‘Greenwood Come Home’ interview (Geoffrey Moorhouse, the Guardian, 1967)

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has an archived entry for Walter Greenwood, written by the Guardian journalist and prolific and charismatic author Geoffrey Moorhouse (1931-2009), published in 1986.  The current entry is an updated version published in 2004 and by an unidentified editor. It is substantially similar to Moorhouse’s entry, mostly verbatim identical, though with a small amount of material added, removed, or rephrased, including an added explicit labelling of Walter’s father Tom Greenwood as an alcoholic, a modification but not a retraction of Moorhouse’s negative (and I think ill-judged) assessment of Greenwood’s memoir, There Was a Time, as not showing a good command of the memoir as a genre, and one significant cut of a revealing observation by Moorhouse about Greenwood’s character, perhaps regarded by the editor as based in superseded assumptions about class. Here is the most relevant portion of Moorhouse’s DNB entry for Greenwood:

He was fundamentally a story-teller of primitive gifts, which were never in danger of being obscured by literary finesse. His most disappointing work was his autobiography There Was a Time (1967) which betrayed his uneasiness with writing outside his chosen forms.

Greenwood remained throughout his life a man of the people from whom he came, affable but guarded, someone who has achieved respectability but who still bore the marks of the battering he received in his early years.

Moorhouse’s DNB entry makes it clear that he knew Greenwood personally, and that he was not afraid to interpret aspects of the writer’s upbringing and personality. (1) I do not know when Moorhouse first met Greenwood, but it may perhaps have been when he interviewed him for this piece in the Guardian published on 8 May 1967 (p.7). Even more so than the DNB entry, this piece is rich in interpretation of Greenwood’s life, and indeed though clearly based on a conversation with him as the pair walked round Salford, has a great deal of material based in Moorhouse’s (often acute) opinion and interpretation. It is then a distinctive autobiographical and biographical source to which it is well worth paying close attention.

The article had the title ‘Greenwood Come Home’, an intriguing indicator of the themes to be developed, and was headed by a photograph of Greenwood captioned: ‘Picture of Walter Greenwood in Salford by Tom Stuttard’ (I am currently seeking permission to reproduce this striking photograph). The photograph shows Greenwood standing beside a large building which is not identified by the caption, though it is much later in the text of the article: the high-rise block of flats named after one of Salford’s most famous sons – Walter Greenwood Court (fifteen storeys, completed 1964, demolished 2001). (2) The rather grim-faced Greenwood does not look as if he feels very much at home in the shadow of his namesake, and indeed the article refers to the recent appearance in Salford of a ‘cliffside of new flats’. It is a poignant photograph in terms of the writer’s relationship to Salford past and present, to what was once his home in the area known as Hanky Park. The place where he was born (a slum area deserving radical action for decades before actual action in the early nineteen-sixties and spent his life until he was thirty-three years old, when he published his novel, Love on the Dole) had been demolished and almost completely replaced with a new built environment within his own lifetime. The photograph captures Greenwood at the age of sixty-four in that new cityscape, and gives us an immediate and enigmatic image of his response to this familiar/unknown place, which the text of the Guardian article meditates upon further. Tom Stuttard was a distinguished and very experienced photojournalist by this date – he had worked for the Guardian since 1925, and exclusively for that paper after 1948, being their Chief Photographer for most of the period from then until his retirement in 1971. (3)

A number of interviews with Greenwood date from 1971, marking the appearance at the Mermaid Theatre in London of the dramatized version of his 1967 memoir, There Was a Time (Jonathan Cape, London). This interview, however, marks the publication of the memoir itself. It has fewer words uttered by Greenwood himself than any of the 1971 interviews, but those reported back here are brisk, carefully chosen by the author, and the interviewer, and skilfully woven into Moorhouse’s own interpretation of the relationship between the writer and Salford past and present:

Salford has changed and nobody knows it better than Walter Greenwood. As he gazes at yet another pile of rubble, or emptiness of razed ground, or cliffside of new flats, he keeps saying: ‘Well, fancy that!’ or ‘Eh, that is a surprise!’. Some of these things have appeared since he was last here, a few months back. And it was all so different ten novels, nine plays, two or three miscellaneous titles, and a handful of film scripts ago.  Then it was clogged rows of back-to-backs, pawnshops, gaslights, and debt-ridden people. He has written about that Salford yet again in his autobiography which comes out this week.

This paragraph jumps backwards over time from the Salford of the nineteen-sixties to the Salford of the nineteen-thirties, leapfrogging over Greenwood’s complete life’s work on the way. Most of that work was set in the Salford of Greenwood’s youth, particularly between the years 1916, when he left school and 1933, when he published his novel, Love on the Dole, so it is true that Salford has remained home ground, though it was never exactly homely, and though he left it in nineteen-thirty-five, never to live there again. Greenwood was, like James Joyce, a willing exile and yet one who had constantly to return in imagination to his home-city. The Lancashire-inflected utterances in which Moorhouse renders Greenwood’s response to the new Salford reinforces some of the ways in which he has never left. Of course, the old Salford where Greenwood felt more at home in some ways was a very bad place to live, a fact which his fiction proclaimed. And yet Greenwood felt that the new Salford, as he made clearer in another interview, though materially a better place to live (for a period anyway), was lacking in community – in what he termed ‘neighbourliness’. Moorhouse comments that Greenwood ‘was not the first man to put the facts of life in South Lancashire into literary orbit’, and refers specifically to Harold Brighouse’s play Hobson’s Choice, from 1916, and then to Stan Barstow (he perhaps particularly had his first novel, A Kind of Loving, 1960, in mind): ‘If Brighouse was the Osborne of the post-war years, then Greenwood would be the Barstow of the between years’.

Moorhouse next pays some attention to the immediate reason for the interview – the recent publication of Greenwood’s memoir, There was a Time:

He has never let up on the role history and Salford cast for him. Lancashire, and particularly that part of it which went through the economic mill in the twenties and thirties, has marked a good deal of his work. Now it comes spilling out again in There Was a Time which reads more like a Greenwood novel than a self-conscious documentary. It is heavy with dialogue … He is very impatient of conventional autobiography and the first person singular: ‘I’m more interested in the conditions that have made you are what you are, the drama of life’.

This exchange clearly reflects some of the reservations about the memoir which Moorhouse expressed more openly in his DNB article. We do not know exactly what question Moorhouse put to Greenwood in 1967, but it presumably queried the memoir’s absence of interest in, or insight into, Greenwood’s own consciousness at the time of this life, or reflections on his own past from the point in time of the memoir’s narration.

Greenwood’s response though is exact and valuable: he is writing a different kind of memoir, one which focuses on the external context and environment and consequences not only for his own life, but for those of his contemporaries in the first three decades of the twentieth century. With one exception – a concise meditation on nineteen-sixties Britain at the conclusion – the memoir does not go beyond nineteen thirty-three – the year of the publication of Love on the Dole – and apparently the year of the writer’s escape from Salford. This exteriority does not seem to me to result from Greenwood’s uncertainty about the memoir genre or a habitual retreat into the novel genre with which he is more familiar. Instead, it is a conscious aesthetic choice, one which prioritises a collective and communal life over ‘a first person singular’ consciousness. Greenwood shows a kind of life which he hopes is done with, but which also displayed the shared wit, courage, and resilience of a real community. In this mode, his memoir seems to me assured and perhaps the best work in his entire oeuvre. It is true that there is little explicit interpretation of the events narrated, judgement being left to the reader – perhaps something of a turn towards a more modernist understanding of the author and reader, in contrast to the strong narratorial interpretation of Love on the Dole. However, this may be a return from a new angle to collective and communal aspects of his first novel, where, though there are certainly individual characters, the focus is on the experience of Hanky Park as a whole, and where characters are in many respects representative rather than unique. I have always thought that the linked names of the three main characters from the Hardcastle household are significant in suggesting their collective function as types of young people (young man, young women, slightly older young man) who must live in Hany Park: Harry, Sally, Larry. Equally, the older women (often indeed described by reviews of the play version of Love on the Dole as a ‘chorus’), while differentiated to an extent, also typify one of the sets of roles available in the economy of Hanky Park. In this case, the roles inhabited by Mrs Dorbell, Mrs Bull, Mrs Nattle and Mrs Jikes as older women without dependents (and in several cases with widows or old age pensions) are highly ambivalent – they sometimes seem like or claim to be helpers of their neighbours, but may often be seen as exploiters or small-scale capitalists, and there is usually some profit for them in all their activity and relations with their neighbours.

It may also be that one factor behind Greenwood’s use of memoir is his own somewhat self-effacing character, as interpreted by Geoffrey Moorhouse himself. ‘Affable but guarded’ wrote Moorhouse in his DNB entry. However, there may also be engagement with the idea articulated by some leftists in the thirties that singular and individualistic heroes were a characteristic of the bourgeois novel, and not suited to novels about working- class communities (Larry Meath may test the borders of this conception in showing the potential to rise above his class, but he rejects that path, and of course is also fatally injured in the mass Means Test protest mounted by the people of Hanky Park). In the article, Moorhouse quotes Greenwood’s own assertive description of his memoir aesthetic, but seems to have forgotten that statement by the time he came to write his DNB entry, or anyway not to have given Greenwood’s words the weight they deserve. In fact, Greenwood’s skills as a ‘story-teller’, to use Moorhouse’s own words, is what makes There Was a Time distinctive – it is not his own individual story, but that of himself in the community of his family, friends and neighbours, many even worse off than himself, produced by yet also resisting their impoverished environment.

Moorhouse notes that Greenhouse now lives on the Isle of Man, but that he keeps returning to Salford and Manchester to find the two cities strange, partly but not only because of the redevelopment schemes:

For the moment he is back Home … one excuse is that he is writing a novel about contemporary Manchester and a discontented lorry driver, and needs to collect atmosphere. He looks for some of it in the highly atmospheric drinking clubs of Moss Side, and emerges a little shaken by the rough house talk, and the whiff of reefers. This is not the world of Walter Greenwood, which has been full of different deprivations, warmth, and a sentimental regard for people and places.

The deprivations of the Two Cities have changed in character, but not disappeared, though the compensating warmth of community has gone – unless that was a product of Greenwood’s own sentimental regard (that collective warmth and genuinely helpful neighbourliness is strongly present in his memoir, but mainly lacking, or ironised, in Love on the Dole itself). The novel Greenwood was working on here was his last, incomplete, or anyway, not published work, titled It Takes All Sorts, to which he referred a number of times in the press in the sixties and seventies. (4)

The next paragraph of the article continues these themes with an emphasis on the somewhat asymmetric changes between Salford past and present – it is to Greenwood’s mind in some ways more affluent, yet in other ways poorer. There is car-ownership, replacing the horses he worked with as a stable-lad for a time, and there are high-rise flats replacing his far from adequate birthplace:

And all the warmth and the sentiment and the memory of deprivations as he wanders round a Salford that is now having the guts torn out of it. The mansion where he once worked as a stable lad has been cut down for redevelopment, but Walter Greenwood ponders over the ground where Daisy, Maggie, Price and Charlie were once stalled. ‘Funny to think of your ghostly self being here, isn’t it?’, he says. Hankey Park, where there was once loving in spite of the dole, has vanished. ‘God’, he says outside the monolith that is Walter Greenwood Court, ‘God, look at all those cars’. The pawnshop where he worked has gone as also has the house in Ellor Street where he was born. But he finds the terrace where he wrote Love on the Dole, though he is not now sure whether it was in the attic of No.85 or No.87 Lower Seedley Road’.

Even in his youth, Greenwood was aware of the several industrial layers of Salford being laid over an older but still just visible rural past, and now he sees yet further strata being laid down. These have obliterated some of his own autobiographical places, though forgetfulness has also done its work. Moorhouse’s superb framing of Greenwood’s own words brings out sharply the ways in which Hanky Park was always for the writer both home and a place of alienation and exile:

This is Home alright, but he was not sorry to get out of it in 1937… it is Home and its people speak his tongue, but the dream of fair places comes between it and them and him… [Yet] it still lingers so strongly that he speaks of what is most moving to him … when he sees a rank weed creeping over the wasteland, between the bonfires and the bulldozers. ‘Fancy the coltsfoot growing in the rubble after all those years’, says Walter Greenwood. But the coltsfoot was buried too long and so the writer flourished in another place.

Coltsfoot or White butterbur (petasites albus – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petasites_albus) – perhaps what Greenwood saw growing in the rubble of Sixties Salford?
Or was it this (tussilago farfara)? See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tussilago . Both plants are known as coltsfoot and both grow in poor soil and in rough and marginal ground.


Note 1. There is, however, a curious error in the statement on the final paragraph of the entry that ‘he never married’. Perhaps this was something which Greenwood did not care to talk about with Moorhouse. The revised DNB entry removes the sentence, but makes no reference to Greenwood’s marriage to Pearl Alice Osgood.

Note 2. For an excellent and detailed discussion of post-war redevelopment in Salford and some specific reference to Walter Greenwood Court see: https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2016/11/08/ellor-street-redevelopment-salford/ .

Note 3. This biographical information comes from the Guardian News and Media Archive via the Jisc Archive Hub: Photographs of Tom Stuttard – Archives Hub (jisc.ac.uk). See also a Guardian News and Media Archive teaching resource focusing on a Tom Stuttard photograph of a Manchester street scene in the fog from 1950: Tom Stuttard and the Guardian’s first picture library | GNM education centre | The Guardian .

Note 4. There are five different typescripts and one manuscript of the draft novel in the Walter Greenwood Collection at the Salford University Archives, several with additional manuscript pages or notes, in the folder identified as WGC/1/28. I will write in further detail about this work when archive visiting conditions permit.