Walter Greenwood: the kersal flats.co.uk Interview (1973)

There are only two filmed interviews with Walter Greenwood, copies of which are held in the Walter Greenwood Collection at the Salford University Archives (as the two items in WGC\7\18\2). The first was part of a nineteen-sixties film (North West Film Archive item RR 450) about current events in Salford in which Greenwood talks about a new play of his which is opening, though it is not named! I think it is likely to have been Fun and Games at the Victoria Theatre, Salford in February 1963, but I must, when able, rewatch this interview at the Water Greenwood collection in order to write it up more fully. My notes made on a visit to the archive in May 2016 record that in the film Greenwood said he was worried that live theatre might decline because people stayed in and watched TV ‘night after night’. He was also asked if the North was different from Love on the Dole days, responding that it was, with ‘new flats for the people … and the Welfare State’. He agreed that there was ‘still a long way to go’, but that a ‘marvellous job, considering’ had been done. Greenwood finished the interview by saying that in the past in Salford it was ‘a great fight for life, but [that] it provided humour and great comedians’ and finally praised ‘the great fortitude of the people’.

The second and later film interview is more easily accessible since it is currently uploaded on YouTube: Walter Greenwood Interviewed in Salford in 1973 – YouTube. You might like to watch the video first, or to treat this article as an introduction and then watch it – your choice!

The article will give a brief description of what is covered in Greenwood’s last recorded interview, and offer some commentary on links that can be made between it and the author’s life and writing. The film is a more-or-less an amateur video interview lasting for sixteen minutes and thirteen seconds, and has been posted on YouTube by the Kersal Flats channel, (Kersal Flats – YouTube), which hosts items on the history of Kersal Flats, and in this case on the history of the neighbouring flats in Pendleton, the former site of Ellor Street where Greenwood lived between his birth in 1903 and the success of Love on the Dole in 1933.

The female interviewer in the video is sadly not named, but seems professional, and the interview is recorded by a single cameraman, using the then relatively new and accessible technology of the video recorder, which allows him (he is referred to by the interviewer as Mick) to capture sound and image single-handed and spontaneously in this kind of recording situation. Both sound and visual quality are very acceptable, but the material has clearly not been edited, leaving some repetitions and evident gaps between different scenes, which is the main thing which makes the footage seem amateur, or perhaps better, raw and unfinished. However, there is much to be grateful for – no mainstream TV channel even thought of interviewing this celebrated and important working-class writer during the fifties, sixties or seventies. All the scenes of the interview were filmed in places once in Hanky Park and familiar to Greenwood. Greenwood still looks very much as he did in the nineteen-forties and dresses much as he did then: he looks smart with a white shirt and dark tie, and a light-coloured raincoat, and still has the same haircut and trade-mark moustache he had sported since the mid-nineteen-thirties.

The settings of the interviews alternate between some nearby terraces similar to those in Ellor Street (itself mostly demolished in the early 1960s) and the flats which replaced them, in particular Walter Greenwood Court, whose name-plate we see (a fifteen-storey building, built 1963-1964, it was in its turn demolished in 2001). (1)

Photograph of Walter Greenwood Court from the UK Housing Wiki (https://ukhousing.fandom.com/wiki/Walter_Greenwood_Court, under a CC-BY-SA licence)

The interview covers some six topics which readily flow into each other: changes to Salford since Love on the Dole days, neighbourliness and community in Ellor Street, street games in Greenwood’s childhood, the rag-and-bone man, sand-stoning the front doorstep, and May-Day celebrations. In fact, the interview also brings out some of Greenwood’s interests which might not be so obvious, as we shall see.

Changes to Salford

With Walter Greenwood Court in the background, the interviewer asks Greenwood if things have changed for the better in Salford. He says undoubtedly (the previous housing ‘was so insanitary’), but he is not so keen on the high-rise flats (he has clearly become less enthusiastic about these than in the nineteen-sixties film interview). The interview returns to this later and he says he would not like living up in the clouds, but it is only a little further on that he makes what is his key point – a contrast between the present and what he thinks is the lost neighbourliness of life in Ellor Street, despite the terrible poverty: ‘the front door was never closed … a great feeling of brotherliness … they were all together’. However, Greenwood also asserts very clearly the advantages of the welfare state, especially the improvements to nutrition for children (milk and vitamins) so that they are visibly no longer malnourished, and great improvements in ‘educational opportunity’. In the past says Greenwood, the low wages were ‘a living scandal’. The interviewer explicitly puts to Greenwood a question linked to Love on the Dole. She refers to the scene (perhaps more drawn from the play or film than the novel in fact) where Larry and Sally look down from the high moors onto Hanky Park and, she says, look forward to a ‘great Socialist future – a brave new world’. Has it turned out the way Greenwood expected? Greenwood replies that it hasn’t entirely, but that is not surprising because when you change one thing, others also inevitably change too. He feels there have been losses, but many gains: ‘this is the first step forward’.

Street-Games in Greenwood’s Childhood

This part of the interview takes place in a patch of bare and rough ground between the Ellor Street-like terraces, and Greenwood immediately identifies it as what they used to call a ‘croft’: it was the only place where children could play (though in fact he refers here only to boys’ games). He talks about three childhood past-times – fighting, football, and ‘piggy’. He explains that the fighting had some rules, but that the lads could be very tough. Fights were essentially territorial, between the ‘cock’, or champion, of one street and another, or between the ‘cock’ and multiple adversaries from another street. There is a short story by Greenwood which features a ‘cock’ called Harry Waring, probably a rather different version of Harry Hardcastle in Love on the Dole, though with a very different character. The short story is “Any Bread, Cake or Pie?”, and was written for Greenwood and Wragg’s short story collection The Cleft Stick (Selwyn & Blount, 1937). Harry is ‘cock of his whole school’ but he is also under-fed and starving:

YOUNG HARRY WARING WAS RAVENOUSLY HUNGRY. HE ALWAYS was hungry. He had sat all the afternoon in the classroom with that awful feeling of emptiness distracting him from what the teacher had been saying. He had been rebuked for inattention, but he did not care. For two pins he felt he would have bashed the teacher who was a small weedy individual whereas Harry was ‘cock’ of the school: he could fight and beat any of the other boys, and to be admitted to membership of his gang in North Street was a much-sought-after-privilege (p. 183).

He is a bully, and has no scruples about thieving from shops, from a woman who is a customer of the pawn-shop, and from other (also ill-fed) boys, to assuage his constant hunger. Nevertheless, at the end of the story when all his strategies, including begging for ‘bread, cake or pie’ outside Marlowe’s works, have given him only a few scraps, we leave him at night-time a hungry child, weeping from hunger: ‘His head sank on to his crooked arm, and he began to blubber unrestrainedly: “I’m ‘ungery … I’m ‘ungery …’ (ellipses sic, p.193).

It was a rule that clogs were removed before a fight began, and that once a boy was down on the ground the fight was won/lost and over. Boys also played football, but never with a proper ball – always with a ‘square ball made of paper’ (presumably because this was all they had). Finally, he explains the game of ‘piggy’, which involved hitting a peg of wood with a home-made wooden bat and then striding to where it landed (in some versions another player had to estimate the number of strides it would take to reach the ‘piggy’. Every game was preceded by the agreement that everyone paid for their ‘own china’ (or, as Greenwood glosses, any windows they broke). He says actually they just ran away if they broke a window, and could never have afforded to pay, but were anyway ‘belted’ by adults if caught.

‘Piggy’, also known as ‘Tip-cat’ was clearly a game which had been around for a long time. The Oxford English Dictionary online gives a use of the word ‘tip-cat’ from 1676, and also lists the same game as being called ‘piggy’ or ‘nipsey’. ‘Piggy’ seems to be used mainly in Yorkshire and Lancashire. This illustration from Isaiah Thomas’ A Little Pretty Pocket Book dates from 1767, and shows a version of the game. Image is from the Wikipedia entry on ‘Tip-Cat’ and is in the public domain: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tip-cat
This early twentieth-century photograph shows the ‘piggy’ or ‘tipcat’ and how it was launched before being struck with the bat; photograph by Werner Kissling from Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture (LAVC/PHO/P1800). Many thanks to Leeds University Library for kind permission to reproduce the image.

The Rag-and-Bone Man

This topic is covered in the interview in a different way because the conversation is between Greenwood and a rag-and-bone man present with his horse and cart, rather than between Greenwood and the interviewer (see this Wikipedia entry for a useful account of the history of rag-and-bone-men: Rag-and-bone man – Wikipedia ). I do not know whether the rag-and-bone man was simply doing his rounds of the Pendleton Estate, and ran into the interview in process, or whether it had been arranged that he and Greenwood should meet (Greenwood calls him Sam). Greenwood certainly seems genuinely interested in what the man has to say about the trade, past and present. There is perhaps a sense of incongruity between the horse and cart and Walter Greenwood Court behind, which looks at this point still quite modern. In fact, as becomes clear in the conversation, the horse and cart itself is an innovation – both men agree that pre-war a handcart was always used in Salford. The rag-and-bone man does not think there was or is much of a living in what Greenwood rightly calls ‘totting’. In the past, as they discuss, in return for rags or bones, the housewives of Hanky Park were given a piece of ‘Donkey Stone’, brown, white or cream, to ‘stone’ or colour their doorsteps (and often the pavement in front too). It saved them having to buy a stone with rare or non-existent spare cash. The rags and bones were bought up by rag-and bone merchants who sold them on a larger-scale, usually to rag-paper makers and soap-makers.

Advert for Read’s Donkey Brand Stone
Helpful explanation of what Donkey stones were on a blue plaque to the last manufacturer, Eli Whalley (Wikipedia Creative Commons image, supplied by A. Carty)

Greenwood asks if people still want donkey stone and the rag-and-bone man says only ‘old people come out for the stone now’ (of course, the Walter Greenwood Court flats do not have external doorsteps to stone, so this must refer to the few people still living in the old terraces which have not yet been demolished).

The conversation is about past and present for a particular trade, but also connects with a description of the place of the rag-and-bone man and stoning in the daily life of Hanky Park in Love on the Dole:

The doorsteps and windowsills of the houses are worn hollow. Once a week, sometimes twice, the women clean them with brown or white rubbing stone; the same with portions of the pavement immediately outside front doors …

The ‘sand-bone men’ who purvey the lumps of sandstone in exchange for household junk, rags and what-not, can be seen pushing their handcarts and heard calling their trade in rusty, hoarse, sing-sing voices: ‘San-bo -. Donkey Brand brown sto-bone’, which translated means: ‘I will exchange either brown or white rubbing stone for rags, bones or bottles’ (Vintage Kindle edition, pp.10-11).

This is one of those instances in the novel where Greenwood felt he had to explain these customs and their language because he clearly felt that readers outside the northern working-class would not understand them. The tell-tale word ‘translate’ makes this very explicit, as does the rather literal and prim Standard English gloss itself. Rag-and-bone men were certainly known in the south, as in fact was stoning, though it may have been less common, so this explanation may not have been completely necessary. Or perhaps it was aimed rather at middle and upper-class readers who were less familiar with stoning, rather than being a question of regional difference. Greenwood also gave an account of the practice in his book Lancashire (1950), linking it to the determination of Lancashire women, though he felt that stoning more-or-less died out once the Second World War started (perhaps because there was just not enough time under pressing wartime conditions at home and at work):

Lancashire women are extraordinary. Those in the towns live under a permanent canopy of filthy smoke that ceaselessly deposits its soot on everything. One would readily sympathise with them if they abandoned this labour of Sisyphus in trying to keep the insides of their homes clean. Such is their character and training that not only do they scour the inside of their homes, but, once a week, they attack the pavements outside their homes. Of a Friday evening, when this part of the housework is generally done, you will see them, or you could up to 1939, kneeling in the streets bucket, floorcloth and coloured sandstone at their sides, sluicing the water over the flagstones then rubbing them with the coloured sandstone and washing it afterwards into an even patch of colour (p.15)

May-Day Celebrations

Greenwood introduces this topic by asking the rag-and-bone man if he used to decorate the horse for May-Day. He says he did use to, but that ‘May-Day’s played out now’ – that is, no-one celebrates it in modern Salford. May-day celebrations in Hanky Park might seem an odd survival of country-customs in one of the earliest industrial cities in Britain – and indeed, there is no mention of May-Day in Love on the Dole, perhaps because it might imply some possibility of festivity, of spare money, running counter to the novel’s essential depiction of a community almost wholly reduced to misery. However, Greenwood does comment, somewhat wryly, on May Day in his memoir version of Hanky Park in There Was Time (1967), though in a chapter about Hanky Park in 1910 rather than in the nineteen-thirties:

Not a street, however mean, that did not have its group of little girls preparing for the first of May. Each street, when that day dawned, had its maypole, a broom handle festooned with coloured tissues and hanging with multi-coloured ribbons. A ring of girls, each holding a ribbon, in attendance on a diminutive May Queen veiled with a piece of old lace curtain and carrying a basket of posies and a collecting tin for the hoped-for halfpenny contributions. Songs and dances at every door:

We come to greet you here today

And we hope you will not turn us away,

For we dance and sing our merry lay

Round the maypole ring … [sic]

(Cape edition, p.45).

This is clearly a girl’s activity solely, and a calendrical one, in contrast with the everyday boys’ games Greenwood recalls earlier in the interview. The next paragraph moves on to the role of carters and horses, which is what presumably brings May Day into Greenwood’s mind when talking to the rag-and-bone man:

Carters, a fortnight before the great day, tying bulging sacks to the nearside front wheels of their carts. We all knew what was in them: sand, newspaper and the chains and steelwork that went with the harness of their charges. There it would lie tumbling, with each turn of the wheel, all the miles the dray had to traverse, reappearing, glittering silver, on the first of May in dazzling contrast with the sheen of the horses’ summer coats. Manes and tails plaited with straw and intermingled with ribbons in yellow, green, blue and red; single, double and sometimes triple tiers of brass bells, ‘chimes’, nodding and tinkling delightfully on headcollars. Every draught animal gay with coloured decorations and brilliant accoutrements down to the humblest moke whose hard-up owner could afford no more than a pennorth of ribbon to tie on its forelock. All a gay May-morning tribute by shabby industrial streets to the ghost of Merrie England (pp. 45-5).

A May-Day celebration in Salford clearly was a survival, or adaptation, of earlier folk fertility rituals, but Greenwood’s final sentence brings out the ironies of its continued performance in the grim and in many respects deathly ecology of Hanky Park. Greenwood was, however, genuinely interested over a sustained period in May-Day customs in the Manchester area as his appeal a few years later in 1957 for memories of these in an article in the Manchester Evening Chronicle suggests — he received a number of letters in response which are held in the Walter Greenwood Collection (WGC/2/5). He returned to the topic in 1968, when he was interviewed about May-Day celebration on BBC’s Woman’s Hour, and again appealed for listeners’ recollections, this time also receiving a number of responses (see WGC/2/22).

This conversation about a trace of a long-gone rural custom in Salford might seem like a footnote to the career of an author so strongly associated with the essentially urban poverty of Hanky Park, and indeed here with the attempted redesign of urban life represented by Walter Greenwood Court. However, as the conclusion to his book Lancashire (Robert Hale, 1950), ‘All a Dream’, makes clear, there was a strong ‘green’ underpinning to all his writing. He always saw the Industrial Revolution as a temporary, if long, aberration:

Earlier you may remember I promised you a ghost story. Only when I have ceased to walk and breathe will this ghost take up its optimistic vigil, for the ghost will be my own … The vigil of this ghost of mine will, I fear, be long – as long as it takes mankind to allow Mother Nature to restore to my native county the beauty with which it was clothed before the coming of the Industrial Revolution. By now you must have been persuaded of the completeness of my hatred of this frightful thing, even though its coming may be an inevitable step in mankind’s march to its unknown destiny.

As for me, whenever I hear the merry chiming of wedding bells in the squalid towns of my native county, my heart sinks for the unborn who are soon to see the sun fir the first time through the thick and poisonous industrial mists and fogs of north-country industrialism. The dreary stage is set in advance for them before they begin to breathe the noxious air. Not for them the painted meadows of the May; these are interred under flagstones worn smooth by the trudging feet of forgotten generations. Not for them the morning chorus of the sweet wild birds; their earliest call will be the bleak wail of the factory siren.

You may tell me that I am living in a dream world of unreality. In this I could not agree more. Salford and all the filth and threadbare ugliness of north-country industrialism always has been and always will be, to me, not only a dream, but a hideous nightmare from which the conscience of man will one day awake.

Meanwhile my bet is on the south-westerly wind. One day that wind will see the end of the industrial north as we know it to-day: one day will see the River Irwell once more restored to life, a transformation which my friend the wind perpetually attempts in the clean rainstorms it pours on the Pennines to feed the brooks that pay tribute to the rivers. One day in the future will see a shadowy shape nosing its way through the sea towards the clear head-waters of the River Irwell (pp. 294-7).

Salmon have not as yet returned to the Irwell, but Walter’s ghost will presumably be welcoming reported sightings of brown trout, roach, bream and chub, after work in the early nineteen-eighties to clean up more than a century of industrial discharges from the Irwell (which had been empty of fish since the 1850s). (2)

Even in Love on the Dole, all traces of the natural world are not wholly lost – but the narrative voice fears that the ability to perceive the value of these remaining little landscapes has been lost by most bought up in Hanky Park. Sally, wanting to see the now unemployed Larry after she has had a disturbing approach from Sam Grundy, knows that she will in his leisure-time find him on the canal bank ‘about two miles west of Pendleton’:

Anybody seeing a snapshot of some select corner might imagine it as being representative of the heart of the country.  Beauty was there, doubtless, but not to the eyes of slum dwellers who walked there. They take with them what exists two miles away to the east. Still, beauty is there, in the tall, limp-leaved beeches, and hairy elms, the long grass and sedge, and the water-meadow sweeping down to the serpentine river a quarter-mile distant. Beauty, pockmarked by glimpses of gaunt pit headstocks rising between trees and scarecrow electric pylons sprawling across the meadows’ bosoms.

Sometimes the songs of the lark and blackbird are overwhelmed by the raucous screams of counterfeit shocked laughter from groups of mill and factory girls parading the banks who have been surprised by louts from the slums lying in the grass peeping at lovers …

Altogether, a pleasant place, marred by the activities of unpleasant people whose qualities, perhaps, are sad reflections of sadder environments (pp. 138-140).

This is a more patronising narrative view of ordinary people than is usual in most of the novel, perhaps precisely because the narrative voice regards understanding of the natural world so highly, even in these surviving patches within a predominantly industrial landscape. To an extent, ordinary peoples’ lack of openness to the natural world is firmly blamed on their deprived social environment, but nevertheless that does not seem to excuse them from blame. Larry is an exception to the Hanky Park norm (of course …). Though Sally does not find him, she knows where he will have been at some stage today:

She had visited all Larry’s customary haunts: the meadows where he had shown her larks’ nests in the deep grass, the nettle-beds by the riverside colonised by the Red Admirals, and the sand deposits there, pitted with holes into, and out of which, sand martins darted like shadows, (p.141)

Clearly, for the narrative voice of Love on the Dole, disconnection from the natural world is a central and critical aspect of industrial alienation.

The title of Greenwood’s memoir, There was a Time, is, of course, taken from Wordsworth’s ode ‘Intimations of Immortality’ (first published in 1807 and then significantly lengthened and revised in 1815). The epigraph makes the reference explicit with its quotation of the first five lines of the poem:

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream …

As his memoir recounts, Greenwood’s mother, Elizabeth, was a great believer in the beneficial and authentic effects of poetry, and valued Wordsworth’s work highly, requiring the young Walter perfectly to recite chosen Wordsworth poems before he was allowed to go out and play (presumably on a ‘croft’): ‘And before you go off gallivanting have you learned the Wordsworth poem?’ (p.80). The poem his memoir recalls him having to learn is ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (first published 1807, revised 1815), which of course again is about a nature-inspired epiphany. The Wordsworth-inspired title of the memoir, and the accompanying epigraph, are used in quite complex ways. In one respect, they do pick up Wordsworth’s idea that children are closer to a real understanding of the world, and that childhood perceptions have an intensity lost to adults, and certainly in the memoir Greenwood’s childhood has a certain lost richness and glory, rooted in the community of Hanky Park which is represented so much more positively here than in Love on the Dole. However, there is also the deep and clearly conscious irony that his childhood did not mainly take place near ‘meadows, grove, and stream’, but in the poverty, dirt and deprivation of Hanky Park. In Lancashire, Greenwood again discussed the lasting influence on him of his mother’s beliefs about poetry and culture, and ideas of dream, unreality, poetry, and nature are picked up:

To me and my impatient and reassuring waiting ghost it [industrial life] is a dream, and always has been and ever will be … I most gratefully hand the credit for all this to my mother, who perpetually taught me that the poverty and the slums in which we lived were unreal … Her wealth consisted in an insatiable love of poetry, music, the theatre and literature. This was her ‘secret kingdom’; this was the reality to which she could and did escape from the nightmare of slumdom which ineffectually tried to break her heart and spirit (p. 296).

The memory of a lost green world, recreated only through poetry, and perhaps to a tiny extent by rural rituals, was something central to Greenwood’s discontent with the life and world into which he was born, and one of the roots of his writing. The Kersal Flats interview stems immediately from the environment in which Greenwood grew up, and from the environment which replaced it, and while answering the questions put to him, he articulates a number of complex attitudes to Hanky Park, to what came before it, to what replaced it, to his own past, and to what he hopes will one day be a new and greener world for everyone. Despite some small gains, we are clearly nowhere near that yet – and indeed are incurring increasing losses on a global scale. Greenwood would surely have been distressed.

Do watch the Interview (or again!) at: Walter Greenwood Interviewed in Salford in 1973 – YouTube.

NOTES

Note 1. For an excellent account of the development of the Pendleton Estate from the nineteen-thirties till the nineteen-sixties, giving a context for much of the above, and also referring to Greenwood and Love on the Dole, see: The Ellor Street Redevelopment Area, Salford: ‘No Hanky Park, no more’ | Municipal Dreams (wordpress.com) and the sequel: https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/salford_of_the_space_age/

Note 2. See the informative Wikipedia entry: River Irwell – Wikipedia