Who, you might well ask, were Mr and Mrs Buslingthorpe? Well, they may have been mere fictions (though, of course, fictions are never only mere), but nevertheless, they give us an account, if an imaginative one, of how working-people might have responded to the play of Love on the Dole. And that makes them unique, I think. They were Mr Ben Buslingthorpe, and Mrs Frances Buslingthorpe (known as Fanny), their son, Kenneth (who is much too young to go to the play, usually regarded as suitable for adults only), and their mischievous dog, Tarzan (who presumably also does not attend the Grand).
The Buslingthorpes appeared every Saturday throughout 1934 and 1935, in the Leeds Mercury. They were apparently neighbours of the Leeds columnist who signed himself ‘W.L.A.’, and who every week in his ‘Saturday Sketch’ turned to the Buslingthorpes so they could tell him what ‘ordinary’ Yorkshire folk thought about a range of topics, or report back on what they had been doing of late. For example, W.L.A. reported back on the Buslingthorpe’s views on ‘Vulgarity in Film’ (24/3/1934, p.8), on their views of the Budget (14/4/1934, p. 6) and on ‘Our Young People’ (14/9/1934). The column always had a different illustration of one or more of the Buslingthorpes relating to the headline and sub-headline about the specific topic of the week. Every week there was also this boxed header:
By W.L.A., WHO IN HIS SATURDAY SKETCHES, WITH THE HELP OF HIS WORTHY FRIENDS, MR. AND MRS. BEN BUSLINGTHORPE, GIVES GLIMPSES OF THE HOMELY LIFE OF YORKSHIRE.
On the 19th May, 1934, W.L.A is shocked to find the Buslingthorpes disturbed and very thoughtful after going to the theatre, and reports back as below.
The Buslingthorpes in Tears
A Play About the Unemployed
BEN BUSLINGTHORPE in tears! It gave me a shock. I had not imagined the old worthy would ever show emotion like that, sturdy and steady Yorkshireman that he is. Tears, indeed! I expected him to be all smiles in this week of great expectations. I happened to have learned a dead secret from a neighbour —that Mrs. Buslingthorpe had bought a new hat and coat seemed a cheerful portent. I wondered if the two were going to the seaside for the Whitsun week-end. I went round to see.
Ben was out. It was then that I found the old boy had been in tears. ‘He’s that soft-hearted’, his wife said, ‘and he just can’t help being worried by what he saw at the theatre. We went to see Love on the Dole. Oh, it was sad. I don’t think Ben’s been so much upset since we went to one of those war films. Those used to make him dream all night. I got a right bruise once when he screamed “The Germans are in the trench” and threw me out of bed. He used to shout “They’re coming over”, and over I went myself—bang on the floor’. I sympathised. ‘Used to be the same with me,’ I told Mrs. Buslingthorpe. ‘Several times I swore I’d never go to another war film, because they always made me sweat, and I used to dream all night of bloody bayonets. Ben, it appeared, had gone out for a pint of milk, but he was soon back, and plunged straight into the play. ‘I tell you’, he said, ‘that play made my ’eart turn over, I know it wor’ nobbut a play, but I wor’ fair crying at t’finish.’ I told him I had been there on Monday night and thought it extraordinarily good. ‘People laughed at the funny bits’, I said, ‘but tears were never far away from the laughter. It was wonderful how it brought home how some people are suffering’. ‘Wor an’ all’, said Ben. ‘I wor sayin’ to misen all t’ time, Ben, lad, it might have been you. What would you have done, Fanny, if I’d been thrown on to t’scrap ’eap and bit by bit we’d to sell all us stuff?’ ‘It would break my heart to see our home go’, said Fanny. My friends looked lovingly round the room. ‘Look at that picture, W.L.A.” said Ben ‘– t’ firm’s outing to Ilkley Moors a bit before t’ War. We wor like the young couple in t’ play then.’ In the picture were workers grouped in front of a high old-fashioned horse charabanc. An immature Ben appeared to have an arm round a slim, long-haired Fanny. ‘Aye, Fanny and me’ll noan forget that day in an ’urry. We were like yon couple in t’play climbing t’ rocks. Ee, you and me never thought then we’d have owt of a home like this, did we?’ It’s nice,” said Fanny, ‘but home’s home whether you’ve pounds to spend on your furniture or only a few shillings. I reckon you and me would have made a do of it anywhere, even if you hadn’t always had steady work. Still, we’ve got a lot to be thankful for’.
Ben knows better than I do that in Leeds you often find the father is in engineering, and perhaps there’s a daughter in a shop and sons in an office. If the father has lost his job the others are quite likely to be doing well. That’s where Leeds has such a big advantage over places with not so many trades. It’s a fearful risk for a town to have all its eggs in one basket—like Burnley. ‘Still’, I went on, ‘don’t think I want to minimise the poverty that exists. It’s wicked to pretend it does not exist’. ‘Yes’, said Ben, ‘it’s terrible to think of. Fanny and me have been bothered by that play. We thought of — well, we haven’t done so badly lately, and we’ve got a bit In t’ Yorkshire Penny Bank, and we thought as we’d spent a bit o’ money on t’ garden last year putting in them rose bushes … But I don’t know, with all this poverty, that we ought to be spending money like that. It seems sort o’ mean and selfish to be spending so much on ’ouses when there’s so many folk who don’t know where t’ next meal’s coming thra’.
‘BEN’ said I, ‘that’s not worthy of you. A man like you ought to know better. You know perfectly well that what the unemployed want is work. You can provide work by buying more things for the house. You ought to buy everything you want in reason and can afford to pay for. That’s the quickest way to make more work. Of course, we’re bound to have charities. It’s right that we should all give part of our income to charity, especially to hospitals and orphanages and so forth for the benefit of those who must be helped by others before they can help themselves, but don’t think it is mere selfishness to buy things for yourself if they’re things that will give work to your fellow-beings’. Mrs. Buslingthorpe brightened. ‘Didn’t I tell you, Ben, we ought to risk it?’ ‘Ay’, said Ben, ‘thou wert allus for spending. Ah, well; I can see we shall have to get a reet modern Chesterfield and a pair of padded armchairs’. That would be wise spending’, I assured Ben, ‘or what the economists call directional spending’. ‘Ay, spending in t’ direction o’ t’ Bankruptcy Court, ’appen’. But a grin belied his gloomy surmise. ‘Well, must do as best we can. like. Anyroads, lass, I’m rare and thankful we’re better off than the poor owd Hardcastles. It does you good sometimes to see how much worse off than thysen is other folks. That play saddened me, for all I laughed at t’owd women and the one that said if a marriage licence had to be taken out fresh every year like a dog licence there’d be a lot of marriages lapsing [Sally Harcastle to Helen Hawkins]. Ay, It saddened me at time, but I reckon it does thee good to know what life is like for others. It makes thee more understanding’.
‘That’s a great tribute to Love on the Dole’, I said. ‘I believe that play will move people even more than the talks on the wireless of the unemployed themselves’. ‘That’s reet’, Ben agreed. ‘Queer, isn’t it, that play being made up like a tale and yet in another way as true as a newspaper. I reckon I felt sadder over that plucky young lass in t’ play than over many a real person in trouble’.
‘No’, I said, ‘It was because you are so sorry for real people in trouble – our unemployed in particular – that you felt so sorry for Sally Hardcastle. She symbolised a whole heartrending problem, and you could identify yourself with her as you can’t with all the 2,000,000 unemployed in the monthly return’.
‘Happen so’, commented Ben a little doubtfully. ‘Anyroads, our Fanny enjoyed the best cry she has had for many a day. She’s very soft-hearted is Fanny’.
(Leeds Mercury 19/5/1934, p.6; Love on the Dole was on in the first Vernon-Lever tour, with Wendy Hiller as Sally Hardcastle, at the Grand Theatre Leeds, from Monday 14th to Saturday 19th May, so this was the production seen by W.L.A. and Mr and Mrs Buslingthorpe).
This is a remarkably detailed response to the play. The sketch format perhaps allows W.L.A. to concentrate on his imagination of the ‘ordinary’ person’s response to the play without being distracted by the need to talk about the actors or the production itself as a review would, while also allowing him to enter into a dialogue about what those responses might mean. In short, it shifts the focus from authors, production and actors to these individual audience members – a reader response focus. The sketch expresses a sense of shock both in its headline and opening sentence about just how moved the normally unemotional Ben is by the play. Of course, it is not Ben who reports this unusual event, but his wife, who characterises him as in fact exceptionally ‘soft-hearted’, but also notes that this is not merely a sentimental response but a sign of a serious concern: ‘he just can’t help being worried by what he saw at the theatre’. Both how unusual this response is from Ben and its significance is reinforced by Fanny’s only available comparison – when they have been to see ‘one of those war films’, and Ben has nightmares about the war. Clearly, and like so many men of his generation, he is a veteran of the trenches, and the film is so realistic that it awakes his own buried traumas. (1) This comparison makes clear that Ben’s tears are not a sign of any lack of toughness or masculinity on his part (by the expectations of the time), but also the depth of authenticity in both some war films and this unemployment play. It also signals that unemployment is a crisis on the same index of seriousness as the Great War. It is an experience also shared by W.L.A. himself, and deepens the sense that both he and Ben are men who have seen life (and death) and can be taken as serious witnesses to the play’s power (it also echoes the allusion to Mr Hardcastle’s war-service in the production’s set which included his framed war medals hung on the wall). W.L.A. notes that there was humour in the play too, which the audience properly appreciated at the right points, but that the overall atmosphere was more that of tragedy. Ben is more interested in how moved he was to see the suffering of the unemployed and by his strong sense of identification – motivated by his feeling that with a little worse luck he too might be one of the jobless. In fact, he sees his and Fanny’s earlier life as mirrored by that of Larry and Sally up until the point when Larry has to tell Sally he has lost his job at the end of their wonderful day on the moors, represented in the play by the much-praised scene when the two climb the stage-rock.
Ben reflects on their good fortune as relatively well-off working-people, and W.L.A. puts the position of Ben and Fanny in the context of the local Leeds economy, which he says both he and Ben know is more varied than in many northern towns and cities hit by the collapse of single staple industries. This no doubt expresses some local patriotism, but also points out an economic reason why some areas are more devastated than others. The conversation then modulates into an expression of guilt by Ben that they have improved their garden and intend to buy some new furniture. However, W.L.A. reassures the Buslingthorpes in a quick lesson in economics (somewhat echoing in tone, if not economic theory, Larry’s tuition for his workmates). ‘Directional spending’ was something which W.L.A. had already championed, explaining a year earlier, as well as on subsequent occasions in the Leeds Mercury, that it was the encouragement of spending, both by councils and individuals, which could help create more employment (‘What is “Wise Spending” ?’, 24/3/1934, p.6). (2)
Ben reflects on the odd power of the play as a fiction, yet one which tells the truth as much as a newspaper article (this is perhaps also a self-conscious reference by W.L.A. to the status and value of his own column, with its apparent presentation of his conversations with the Buslingtons as actually taking place each week). W.L.A. suggests that the symbolic function of the play’s characters is more compelling for Ben and Fanny than the factual reporting of the mounting numbers of the unemployed each month. This part of the column is then nicely rounded off with Ben’s reference to how soft-hearted Fanny is (he does not of course know that she has already reported this aspect of his character to W.L.A., while he was out fetching the pint of milk). This closing touch of humour frames the sketch’s overall sense that while Love on the Dole may make its audiences weep (as well as laugh), its ‘sentimentality’ stems from the successful representation of real suffering to be found in many parts of Britain, and is by no means merely a form of entertainment.
As in so many contemporary reviews of the play, the Buslingtons are especially struck by the character of Sally, but also pay some attention to Larry, and to the Hardcastle family as a whole, though Harry is not mentioned specifically, and neither is Helen Hawkins. Sam Grundy is not mentioned, but there are a number of comments on Mrs Dorbell, Mrs Jike and Mrs Bull, though always collectively rather than individually. I have quoted above Ben’s appreciation of the comic aspects of the ‘owd women’, but Fanny (in a paragraph I have not so far quoted) takes a more serious approach to what are highly ambiguous characters in the play:
What baffled me the other night … was those three women … always having the money to buy gin … I shouldn’t have thought folk in the slums had money to spend on spirits … I hope there aren’t any women in Leeds like those three witches of Hanky Park.
This reaction reinforces Fanny’s respectability of course, but may suggest that she, or W.L.A himself, have not seen the complex position of these three women in the play as variously exploiting and, perhaps, at times, helping their neighbours to survive. Instead I think they are seen as distinctly ‘unrespectable’ (which is true enough under that framework of understanding), and thus do not represent the best of working-people, unlike the other characters sympathised with in the sketch.
When I first found this sketch, I was hopeful that I had found a genuine account of some ordinary working-people’s responses to Greenwood and Gow’s play. Of course, I might be wrong in assuming that the Buslingthorpes are wholly fictional characters – W.L.A. might have had friends like them to run topical issues by each week, before writing these up in his own style. But the name Buslingthorpe itself raises my doubts because it is an area of Leeds (quite close to the city centre, and with housing poor enough to have been mainly demolished in the nineteen-fifties) -perhaps suggesting that the Ben and Fanny are the Leeds Everyman and Everywoman of the nineteen-thirties. That does not completely rule out them being based on real working-people who W.L.A. knew (he does say in one sketch that he has known Ben for ten years – see Leeds Mercury 23/2/1935, p.6). They are clearly among those working-class people doing relatively well during the Depression, and indeed can afford two tickets for the Grand (though this may be a very unusual outing). As I have argued elsewhere, I think Greenwood did indeed envisage working people in work as very much part of his readership/audience, whose indignation against conditions in Hanky Party he wished to motivate, together with that of middle-class and more elite audiences. (3) This is actually one of two approving response to Love on the Dole from Ben, who in a later discussion with W.L.A., also praised the novel by seeing it as standing out from what he regards as pointless writing:
Ah reckon Ah could write a book about our neighbours theer. It wouldn’t be tripe, tha knaws, like you journalists write. It’d be summat really good, a study in human nature, like Love on the Dole, and some o’ them life stories you read in t’ Sunday newspapers (Leeds Mercury, 23/2/1935, p.6)
Presumably for Ben what Greenwood’s novel and autobiography have is common is an authenticity which he can recognise and value
I think this sketch, which has not been previously discussed, is certainly of great if curious interest as part of the history of the reception of Greenwood and Gow’s work. Even if it is not the authentic response of working-class audience members, and is, at best, thoroughly mediated by a middle-class interpreter, W.L.A. at least took the unusual step of trying to imagine how a working man and woman in Leeds might respond to the theatrical experience of Love on the Dole, and in doing so raises a number of important issues about possible relationships between its entertainment value and links between its emotional and potential political impact on audiences.
Note 1. The 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front may be particularly in Mrs Buslingthorpe’s mind – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Quiet_on_the_Western_Front_(1930_film)
Note 2. ‘Directional Spending’ is not a term recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it seems to have been used by the British economist Sir Josiah Stamp in the inaugural ‘Beckly Lecture’ for the Methodist Church in 1926, titled ‘The Christian Ethic as an Economic Factor’. See Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1/10/1927, p, 6, letter from Edwin Hobson, ‘Saving and Spending’, the Methodist Church UK Beckly Lectures page: https: /www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/reflecting-on-faith/theology/the-beckly-lectures/ , and the Wikipedia entry for Stamp: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josiah_Stamp,_1st_Baron_Stamp .
Note 3. See Chris Hopkins, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole – Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2018, pp. 268-70, 276-7.