There are only so many good ideas in the world, one supposes. This might explain why revisiting and retracing is such a popular artistic and literary endeavour – high, low and middlebrow. It might be Dara O'Briain and Griff Rhys Jones and Rory McGrath being blokey and jokey on a river somewhere à la Jerome K Jerome for ITV1. Or it might be Beryl Bainbridge following in the footsteps of JB Priestley's English Journey for an earnest travelogue during the Thatcher years.
At about the same time as Bainbridge's book was published, the journalist and activist Bea Campbell came to my home town to show how little things had changed for the impoverished working classes since Orwell's famous 1930s visit, which led to his writing The Road to Wigan Pier. By then, though, Wigan Pier was a nightclub (a rather good one actually) and some of us were more interested in seeing if we or any of our mates were in the photographs of the club accompanying Campbell's text than her well-meant but baleful ruminations.
There has always been an understandable if deluded reluctance among some Wiganers fully to appreciate Orwell's similarly good intentions. When the pier area (a loading stage for barges on the Leeds-Liverpool canal) was redeveloped in the 1980s, the naming of a new pub as The Orwell met with much opposition. George Formby was the dedicatee preferred by many; a son of the town, a George who was said to have projected a much more positive image of the townsfolk, at least in that they were imbecilic but happy dolts rather than downtrodden serfs.
A certain amount of this attitude remains. In among the harrowing tales of abuse, exploitation and general misery recounted in this new revisiting by Stephen Armstrong (so many people must have walked in Orwell's footsteps by now, it's a wonder there's any asphalt left on Darlington Street) you find folk such as Bob, tucked away on page 65: "Wigan's alright … there's lots of people here who don't like the cloth caps and whippet image Orwell's book gave us. The town's not that bad – all the two ups and two downs have gone, the air's clean. It's alright … I mean, it's getting worse."
If you have a heart at all, you'll soon realise that, like Orwell, Armstrong's is clearly in the right place. Orwell's 1937 work was an explicit call to arms, a cri de coeur; Armstrong's is similarly, according to the blurb, "a wake-up call to the nation". This stale, transatlantic usage wouldn't have pleased Orwell, of which more in a moment. But what is in no doubt is that Armstrong has gone to Wigan – and indeed to a selection of northern towns and cities – in order to expose a situation with depressing echoes of Orwell's day: huge inequalities of wealth, comfort and life chances unaddressed by a government composed of distant, unsympathetic plutocrats and public schoolboys, and all of this against a backdrop of vast, systemic economic corruption and mismanagement.
Like Orwell, Armstrong seeks out the victims of greed and incompetence, only this time they are not haunted, ravaged young women "dollystoning" the steps but a "precariat" of cheap, exploited migrant workers, vulnerable and damaged young people, and the laid-off and recently redundant, eating rubbish, cleaning their sinks with vinegar and paying what the Save the Children fund calls "the poverty premium": the sour irony by which the poor face higher prices for nearly everything – food, rent, heating – because of a lack of choice, transport and credit. Armstrong's first-hand accounts of working in the striplit hell of a food-processing plant are, for me, the most successful passages in the book.
Unlike Orwell, though, whose first-hand testimony was part of a wider theoretical and often lyrical plea for justice (and in its latter half, a notorious diatribe against a certain sort of socialist – the fruit-juice drinker and New Statesman reader), Armstrong's book is dense with facts, figures, reports and interviews. It is powerful stuff, but it sometimes makes for a clotted read. And stylistically, the two writers are worlds apart. While we know what Armstrong means when he says that the social reformer Seebohm Rowntree "cut people the same kind of slack as Orwell did", or when he says of the concept of relative deprivation "you can sniff at the label and consider it way too generous a definition of poverty", you can sense Orwell bridling from beyond the grave at the slipshod expression. This may seem harsh, but if you're going to borrow the title and the concept of one of the finest pieces of social reportage and documentary social history by one of the greatest modern English writers, you need to be on your mettle in every sentence.
As I write this, the viral YouTube hit of the day is footage of a hundred youths rampaging through a McDonald's outlet in Wigan town centre. It makes for grim viewing, just as the sight of clutches of middle-aged men swearing, spitting and drinking outside the town centre pubs at 11am depresses me on my trips back. The reasons for this apparent social shift, this new, ugly, public face of a lumpen proletariat Orwell rarely encountered, are many and complex. Most of them are surveyed in this forceful, if flawed, book.
• Stuart Maconie's Hope and Glory: The Days that Made Britain is published by Ebury Press.