“The district takes its name 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; pawn shops 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 blue-grey smoke swirls down like companies of ghosts from a million squat chimneys, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, the cradles of generations of the future”
In Hanky park, an industrial township outside Salford, sixteen year old Harry Hardcastle passes his days working in a local pawnshop. He longs to join the men at Marlowe’s engineering works and soon enough he’s immersed in a hugely exploitive apprenticeship scheme. Meanwhile, home life is difficult to say the least, his families’ combined earnings are compiled to barely cover the running of the household. In some respite from the all-encompassing misery of the working class life in the 30’s, Harry enters a love affair with Helen, who soon falls pregnant. Following the completion of his apprenticeship, Harry is laid off and has no choice but to join the shuffling dole queue along with his father, before having his benefits cruely withdrawn on account of the dreaded means test.
Alongside the central protagonist, Harry, there lie a number of side stories and developments of some interesting characters. Primarily those of Ned Narkey, Sam Grundy and possibly most importantly, Larry Meath. All of whom being fixated on Harry’s sister, Sally. Subsequent to the tragic death of Sally’s partner Larry, a self-educated Marxist, following an incident at an anti means test demonstration, Sally is cynically driven towards accepting the advances of local bookmaker Sam Grundy in an effort to drastically improve the fortunes of both her and her family.
The book closes as it opens, with a gritty description of the waking up of the Northern industrial down on a wet Monday morning. An analogy in itself perhaps to the largely unchanging nature of life behind the cruel drawbridge of poverty.
Although set some 90 years ago on the backdrop of the chronic unemployment of the great depression, elements of Love on the Dole feel somewhat uncomfortably relevant as newspaper columns predict vast unemployment and swathes of young, bright and seemly overqualified graduates scrabble for secure employment in a sparse job market.
Albeit far from a cheery read, Greenwood beautifully describes and captures the essence of Harry’s sordid surroundings along with the brutal realities of life for the poorest during a huge economic downturn. A book possibly powerful enough to turn anyone into a socialist!