Walter Greenwood: ‘Old Habits Die Hard’ Interview (George Rosie, the Radio Times, 1971)

George Rosie (born 1941 and a television journalist among other things) took the opportunity to interview Greenwood for the Radio Times in connection to his ‘Those Turbulent Years’ BBC Radio 4 interview with John Tusa, and while Greenwood was visiting London for the rehearsals of the theatre adaptation of his memoirs, Hanky Park at the Mermaid Theatre, London. The interview is a full-page article with a photograph of Greenwood at his writing desk in his house on the Isle of Man; visible on it are his pens in a stand, and a large flyer or programme for the recent musical adaptation of Love on the Dole (1970; music by Alan Fluck, lyrics by Robert A. Gray, book by Terry Hughes and Robert A. Gray). Greenwood explains that he moved to Man because ‘the first holiday I ever spent was on the island. This place seemed like paradise after the muck and smoke of Salford’. The interview indeed focuses on how the writer’s past still influences his habits today, and on his current writing habits in his (alleged) retirement to the Isle of Man.

It opens with the observation that Greenwood writes ‘with the nib of his fountain-pen turned the wrong way up’:

‘Bloody daft’, he calls it, but explains that he cannot help it. When he was learning his trade as a writer he could afford only very cheap, very absorbent paper: ‘And the only way I could stop my pen flooding was to hold the nib upside down’. (1)

George Rosie says that:

Old habits die hard, especially those formed by want. And most of Walter Greenwood’s habits were formed by poverty, despite the money and success that came his way after 1933, when his classic of the Depression era Love on the Dole was published. ‘I can’t get rid of that feeling of insecurity,’ he admits. ‘The fear that somehow it is all going to be taken away.’

Which is why he always pays his income tax in advance and will buy nothing unless he can pay cash.

Rosie thinks that Greenwood is a testament to this ‘code of sense and moderation’, and that he looks well, considerably younger than his actual age of just under seventy. The only thing which the writer does not approach with moderation is his writing, even though he is supposedly retired:

‘I work all the time’, he says, ‘even when I’m watching TV or cleaning out the fireplace’. Which is why he has one note-pad beside his bed, another hanging in the kitchen, and why every cigarette packet in the house seems to have writing all over it. ‘Never trust your memory is one of his rules’.

Indeed, the article sees this kind of work habit as playing a key part in Greenwood’s career, saying that ‘the profit on nearly 40 years of assiduous note-taking and hard work has been a dozen books, seven plays and a film script’. Sometimes Greenwood also collects material in a slightly different way:

When he gets bored on the Isle of Man he ‘nips across’ to Manchester, or Salford, or London, and wanders about the streets and pubs ‘just listening, listening. It’s amazing what you can learn’.

The interview also notes that he is currently at work on ‘a few adjustments to his play Hanky Park’ and ‘deep into a new novel about Manchester’. Rosie reports that,

When Hanky Park was premiered in London, most of the ex-Labour cabinet turned up but the young people stayed away. Greenwood seemed saddened and slightly troubled by the fact, but accepts it. ‘Each generation breeds its own sense of values.’

The Labour Government in power from October 1964 had been defeated in the June 1970 elections by the Conservatives led by Edward Heath. Ex-cabinet members might have included the former prime-minister Harold Wilson, as well as figures such as George Brown, James Callaghan, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman and Roy Jenkins. However, there do not seem to be any press reports about any of these Labour notables going to see Hanky Park, so I cannot identify exactly who paid tribute to Greenwood’s story of pre-welfare-state life. That second post-war Labour government had enacted a great deal of social and welfare reforms addressing many of the evils which Greenwood had alerted the nation to in his work of the thirties, including poor housing, and its members were likely to have been very much in tune with the writer’s thinking about the role of the state in providing safety-nets and positive opportunities for all.

The interview concludes with Rosie’s sense that Greenwood is a ‘sensible man’, who approaches his writing as a craft, and who despite his fame retains homely and unpretentious habits:

He is not about to set off chasing literary and theatrical trends. He points with some pride to the table he made [presumably the writing table featured in the accompanying photograph]. Like his writing, and like the man himself, it is simple, decent, unfussed.


Note 1. Radio Times, London edition, dated 8 July 1971, p.12. My special thanks to Dr Sheldon Hall, Reader in Film Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, for making the kind gift to me of this edition of the Radio Times from his personal collection.