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Garrett meets Orwell

George Garrett, Merchant Seaman, writer, playwright and founder member of Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, was a radical activist who travelled the world and wrote a series of short stories, stage plays and documentary reports about poverty and struggle in the 1920’s and 30’s.


George Orwell, who was then researching his seminal work on poverty, The Road to Wigan Pier, was introduced to Garrett, who showed him round Liverpool, visiting the docker’s hiring stands and the new corporation housing, before Garrett dropped him off at Wigan Pier.

Garrett took Orwell around Liverpool’s housing estates, to the Docker’s stand and then to Wigan. They appear to have got on well together and sat up in the night discussing literature and politics. Garrett was well-travelled and known for being well-read and would no doubt have been able to hold his own in discussions with Orwell.

Orwell confessed to ‘being very impressed by Garrett’, even more so when he realised Garrett also wrote under the pseudonym also Matt Low, with more stories published than he previously realised.

‘I urged him to write his autobiography’ wrote Orwell, but, as usual, living in about two rooms on the dole with a wife (who, I gather, objects to his writing) and a number of kids, he finds it impossible to settle to any long work and can only do short stories. Apart from the enormous unemployment in Liverpool it is almost impossible for him to get work because he is blacklisted everywhere as a Communist.’ (Garrett, like many activists had flirted with the Communist party briefly, but was actually a lifelong syndicalist, having joined the Industrial Workers of the World, or The Wobblies, as they were better known, during his time in America in the early 1920s).

The following year, 9 March 1937, Garrett writing to his editor, John Lehmann of the New Writing magazine, said, ‘I see by to-day’s news-chronicle that Orwell’s “Road to Wigan pier” is out. Actually, there is a Wigan Pier. I left Orwell (Eric Blair, now in Spain) there, after showing him around Liverpool. So you can understand that I do recognise my social duties. To-day’s blurb says that “The Road to Wigan Pier” is the most vivid description of the means test yet written. But, this is what I meant by shocking some of the know all’s and strutting politicians – THE MEN ON THE PARISH HAVE NEVER BEEN OFF THE MEANS TEST. I am not saying it was my intention to screech that down a reader’s ear, but I was bent on whispering it if you like, just to let him know what these things are – and how.’

He followed this up on 15 March 1937, saying in a further letter, ‘That “Road to Wigan Pier” is a terrible hotch-potch [sic]. From beginning to end it is one long sneer; this includes the first part. The only decent material is the visit to the mine, and the photographs. I wish I had been given the job of reviewing it. A book of that type can do a lot of damage. That it should appear as a “Left Book” gives it an added danger.’

Garrett’s relationship with George Orwell reflected the views of some other working-class writers of the time. Orwell and Garrett met in 1936, before Owell’s major works, Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm and 1984, had made him into a household name and soon to become one of Britain’s literary greats. In 1936, still a young author trying to find his theme and voice, Orwell set out on a commission by publisher’s Gollancz to explore and write about unemployment and poverty in the north of England. For a man like Garrett, who spent ten years out of work directly experiencing the poverty Orwell was researching, Orwell, who was Eton educated, whereas Garrett left school at fourteen and ran away to sea at seventeen, no doubt appeared as something of a dilettante.

Some years later, in a discussion on proletarian literature, with Desmond Hawkins in the December 1940 edition of The Listener, Orwell, alongside work by jack London, James Hanley and Jack Hilton, referenced George Garrett’s ‘sea stories’, as examples of some of the best writing emerging from working class writers.

In his diaries Orwell wrote that while he was with Garrett, he ‘Bought two brass candlesticks and a ship in a bottle. G considered I was swindled but they are quite nice brass.’

In a very touching and fitting end to the day’s filming, Richard Blair produced the very ship in a bottle that Orwell had bought in Liverpool in 1936. Sean was surprised, and probably a little more moved than he would have expected to be.

Orwell and Garrett never met again, but, inspired by Orwell’s advice and fired up by his view of The Road to Wigan Pier, Garrett did set out to write his autobiography, Ten Years On The Parish. Sadly, it was never published in his lifetime, but, after being rediscovered in a suitcase by the Garrett Archive Project, Liverpool University Press published it in 2017, along with Garrett’s correspondence with his editor John Lehman as Ten Years On The Parish, The Life and Letters of George Garrett.

You can find out more about Garrett’s life and work by purchasing Ten Years On The Parish here.

Mike Morris, Co-Director, Writing on the Wall.

Ten Years On The Parish, published here for the first time since it was written in the late 1930s, shines a light on the hardships and poverty endured by many in the years between the wars, including Garrett, who through his writing and his activism, became central to working class politics and culture in the 1920s and 30s in Liverpool and beyond.

Garrett also wrote a series of documentary reports about poverty and struggle in the 1920s and 30s, lived in New York in the mid-1920s, writing three plays influenced by the new theatre of Eugene O'Neill, and had a series of short stories published in the 1930s alongside literary greats WH Auden, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood and George Orwell. In the late 1930s he was a founder member of Liverpool's Unity Theatre.

In Ten Years On The Parish Garrett touches upon his time in New York in the early 1920s, gives a graphic account of the unemployed struggles in Liverpool, including The First Hunger March in 1922, and reveals how he personally, as well as others in the working classes, struggled to survive in Liverpool through the great depression of the 1930s.

Published alongside Ten Years On The Parish are a series of letters exchanged from January 1935 to July 1940 between Garrett and New Writing Editor John Lehmann, which reveal a unique insight into the relationship between a working-class writer and his editor.
Both original texts have extensive introductions by the editors Mike Morris, tony Wailey and Andrew Davies, as well as a foreword by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, which establishes the context and importance of Garrett's work.

This publication gives long-overdue credence to Garrett's importance as a writer and radical, who has come to be regarded as ‘The most significant working-class writer of his generation.’

Click button below to order your copy of Ten Years On the Parish