The unsung heir to Orwell


“(He) has transformed labour writing into an art.”

Praise for Jeremy Seabrook’s The Song of the Shirt doesn’t stop pouring in. The Hindu has carried a rave review of the book exalting Seabrook as “an artist at the height of his powers”.

From early path-breaking works like The Unprivileged and City Close-up (in the mid-1960s) to Pauperland in 2013, few have been as successful in making the complexities of the working class experience as accessible as Seabrook. His style, meshing rigorous research with prose of superlative literary quality and economy, has found many imitators in the former Indian subcontinent where narratives chronicling the ‘other’ India or Pakistan have spawned a veritable publishing industry. These narratives broadly fall into two categories: the dreary, formalistic subaltern treatise or the ‘development porn’ style which exuberantly employs literary devices like magic realism to chronicle slums to itinerant labourers to farmer suicides. But Seabrook, no crabbed socialist or overweening celebrity radical, effortlessly lays bare the monstrosity of Bangladesh garment industry—that Frankenstein’s Monster erected by the country’s consumerist elite, ruthlessly devouring its rural populace.

Perhaps the reviewer is referring to the novelistic techniques deployed by the likes of Katherine Boo, narrative strategies that help the cleaner classes understand poverty from a safe distance. Seabrook’s reflection on the mutability of progress makes this reviewer say that he “surely is the unsung heir to the Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.” We can’t agree more.

If you haven’t yet, buy the book here.

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