Love on the Dole (1933) might be the last depressing, worthy, important account of the toll and misery of working class poverty I read. Every now and then I suffer flashes of panic that I myself will fall back into it, die poor and struggling. Reading this really doesn’t help, and every year older I get the more deeply existential this fear becomes. Especially as I am now too old to escape, like Sal, through becoming a kept woman and making the most of that to help myself and my family.
So thought I’d make the most of this book. But though 1933 is several decades along, it’s descriptions are depressingly, distressingly similar to the East End’s Mean Streets described by Arthur Morrison, Lambeth’s slums from Reeves’ A Pound a Week or Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth. Things have become a little better from the abject poverty of Manchester in the 1850s described by Engels in The Conditions of the Working Class in England, but while bodies hold together survive a little longer, the soul is still crushed.
They call this part ‘Hanky Park’. It is that district opposite the parish church of Pendleton, one of the many industrial townships comprising the Two Cities. In the early nineteenth century Hanky Park was part of the grounds of a wealthy lady’s mansion; at least, so say the old maps in the Salford Town Hall. The district takes its names 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; pawnshops 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 doorsteps and windowsills of the houses are worn hollow. Once a week, sometimes twice, the women clean them with brown or white rubbing stone…Some women there are whose lives are dedicated to an everlasting battle with the invincible forces of soot and grime. (11)
Hanky Park has emerged from the industrial revolution, the modern upheaval of everything driven by capitalist industry and the transformation of stately homes and country fields into factories and ugly homes for the workers they need to work in them. Greenwood writes:
Trafford Park is a modern miracle. Thirty years ago it was the country seat of a family whose line goes back to the ancient British kings and whose name the area retains.Thirty years ago its woodlands were chopped down to clear the way fro commerce and to provide soles for Lancashire clogs; thirty years ago the lawns, lately gay with marquees, awnings and fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen, were obliterated. The Hall still stands though it now houses only dust and memories and echoes. And the twin lions surmounting either side the wide flight of steps now survey…a double railway track only six yards away, and, where the drives once wound their serpentine paths through the woods, the fungus of modern industry, huge engineering shops, flour mills, timber yards, oil refineries, automobile works, repositories for bonded merchandise, choke and foul the prospect….
A Five Year Plan thirty years ahead of the Russian. Yesterday the country seat of an aristocrat, today the rowdy seat of commerce. Revolution! and not a drop of blood spilt or a shot fired! (158)
This is of course, novel as call to conscience, call to action. There’s little room here for the humour, the humanity that got people through these conditions. I’d happily read more of those, like Mord Em’ly, or oral histories of these times where grinding poverty can’t efface the cheer and character of everyone. Still, there are too many familiar elements to deny or diminish the power of this reality — the reason for my panics after all:
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 sideline of risking life to give children birth and being responsible for their upbringing afterwards. (31)
I do like how this almost journalistically portrays the changing times, the new fashions, the weekly routines of labour and leisure of both men and women.
Clatter of clogs and shoes; chatter of many loud voices; bursts of laughter. Hundreds of girl operatives and women from the adjacent cotton mills marching home to dinner arm in arm, two, three, four and five abreast. They filled the narrow pavements and spread into the roadway.
A generation ago all would have been wearing clogs, shawls, tight bodices, ample skirts and home-knitted, black wool stocking. A few still held to the picturesque clogs and shawls of yesterday, but the majority represented modernity: cheap artificial silk stockings, cheap short-skirted frocks, cheap coats, cheap shoes, crimped hair, powder and rouge; five and a half days weekly in a spinning mill of weaving shed, a threepenny dance of a Saturday night, a Sunday afternoon parade on the erstwhile aristocratic Eccles Old Road which incloses the public park, then work again, until they married when picture theatres became luxuries and Saturday dances, Sunday parades and cheap finery ceased altogether. (42)
I like how it acknowledges the fascinations of these new factories as young Harry burns to become more than just a messenger:
Machines! MACHINES! Lovely, beautiful word! (69)
But still it describes a system of labour that guarantees steady work at lowered wages to women and children, and lays off men to ensure they do not have to pay the higher wages their training (and the simple fact of being men in this sexist world) entitles them to. It leaves them to hang about street corners and pubs and wait in queues for the dole until they are kicked off it through the new and now infamous means test. A government seal on an acceptable level of utmost misery. In this book at least (much like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists), none of them asking the whys or fighting back except for one. Socialism and struggle showing him glimpses of a better life and how to get there.
Worried about whether you have in fact escaped poverty? This is what you need:
That dirty hovel, home? Where else? In all the wide world, of all the sweet dreams and fond imaginings of such homes as were writ or projected at the pictures, of them all, hers was that in North Street.
Dully, insistently, crushing came the realisation 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. (65)
Then there is this passage, which describes the mix of industry, housing and government offices that marked poor urban areas, reduces its residents to animals, and then more or less compares them to the animals heading in great bewilderment to the slaughterhouse.
An erstwhile reformatory school for erring boys, an ugly, barrack-like building, serves as one of the Two Cities’ labour exchanges. Hemmed in on three sides by slums, tenements and doss houses, the remaining side stares at the gas works and a cattle-loading mound, into, and out of which, bleating sheep, cows and bulls, their eyes rolling, their parched tongues lolling, are driven by loutish men and cowed dogs. And the slum children, seeing in the inoffensive creatures a means to exercise their own animal instincts, come out of their dens armed with whips and sticks and stones to belabour the animals as they pass, meanwhile indulging in the most hideous inhuman screams, shouts and howls such as occasions horror in the mind of a sympathetic observer and, doubtless, terrified bewilderment on the parts of the doomed beasts as they, starting under whip, stick and stone, run blindly along the dinning unfamiliar streets finally to find themselves packed, suffocatingly, in wretched cattle trucks.
A high wall, enclosing an asphalt yard, ran round the building. On it was scrawled in chalk, and in letters a foot high: ‘Unemployed Mass Meeting Today 3 o’clock.’ The handiwork of Communists five or six weeks ago. (153)
If only the unemployed had come in their masses.
The Hardcastles escape from this fate to some extent — but the moral of that escape is clear. I have great admiration for Sal, after her socialist love and hope dies of consumption she stares her fate in the face (with the help of the older and wiser Mrs Bull). To escape it she becomes a hard-headed woman of business, using her beauty to obtain security as her labour cannot do it for it her. I like that the novel is not sentimental and does not seem to judge her harshly for this. Simply points it out to a world that will, in the hopes that such a fall from grace might spur action where nothing else has.