, which will be revealed at the end. I haven’t got to the end yet.)

Anyway, YouTube has some fine George Formby (Jr.) material: “When I’m Cleaning Windows”; “Fanlight Fanny”. So that’s where the Beatles learned to sound like that.



josh 09.02.07 at 4:42 pm

Well, Formby Sr didn’t invent ‘Wigan Pier’, to the extent that a ‘Wigan Pier’ did exist before him — but the name was indeed ironic, as it was just a jetty on the canal where coal was loaded onto barges for shipping; Formby Sr did make it part of his act; and Orwell might well have gotten it from him.


John Holbo 09.02.07 at 4:47 pm

Ah, I see. The author writes (just to be clear): “His son follows in his father’s theatrical footsteps, continuing his running surrealist gag that Wigan, a smoky inland industrial town, had a fancy pier like that of seaside resorts.” And then he notes that Orwell ‘immortalizes it’.


Cheryl 09.02.07 at 5:04 pm

It is a fabulous book. I’m trying to work out an excuse for it being specfic in some way so that I can nominate it for a Hugo.

Do let us know when you get to the end and find out which thing the narrator said wasn’t true.


Cool Bev 09.02.07 at 5:49 pm

Yes, I believe that all the Beatles were big Formby fans, and used to jam on his tunes in rehearsal. [citation needed]


astrongmaybe 09.02.07 at 9:55 pm

When I read “Sunderland Empire” I thought it was going to be about Roy Keane. But no.


Bob B 09.02.07 at 10:53 pm

The lyrics and first recording by George Formby of: When I’m cleaning windows, date from 1936:

For a direct comparison with Formby’s inimitable style of variety from the north of England, try this from a virtually contemporary musical show in London: Me and My Gal (1937), in a revival from 50 years on in 1987:

The definitely anarchic lyrics of the Lambeth Walk still have resonance:

Perhaps I ought to confess that I was born in Lambeth not long after when the show: Me and My Gal, was first produced, which may explain my instinctive preferences.

As always, George Orwell shed illumination on the differences between the north and south of England in his book: The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), chapter 7:

“There is nevertheless a real difference between North and South, and there is at least a tinge of truth in that picture of Southern England as one enormous Brighton inhabited by lounge-lizards. For climatic reasons the parasitic dividend-drawing class tend to settle in the South. In a Lancashire cotton-town you could probably go for months on end without once hearing an ‘educated’ accent, whereas there can hardly be a town in the South of England where you could throw a brick without hitting the niece of a bishop. Consequently, with no petty gentry to set the pace, the bourgeoisification of the working class, though it is taking place in the North, is taking place more slowly. All the Northern accents, for instance, persist strongly, while the Southern ones are collapsing before the movies and the BBC.”


vivian 09.03.07 at 12:43 am

On my first trip to the UK I was told that after Orwell’s book, and after the war/poverty was over, some bright spark built an amusement park at Wigan Pier either to cash in on the book, or perhaps ironically in that dry, british humor. But my now-dear hubby wouldn’t take me, on the grounds that it was a long, pricey trip to nowhere just to find out (his brother gave me the brochure though). Your/Josh’s story is much more believable. Thanks for clearing up the mystery.


josh 09.03.07 at 7:00 am

On Formbys (Formbies?) Snr and Jr: not only did Formby pere work his tubercular cough into his act: but George Jr, during the earlier part of his career when he was still using parts of his father’s act, would occasionally do the cough as well — it even shows up briefly in his first film, Boots! Boots! Given that his father had died of tuberculosis by that point, it’s slightly macabre.


Jim 09.03.07 at 7:10 am

“So that’s where the Beatles learned to sound like that.”

Formby was even more influential than that. Don’t forget the recently-discovered footage of him singing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” long before Dylan claimed to be the author.


dsquared 09.03.07 at 7:57 am

It’s not an amusement park but the Wigan Pier Experience (not to be confused with the “Seriously Pumpin, Definatly Jumpin” Wigan Pier Nightspot) is actually quite a good day out as industrial museums go. The Wigan Casino, unfortunately, is long since past tense.


Harald Korneliussen 09.03.07 at 9:12 am

I wondered where they’d stolen the windows cleaning song from. Hilarious. And the truism about YouTube comments that they are impossible to parody is verified again.



Phil 09.03.07 at 10:45 am

#5 Keane hardly has an empire at Sunderland, but hopefully in time…

And yes it is a fantastic book, and please do a post when you’ve finished.


Katherine 09.03.07 at 10:57 am

For a modern (and faintly comical) version of the north/south divide in England, see Pies and Prejudice: In Search Of The North by Stuart Maconie. I’ve never been a fan of George Orwell, so I will restrain myself from commenting on his continuously patronising, rich-boy view of the north and the working classes. Oops, too late.


Bob B 09.03.07 at 12:28 pm

“I’ve never been a fan of George Orwell, so I will restrain myself from commenting on his continuously patronising, rich-boy view of the north and the working classes. Oops, too late.”

It’s really challenging to see George Orwell as rich and “patronising” when he died of TB in 1950 at the age of 46. His great political novels: Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-four, hardly display that feature. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), his study of poverty in the north of England, was commissioned and published by Victor Gollancz, on behalf of the Left Book Club and the book is anything but patronising about the poor as its regular readers appreciate.

Famously, Victor Gollancz refused to publish Orwell’s next book, Homage to Catalonia, about his time in Spain during the civil war when he managed to escape with his wife across the frontier with France just ahead of a general arrest warrant issued by the Spanish republican government. Many years later, someone researching Spain’s national archive discovered that a file reporting the issue of the arrest warrant had been copied through to Moscow at the time – why would Moscow be interested in Orwell’s arrest? [Peter Davison: George Orwell – A Literary Life (1996)]

Victor Gollancz also famously refused to publish Orwell’s Animal Farm after WW2, apparently because he felt it would insult our heroic Soviet allies.

As for the famed north-south divide, try these reports from a few years ago on the BBC website – there are pockets of exceptional affluence in the north of England:

In the depression years of the 1930s, Leicester in the midlands was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe – according to some contemporary per capita estimates.


Katherine 09.03.07 at 1:00 pm

I refer you to Down And Out In Paris And London.

And what’s that about the “famed” North/South divide? There is one. Pockets of affluence do not a rich region make. That’s like saying Brixton isn’t poor because my frioend the city lawyer has a flat there.


Bob B 09.03.07 at 1:29 pm

For how Eric Blair (1903-50) – George Orwell – came to write The Road the Wigan Pier, there’s a facinating 3-part biographical videos covering his life up to the time he went out to Spain in 1937 to fight on the Republican side in the civil war:

What Orwell offers us about the north of England in the 1930s are illuminating insights about the consequences as well as the causes of poverty. That same chapter 7 of the Road to Wigan Pier includes this commentary on prevailing macho attitudes to schooling and education in parts of the north which are still very much with us in Britain now:

“The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a ‘job’ should descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly.”

Compare and contrast these recent news reports:

“An ethnic breakdown of this year’s GCSE results [2004] in England shows that ‘black African’ girls are scoring higher grades than ‘white British’ boys. . . The analysis of exam results shows that all ethnic groups are improving their average results – but it also shows wide differences between boys, girls, rich, poor, blacks, whites and Asians.”

“The research says: ‘One striking fact is that poor white students are the lowest performing of all groups at age 16, showing a substantial deterioration in their relative scores through secondary school.'”

“One third of employers have to give their staff remedial lessons in basic English and maths, a survey suggests. Managers said staff needed to be able to use correct spelling and grammar and should be competent in simple mental arithmetic without a calculator. One in five employers said non-graduate recruits of all ages struggled with literacy or numeracy, the Confederation of British Industry poll found.”

According to this bar chart in The Economist, Britain is especially well-endowed with low-skilled young people compared with most other major European economies:

“The government is concerned about a growing gender gap in higher education, after 22,500 more young women than men won places at university last year.”

“Attacks on teachers in Sheffield were running at more than two a week during the last school year, according to figures obtained by the BBC.”


psg (London) 09.03.07 at 2:43 pm

I still see Wigan as my home town 25 years after leaving.I have to agree with Katherine on both points:

My parents and others locally were distinctly critical of Orwell and indeed of both Formbys.As far as I can recollect they were perceived as exploiting and harming Wigan for their own ends, distorting the image of the town in the process.

North/South divide has always been shorthand that overlooks anomalies (e.g.Cornwall/Devon not sharing in the wealth of the South and even Manchester has been said to have avoided much of the Depression) but it retains its relevance overall.Try asking any knowledgeable Conservative as they continue to fail to get back to power.

Wigan remains relatively poor and for that reason utterly loyal to Labour, its three constituencies, Wigan,Leigh and Makerfield continuously since 1910,1918 and 1906 respectively.There’s nowhere else in England quite like it in this regard.

Wigan Pier merits a visit as stated above and canal-side walks are an enjoyable combination.

If the Wigan Pier Nightspot doesn’t quite seem as likely to appeal to Crooked Timberites as the Casino’s Northern Soul might have done it’s still at least as compelling as some old guy on a ukelele. )-


Bob B 09.03.07 at 6:01 pm

I agree with that assessment of George Formby, although he was hugely popular in his time.

His comedy was a variation on playing the role of the courtly fool and very much relied on schadenfreude. Contrast that with the assertive and subversive comedy of Doing the Lambeth Walk.

I’ve come across criticism of Orwell before but it’s almost always generalised – such as “patronising” – and seldom specific as to his actual text. Surely, the important question to ask about the north is why the evident pockets of affluence are not more widely distributed?

My private theory is some local politicians noted long ago that maintaining poor standards of schooling ensured almost permanent Labour majorities on local councils by applying the simple formula:
poor schooling => uncertain local job prospects => vote Labour

But then there is a long history in England of degrading the importance of schooling for the majority:

“We have noted a substantial body of original research . . . which found that stagnant or declining literacy underlay the ‘revolution’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. . . Britain in 1850 was the wealthiest country in the world but only in the second rank as regards literacy levels. [Nick] Crafts has shown that in 1870 when Britain was world economic leader, its school enrolment ratio was only 0.168 compared with the European norm of 0.514 and ‘Britain persistently had a relatively low rate of accumulation of human capital’.”
Sanderson: Education, economic change and society in 1780-1870 (Cambridge UP, 1995) p.61

The problem in the last few decades is that UK manufacturing employment peaked in about 1968 and unskilled manual jobs are now rapidly falling out of fashion.


Katherine 09.04.07 at 9:23 am

Okay, let’s get specific. From Down and Out In Paris And London, let’s consider the fact that in between his sojourn in Paris and his stay in London he conveniently forgets to mention that he went home for a slap-up Christmas with family.

And let’s not forget that the whole book is him playing at being poor. He cannot possibly get inside the skin of someone genuinely experiencing poverty if he always knows that he can leave. Yes, poverty is about the material disadvantages, but a huge part of the mental aspect of it is the lack of ways out.

His “hey, I’m being poor, so listen to me about what it’s like” attitude throughout the whole thing was just sickening and, yes, generally patronising.


Bob B 09.04.07 at 12:05 pm

By living among the down and outs in London and Paris, Orwell was surely trying to gain insights into street life and poverty by a means widely recognised nowadays as a valid method of investigative journalism – hence this:

“David Cameron has foiled an extraordinary attempt to infiltrate the heart of his General Election machine by a Labour-supporting newspaper. . . ”

Btw issues of this thread are evidently timely, judging by revelations in today’s news about the release from UK government archives of previously secret MI5 surveillance files on Orwell:


Katherine 09.04.07 at 12:21 pm

But he doesn’t “try to gain insights” as you put it Bob B, he presents his experience as the experience of poverty, which I find dishonest. And I find most of his “poor people think/do/react like this” statements patronising, simply because he assumes his experience is the same as theirs is, but he is the man qualified to articulate and explain it.


Bob B 09.04.07 at 6:34 pm

Orwell was only 29 when he completed Down and Out in 1932 and rather desperately trying to make a regular living as a professional writer after resigning from his job with the Burma police.

Even taking your criticism of his reportage at face value, where do we go from there? Do we write off everything that he produced thereafter or just the reportage in books like The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia or in the many essays he wrote.

The fact is that The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) is still widely cited as a valid contemporary source on the social consequences of the 1930s depression among real people at street level in the north of England.

His next book, Homage to Catalonia (1938), then shed some timely illumination on the murderous totalitarianism of the Communists in the International Brigade on the Republican side in Spain’s civil war at a time when the Soviet government in Moscow was deeply engaged in staging show trials at which a long succession of dedicated Bolsheviks confessed to strings of often absurd political crimes for which they were promptly convicted and duly executed.

For those illustrious writers in Britain who had championed the Soviet cause without caveat, Orwell’s Homage was the beginning of an embarrassment that was enhanced when its themes were buttressed by books like Koestler’s novel: Darkness At Noon (1940).

Orwell had made enemies at high places in the literary scene. We need to interpret the serial attempts to discredit him in that context and in terms of his development as a writer. That said, I suspect his standing as one of the foremost political writers of the 20th century is fairly secure despite faults. After all, there are precious few writers from the times when he was writing who are still being argued over. The reputations of most of his literary contemporaries have long since sunk into oblivion.


Katherine 09.05.07 at 8:07 am

Bob B, you seem to have moved from claiming that Down And Out In Paris And London is not patronising, to defending its contents on the basis that Orwell was 29 at the time. Which is it?

And being 29 does not give you a pass for patronising literature, as far as I’m concerned. Nor does desperation.


Bob B 09.05.07 at 10:59 am

Hopefully, rather like Orwell and perhaps because of him, I tend not to regard any text as vested with the authority of scripture so I’m not disposed to defend to mortality all the phrasing in his reportage in Down and Out . . That would be singularly petty and certainly miss what made Orwell a great and eventually one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, which is why he is still a regular topic of lively debate when most of his literary contemporaries have long since become mere items in history. I wonder whatever happened to GB Shaw and HG Wells?

For Orwell, Homage to Catalonia represented a personal watershed. After completing The Road to Wigan Pier in 1936 and getting married, he had gone out to Spain to fight Fascism. On eventually escaping from Spain with his wife, just ahead of an arrest warrant issued by the Republican government, he had come to regard Communism as a twin evil with Fascism when most of his literary contemporaries regarded one of those ideologies as an acceptable evil at the very least, if not a shining beacon to the way of the future. That realisation informed his writing thereafter and was fundamental for his immortal post-war works: Animal Farm (1946) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949).

It is astonishing now to read now his insights into the arts of political manipulation in the latter and recognise the extent to which those arts have become embedded in current political practice. He added to our political vocabulary: “Newspeak” and shaped the instrumental concepts of our politics: Two Minutes Hate. And if we want to understand why political parties so often present a narrative of recent history that never quite matches how we recall it: “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”


Katherine 09.06.07 at 2:45 pm

Your ongoing posts on the wonderfulnes of Orwell don’t in the end actually address my original complaint, which is his patronising, rich-boy manner. That’s why I don’t like him and that’s what I said. All the long posts in the world on his personal history don’t change the fact that he was patronising to the poor.

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