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75th anniversary of Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole
Reviewed by Dave Gorton
In 1966, a quarter of the population tuned in to watch Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home, a groundbreaking work which brought the issues of homelessness and unemployment into living rooms across Britain. A generation earlier the novel Love on the Dole had played much the same role.
On its release the Manchester Guardian said: "We passionately desire this novel to be read; it is the real thing. Mr Greenwood is a Salford man; while still at school he (like Harry in his book) worked in a pawnbroker's shop; he has been on the dole. He knows and he can tell."
The book follows Harry Hardcastle as he moves from adolescence into adulthood in the depression of the 1930s, exploited at every turn by the factory bosses, the state and its henchmen and a few parasites always willing to feather their own nests at the expense of their fellow workers.
Dire poverty haunted Salford, the novel's setting, where Greenwood also grew up. The first chapter ends with: "The identical houses of yesterday remain, still valuable in the estate market even though the cost of their building has been paid for over and over again by successive tenants [...] Places where men and women are born, live, love and die and pay preposterous rents for the privilege of calling the grimy houses 'home' ."
At 14, Harry signs on at Marlowe's factory (in real life Metropolitan Vickers 5 or Metrovick as it was known locally) receiving an apprentice's wage of "Ten bob a week! Ten bob every Saturday!", far higher than shop work or office work at the time. The catch was that you were tied in to a seven-year apprenticeship that you would have to buy your way out of and few could afford that. But that was of little consequence to most who were more concerned at retaining employment at the end of seven years than quitting it beforehand.
With unemployment in Britain reaching a record of just under three million by the beginning of 1933, Marlowe's was able to take on boys at fourteen knowing that they could be thrown out when they reached a man's wage at twenty one. "The day was Monday. The Saturday previous, Harry's apprenticeship [...] had come to an end. They were now fully qualified engineers. They also were qualified to draw the dole."
Love on the Dole is mostly a story about the privations and despair of unemployment and the effects on the loves and lives of working-class people. Greenwood said he "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."
But Greenwood didn't pose solutions; his characters weren't labour movement activists and, except for Larry Meath, a self-professed Marxist, no one sees an answer to the poverty they are forced to exist under. But the enemies are obvious - the government, the bosses, the police; in short, capitalism. In fact it would be accurate to call it an anti-capitalist novel.
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In The Socialist 15 October 2008:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party women
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review
Socialist Party workplace news and analysis