Dr Derek J. Ripley on a forgotten Lancashire literary giant
PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 December 2013 | UPDATED: 18:00 19 January 2016
Our resident historian Dr Derek J. Ripley recalls a lost giant of Lancashire literature
Anyone who Googles the name George Irwell may be disappointed to find so few references to a man who, in his time, was a colossus of the Lancashire literary world.
Yet it was not always thus. Born Eric Arthur Blunt in Wigan in 1903, until the age of eight he lived with his parents and 12 siblings in a room above Walter Spiegelman’s photographic studio in Mintball Square.
Eric described his family as ‘lower working class’. His father was a door-to-door door salesman, which made for a perilous living at a time when most houses already had front doors. Eric’s refined tastes were at odds with those of his uncouth family, later describing himself as ‘a rich boy trapped in a poor boy’s body.’ Determined to escape a life of drudgery, one night he crept downstairs, hid in Spiegelman’s studio and managed to smuggle himself into a family portrait of the Irwells, one of the wealthiest families in Wigan.
The Irwells rarely saw their children as they each attended boarding school, so when young Eric followed them home, they assumed he must be one of theirs. When they attempted to disown him, he pointed to the irrefutable photographic evidence. The Irwells already had a son called Eric so they changed his name to George. Thus it was that George Irwell was born.
At school, he showed a facility for language far beyond his years, regularly composing notes excusing himself from mathematics lessons. When his teachers discovered this, they paid him to write notes excusing them from the First World War.
Returning home at Christmas, he found an empty house and a sign in the window which said ‘Gorn away.’ He never forgave his adoptive family for this misspelling. Left to fend for himself, he slept rough and spent a summer working in a tripe restaurant where he wrote Down & Out in Parbold & Langho (1933), drawing on his experience clearing away dead rats from the work surfaces before the chefs arrived.
Eventually, he drew the eye of the editor of the Wigan Argus, who offered him the job of cub reporter. He spent his time at Wigan Zoo writing dispatches on the progress of Elsie the lioness and her cubs. Worried he might lose his job when the cubs became adults, he fabricated reports and described them as cubs for the next five years, not knowing that cubs become adult lions after only 18 months. But Irwell’s fears were unfounded.
He was eventually promoted to his dream job – sports editor - and, when Real Madrid invited Wigan to play a friendly in 1936, Irwell was sent to Spain to report on the game. He was horrified by what he saw. Not only was Franco’s brutal fascist army conducting a war of attrition against the democratically elected regime, but Alberto Sanchez scored a controversial 86th minute penalty for Madrid in a 1-0 defeat of the Lancashire club.
Irwell was not only an accomplished writer but a talented footballer and prolific goal scorer himself. A tricky, unorthodox left winger, he was spotted by a scout for Chorley Town. In 1923 he was described by the Wigan Argus as the finest player of his generation and with incredible foresight in 1924 by the Wigan Daily Star as ‘the Lionel Messi of his day’.
Irwell went to work for the BBC, where he scripted episodes of the wartime radio comedy series There! It’s That Monkey Again, Norman! He ended his career as co-presenter of TV’s It’s A Cock Up, in which teams from across Lancashire competed for pop-up toasters wearing pantomime horse costumes.
In 1996, he was ennobled but was stripped of his peerage when convicted of expenses fraud. He had claimed £65,000 for a bird bath which had cost only £15 insisting that this was a fair reflection of the increase in property prices over the previous 12 months.