NAME:Laura Havlin
SPECIALISM:At The End of The Road to Wigan Pier – learning about local pride in my hometown
LOCATION:Wigan, Greater Manchester (formerly Lancashire)
MATERIALS:7 x Photographs / 3 x Objects

Overview of Voyage D'etudes

Laura Havlin is an arts and culture journalist based in London. She gained a Philosophy degree from The University of Manchester and a Masters in Journalism from The University of Central Lancashire before migrating south to London where she is now an arts writer and editor. She is a contributor to A Magazine Curated By, AnOther Magazine, Dazed & Confused, Interview Magazine Russia, and Port Magazine, and is the UK Contributing Editor of LA-based Afterzine.

Maybe George Orwell set the ball rolling when he painted an unrelentingly bleak picture of the industrial town in his 1937 politically-charged exploration of mining towns The Road to Wigan Pier, reporting to the world not only the ugliness of the area – “…the dreadful environs of Wigan”– but also of the people – “In Wigan various people gave me the opinion that it is best to ‘get shut of’ your teeth as early in life as possible” – but Wigan has, for a long time, come loaded with pre-conceptions and stereotypes.

The town often finds itself at the punch-line in jokes or as a case study of grim northern-ness. At the time of my trip, The Wigan Observer had just published an article titled ‘TV show’s image of town branded ‘unfair’, in which council bosses are quoted outraged that Wigan was depicted as an economic failure. London it isn’t, and I’m certainly in no way well enough informed to comment on the complexities of the economics of the town, but what it does go to demonstrate is the innate defence mechanism anyone from Wigan seems to develop when it’s criticised from the outside. I too find myself reeling off the cultural highlights of the place of my birth on occasion to people whose only familiarity with the Wigan has been the derogatory jokes about ‘pie eaters’ or lazily thought-out television segments.

What Wigan has, that many other provincial towns don’t have is – for want of a better term – vibe. The birthplace of Northern Soul got soul, and, it wants to remind you of it constantly. On a recent trip back to my hometown, where my parents still live, I took in the local history that’s pasted on the walls, posted up on road signs and decorating the shopping centre.

Believe

When Wigan Athletic made it to the FA cup last year ‘Believe’ appeared all over the town. It’s now become a local slogan, adorning roadside signs and an entire floor in the main shopping centre. Please also note the heart emoji in Wigan Council’s logo.

Wigan’s impressive Rugby achievements are documented on a wall that leads into the ‘Grand Arcade’ shopping centre.

Wigan Pier

There never really was a pier as such on the canal. Orwell noted the lack of the pier in his book, but today here stands a function venue and the site of a dance music scene you may have heard of based around Wigan Pier – ‘Happy Hardcore’ ‘bounce’ music.

Wigan Casino 

Wigan Casino was the home of Northern Soul in the 70s. Acts would come from the likes of Detroit to perform live and DJs would spin classics and rare records all night long to a loyal flock of partiers who’d make the homage from as far away as the midlands to attend the famed night. The Casino itself was destroyed in a fire in 1981 and the site was a cinema for a while when I grew up there. Now on the site is the ‘Grand Arcade’ shopping centre, which boasts a Debenhams, Topshop, M&S and TK Maxx, amongst other homogenous high street names. To infuse some identity – or maybe even just a bit of design je ne sais quoi – into the glass and steel every-mall, posters, and photographs adorn the walls. This is the artwork at the entrance into the mall from the upper car park.

Orwell’s impeccable foresight

Orwell’s impeccable foresight into the future that makes his seminal work 1984 so frighteningly accurate was present in The Road to Wigan Pier too. He knew that the slag heaps and mines would one day be gone and instead we’d have sleek glass shopping centres. He wrote: “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…the furniture will be made of rubber, glass and steel.”

Tucked away between a Costa Coffee and a juice bar, this shrine to Northern Soul comes complete with signed photographs, records and two eerie faceless mannequins sharing a coke, which was a common activity at all-nighters. David Nowell, in his book The Story of Northern Soul, writes: “Booze would usually only bring about a sluggish feeling or 4a.m snooze…Speed was different – it made us alert, energetic, and euphoric and could have been tailor-made for the all-night dance scene.” Of course, simply a few caffeine and sugar-filled soft drinks were enough to keep many dancing till dawn.

International Ukulele superstar and comedian George Formby, rumoured to be played by Johnny Depp in an upcoming biopic (unconfirmed), was from Wigan. Here he is, rendered in brass in the middle of Wigan town centre.

Some souvenirs I picked up from The History Shop, here. The ‘Wigan Kebab’ was a delicacy put together for charity for Wigan and Lee Hospice. Referring to Wiganers as ‘Pie Eaters’ has nothing to do with the town’s penchant for pastry, but comes from a miners strike in the 1820′s when all the pits in Wigan and Leigh went on strike. The Wigan contingent on the strike decided they couldn’t afford to be on strike anymore and had to go back to work – they ate ‘humble pie’ and the “Leythers” gave them the moniker “pie eaters”, and it stuck.

Conclusion

It might not be a place of all earthy pleasures – Shangri-La – but the writer who coined the phrase in his novel Lost Horizon – James Hamilton – was from Wigan (thanks History Shop for teaching me that), and that’s…something. (Disclaimer: The Oscar-winning author and screenwriter had moved to Hollywood, where his career took off.)

Hometown pride is a curious thing. There’s a fine line between celebrating your cultural heritage and loosing yourself forever in a nostalgia vortex. You only have to look at the theme-parkification of Beatle mania in Liverpool to see the dangers of that.

However, when you could parachute into any town in Britain and take a look at the white, steel and glass domes that house Topshop, Debenhams and the like and be just about anywhere, mining the past, is a helpful way to keep some identity.

When that identity involves gutsy miners (of whom Orwell wrote, “If there is one man to whom I do feel myself inferior, it is a coal-miner.”) and an all night party scene, it is, for me, something to be proud of. It’s not Derry with its ‘oldest walls in Europe’ or Tamorth with its ‘first UK indoor ski slope’ – it’s got soul.

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