Maggie Thatcher was newly installed as the UK’s first female Prime Minister the last time I read Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole.
She took office in May 1979 in the middle of a recession and in the wake of Labour’s Winter of Discontent.
And, as she entered the door of No 10 Downing Street for the first time as premier, she spoke some lines from a prayer by St Francis of Assisi.
‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth…where there is despair, may we bring hope.’
We all know what happened next…more recession, high unemployment and the Falklands War.
And that pretty much sums up the story of Love on the Dole, which details the struggles of the Hardcastle family and their neighbours to survive the cutbacks and privations of the early 1930s in industrial Hanky Park aka Salford.
Only they don’t know war is on the horizon.
It was a heartbreaking read – especially in the early 80s when trade unionists and the unemployed were being demonised in some parts of the media as greedy and idle.
Five bob left
Men like Larry Meath, the factory hand who falls in love with Sal Hardcastle but is scared to ask her to marry him because he can’t see how to ‘evade the consequences of poverty’.
Larry calculates: ‘Forty-five bob a week: ten shillings for rent, twenty-five shillings food, five shillings coal, gas and insurance; five bob left for clothes, recreation, little luxuries such as smokes and holidays.
‘You gave a week of your life, every week so that you might have a hovel for shelter, an insufficiency of food and five bob left over for to clothe yourself and the missis in shoddy.’
And what of the other things?
‘Books, music, brief holidays by seas that made the heart ache with their beauty…’
This is an acutely observed picture of working class life where people cling to respectability and their dignity because it’s all they can afford.
‘Owe nowt t’ nobody,’ says fierce old Mrs Cake, ‘an’ stare everybody in face.’
Those who are tall enough and broad enough can find job security by joining the police force.
But that means a switch of allegiances.
Ned Narkey though is tempted.
‘Seventy shillings a week regularly; holidays paid for and clothes free.’
And so, when the police are ordered to refuse a group of peaceful marchers entry to the town hall, Ned, ‘magnificent physique set off to perfection in his new uniform’, lays about him ‘right and left, recklessly indiscriminate. A woman, whom he struck across the bosom with his truncheon, screamed…’
But it’s better than joining the army which is the last resort of Sam Hardie, who struggles to find the price of a tupp’ny leanover let alone a bed.
‘They charge y’ tuppence t’ lean o’er a rope all night…forty blokes sittin’ on forms in a line an’ leanin’ o’er a rope…elbow t’ elbow all swayin’ fast asleep, except the old bastards who’re dyin’ and can’t sleep for spittin’ an’ coughin’ their guts away…’
Desperate times, beautifully described with liberal use of a northern dialect that has all but disappeared.
But a difficult read and, having reached the last page, and the last melancholy hoot of a ship’s siren from Salford Docks, I put the book on the top shelf of the bookcase and vowed never to read it again.
Until recently, when a book club friend made a passing comment about modern classics and I thought of Walter Greenwood and the Hardcastles again.
It’s still a difficult read – and a prophetic one too.
Remember the battle of Orgreave during the 1984-85 miners strike?
The Bradford riots of 2001?
And, even more recently, the Tottenham riots in 2011?
Of course, there were lots of reasons for all three of these battles between police and working people, but inequality of one kind or another was a trigger in every case.
And the real sadness of Love on the Dole is that nothing much has changed: a one nation female Prime Minister at Number 10 and the just about managing are still just about managing.
At least the tupp’ny leanover has gone.