Saturday, July 20, 2013

Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole is a piece of tough social realism that has blood in its veins. The plight of the slum dwellers of Hanky Park is brought terrifyingly to life. Eighty years after it was written, it still has the power to enrage the reader at the injustices it unflinchingly describes.

Walter Greenwood (1903-1974) wrote Love on the Dole while unemployed in 1932. After several rejections, the novel was published in 1933 and became an instant smash. It found many admirers in high places, and led to a parliamentary inquiry into poverty. Edith Sitwell, literary high priestess and poet, wrote of Love on the Dole "I do not know when I have been so deeply, terribly moved."

Today’s readers are lucky that writers were busy chronicling the hard times and dire poverty of the depression era. These books sure are a wake up call to how good we have it today. Love on the Dole recalls similar classics like Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1911), Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South (1948) and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). These were works written with an urgent purpose, to put before the public the intolerable hardships many lived under.

Love on the Dole starts out optimistically enough. Young Harry Hardcastle, fourteen years old, is sick of his job as a pawn shop clerk, which he performs before and after school to help bring in extra money for his family. Attracted to the masculine world of the Marlowes engineering factory, Harry lands himself a full time job and gladly quits the pawn shop. Harry’s bubble is soon burst when he is bluntly told by a fellow worker that he’d only been employed because, as a junior, his wages would be cheap. After seven years working as an apprentice, and finally becoming fully qualified, Harry is laid off. Further indignities are forced upon Harry when he must apply for the dole, with dim prospects of finding a job. Things get worse when the government brings in a means test, which results in Harry losing the dole altogether.

There are further complications, for Harry also has a girl he wants to marry (hence the novel’s rather quirky title). Helen comes from a broken home, and dreams of a better life for herself. After a night of imprudent yet understandable passion, she becomes pregnant, causing Harry to argue with his father and leave the family house in a huff. The young couple try their best to struggle through on no money and the meagre charity on offer. Lack of money not only demoralises and degrades, it also makes a dignified love life next to an impossibility.

There are two dramatic love stories in Love on the Dole. Harry has a sister, Sally, who falls in love with Larry Meath, a socialist agitator. Sally is pretty sassy and street smart, but a deep melancholia pervades her. It’s clear that the privations and miseries of the times have come perilously close to killing her soul. When a terrible tragedy befalls her, she encounters callously practical attitudes rather than sympathy and understanding. Her tough experiences harden her, and she resorts to compromising her principles in order to get employment for her brother and father. The family is thus saved from dire poverty, but at the expense of their dignity. Greenwood manages to reprieve his characters from unspeakable poverty, yet a terrible bitterness remains.

Love on the Dole is a remarkable achievement. Its use of 1930s slum argot has a tart realism that even shocks today. The descriptions of frank sexuality, coarse male attitudes to women and a stark approach to life’s cruel realities have barely dated – if at all. Some of the candid descriptions and unvarnished dialogue still has the power to shock. It’s amazing that the novel wasn’t banned for indecency. Walter Greenwood obviously wrote out of a burning rage at the injustices all around him. Dame Edith Sitwell was right, Love on the Dole is deeply, terribly moving.

Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN: 978-0099224815  RRP: $12.95