Manchester based Nexus Arts Cafe has been running a ‘Northern’ Book Group since late in 2011 – much like a usual book club, with added tea and biscuits, their only caveat is that all their works they examine are ‘Northern’. Kicking off with ‘A Kestrel for a Knave‘, attention for the January meeting turned to Love on the Dole, set in neighbouring Salford and by Salford-born author Walter Greenwood.
Set in the 1930’s, the novel follows the Hardcastle family and the effects of mass employment on the family. Harry, one of the two children of the family begins the novel working in a pawnbroker’s shop but is desperate to work at the local factory, Marlowe’s. Meanwhile, sister Sally is falling in love with Larry Meath, a socialist agitator, but lecherous bookmaker Sam Grundy is making his intentions towards Sally more known..
The discussion that followed was lively and entertaining – personally, I was not a fan of the novel. The writing style is mismatched in places. Events seem to happen slowly, characters have internal dialogues with themselves for pages, perhaps realistic if their fears and woes are never-ending, but many of the characters seem to spend their time dreaming rather than actually doing something. It is refreshing that unlike some earlier works such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the socialist angle isn’t repeatedly bashed over your head at the end of every chapter. Rather, the reader themselves is left to make their own mind about the spiraling situation.
The group was split down the middle when it came to how three-dimensional the characters were. I found Harry to be unsympathetic and irritating – his sudden realisations of facts of life hit him like sledgehammers and his obsessions with Marlowe’s and what it represented seemed naive and childish. Certainly once he is actually there, you barely hear about the actual work he is doing, the machines are hardly mentioned for the rest of his apprenticeship, yet in comparison, the pawnbrokers shop is described in vivid detail. Whether this is down to Greenwood having worked in a pawnbrokers but not at a factory like Marlowes is to be judged, but it skews Harry’s character as one desperate to fit in with the lads, a desperation that nearly loses him his childhood sweetheart and fails to get him anywhere in the long-term.
There was in part a feeling that each character represented a cipher almost, rather than being a rounded character in their own right. The only exception I felt were the old ladies – each of whom was shady and with their own agenda, cackling away like witches. There are echoes of Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst from Coronation Street in these ladies, clutching their handbags whilst dispensing acidic observations about Manchester life.
One thing the group was all in agreement on was the authenticity of the descriptions. Greenwood’s evocative descriptions and use of local dialect all contribute to a grim picture of life in the slums. We also discussed difficulties in getting a job in the current climate, but with the shadow of a world without benefits, or where government help is withdrawn looming as a reminder that things could always be worse.
Talking about life beyond the novel, history had its hand in the reaction to Love on the Dole and subsequent movie. Originally banned, the movie screenplay was rushed into production as propaganda for the war effort. Only 8 years after it was pushed, and as World War II broke out, the conditions, urban grittiness and poverty portrayed seemed like a bygone era. More importantly, in establishing the reception of the film amongst the critics was to show what British were fighting for – a better future than showed here, or under German rule. Love on the Dole would appear to create a common enemy in how the Means Test breaks up families – whether this enemy be the Government or the Gestapo depends on the time of reading.
Indeed, Love on the Dole seems to resurface at times of economic depression. Recent stage adaptations have been acclaimed for their reflection of current economic problems. Its strengths lie in the creation of a grim, unforgiving world and the ability to reflect modern-day crises, where I don’t doubt it will become relevant again at the next recession.
Nexus Book Group meets at Nexus Art Cafe on Dale Street on the first Tuesday of every month. Next month, they will be discussing Jim Cartwright’s Two – currently on at the Royal Exchange.