His Worship the Mayor (1934) by Walter Greenwood

The dust-wrapper of Greenwood’s second novel was much more abstract that that of his first – indeed the design is constructed simply from a yellow line round the text of the novel’s title, perhaps indicating how the new Mayor is set apart by his (undeserved) status.

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In 1934, after the success of his first novel, Love on the Dole, was becoming apparent, Greenwood stood (for the second time) in local council elections in Salford, this time winning the very deprived St Matthias ward for Labour by 750 votes (see the Working Class Movement Library article on Greenwood: https://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/creativity-and-culture/drama-and-literature/walter-greenwood-and-love-on-the-dole/). Greenwood remained a city councillor for a year and drew on that experience for his second novel, His Worship the Mayor. The novel tells a story of local politics and corruption by focussing on the unexpected rise of Edgar Hargreaves, a near- bankrupt tailor who comes into a large legacy and whom it then suits the local elite of the Two Cities to court and adopt as a candidate in a local election. Edgar’s experience is up to a point a reflection of Greenwood’s (with Love on the Dole his unexpected legacy). However, Edgar is without any political belief except that he should have his share of the advantages harvested by the mutually-supportive ruling clique of the city. Unlike Love on the Dole (which I have always thought does little really to justify its ‘Tale of Two Cities’ subtitle), the novel does show a wider social panorama than just the microcosm of Hanky Park, and particularly shows the world of commercial success and local politics in parallel to the lives of the poverty-stricken and the unemployed:

Acres of plate glass glare forth with electrical extravagance when darkness descends . . . as though the street is making a concentrated endeavour to divert one from making the accidental discovery of crouching slumdom behind.
For it is there, this slumdom . . .a shabby, ugly, obscene consort to the Two Cities’ worldwide reputation of boundless wealth . . . and like ragged skirts the dreary acres of dilapidated slumdom spread out in all directions, a mocking, derisive and damning indictment of the practical application of that economic theory to which Manchester gave its name. (Jonathan Cape, Florin Books edition,1937, p.12; all subsequent references are to this edition).

The novel shows that there is much which needs attending to, but has little faith in the will of local politicians and their hangers-on (what are here called ‘Progressives’ are presumably meant to represent Liberals) to address anything but their own ambitions:
Frequently horse-drawn lorries passed whose sides were decorated with huge calico banners saying: ‘HARGREAVES. The People’s Friend,’ and such like; lorries full of dirty, ragged, ill-fed slum-children waving penny Union jacks and singing . . . Mr Crawley . . . said, with a gesture towards the songsters: ‘You see, Edgar, the distribution of cast-off clothing to the unemployed is paying a good dividend’ (p.156).

In some respects Winifred Holtby’s novel South Riding published in 1936, which also took local government as its theme, similarly sees local politicians as often motivated by self-interest, but it also suggested that civic and social progress can be made through even these imperfect instruments. Such unintended consequences have little place in the more cynical story of His Worship The Mayor, which sees Sam Grundy as, if anything, one of the more honest of the elected officials of Salford: ‘Sam Grundy, the bookie . . . was standing as Progressive candidate . . . Everybody knew Sam . . . “I ain’t no eddicated feller . . . I’m just plain Honest Sam Grundy . . . with a motto, ‘Sky’s the limit’ and all paid fair and square and no argyment”. Holding aloft his election address written by Mr Crawley: ‘An I’ll do all it says on t’paper’. (p.157)

One wonders if this treatment of local democracy even if aimed primarily at Conservative and Liberals did much to please Greenwood’s friends in the local Labour Party (not to mention the Vicar of St Thomas, Pendleton, who had helped Greenwood when he was writing Love on the Dole, given the collusive role in the novel of the Vicar of the ‘Ward of St Margaret’, p.148). The novel’s sympathies are mainly focused on the world of the unemployed miner, Jo Shuttleworth, who cannot believe that the local pit is shutting for ever: ‘Jo Shuttleworth was looking at the men demolishing the head-stocks. It frightened him . . . he could hardly grasp the significance of what he saw’ (p.162). This novel, like Love on the Dole, was well-reviewed by newspapers and periodicals with widely differing political viewpoints and readerships. The Marxist adult education journal Plebs praised the novel for its ‘implicit condemnation of social injustice’, and argued that it was likely to be ‘worth 1,000 Socialist propaganda speeches’. (See Andy Croft, Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s, 1990, p.248). The Manchester Guardian also gave the novel a good review, perhaps not surprisingly since the reviewer was the ‘Manchester School’ playwright Harold Brighouse who had very much liked Love on the Dole, and who brought out some continuities between the two novels (17/9/1934, p.6). Ralph Straus in the Sunday Times thought the novel drew ‘a finely ironical picture’, counterpointing the entirely unmeritocratic rise of Edgar Hargreaves against the equally undeserved fall of the poor Shuttleworth family: ‘his satire may not be appreciated in all quarters, but I for one enjoyed it’ (16/9/1934, p.7). It was also liked by the Daily Telegraph reviewer, who thought it ‘magnificent’ and ‘not an inch behind that grand book’ [Love on the Dole], and who seems to read Hargreaves’ story as well as that of the Shuttleworth family with sympathy: ‘Mr Greenwood gives us a double story of a struggling little draper who, through a legacy and graft, becomes Lord Mayor of the Two Cities, and of the heart-rending struggles of an unemployed miner and his family for mere existence’ (quoted on the dust wrapper of the Florin Books edition).

Greenwood was by no means a one-novel author as one might think from looking at many critical and journalistic accounts of his career (though see my review of his novel, Standing Room Only from 1936 for his thoughts about a fictional working-class author who did only have one book or play in him). Though now pretty much forgotten and not reprinted since the thirties, the positive public reception of his second novel was almost equal to that of his first (though I find it much less engaging than Love on the Dole). The novel’s main focus is corruption and cronyism, and thus scepticism about how well local democracy was able to represent the people of Salford and to allow the development of progressive policies for poor areas. However, its anti-hero Edgar perhaps also in a distorting way reflects something of the change of status which successful authorship had brought to Greenwood himself (he moved first to a better area in Salford and then to London). Hargreaves’ thoughts about there being other worlds beyond Salford may mirror the possibilities which now opened up for Greenwood:

He revolved hitherto unsuspected pleasant aspects of his present environment. New significances, potentialities began slowly to unfold; a strange sense of unhampered freedom, of there being no obligation to stay in the Two Cities against his will. (p.196)

Love on the Dole emphasised that everyone (apart from Sam Grundy) was trapped in Hanky Park. His Worship the Mayor suggests that some – but only some – can get out, perhaps something which did worry Greenwood, though his novels continued throughout the thirties and forties to represent working people and to argue that British society must be reformed in order to abolish the cycles of poverty which produced such intolerable social deprivation.

(This blog draws on material in chapter 3 of my forthcoming book, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film – A Case Study, Liverpool University Press, 2018 – Chris Hopkins)

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