Monday, 6 September 2010

The Manchester Writers

"I have tried to show what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole, the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth." (Walter Greenwood)

Dully, insistently, crushing came the realization that there was no escape, save in dreams. All was a tangle; reality was too hideous to look upon; it could not be shrouded or titivated for long by the reading of cheap novelettes or the spectacle of films of spacious lives. They were only opiates and left a keener edge on hunger, made more loathsome reality's sores (Walter Greenwood, Love on the Dole)

The Manchester Writers

John Harris explores the work of a group of authors who captured a northern social realism in the 1930s with writing that went on to shape the views of northern living for generations. Walter Greenwood, Howard Spring and Louis Golding wrote about Greater Manchester at a time of severe economic depression and great poverty and their novel's describe conditions that have resonances with our life today - cuts in welfare, increased unemployment and a coalition government. Greenwood's 'Love on the Dole', Golding's 'Magnolia Street' and Spring's 'Fame is the Spur' depict a tough, working class life and although the three authors wrote from slightly different perspectives, they describe people enduring a grim, hard existence in an industrial landscape. As the final parts of industrial Manchester and Salford are finally transformed by investment and modernisation, 'The Manchester Writers' visits the streets that inspired these authors and hears how their work has endured and influenced ideas of northern England. (BBC Radio 4)

I had not come across Walter Greenwood or the other writers who form part of this exploration into a northern England that is both been lost to the developer and yet in many ways is startlingly modern in its themes. The Radio 4 programme inspired me to look into the work of Greenwood, and the jottings that follow came from that.

Greenwood paints a vivid portrait of Salford in the 1930s:

The district takes its name from a sloping street, Hankinson Street, whose pavements, much worn and very narrow, have been polished by the traffic of boots and clogs of many generations. On either side of this are other streets, mazes, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below, in some cases only one room alow and aloft; public houses by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawn shops by the dozen where you can raise the wind to buy forgetfulness; churches, chapels and unpretentious mission halls where God is praised; nude, black patches of land, 'crofts', as they are called, waterlogged, sterile, bleak and chill .... the blue-grey smoke swirls down like companies of ghosts from a million squat chimneys, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, the cradles of generations of the future.

He was born in 1903 in Ellor Street in that area of Salford which he called "Hankey Park". He came from working class roots and, his father having died when he was nine, he had to leave school at the age of 13 to work (which he did as a pawnbroker's clerk). Taking a succession of low paid jobs, he continued to educate himself in Salford Public Library - as he himself said of his education - "Langworthy Road Council School, Salford; by self." - and the influence of his reading of (and love for) the work of Charles Dickens in exposing injustice and poverty is everywhere to be seen in his work.

The slum terraces which he describes have long since been pulled down but there are still slums around even today, even in Jersey, where some landlords charge high rents for cramped and damp dwellings with cracked paintwork and rotten woodwork. He sees behind the poverty of the dwellings to the landlords reaping profit at the expense of those who needed somewhere, anywhere, to live:

The identical houses of yesterday remain, still valuable in the estate market even though the cost of their building has been paid for over and over again by successive tenants.. Places where men and women are born, live, love and die and pay preposterous rents for the privilege of calling the grimy houses 'home' .

"Love on the Dole" tells of the travails of the Hardcastle family, and was perhaps the most celebrated of the unemployment novels. It was written in the height of the depression in 1933 and dramatised in 1934 but it was not until just after the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1941, that the censor would permit it to be filmed, perhaps because by then fears of uprising, revolution and strikes had diminished in the face of a common enemy unifying the British people.

When one looks at the passages such as those describing the women, the reader can see not only the Dickensian background against which Greenwood wrote, but also elements of kitchen sink dramas, armchair Theatre, or "Cathy Come Home", of Coronation Street:

A smothered grumbling. Sally withdrew her head from the thin coverings and yawned. Eighteen, a gorgeous creature whose native beauty her shabbiness could not hide. Eyes dark, lustrous, haunting; abundant black hair tumbling in waves; a full, ripe, pouting mouth and a low, round bosom. A face and form such as any society dame would have given three-quarters of her fortune to possess. Sally wore it carelessly as though youth's brief hour was eternal; as though there was no such thing as old age. She failed in her temper; but when roused, colour tinted her pallid cheeks such as the wind whipped up when it blew from the north or east.

In the staring gas light, the women, throwing back their shawls from their dishevelled hair revealed faces which, though dissimilar in features, had a similarity of expression common, typical, of all the married women around and about; their badge of marriage, as it were. The vivacity of their virgin days was with their virgin days, gone; a married woman could be distinguished from a single by a glance at her facial expression. Marriage scored on their faces a kind of preoccupied, faded, lack-lustre air as though they were constantly being plagued by some problem. As they were. How to get a shilling, and, when obtained, how to make it do the work of two.

Though it was not so much a problem as a whole-time occupation to which no salary was attached, not to mention the side-line of risking life to give children birth and being responsible for their upbringing afterwards. Simple natures all, prey to romantic notions whose potent toxin was become part of the fabric of their brains.

Greenwood also deals very strongly and forcibly with the loss of dignity that is entailed by being unemployed. How, through no fault of their own, and wanting to work, people feel degraded and humiliated by having to go cap in hand to the State for help. Walter Hardcastle, one of the characters, describes how it feels:

What had he been able to do other than what had been done? The responsibility wasn't his. He'd worked all his life: had given all he had to give. Oh, why the devil couldn't they give him work? The cancer of impotence gnawed his vitals

He also illustrates very clearly how demoralising the experience is:

You fell into the habit of slouching, of putting your hands into your pockets and keeping them there; of glancing at people, furtively, ashamed of your secret, until you fancied that everybody eyed you with suspicion. You knew that your shabbiness betrayed you; it was apparent for all to see. You prayed for the winter evenings and the kindly darkness. Darkness, poverty's cloak. Breeches backside patched and re-patched; patches on knees, on elbows. Jesus! All bloody patches.

And yet in the 1930s, with the recession, there was a tightening of the economic belt, and the government was focused strongly on their own austerity measures. Somehow, as Greenwood points out, these always seem to affect those whose need was greatest, and who would bear the greatest brunt of all the government cutbacks. In some ways it seems shockingly relevant, as if the past is returned to haunt us with the spectre of those out of work, desperately looking for employment:

From one and a half to two millions, and now there were almost three; an army in the shadows, delivered from destitution only by the payment of a meagre unemployment benefit; a shabby dispirited host, pawns in a game whose machinery had seized up. Of what all this meant in terms of human degradation and misery the newspaper chroniclers were silent. Their cry was 'Crisis'. To arrest this, the prescription was 'drastic economy' which, in the event, meant that those who had least were to get less.

George Orwell's "Road to Wigan Pier" came out in 1937, and in many ways described similar poverty. Orwell also explained (like Greenwood) part of the psychology of those who are unemployed and on the dole, which was why they sometimes went for luxury rather than necessity because something was needed to raise the spirits out of despair, even if only for a short while:

You can't get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint, and even 'mild' beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days' hope ('Something to live for,' as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. . . . When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull, wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level.

Surprisingly, the Radio 4 programme explained that Orwell was very critical of books like "Love on the Dole", and virtually airbrushed them out of his descriptions of writers who had looked at the working class. It didn't explain precisely why, but part of the reason seems to have been the kitchen sink romantic soap opera aspects of Greenwood's writing -- and it is not perhaps helped by the comic names, clearly derived from the type of nomenclature found in Charles Dickens, which comes with some other subsidiary characters in Greenwood such as Ned Narkey, and three elderly women named Mrs Nattle, Mrs Bull and Mrs Jike.

But I think there are two other aspects of Greenwood that Orwell did not like.

Like Dickens, Greenwood portrays life and criticises it for the poverty but he does not suggest any kind of socialist solution. Orwell saw this as a failing with Dickens, so it is most unlikely that he would have been sympathetic to the same kind of writing with Greenwood. His own Road to Wigan Pier is in many ways two books - one is the description of northern poverty and what it is like to scrub steps, make do on the dole, or work underground in harsh conditions with mine owners concerned more with profit than with the health of their workforce. But the other part of the book suggests socialist solutions, steps that governments could take to address the issue.

Greenwood, like Dickens, suggests no solutions but hopes that by exposing the poverty and despair that he will shame people into doing something about it. Unlike Orwell, he has no plan of action but he knows that the situations which he describes need a remedy and he trusts that if governments are shamed into doing something, they will devise suitable remedies. I have a good deal of sympathy with that position. Pointing out the problems and getting those in power to empathise and address them, is, I think, more important than opposing governments with ideological solutions; confrontational politics often does not work, and the real problems are lost in the political posturing.

The other thing which is not so complimentary to Orwell in his criticism of Greenwood is that I think he did not want to acknowledge the legacy of northern writers, the Manchester writers, who are writing not as outsiders like himself, but as people who had lived and been born and grown up on the same streets and in the same conditions they describe. As the Manchester Guardian of the time put it: "We passionately desire this novel to be read; it is the real thing. Mr Greenwood is a Salford man. he has been on the dole. He knows and he can tell."

Orwell himself never faced quite the poverty that Greenwood had, and it is notable that Greenwood's "Love on the Dole" is later singled out as an accurate description of the phases that people undergo when they become unemployed:

Eisenberg and Lazarsfeld managed to forge some sort of consensus among the various writers who had written on the phases of unemployment: "First there is shock, which is followed by an active hunt for a job, during which the individual is still optimistic and unresigned. . Second, when all efforts fail, the individual becomes pessimistic, anxious, and suffers active distress; this is the most crucial state of all. And third, the individual becomes fatalistic and adapts himself to his new state but with a narrower scope. He now has a broken attitude." (1)

This British Medical Journal article on health and unemployment was written in 1985, but it has a grim conclusion, and seems to describe today's fragmented society just as well as that of 1985:

After his travels among the unemployed, during which he particularly sought out those who knew unemployment in the 1930s, Jeremy Seabrook reached the melancholy conclusion that unemployment now is probably more damaging than in the 1930s. He does not dispute that material conditions have improved, but the destruction of working class communities and traditions together with the redundancy of many of their skills mean that working class unemployed are much more lost and alone than in the 1930s. This is particularly conspicuous among the young unemployed: "They have been nurtured in a closed world of material things brought to perfection, goods that cry their competitive desirability at them from the moment they are born. Their only business, it seems, is to yearn and strive for possession of them.... Nothing is demanded of the young but their continued passivity and quiescence. Nothing is asked of them. They seem to have no place in the world, except as obedient and abject competitors for all that is tantalisingly held out to them.

Greenwood ended his book rather fatalistically. By the time of the film version, unemployment was on the way down, reduced by the war economy of the 1940s. The ending of the film, therefore, is much more optimistic, and looks forward to the promise of hope after the war. I'd like to hope that is true of our society, as well, as we too face austerity and rising unemployment:

"One day we'll all be wanted. The men who've forgotten how to work, and the young 'uns who've never had a job. There must be no Hanky Park, no more."

(1) "Please never let it happen again": lessons on unemployment from the 1930s
(2) Seabrook J. Unemployment. St Albans, Herts: Granada, 1983.

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