Walter Greenwood: ‘Those Turbulent Years’ Interview (John Tusa, BBC Radio 4, 1971)

Though BBC and ITV television sadly failed to initiate any interviews with Walter Greenwood, despite a period of some twenty years when they might have done so, BBC Radio fortunately had the foresight to do so. The interview was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the eleventh of July 1971 and then again on the seventh of November 1971. The Radio Times text gave some sense of how the interview came about: partly because Greenwood was in London, and partly because he was in the news at this point:

Next week, Walter Greenwood, the 70-year-old author of Love on the Dole is to receive an Honorary Doctorate at Salford University. Earlier this year when his dramatized autobiography Hanky Park opened at the Mermaid, the author came down to London from his home in the Isle of Man specially for the occasion. While here he came to record a short interview with JOHN TUSA, but it proved impossible to stem the fascinating flood of memories he recaptured of life as a child in Salford after the Great War, and later in the depression of the 20s and 30s. (1)

The interviewer was indeed John Tusa, with Marlene Pease as producer, and the interview was titled ‘Those Turbulent Years’ (2) John Tusa (born 1936) was then a noted BBC radio and television presenter and journalist, and later, of course, become a distinguished senior BBC figure, before taking up important leadership posts in the arts and culture, and being knighted for his contribution to that field in 2003. (3).

Sir John Tusa in 2010 (from his Wikipedia entry; image reproduced under a Creative Commons licence)

The interview is substantial, lasting for twenty-eight minutes and seventeen seconds (perhaps longer than originally intended if the Radio Times is correct). It was not part of a series, but a one-off piece. The British Library item description states its major focus thus: ‘Greenwood recalls the 1920s and 1930s in Hanky Park, Salford, and in his novel, Love on the Dole’. While the piece revisits some stories and histories Greenwood told elsewhere (some in fiction, some in non-fiction works), it also adds a number of details, emphases, and contents which occur no-where else, and is well-worth attention and commentary.

In the interview, John Tusa set up a number of the contexts and asked some dozen questions to which Greenwood responded. Tusa starts by saying that he came to know Greenwood’s work ‘as a listener’, which presumably points to his having listened to BBC Radio adaptations, most likely of Love on the Dole, several productions of which had been broadcast during Tusa’s adult life, including in 1955 and 1965. (4) His spoken introduction to the contents of the interview differs slightly from both the Radio Times account and the British Library description in saying (quite correctly) that this ‘seventy-year old northern author [will talk about] his childhood in the Great War and later in the Depression of the twenties and thirties’. Though Greenwood is almost automatically associated with the thirties, Hanky Park in the period of the First World War was indeed quite prominent in some of his memories, and in some of his fiction. Tusa adds that the place-name ‘ “Hanky Park” was never a tribute to landscape designers’ but rather showed the ‘sense of humour’ of Salford people, since the area was not in any sense a ‘park’. However, Hanky Park did, he says, ‘sum up something about northern industrial life’, and though it is all gone now, it is not ‘too strong a word’ to say that Greenwood ‘immortalised’ the place in three works, Love on the Dole, his memoir There Was a Time, and his recent dramatised version of the memoir, Hanky Park. (5)

Programme from the London premiere of Hanky Park (scanned from copy in the author’s collection)

Greenwood starts by telling us that his father died in 1913, when Walter was ten years old, and that things were ‘terrible for us’. His mother took work as a waitress and had to come home after trams had stopped running for the night, giving her a long walk every night when she was already exhausted. She had to leave Walter and his younger sister Betty alone in the house, and Walter had to be woken to let her in (they presumably had no spare key). He remembered that his mother always told him to bolt the front and back door before going to bed, and that when he protested ‘but mother, there’s nothing to steal’, she would simply repeat her instruction. Walter himself, even before leaving school in 1916, had to work as a boy-clerk in a pawn-shop. He remembered that he had to be there at work at five-thirty a.m. to open the shop – a timing dictated by the economy of Hanky Park, since women had to queue then in order to raise some money in time to buy breakfast food before husbands set off for work and children for school. Greenwood remembers the women pawning bedclothes or their husband’s weekend clothes to raise what they needed for immediate use.

Greenwood recalls that wages were very low (about fifteen shillings a week) and thought the first world war years were the worst: ‘Why we didn’t have a revolution then, I don’t know, it happened in Russia’. In fact, Greenwood thinks that there was a kind of miniature uprising at least after the U-boat campaign hit and there was ‘no butter, no tea’. After news of the sinking of the S.S. Lusitania, people in Salford looked for German (or to them German-sounding) shops on which to take their revenge and to help themselves at the same time to goods and especially food (hams and sausages were much prized). Even before (and after?) that, Greenwood recalls that gangs of boys regularly set out to steal vegetables from greengrocers. Teams of boys distracted the grocer, while others stole carrots and cabbages from the large wicker baskets in which they were displayed, throwing them to yet other boys who would run off with the goods holding them like rugby balls. Their mothers, meanwhile, would from necessity drive meat-prices down as low as they could by waiting to buy till the very end of trading on a Saturday night, so that the butchers in the market had, without refrigeration, either to throw their meat away or auction it off cheaply. Greenwood felt that Salford dockers (on the Manchester Ship Canal) had an especially bad life: they had no security of employment, and often had to bribe the foreman with beer the night before to get put on to work even for one day. For them, it was ‘catch-as-catch-can’ when it came to working. He remembered desperate dockers even pawning their hooks – tools without which they could not work at all.

John Tusa then points out that though it ‘is easy to think of the nineteen-twenties and thirties as unrelieved economic gloom’, there was a brief period of post-First World War boom. Greenwood agrees and recalls how for a brief period between ‘nineteen-twenty-three and four or five … money flowed like water’. Stocks in textile mills temporarily gained huge value quickly and were sold and resold, including to some quite ordinary working folk: ‘every pub was a stock-exchange … and mill-owners’ sons were buying cars and racing to London and back’. However, mill prices collapsed again, investors fund themselves with worthless or negatively valued stocks and soon ‘looms were sold as scrap iron’. Greenwood observes that ‘many were driven to suicide’. At this point, Greenwood reflects ‘those were the turbulent years’, a phrase which he seems to have produced during the interview and which was then given to the whole programme as its title. From then on all of Lancashire was depressed. Even ‘university-degree chaps were glad to do coupon-clothing sales’. Indeed, Greenwood himself worked for a time selling clothes on the ‘instalment scheme’, or more picturesquely, but no less desperately, the ‘never-never’. When Greenwood got this salesman’s job, he asked ‘where is my territory?’ His answer came: ‘No territory – this is Lancashire – catch-as catch-can’ (that phrase again). It was every salesman for himself, ‘cut-throat work’, as well as dealing with the stress the impoverished customers had in meeting the payments. Greenwood remembers just once that he had the dream-order every salesman fantasised about. He knocked on the door of a house, and the woman inside instead of pretending she was not in or slamming the door, said, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to come’. The woman was delighted because her son has just got his LRAM [Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music, probably at that time as an external student of the Academy]. As a result, he had got a job [as a pianist or organist?] at a ‘super-cinema’, and needs a full evening-suit by that evening. Greenwood says his company can do that and promises to have her son measured and fitted in time. Much more often though, Greenwood’s customers were in obvious trouble. Of course, it was part of his job to keep them paying up as much and as often as possible, but he recalls that he was ‘being a socialist, furious about this way of living – so undignified’. He often did his best to help. A common trick on the part of the clothing companies was to threaten legal action in the form of a letter which appeared to be a court summons. It was nothing of the sort and Green says he told customers ‘not to take a blind bit of notice’. When customers were sometimes eventually taken to court, the magistrate, seeing they could not pay, would anyway set them a repayment which was at least lower than that levied by the coupon-clothing firm.

John Tusa reports that amidst all this ‘all the young Walter Greenwood wanted was to write’, and that a period on the dole let him do this. He wrote ‘three volumes on the industrial revolution, unpublished’. These must have been The Prosperous Years trilogy, of which two volumes were destroyed when Greenwood and Pearl’s studio flat was hit in the Blitz in December 1941. This fact is recorded in Greenwood’s hand on the surviving manuscript of volume two, which is held in the Walter Greenwood Collection in the Salford University Archives (as item WGC 1/1/1). Then came Love on the Dole, which Greenwood says once he had written it, he ‘thought … so good’. He sent it ‘craftily’ to two publishers, Putnam’s and Jonathan Cape, and imagined that the two publishers would ‘be duelling with cheque-books’ over it, preferably in time for Christmas 1931. In fact, Putnam replied by the end of June 1932, saying they had very much enjoyed the book, but had just accepted a similar unemployment novel from a German author, Hans Fallada, and so could not take his too. (6)

The dust-wrapper of the Putnam’s edition of Little Man What Now? (March 1933, translated by Eric Sutton) which the publisher accepted just before rejecting Love on the Dole (image scanned from copy in author’s collection).

However, Jonathan Cape replied saying he would publish the novel. Nevertheless, Greenwood says he felt a bit ‘windy’ [nervous, anxious] and, by then again a coupon-clothing salesman, he did ‘not give up the knocker’s job’. He remembered here his experience of the difficulty of making a living as a writer during the few previous years, recalling the composition of the short stories which were eventually published in The Cleft Stick in 1937, with illustrations by Arthur Wragg: (see https://waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com/walter-greenwood-and-arthur-wraggs-the-cleft-stick-1937/). Greenwood said that ‘I wrote the stories of the back streets of Salford’, but had trouble getting them published. A magazine editors said of one of these stories, ‘This is so good, but you must understand our magazines are meant to entertain and amuse’. Greenwood refers to his story about a desperately poor woman with an unemployed and unhelpful husband and a large family, who is so desperate she tries to gas herself – but fails because she has no penny for the gas metre. This is clearly given as an example of the kind of story which editors felt was unlikely to please their audience (but which gave its title, ‘The Cleft Stick’, to Greenwood and Wragg’s entire short story collection some five years later).

Next, John Tusa introduced the topic of the Means Test and the protests against it. Greenwood replies that conditions for the jobless were at that point in 1931 ‘very tough’, including the strict application of the Means Test. He recalls men who were so poor, they had no soles to their shoes, only the uppers, and the unreality of some standard Means Tests questions and the inhumanity of others. Among the unreal was the question, ‘Do you have any stocks or shares?’ and among the inhumane were the all too relevant questions about other family members or property (‘Do you have any brothers or sisters working?’, ‘Do you have any unnecessary items of furniture – a piano?’). Greenwood says that often jobless young men left home to avoid being a burden on their families, and some ended up sleeping in a ‘tuppenny lean over’ (where, as Orwell so memorably describes in Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933, homeless men paid to lean over a rope overnight as the nearest they could afford to a bed). These men ‘had all served their time in engineering’, points out Greenwood – they were skilled workers.

John Tusa remarks that there were some ‘unintentionally humorous sides’ even to those days, which elicits a story Greenwood did not tell anywhere else. He recalls a meeting of the West Salford Labour Party where a man aged about thirty can stand things as they are no longer. ‘Bursting with righteous indignation’, he proposes the motion that ‘we arm the West Salford Labour Party now’. Greenwood says that the chair of the meeting rather than ridiculing the idea replied that he did not know how much a rifle and ammunition cost, but that he did know local party funds were so low that they had not paid their agent for three years.  And that, comments Greenwood, was the end of the Armed West Salford Labour Party. However, Greenwood himself had said that he was motivated to write Love on the Dole by a sense of fury about how things were, and there is also his comment earlier in this interview about the likelihood of revolution, so even if he felt the suggestion was absurd, he perhaps understood the speaker’s frustrations. Tusa adds that there were cheap but satisfying entertainments for those ‘with some book-learning’, including ‘walking in the hills and talking politics’, Ruskin College tutors who came to give lectures, and some theatre, though many theatres and actors were on very hard times indeed.

Finally, Tusa asked Greenwood what he thought about the welfare state. In accord with his comments elsewhere, Greenwood replies that ‘I can’t believe such a transformation has taken place’, but here adds some material drawn from his own family’s experience, describing how his sister’s two sons from working-class Salford backgrounds were able post-war to win scholarships to Manchester Grammar school, and then to Birmingham and Oxford Universities. The interview ends with a concluding remark which is not sparked off by John Tusa, but which is Greenwood’s own reflection on past and present: ‘Never let bitterness curdle you – it never does any good’.

The material covered in the interview has some common ground with elements in four works by Greenwood: Love on the Dole (working in a pawn-shop; the means test protest march), The Cleft Stick (the looting of ‘German’ shops after the sinking of the Lusitania, in the story ‘Patriotism’), There Was a Time (his mother’s work as a waitress, working in the pawn-shop, writing short stories, the means test march, and getting Love on the Dole accepted) and Lancashire (working as a coupon clothing salesman). In every case, though, the interview adds some additional detail, a different telling, and in a few cases some completely new autobiographical material.

NOTES

Note 1. The Radio Times programme details can be found on the BBC Genome Project: Broadcast – BBC Programme Index.

Note 2. British Library shelf-mark NP1746. The interview was originally held by the BL as a reel tape-recording, but due to its fragility this has recently been digitised to preserve it in a more durable form, and can now be listened to in the BL as part of its Sound and Moving Image Service. I listened to this digital recording on 31/8/2021. My thanks to BL staff for their kind help in making this rare recording accessible. The interview seems to have been broadcast by the BBC just twice.

Note 3. See his Wikipedia entry: John Tusa – Wikipedia.

Note 4. There were also earlier BBC Radio productions of Love on the Dole, some of extracts, others of the whole play. These included broadcasts in 1935, 1936, 1941, 1942, 1945, and 1949. It was regarded as a play only suitable for adults, so I am assuming that John Tusa was likely to have listened to productions of the play once he was an adult. He might also have listened to Greenwood’s play The Cure for Love of which BBC Radio broadcast productions in 1953 and 1966, as well as Too Clever for Love in 1952. For a fuller account of Greenwood’s radio footprint, see: Walter Greenwood on Radio and TV – Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole (waltergreenwoodnotjustloveonthedole.com) .

Note 5. Love on the Dole was published by Jonathan Cape in 1933, and his memoir, There Was a Time by the same publisher some thirty-four years later in 1967. The stage adaptation of the memoir called Hanky Park was performed at the Mermaid Theatre, London (directed by Bernard Miles) in April 1971. There had been a previous production of the memoir under the title There Was a Time at the Dundee Repertory Theatre, Dundee, in October 1967.

Note 6. This unemployment novel was Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? Originally published in German as Kleine Mann, was Nun? In 1932. For an introduction to Fallada’s life and work see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Fallada