The bookshelves in English classrooms or English departments can be the depositories of secret treasures. A few minutes stolen in another colleague’s classroom while waiting for the Men’s to be freed-up or to avoid the threat of a suspected cover period can lead to many rewarding discoveries. Nearly every bookshelf in an English department that cradles Literature is an accumulation of esteemed texts through several generations. Unlike second hand bookshops which house any old worn out nag unable to stand the test of time, with nothing to distinguish them from the soaring triumphs that will be read two hundred years from now (even if currently ignored), the fiction in English department corridors are the elite shock troops of Literature, chosen to impress on young minds the power of the art form and selected with a veteran’s experience and their belief that there is a universality and truth recounted in the very pages of the nominated book that will extend to future lives and interests of their wards.
It is not always so. The book that was seminal for a generation, slips from its pre-eminence, despite its excellence, and the ones that have lasted several are slowly winnowed until all are gone. Sad.
I’ve discovered a couple of undeservedly forgotten classics silently standing in amongst other, better-known, novels on the old English department book trolley. One was John Galt’s Annals of the Parish, a good read, a fascinating insight into 18th century Scotland and another example that Scottish Literature is more tha just Walter Scott, Stevenson and Robert Burns. The other one is Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood.
It is a novel written as a response to the ‘Austerity’ of the 1930s – a period of depression in Scotland and the UK. The novel has many vivid characters and conveys the bleakness of an industrial area in the North West of England. It is grim, but not entirely bleak. There is ‘love on the dole’ but it is close to being overwhelmed by the economic forces that grind down family life and which shapes an odious amount of human traits as people struggle for survival and status.
Why the novel should be read today is for its relevance. It is startingly relevant to the present day. Anyone who watches TV will be aware of the mushrooming of online betting as a business and the profusion of opportunities to gain a fleeting thrill from gambling some money. It is a fact of the present day that betting is used by some as a last opportunity to stave-off some of their financial pressures. So it was then. As the misery increases so does the wealth of the bookie in the novel. People have to take in lodgers to make ends meet (the Bedroom Tax anyone?) and people search for work, continually moving down the ladder in career expectations and wages as their desperate state of unemployment continues.
It is a novel that in the author’s own words ‘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’. A statement which our society, as we struggle with a near 50% youth unemployment rate and zero-hour contracts, may find resonant. It is a world of noble aspirations denied and sleazy opportunism rewarded. It is a world where cash and economic power trump all.
The author’s life contains an inspirational lesson too, although it does make you wonder about the importance of ‘education’ as structured presently. A working class boy whose father died when he was 9 and who then had to be supported by his mum and her waitress job, he left school at 13 to work in a series of low-paid jobs while spending spare time at Salford Public Library educating himself. When unemployed he worked in politics and wrote short stories. It was during a period of unemployment that he wrote Love on the Dole. It was a hit and a social turning-point leading Parliament to investigate and legislate for reform. The kind of thing Dickens’ novels used to do! Its success meant that the author never had to worry about the dole again.
And now it is forgotten. It deserves to be reclaimed from the abyss of ‘forgotten novels’ as it stands as a testament to the recurring patterns of working class life under economic strain and as a powerful appeal to do something about it.