Inspiring Older Readers
Love On The Dole by Walter Greenwood
It’s interesting the way in which certain books come to stand as representative of particular points in history or end-up being emblematic of the plight of specific communities. This is a fate that has befallen Walter Greenwood’s 1933 novel, Love On The Dole, which is often cited by political commentators as a way of conjuring-up the privations of the inter-war depression that afflicted working class communities in pre-welfare state Britain.
Indeed, it could be argued that Love On The Dole played quite an important part in shaping not only the politics of the Left during this period but in making an otherwise insulated middle class audience aware of the depths of despair felt by great swathes of the working class. Indirectly, I think, novels like this helped build the burgeoning belief that there had to be a better and fairer way of organising society – a tide of thinking that would eventually culminate in the post-war Labour government and the creation of a universal welfare state.
And much of the moral strength of Love On The Dole derives from the fact that it was contemporaneous and written from inside the types of community it depicted. This is not the product of a privileged author looking back at a historical period and making cheap sentimental use of suffering, it’s an urgent and even despairing message in a bottle from the lost souls themselves.
The action of the novel is very domestic and very local. At the centre of the book is the Hardcastle family who, when we join them, are employed but still only scraping by in a hand-to-mouth way. It’s a life of permanent labour for very little reward – no treats, few clothes, never a holiday. It’s a community that survives on the credit offered by the informal pawnbroker or the illegal betting operation and every week is a balance between reclaiming pawned clothes and bedding from hock or eating.
When the newly formed National Government respond to the Great Depression of the late 20s and early 30s, the effect on these barely managing working class communities is devastating – the introduction of a punitive means test cuts dole payments savagely and families are ripped apart as they look for ways to survive.
The book also condemns the behaviour of employers who eagerly capitalise on the vulnerability of the workforce. Young Harry Hardcastle leaves school at 14 and although he’s lined-up for a possible office job he wants something more ‘manly’ and opts instead for an ‘apprenticeship’ with a local factory. Desperate to get the kudos of working his own lathe and the possibility of a craftsman’s wage, he wishes his time as an apprentice away. He will later discover that no permanent job was ever going to materialse when he’s replaced by the next wave of new apprentices eager to take his place and also deluded about the skilled job awaiting them.
Meanwhile Harry’s sister Sally who also lives in the household and is something of a beauty has fallen for the local socialist, Larry Meath – despite the constant attention of the local bully and thug, Ned Narky ( who later joins the police force) and the unpleasant spiv, Sam Grundy who controls the betting rings.
Harry and his girlfriend Helen discover that she has become pregnant and are forced to marry hastily just as he loses his job and discovers work impossible to find. And Greenwood is unflinching in describing the depths of misery and squalor that the Hardcastle’s endure as they get financially and spiritually squeezed.
Meath, who has recently lost his job, joins a march against unemployment despite suffering from what turns out to be pneumonia and when he is viciously attacked by the police he is too weak to recover and dies in hospital. Sally is devastated and iron enters her soul – she will, from now on, do whatever it takes to survive. She becomes Sam Grundy’s mistress despite the opprobrium it brings her from the community and it is through Grundy’s connections that both her father and Harry eventually get work.
So Greenwood rejects the possibility of the optimistic or cosy conclusion. Survival here doesn’t come from doing the right thing or being morally upright – it comes from doing what is necessary. If you’re treated like an animal, you have to live like an animal.
Greenwood is not, I think, a great writer in the mode of say Steinbeck whose equivalent Grapes of Wrath is a complex masterpiece. But what he is, is an authentic writer who understands his characters and doesn’t over-sentimentalise them. When there are tough decisions he doesn’t pretend they’re easy.
It’s an emotional read but an essential one in today’s climate. There are lesson and echoes here for us to take note of – the welfare state emerged because it was needed, because without it people suffered terrible lives of slavery. We throw away what’s been won at our peril.