As is also the case for the BBC Radio 4 interview with John Tusa, this interview with Walter Greenwood by Catherine Stott was motivated by Greenwood’s presence in London for the rehearsals of his play, Hanky Park, which premiered at the Mermaid Theatre in London in April 1971, directed by his friend and artistic collaborator, Bernard Miles. However, the focus is very different from that of the BBC interview, with a more sustained emphasis on Greenwood’s motivation for writing, on his relationship to Salford, on the long and successful writing career based in his experiences there, and on ways of living learnt there to which he still adheres. Stott opened by reporting that Greenwood was staying at a ‘most luxurious country club in Epsom’ and that it is an irony that:
He has made a small fortune from telling the world about the plight of Salford’s poor; an irony he disdains except in the most personal terms – ‘Aye, you could say that my life has been feast or famine’. He felt in no way parasitical because he had ‘worked like bloody hell for five years to teach myself writing. And gone without’. (1)
The article points out that since 1933 Love on the Dole has never been out of print, that ‘the play can still be seen all over the world’ and that the film was shown on television ‘last week’. His motivation for writing is said to be two-fold: it provided him with an escape from Hanky Park, and it was also a cry of anger:
Greenwood admits to having done very nicely from it [Love on the Dole]. He wrote it partly as a cri de coeur for the unemployed slum-dwellers, partly because he knew if it was published he could buy his way out of Hanky Park through the power of his own words … ‘I was burning up inside with fury at the poverty around me … it was a burning hatred, but I realised this was no way to go about writing it all down. This would be carrying a torch. I knew the best way to present it was to get the characters right and a good story to tell it through’.
He also feels strongly about the impact of being denied the chance of education. This is not so much about himself, though he did suffer from having to go to work at a young age, but about his peers who were denied opportunities with life-long consequences:
Another raw nerve which still twinges was the deprivation of education suffered by working-class children of his day. Himself he left school before thirteen to work a 15-hour-a-day for 3s 6d a week. ‘It was a debt that can never be repaid. There were so many bright boys when I was at school, but all the doors were closed to them. Intelligence doesn’t belong to any one class does it?
The word ‘debt’ sparks off a number of other thoughts in Greenwood’s mind – as Catherine Stott observes, ‘the word … recurs obsessively in his conversation’. This is related to ideas of independence and respectability which are important in Love on the Dole – where however much they wish to avoid debt, the Hardcastle family cannot do so once unemployment becomes long-term. Greenwood’s whole life is marked by his own early experience of this kind of economic pressure:
[Debt] was in a sense the biggest sin, and the wages of sin a fate worse than death: the ‘grubber’ – the workhouse few ever returned from alive. Fear of it has left him sadly cautious about money.
‘We had it drummed into us as kids that what you cannot pay for – cash down – you will do without. These were words of wisdom when the grubber was the alternative. My mother warned me against buying rubbish on weekly payments, saying that if you’ve got the cash you can choose. It worked with me, I’ve always wanted the best and if I can’t afford it, I go without. The shoes I’m wearing today are twenty-nine years old. That must prove something’.
Clearly, Greenwood’s mother Elizabeth took the same view as Mr Hardcastle in Love on the Dole about incurring debt, but her family were under the same pressure to manage under impossible circumstances. Greenwood certainly made a good deal of money from the novel and play versions of Love on the Dole and lived on his earnings as a writer for the rest of his life, but never wholly left that childhood and young adulthood experience of poverty behind (see: Walter Greenwood’s Finances and Love on the Dole – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole (waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com)). The shadow of the workhouse clearly stayed with him. However, making good products last certainly seems a virtue at present too – if his shoes were twenty-nine years old in 1971, then they must have been made (perhaps hand-made?) in 1942 – which is an impressive performance.
Stott next observed that having ‘got out of Hanky Park two years after the publication of Love on the Dole, Greenwood never lived there again’, but instead lived at different times in London, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. However, she says that ‘he recognises the debt he owes the place in providing him with dramatic copy, and will leave money to two charities in the area in his will’. She also reports on his present work in progress: ‘he is at work on a novel about contemporary Manchester and from the dark hints he dropped he still finds plenty of social atrocities to write about’. The final part of the article is about Greenwood’s current lifestyle on the Isle of Man, where he lived in a bungalow in Kirk Michael. Stott writes that ‘at 68 he seems to have become a real solitary’. In fact, I think there was always an unclubbable aspect to his character, though there were some good friends. Greenwood here gives an impression of being solitary through his account of how he hates it when his neighbours try to talk to him over the fence or use his phone, because he is working. He says he tells a neighbour: ‘you may think I’m only digging the garden but I’m thinking all the while’. Actually, I think there is an element of comic exaggeration in this self-portrait of Greenwood as curmudgeon. He continues this with his tale of how he never touched alcohol until he was forty (not wanting to follow in his father’s unsteady footsteps), when someone paid a debt of one hundred pounds with ‘100 bottles of Burgundy’. Greenwood hated the taste, but slowly drank it all, ‘hating waste’. Subsequently, he does seem to have enjoyed the odd drink, but ‘never before 10 pm’.
The final paragraph looks something like an afterthought, but actually picks up something which was important in his life and work:
Coupled with writing, nature is Walter Greenwood’s great love: ‘Even in Salford I would creep off somewhere to find a field where I could sit stroking the grasses. But there was always someone to chase me off’.
Greenwood gave a small number of interviews across his career, and they all tend to offer rare and illuminating reflections by the author on his life, his writing, and the inescapable connections between his past and his present.
Note 1. The Guardian, 2/4/1971, p.10. The article occupies a whole page, headed by a photograph of Greenwood ‘outside the terrace where he lived in the early thirties’ (picture by Tom Stuttard). All subsequent quotations are from this page. Catherine Stott (1943 – 2018) wrote for Vogue, the Daily Express, the Scottish Daily Mail, the Guardian, and then as travel correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. Some observations in her Guardian obituary by her colleague and friend David McKie suggest that she was a very suitable journalist to interview Greenwood: ‘she came from a classic Manchester Guardian household: her father, Ken, worked for the liberal News Chronicle, her mother Mary (neé Waddington) became the founding woman’s editor of the Guardian’ (see: Catherine Stott obituary | Newspapers | The Guardian).