Before the post-war foundation of the National Health Service and its new arrangements for hospitals, these mainly charitable institutions had a variety of ways of sustaining themselves and raising funds for particular purposes (not that such charitable funding for hospitals is by any means a thing of the past now). One method was through a genre of publication called a ‘Hospital Gift Book’. One such book which seems to survive in quite large numbers was The Princess Elizabeth Gift Book: In Aid of the Princess Elizabeth of York Hospital for Children, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1935 and edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith (1887-1960) and Eileen Bigland (1898-1970), under the patronage of the then Princess Elizabeth. (1) The books were produced by inviting well-known writers and artists to contribute without fee a story, poem or illustration to the book, which was then sold to raise funds for the hospital.
Greenwood contributed to two books of this kind, each designed to raise money for a particular Manchester hospital, one in the mid-thirties and one at the end of the Second World War. The first was The Hospital Centenary Gift Book, published by George G. Harrap & Company in 1935, and edited by Dr Robert Ollerenshaw. Robert Ollerenshaw M.D. , F.R.C.S. (1882-1948) was then a senior orthopaedic surgeon at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, for which the Gift book was commissioned. (2) As his Editor’s Foreword explains, the Manchester Children’s Hospital was the oldest children’s hospital in Britain, and its centenary was being marked by this book mainly to meet the large costs of a new convalescent block, for which the hospital needed to raise £100, 000. The book has a nicely-designed if simple cover design with the title perhaps suggesting an architectural element such as a protective archway or roof over the line drawing of the child neatly and indeed symmetrically tucked up in their hospital bed (image scanned from copy in author’s connection). There was also originally a blue and white dust-wrapper (now rather rare), which listed prominently on the front the names of all the artists and writers who contributed, including of course Walter Greenwood. There is an image of this on the Collecting Christie site (see: https://www.collectingchristie.com/post/christie-poirot-veiled-lady).
The title page below announces the purpose of the Gift Book very clearly.
The reason why the dust-wrapper of the book is featured on the Agatha Christie site is because she too was one of the authors who contributed. In total there were twenty-five writers who contributed a piece, together with 15 illustrators and photographers. The other writers were mainly well-known in the thirties and included E.M. Delafield, Hugh Walpole, Ian Hay, Louis Golding, A.P. Herbert, A. J. Cronin, E.V. Lucas, Harold Brighouse, J.B. Priestley, G.B. Stern, Ethel Mannin and Leo Walmsley, as well as a few others now less-well remembered. The illustrators and photographers seem less well-remembered with the exception of William Heath Robinson and Lucy Mabel Atwell.
Greenwood’s story was ‘The Practised Hand’, which was to be part of his 1937 The Cleft Stick short story collection, but which he had first published in a newspaper, The London Mercury, a year earlier in 1934 (see Walter Greenwood Collection, WGC7/6/1). This is a Hanky Park story which, when it appeared as a one-act play in July 1935, and as a story in The Cleft Stick was singled out by some reviewers as one of Greenwood’s most striking pieces, and by others as one of his grimmest or even most heartless (Word and Image in Walter Greenwood and Arthur Wragg’s The Cleft Stick (1937)). It is a substantial story, divided into four parts and taking up twenty pages of The Gift Book (pp.122-142). It is about Mrs Dorbell, a Mrs Dorbell who in many respects is like the same character in Love on the Dole, but who reveals a more deeply vicious streak which is at the heart of the story.
The story opens as Mrs Dorbell passes the Duke of Gloucester public house at noon precisely – opening time under the licensing laws of the time. She is a poverty-stricken figure, her ‘bodice, once tightly-fitting, now hung in stained folds about her bosom and neck’ (p.122). However, she is not as poor as she looks, as we see when she opens her purse and gives her order: ‘She sighed as she opened her purse; every compartment save the centre was stuffed with pawn-tickets. The centre contained a mint-new ten-shilling note carefully folded, also a few coppers’ (p.123). She has a positively medical motivation for entering the pub:
‘Ah don’t see why I shouldn’t,’ she muttered. If my cough gets no better it’d cost me more’n eightpence in doctor’s bills. Not as I’d ever pay ’em. Ho, no! He’s got more money’n me. And his man can keep on knocking, but I won’t open the door. She scowled and added, ‘as for him what’s supposed to be dyin’ perhaps he’ll be gone by the time Ah get back’. Petulantly, ‘Fourteen weeks now and still there. Cont’ary, just cont’ary, that’s what he is. T’aint nateral’ (p.123).
Her logic here is eccentric and patently selfish. She intends to order a small whisky and hot water which she feels will cure her cough, which if left untreated by this (pleasurable) remedy will get worse and make her seek a doctor’s advice, which pre-NHS she will have to pay for, though as she immediately asserts she would not do so, on the grounds that the doctor is better off than she is. In short, everything points to the ‘wisdom’ of her going straight inside to order that whisky.
That rehearsal of her own ‘medical’ motivations, reminds her though of another medical matter in which she is involved: her lodger Ben is ill and like to die, but so far despite his wracking cough is still alive. As with her train of thought about entering the Duke of Gloucester, her thoughts about her lodger are grossly self-centred and peculiar in seeing his death only from her perspective. He is being awkward and unnatural in not dying sooner – though looking on the bright side, she thinks he may have died while she is enjoying her medicinal whisky.
While Mrs Dorbell is dwelling on this impediment to her happiness, her peer Mrs Nattle pops into the bar for her habitual celebration of pension day with a nip of whisky, and intuits that despite it being pension day her neighbour is not happy. Mrs Dorbell explains that she is ‘sick o’ waiting! Sick an’ tired of it, Mrs Nattle’ (p.125). One notes the claim that the lodger’s failure to die for her convenience is making her ill, with the insistent repetition of her claim that it is making her ‘sick’. At last then we get the explanation of why his living inconveniences her: ‘An’ me with th’ insurance policy ready the minute he snuffs it!’. She is expecting £12 10 shillings benefit on her lodger’s death. Mrs Nattle asks what the Doctor says, rousing Mrs Dorbell to a further level of irritation:
‘Pah!’ replied Mrs Dorbell. ‘ ‘E don’t know what ‘e’s talking about. Send ‘im t’ Hope Hospital,’ that’s what he says.’ Indignantly, ‘Wantin’ ‘im t’ get better! Did y’ ever? (p.126)
Mrs Nattle easily explains the Doctor’s unreasonable behaviour – he does not like losing any patients (presumably the two women think for financial reasons, but there could perhaps be other explanations of his behaviour). Mrs Dorbell fears she will soon be too old to enjoy the benefit. Mrs Nattle builds Mrs Dorbell slowly up to the idea that she might know someone who can help (though she, Mrs Nattle, will expect some commission). Her friend does not of course do anything wrong: ‘She just knows what it is as stops ’em from dying’ (p.128).
Soon Mrs Dorbell has been introduced to Mrs Nattle’s friend, one Mrs Haddock:
Her home was as tidy as herself. Her husband was a mill-overlooker, and Mrs Haddock augmented his wages by attending in the capacity of usher to the entrances and exits into and from this world of all those Salfordians in the immediate vicinity of her home (p.130)
Though Greenwood does not use the term here or anywhere else, he clearly identifies Mrs Haddock as what was known as a ‘handywoman’. These were women who from at least the seventeenth-century onwards were trusted to undertake what might seem to modern sensibilities the oddly matched duties of preparing the dead for burial and bring babies into the world. The word has now come (logically and positively) to be a welcome female equivalent to the term ‘handyman’, that is someone with a range of practical mending and making skills. However, from at least the renaissance onwards the term (sadly not listed in the Oxford English Dictionary) had this more specialised meaning of one who could assist with birth and the preparation of bodies for burial after death. (3) Greenwood was clearly interested in this role since as well as Mrs Haddock he also depicts another handywoman: Mrs Bull. Mrs Bull first appears in one of his earliest written short stories, written when he was unemployed between 1928 and 1931, originally called ‘Jack Cranford’s Wife’, but then retitled ‘The Cleft Stick’ (giving its name to his whole 1937 short story collection The Cleft Stick). (4) In that story she is able to tell the suicidally weary mother Mrs Cranford that one of the reasons she is feeling so terrible is that she is undergoing ‘the change of life’, the menopause, something of which she has never heard before. Mrs Bull in that story is a helpful character, as she partly is to women neighbours in Love on the Dole too, where she is described as ‘the local uncertified midwife and layer out of the dead’ (p. 57).
Where Mrs Bull is an ambivalent helper, Mrs Haddock is much more plainly sinister, if on the surface more respectable. She clearly regards finishing off the lodger Ben by making his head hang over the edge of the bed at a sharp angle as merely a routine piece of business – and is insistent that she is paid her specified fee of ten shillings in advance ‘or I don’t perform’ (p.132). Mrs Nattle claims a drink on Mrs Haddock for introducing Mrs Dorbell as a customer, and then she and Mrs Dorbell have another ‘nip’ at Mrs Nattle’s house while Mrs Dorbell laments that she will never have another lodger as little troublesome as Ben was (while also hastening to find the life insurance papers to go and claim her twelve pounds ten shillings of benefit). She also refuses to pay for Ben’s funeral – saying the Parish must bury him. The story makes no explicit comment on any of the three women – it has no need to, relying instead on irony and the ways in which readers will read their speech and actions against implicit norms.
The Hospital Centenary printing of the story is almost identical to that published two years later in book form. However, there are two differences, one perhaps obvious and a matter of a significant addition, the other less obvious and a textual difference – but nevertheless a striking one. One obvious thing which was freshly created and added to The Cleft Stick version was Arthur Wragg’s superb illustration of a scene including the bedside of the dying man and the three women for whom Ben’s life is of ‘value’ (illustration scanned from copy of The Cleft Stick in the author’s collection). I think the drawing catches the moment when Mrs Dorbell is asked to pay the ten shillings in ‘advance’ of Mrs Haddock ‘performing’, her determination in this matter being reinforced by Mrs Nattle’s folded-armed stance (for she is looking forward to her commission from Mrs Haddock). Wragg seems to portray a moment of temptation and decision in Mrs Dorbell’s face and gestures – shall she hand over her pension book to be pawned to pay Mrs Haddock before Ben is dead and before she can be sure to get the life insurance money? Of course, in tune with Greenwood’s narration this is an ironic temptation to be read against what should be her fundamental temptation – should she conspire to murder a helpless and sick man merely for money? Similarly, the upright stances, determined faces, and folded arms and hands of the other two female figures look as if in a more conventional temptation scene they would be urging Mrs Dorbell not to fall to the temptation, but here their ‘uprightness’ is set towards ensuring she does fall so they can reap their evil rewards (they show no signs of remorse). Even the ‘haloes’ of light against the dark-hatched wall-paper and around the core of these three typically Wraggian figures of darkness (achieved with a dense brushed layer of ink) are ironic, since they in no way signify light or salvation. (5) Ben’s disintegrating iron bed-frame is recreated as described by the text, while he has no significant character or presence at all – he is at the centre of the scene and yet of no interest to anyone there: he is in every sense below their level of notice (and indeed, the apparent continuation of a white line separating Mrs Nattle and Mrs Haddock’s skirts, together with a visual ambiguity between his coverings and the women’s clothes, and the appearance of Mrs Dorbell’s feet beneath his bed suggest he is already transparent, a wraith – not wholly substantial). It is, in short, a brilliantly dark interpretation of the heart of Greenwood’s story, as are all of Wragg’s Cleft Stick illustrations.
The other significant textual difference between the two printings of the story is a matter of one sentence (though there are some other differences too). I have already quoted above the Gift Book story’s description of Mrs Haddock’s contribution to life in Hanky Park (and to her own income), but, as well as some variations in phrasing, in the Cleft Stick version it is followed by a further sentence about her public face and standing:
Her home was as tidy as herself. Her husband was a mill-overlooker, and Mrs Haddock augmented his wages by attending in the capacity of usher to the entrances and exits into and from this world of all those Salfordians in the immediate vicinity of her home. A certificate testifying her capacity in this profession hung upon the wall and a brass plate bolted to the front door, announced her trade to the prolific world (p.201).
You may recall from above that the more benign figure of Mrs Bull in Love on the Dole is firmly labelled as ‘an uncertified midwife’, potentially implying that with her lack of qualifications and professional standing she may not provide a reliable level of service. Yet Mrs Haddock in this story, whose ethical standards are utterly unacceptable, is equally firmly described (in the Cleft Stick text) as having a certificate to authenticate her profession – which is presumably midwife if it is a genuine document. These distinctions (even if not aligned in the stories quite as we might expect) show that Greenwood had a sense of the legislation, some recent, which regulated midwifery in Britain from near the beginning of the twentieth century. This legislation was the 1902 Midwives Act, reinforced with further legislation in 1918 and 1926, which as Billie Hunter tells us sought ‘to establish midwifery as a respectable profession, disassociated from untrained midwives or “handywomen.” (6)
Below are first an image of the 1937 The Cleft Stick version, and then an image of the 1935 Centenary Gift Book text. There are a number of differences. While the certificate in the first text reinforces Mrs Haddock’s professional identity of midwife, the reference to both entrances and exits in the second version may reinforce her similarity to a traditional ‘handywoman’, who indeed delivered babies and laid out the dead for burial. Mrs Haddock goes a bit beyond the second duty in hurrying along the latter end of her ‘patients’ on behalf of her ‘clients’.
Professional status is, of course, meant to assure both a high level of practice or performance and a high level of ethical awareness and behaviour. In Mrs Haddock, Greenwood portrays someone whose professional standing in no way regulates either her behaviour or her moral codes. Presumably he felt that the status did not necessarily assure the behaviour – and one notes how importantly Mrs Haddock rates tidiness, looking down on Mrs Dorbell for her slovenly house-keeping, yet not at all showing any disapproval of her wish to conspire to kill her lodger for ready cash. In the case of Mrs Haddock, professional status is merely an external sign of respectability, not something with an inner force. Indeed, I note that the final words of this intriguing sentence give a firmly commercial gloss to her role in Hanky Park: ‘announced her trade to the prolific world’. The word ‘prolific’, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, has a Latin-French origin with a fairly tight range of mainly literal meanings concerned with ‘producing or being able to produce many offspring’. Mrs Haddock makes a good living from the ignorance, poverty, and the unchosen reproduction of poverty, which is an essential element of life in Hanky Park. In partial contrast, the equivocal Mrs Bull in Love on the Dole, though she laments that people are not having as many children as they did, impacting her living (through ‘knowing too much’), also advises Helen Hardcastle to make her first baby her last. (7)
I wonder if Greenwood removed this sentence from the Hospital Centenary Gift Book version precisely because of that book’s relation to professional medicine, and its suggestion of some scepticism about the superiority of professional ethics and the reliability of qualifications? What I need to check when I am able to next visit the Walter Greenwood Collection at the Salford University Archives is whether that sentence is present in the 1934 London Mercury text of the story. Whether or not this is the reason for this textual difference, it seems to me that the publication of ‘The Practised Hand’ in this Hospital Gift book did make a difference to its meaning and potential impact. It would be greeted as a grim and realist account of death in Hanky Park when it came out as part of The Cleft Stick in 1937 (in some people’s eyes a beyond believable account). However, as part of the Hospital Gift Book, I think it must surely be read as a lament for the lack of universal medical care, as a story of the kind of things which could happen if medical care – and terminal care – were left to a patchwork of provision which had to be paid for by those who could not pay, or even became a source of income for the ruthless. Notice how Mrs Dorbell assumes (not necessarily correctly) that doctors are only in medicine to make their income, and that their medical decisions are influenced by sustaining that (of course her conviction that Ben the lodger is dying and cannot get better is precisely based on her prioritisation of monetary gain). Mrs Dorbell may be a grotesque exaggeration, but critical – and perhaps terminal – care should not be left to those with a vested interest.
Greenwood’s other contribution to a hospital gift book was to a collection called Voices on the Green, edited by A.J.R. Wise and Reginald A. Smith, and published by Michael Joseph in 1945 (with a second impression the following year). There were twenty-one other contributing writers as well as nineteen illustrators. Writers included many very well-known contemporaries, among whom were Eiluned Lewis, Ethel Mannin (a key helper in Greenwood’s early career), Andre Maurois, J.L. Hodson, F. Tennyson Jesse, H.E. Bates, Walter de la Mare, Howard Spring, A.P. Herbert, Margaret Kennedy, John Brophy, Vera Brittain, Phyllis Bottome, J.B. Priestley, Edward Blunden, Marjorie Bowen, and Stephen Spender. This anthology was published to raise funds for Manchester’s St Mary’s Hospital for Women and Children. The brief for contributors in the form of an extract from the letter they were sent is published in the foreword, which is titled ‘pre-natal’, wittily and appropriately referring to the origins of the book:
We think you may like to contribute to a miscellany of high literary and artistic standard. The book will be linked with the work of Saint Mary’s Hospitals for Women and Children, Manchester – the largest foundation of its kind in the country, with maternity, gynaecological and children’s departments and medical teaching in these subjects. Although the profits are to be devoted to the funds of these hospitals, the primary purpose of the book is to deepen and spread a general appreciation of the needs of mothers and children, and of the family as a unit of society.
The authors and writers whose contributions appear in the book will not necessarily address themselves directly to this theme; our suggestion is that , submitting themselves to its inspiration, they should contribute some piece of their own kind of creative work . . . lightly celebrating some chosen aspect or treating some problem of social life for which the writers feels particular concern (p.7).The dust-wrapper has a pastoral landscape of fields and trees with the book title in lower case, against which the names of the contributing writers (but not artists) are printed. Scanned from copy in the author’s collection.
Clearly the brief was to produce a piece with mothers and children at its centre, but with an open approach to exactly how this was done . Greenwood’s story was titled ‘The Mutineer’ and was printed on pp. 157-162 of the book (it may be the same story as ‘The Little Mutineer’, which he published in the Manchester Evening Chronicle on 11 November 1945). It is a very different story from ‘A Practised Hand’, though it too is at core about deprivation.
The autobiographical-seeming story centres on two boys, one an unnamed first person Greenwoodesque narrator, the other named as Nobby. The year is explicitly identified as 1910, so we are well before the period of Love on the Dole. The narrative opens by explaining Nobby’s family situation:
One boy of my childhood acquaintance, whom I shall call Nobby, was cursed. He was the eldest of what proved to be an enormous family. Every year his mother presented to his dispirited father the ‘latest’ whose yowlings in the ‘cribbed, cabined, confined’ area of the Salford cottage in which they lived made the day (and night) hideous and intolerable to the harrassed mother (p. 157).
As a consequence, Nobby spends his entire life minding babies to give his mother some respite, at the cost of his own childhood. The other lads avoid him because they know that their ‘adventures’ will inevitably involve them running away, and as they tell Nobby straight out, ‘You can’t run wi’ that’ [i.e. a baby and pram]. As the narrator explains, in Hanky Park in 1910,
We knew quite well, as all Small Boys intuitively know, that the world was in conspiracy against us. Whatever we did was sure to be wrong and all our excursions ended by having to ‘run for it’.
Left in charge of an infant, Nobby often threatens to murder it, while his mother often finding him in dereliction of duty often makes exactly the same threat against him, and frequently follows up by boxing his ears, making Nobby howl like his younger siblings (this might seem to offer a certain comic mode, but a very uncertain one). He is understandably but miserably excluded by his peers – and as Greenwood surely is aware is leading the very contrary of the pastoral childhood implied by the anthology title ‘Voices on the Green’. One day Nobby’s mother complains to the narrator that Nobby has disappeared, and been missing for hours, and of course his peer denies all knowledge of his whereabouts, before going to find him hiding in a packing-case in a builder’s yard, where he always knew he would be.
Nobby has had enough of ‘maternal tyranny’: he declares that he is a ‘mutineer’ (perhaps evoking military compulsion in World War One, despite the setting in 1910) and that he will not be going home. Instead, he is running away to Blackpool, which he knows he will find by following the railway track. Very unwillingly, but afraid to look a coward, of which Nobby accuses him, the narrator agrees that he will run away too, though hoping at every moment to find a way out and go back to his (presumably) relatively safe and comfortable home. They begin their journey by trespassing into the goods siding at Brindle Heath, to pick up the rail tracks, while avoiding the railway employee (‘a “feller” with a stick’) whom the gang have run into during previous incursions. Both boys are frightened, but neither will be seen to give up first:
We dodged into the midst of the vast assembly of railway trucks. I was horrified at the thought of the monsters being coupled to an engine and set into motion. Everything about them had an air of having been made for the sole purpose of the destruction of small boys (p.161).
Soon though they are distracted by something quite other:
We walked on down the seemingly interminable aisle [of goods trucks] and then, simultaneously, we saw it.
A beauty. Shop bought, not home made. Coloured tissue paper on a fine cane frame, tailings yards long. There it was, this beautiful creation, caught by the tail to the top of a railway truck. there it was, hanging down like a wounded thing, the sport of every errant breeze.
The two boys begin to fight over the superb object of desire, with inevitable results:
‘Leave go, you’ll smash it.’
‘You leave go. It’s mine.’
It was a big kite and its tissue paper acted as a screen between our faces. We quarrelled with each other through this paper flimsiness; then, as though to settle the matter and to my utmost astonishment, Nobby’s fist crashed through the paper and hit me square upon the nose . . . Then my fist went through and hit him on the nose. (p.161).
Needless to say, ‘the thing of beauty was no longer a joy but a ruin’. At this point the railway man with the stick sees them and gives chase, getting in a hard blow on the rear of the fleeing narrator. Both boys get over the fence and run homewards in a state of mutual resentment. As Nobby goes into the home he normally avoids like the plague, the narrator suddenly realises that:
I had forgotten he was a mutineer: I had forgotten that he had ‘run away’ from home: I had forgotten his mother’s promise to ‘half-murder’ him on his return. When I was chasing him I did not satisfy myself with the knowledge that he was running from me into a greater danger. I was only reminded of this when to my immense and unchristian-like satisfaction I heard a loud slap and an even louder howl of anguish from within. Nobby made an immediate reappearance, a milk jug in one hand, the other hand clapped to his ear, his mouth wide open and contorted in agony, tears running his face.
‘Serves you right,’ I shouted: ‘And I’ll ne’er go Blackpool wi’ you no more’.
I think this is a much less obviously thematised and easy to interpret story than the grim ‘The Practised Hand’, but while it appears to suggest a tinge of nostalgia and childhood memory and comedy, it too actually has much that is bleak, miserable and tough. For the narrator this is a vivid episode, but in no sense is it sentimental: he has no explicitly acknowledged sympathy with Nobby’s terrible life, nor with his mother’s, and when it comes to a rare thing of beauty each fights for it and jointly destroys it. At the end of the story the narrator abandons Nobby to his fate, showing no jot of fellow-feeling nor sympathy (though of course the retrospective element of the narrator may well be silently inviting the reader to judge his younger self). Perhaps the most striking aspect of the story is that one form of (unachievable) escape from Hanky Part is completely eclipsed by another – the beautiful shop-made kite lost by its presumably well-off owner. Perhaps the kite represents the fragile chances of anything fine surviving in Hanky Park, including in personal feelings and relationships. The story ends with a sentence which looks generically like a ‘punch-line’, suggesting a comic end-point – of course the two boys got nowhere near Blackpool and not even out of Hanky Park. Actually though the underlying significance seems far from comic – the shared experience is rejected and Nobby is left alone and in the power of his mother who passes on her own victimhood. The narrator seems the most privileged of the story’s cast, but even his experiences are mainly negative: fear, jealousy, intense childish anger, enjoyment of revenge. As for Nobby, his mother, and even that off-stage apparently minor yet actually structurally major character his father, their entire lives are made up of sufferings over which they have no control, and which they can only pass on. In this way, it is certainly a story about mothers and children and ‘family units’, and their utter deprivation in Hanky Park, and in this way right on target for the gift book’s broad focus on caring for mothers and children, though from a ‘social care’ rather than medical perspective.
In both books, Greenwood’s work stands out as among the grimmest. In neither anthology are all the stories about matters medical or about mothers and children – though a good few are. Some authors and artists clearly donated work already published (as indeed did Greenwood), while other pieces look as if they were written specially for the particular (and quite wide) briefs reflecting the two hospitals’ specialisms and missions. In the Hospital Centenary Gift Book I would say that of the twenty-five written pieces twelve focus on illness and treatment and the end of life, or mothers and children. Of the seventeen illustrations, seven focus on children in one way or other. Stories and verses about illness and treatment include ‘A Preface’ (Rudyard Kipling), ‘The Ballad of John Wellman’ (E.V. Knox), ‘A Fragment’ (James Bridie), ‘A Tale of Two Kidneys’ (Sir Henry Lytton), ‘The Miracle’ (Filson Young), ‘The Practised Hand’ (Walter Greenwood), ‘Ode on Intimations of Dietetic Possibilities’ (Gordon Phillips), while pieces about mothers and/or children include ‘Christmas Pantomime’ (Hugh Walpole), ‘The Ravensburg Pearls’ (Louis Golding), ‘The Provost’s Tale’ (A. J. Cronin), ‘Hobson’s Safety-Catch (Harold Brighouse) and ‘Squire’s Bit o’ Fishing’ (Leo Walmsley).
These pieces vary in quality, but I thought the prose was mainly stronger than the verse, and that there are indeed some striking stories here. I would particularly pick out three stories, in addition to Greenwood’s: ‘The Miracle’, ‘Christmas Pantomime’, and ‘The Provost’s Tale’. ‘The Miracle’ is set in Brittany, and tells how an aged Priest hearing that his intemperate brother is near to death in a village which will take him many hours to reach on foot is given a lift by a passing and demonic-seeming machine – the first motor car he has ever seen – which enables him to reach his sibling in time to hear his deathbed confession and perhaps save his soul. The priest is sure that the machine is heaven-sent despite its devilish appearance. ‘ Christmas Pantomime’ is a nicely self-contained extract From Hugh Walpole’s novel Jeremy (1919) about the young boy Jeremy’s early experience of Christmas, and of his first ever pantomime. Jeremy has no real grasp of what exactly a pantomime is, but once he knows that there is to be such a performance in his home town, it becomes the focus of all his thoughts. Sadly, on the day the whole family is due to go to the theatre, Jeremy is so excited that he forgets to brush his teeth, and when asked if he has by his nanny (whom he dislikes), he asserts that he has. He is soon detected in this lie since his toothbrush is untouched, and his father reluctantly says he cannot go to the pantomime. The rest of the family sets out in a carriage, leaving the horribly guilty Jeremy with a servant (indeed he is the one who takes his own guilt most seriously). To his surprise an uncle who has disdained the whole idea of going to the pantomime, and vowed to stay at home, tells Jeremy that his father has changed his mind and that the two of them are to follow to the theatre on foot. Jeremy is indeed ravished by the performance, but puzzled by his uncle’s insistence that they sit separately from the rest of the family, and they they leave before the end to avoid any crush. In fact despite walking as fast as Jeremy can manage, he and his uncle are caught just taking their coats off at home by the rest of the family, and it soon becomes clear that the uncle has lied – he dud not have permission to take Jeremy to the pantomime. However, Jeremy’s father if anything seems relieved that his prohibition was flouted. We leave Jeremy though at the end of the extract very disturbed that a grown man can tell lies with impunity, and his image of a stable world of absolute values has crumbled into dust. The pantomime is thus doubly but conflictedly significant: it represents for Jeremy the joy of a childhood Christmas, but also a fall from faith in the honesty of adults.
Finally, A. J. Cronin’s ‘The Provost’s Tale’ stands with Greenwood’s as the grimmest in the anthology. It is set on Hogmanay in the Philosophical Club of a fictional Scottish town called Leveford. The format is of a story recalling a striking true incident from the past, told by an eighty-year old member, John Leckie, who had been Provost of the Burgh (the Scottish equivalent of a Mayor) of Levenford some thirty years earlier. The Provost usually sits quietly in the Club, and Hogmanay is normally a festive occasion, but talk of the weather and of a recent thaw prompts him to tell the tale of a thaw from the past, and its contribution to a tragic event. It concerns a mother, Martha Lang, and her eighteen-year old son, Geordie. Martha is a widow and keeps a tobacconist’s shop in the back rooms of which the two also live. Geordie is an engineering apprentice in the shipyard, and built on a giant scale, but yet is wholly dominated by his mother, who herself is dominated by one overwhelming identity, ‘she was a saved woman, and the proud look of it was in her eye’ (p.152). In consequence she has brought Geordie up alone in what she considers the most ‘righteous’ possible manner:
Strict wasna the name for the way she handled him. Never a glint of human affection kindled her bleak eye. To those that dared tax her on the matter she had the answer pat, and she would throw Ecclesiastes XII, right intil their teeth. Ay, bitter and harsh she was with him in everything (p.154)
Ecclesiastes XII in the King James Version begins: ‘Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh’. Presumably Martha’s point is that youth is no excuse for any inattention to godliness. Geordie is an obedient son and has few wants which might make him challenge his parent – but he has one great pleasure in winter: ice-skating, in which he has superb skill and grace. In the unusually cold winter which the Provost recalls, something which happens only rarely takes place; as Georgie reports to Martha, ‘the Loch’s frozen, Mother, and there’s grand ice as far up as Ardmurren Island’ (p.156). When this occurs, there is a race between the best skaters to win the ‘Winton Antlers’. Geordie, of course, has been chosen to take part. His mother knows very well what he is talking about, for as she admits she has ‘mind of it from my younger days before grace came to me’ (p.157). However, she forbids him from taking part because it is a ‘godless’ event on which ‘workers of iniquity’ place bets. For the first time in his life Geordie defies his mother, but turns up at the loch in a visibly ‘scared and muddled’ state.
Though Geordie has defied his mother, this act has robbed the race of all pleasure fur him. Nevertheless, he is determined to complete the course. However, though no one has noticed it, a thaw has begin the previous night. When Geordie is near to the finish there is a ‘fearsome sound like the crack o’ doom’ , and he falls through into the freezing loch. His lifeless body is recovered with difficulty and taken on a farm-wagon to his tobacconist-shop home. The Presbyterian Minister and the Provost take on the woeful duty of breaking the news to Martha. However, sticking to her principles and thinking they have come to plead for leniency toward her disobedient son, she says she will not forgive Geordie till she has ‘punished him for what he’s done’ (p.167). Both Minister and Provost beg her to change her mind, but she persists, and they have to tell her that her son is dead. Martha tries to reas from the Bible which is always open on the kitchen table, but she cannot read a single verse: ‘ “Geordie! Geordie!” she cries out in a desperate voice. “I never kenned I loved ye till the now, but I did my son. I did” ‘ (p.170). Cronin’s Scottish story has a tragic, rural and religious bleakness about it, while Greenwood’s is urban, partly comic grotesque, and about characters utterly without any sense of a divine or any other ethical order. Together they represent profound considerations of the value of life and the final rupture of death.
Voices on the Green has an equally varied range of content. It includes thirty-eight written pieces (twelve in verse, twenty-five in prose, and a carol with music) and eleven full-page illustrations, together with thirteen ‘titlepieces’ and six ‘tailpieces’ (smaller images at the beginnings and endings of written contributions). Authors include several who, like Greenwood, had also appeared in the Hospital Centenary Gift Book, namely James Bridie, A.P. Herbert, J. B. Priestley and Ethel Mannin. There are also contributions from a great range of well-known writers of the time, including Stephen Spender, Marjorie Bowen, H.E. Bates, Vita Sackville-West, H.M. Tomlinson, André Maurois, Vera Brittain, Henry Williamson, Edmund Blunden, Frank Swinnerton, Walter de la Mare, Howard Spring, F. Tennyson Jesse, Margaret Kennedy, J.L. Hodson, Lord Dunsany and Phyllis Bottome. The majority of the contributions are very much in accord with their brief being about children, and ill children in particular, together with a few about mothers, and two about women medics – one a British Army Nurse, the other a psychiatrist. Quite a few pieces unsurprisingly reflect on the war. I enjoyed H.E. Bates’ ‘Time-Expired’ about Nurse Burke who is always ‘at pains to explain that she did not like men’ (p.45), which may account for her consistent brusqueness in dealing with both male army medical orderlies and the wounded soldiers she evacuates in a Dakota from a Burmese airstrip to a hospital in India. However, she works equally consistently to save her patients’ lives and in her own manner to comfort them. The seriously-wounded she can at least assure are ‘time-expired’ – they will be going home, their military service done. I also enjoyed what is really a short sketch rather than a story, called ‘Nursery Rhyme’, by a writer not listed above as ‘well-known’, T. Thompson. The sketch depicts an aspect of wartime life perhaps not often noted – a group of (Yorkshire) grandfathers looking after their grandchildren in the day while their mothers are working and their fathers are posted overseas. As one observes, ”Ah thowt we’d done wi’ rearin’ childer’ (p.91) and another says he finds playing on the floor a bit of a problem, ‘Me knees isn’t as swivel-jointed as they used to be’. The old men say they’ll be glad when their sons come home and do their bit – but despite everything they say are enjoying their time (if not every minute) with their grand-children and missing their own at risk ‘boys’.
There are two further stories which I thought were striking (and with some similarities) in their representations of children’s minds and indeed traumas. These were Gerald Bullet’s ‘The Lamb Yard’ and Ethel Mannin’s ‘The Toy Engine’. Bullet’s story is set in the period when sailor suits for children were popular, that is between the end of the nineteenth century and the nineteen twenties, before more casual jumpers and shorts or skirts displaced them. (8) It features a middle-class family with four children, the youngest is Rose, aged five, then there is John (age not given – seven?), Kate (seventeen) and the oldest Alice (age not given, but she and Kate are ‘old indeed [for] they went every day to the City just as Father did’ (p.167). The story opens with all three sisters admiring John in his new sailor-suit. Alice who is efficient and a woman of her word promises tomorrow to finish off the effect by bringing home a lanyard (‘this yard was as long as her arm; Alice was a telephonist and had been trained to speak with laborious distinctness’, the narrator wittily, or snobbishly, adds). However, while John’s thoughts are important in the story, it is really Alice’s thoughts which have most priority, and while John is not that concerned with his promised lanyard/lamb-yard, the word fills Alice’s mind with the most extraordinary anticipation:
She was rapt in the prospect of a happiness too wonderful for belief. Alice is bringing Johnny a lamb-yard. So ran her enchanted thought. Would they, she wondered, be real lambs, or wooden ones? She would contrive to make shift with either, and to hope for real ones was taking a big risk. For a moment she wavered. But desire, outrunning discretion, soon changed into belief, transporting her to a day-dream in which young woolly lambs with soft black noses skipped and baa-ed about her in their pleasant fold. She and John, living in the same world, a world which the others could not enter, held many of their possessions in common. It was therefore safe to assume that she would be allowed to love the lambs in the lamb-yard as furiously as he himself would certainly do (p.169).
While Rose knows that both she and Johnny inhabit personal worlds beyond the perceptions of grown-ups, it has not previously occurred to her that these may not be shared worlds. The word ‘lanyard’ is not a common one, and Rose’s understanding is arrived at through a very reasonable-seeming interpretation of what she thinks are its two elements. In fact Johnny is currently much more gripped by thoughts of a ‘grape machine’, presumably derived from some reference to grape-treading or pressing, and through his head runs his own idiosyncratic adaptation of Felicia Heman’s very well-known 1826 poem, ‘Casabianca’, more commonly known as ‘The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck’. While the original poem matches well with Johnny’s sailor suit, his own version introduces an unexpected reference to grape-pressing, which entered his mind from we know not where:
The boy stood on,
The boy stood on,
The boy stood on,
The grape machine.
Half a yard of grape machine.
The boy stood on the grape machine (p.170).
Next morning, a Saturday, Rose awaits Alice’s return from her half-day at work with detailed anticipation of the lambs (though she is ‘a little vague about the yard’):
When her mind put the question she did not quite dare to believe that the lambs would be real lambs; but most of time she forgot caution . . . and gave herself unreservedly to her daydream, going after breakfast into the back garden, which her fancy, was already crowded with young skipping lambs. They nibbled the parsley. They rolled among the nasturtiums. They leapt over lupins (p.171).
Rose is aware that Saturday is normally ‘a day of mixed blessings’, for while her two older sisters come home at mid-day, lunch is always unattractive to her for ‘the tired remains of the weekly joint were converted into ferocious and unappetising objects called rissoles and there was boiled rice instead of a real pudding’ (p.172), but today these routine horrors could ‘find no room in an imagination filled with the glory that was Alice’. However, Alice is late home from work, and Mother and Father decide they should start lunch without her. Rose thinks Alice may be having trouble getting the lambs (perhaps Rose guesses numbering as many as ten?) into the railway carriage back from the City.
Soon Alice does arrive home, and Rose reminds her about the lamb-yard, which she produces. It is ‘a loop of white plaited cord’, and as Alice explains ‘It’s what sailors have round their necks to hang their knives on’ (p.173). Johnny, who has completely forgotten about the lambs repeatedly demands the knife to go with his lanyard. Rosie weeps inconsolably into her boiled rice pudding with a depth of disappointment into which none of the family have any insight. Suddenly, ‘Rosie lifted her plate high in air and with great deliberation poured its contents over the table. No lambs; no rice pudding. She sat rigid, waiting for the storm to break’ (p.174). Rose feels a promised delight has been destroyed and that indeed she will never recover: ‘She saw the hollowness of human existence’.
Ethel Mannin’s story ‘The Toy Engine’ has some striking similarities to ‘The Lamb-yard’, but has a clearly specific wartime trauma at its centre. The main characters are a little boy of five, Peter, and his mother, and the setting is a hospital. Peter is not, apparently unwell, but his mother has brought him with her to see the almoner of this clearly pre-NHS hospital because she is paying the final instalment of what she owes for her own course of dental treatment. It is just after Christmas and the hospital has a number of toys which have been donated. Toys were in very short supply during the war because toy manufacturers had been switched almost entirely to war-production, especially those which had metal-pressing capabilities (see the very informative article by Jonathan Fergusson on the Royal Armouries site about the toy company Tri-ang making Sten guns from 1941 on: https://royalarmouries.org/stories/second-world-war/from-toys-to-sten/). Men and women with any precious spare time and the necessary skills did generously make toys to do something to fill the gap. In this case, a fine wooden locomotive has been made and donated by an ‘N.F.S [National Fire Service] man’ (p.175). However, Peter’s mother is shocked and cross when he rejects it and weeps bitterly, shaming her, she feels, in front of the hospital staff. As the rest of the story reveals through a flashback seen this time from Peter’s point of view rather then externally as in the first part of the story, it is the toy-engine itself which links to a trauma from an earlier phase of the war. Peter’s parents think he should be evacuated to the countryside in 1939 to escape the expected catastrophic bombing of London. However, he is exceptionally attached to his mother, and though his father maintains he will soon adapt and enjoy his new environment and friends, his mother is less convinced. She goes with him to the village where a friend’s daughter has been evacuated, but unable to bear telling Peter that she is to leave him there, she goes to catch her train home to London while Peter is being shown a toy red engine, large enough for him to ride on. As soon as he realises he has been tricked and abandoned, he breaks down. Though the story does not actually cover this, his evacuation clearly does not last long, and he (like my mother) becomes one of the 900,000 evacuees (out of 1.5 million) who returned to urban areas more likely to be bombed (see the informative blog by Dr Grace Huxford on the History of Government site about the 80th anniversary of the evacuation: https://history.blog.gov.uk/2019/08/30/child-evacuees-in-the-second-world-war-operation-pied-piper-at-80/).
Peter does return home from the hospital with the (new) toy locomotive, eventually persuaded that he is not going to be left behind there. Early in the narrative the almoner reflects in a rather superior and rationalist way that ‘there was nothing in a child that could not be accounted for . . . if one had time to go into the child’s history’ (p.177). I think ‘The Lamb-yard’ is the stronger story in not explaining within the narrative the gulf between the child’s and adults’ perceptions.
The hospital gift book is an intriguing genre, and I think would have provided charitable buyers with a mix of (mainly) good entertainment, originality and reflection on mothers, children, illness, and the possibility at times of happy endings. The combination of accessible entertainment and seriousness embraced by the genre reminds me of several partly humorous and partly very much considered reflections made by Winifred Holtby on short story collections (including her own):
[They are] nice for chance guests – easy to pick up and less tantalising for one’s bedside than a novel that can never be finished unless we put undue strain on our host’s fund of hospitality.
You are writing for entertainment, but a certain amount of instruction must always be there. You must have something worthwhile to say, always. (9)
This seems exactly, from these two samples, to apply to the hospital gift book format. Greenwood contributed two striking examples of his writing to these two books, and I imagine must have been pleased to appear among a number of his friends and many well-known contemporaries. It was, I would say, a general principal of his work that it should indeed be entertaining, but also serious, and both ‘The Practised Hand’ and ‘The Mutineers’ are engaging narratives with elements of humour (if dark), biting social comment, and grim realism. I admire the stories in his neglected and out of print The Cleft Stick collection, including this one, but think that ‘The Mutineers’ represents some of his most mature style of writing, as realised in his 1967 memoir, There was a Time, with its lack of explicit narratorial comment on the significance of the story and its trust in the reader to interpret beyond the reserved, laconic or as here the limited sympathies of the first-person character-narrator, despite the obvious temptation to align their voice with that of the authorial narrator’s voice (for discussion of There was a Time see Walter Greenwood’s Memoir: There Was a Time (1967). ).
Note 1. For the well-connected writer Lady Cynthia Asquith see her Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Cynthia_Asquith. Eileen Bigland has no Wikipedia article nor any biography anywhere else as far as I can see. However, a search of Abe Books shows that she was the author of a large number of books published from the nineteen-thirties and on into at least the nineteen-sixties. These included historical, scientific and literary biographies, as well as travel writing. She travelled in the Soviet Union and wrote a number of books about Russia in the thirties and forties. She also wrote a book about the WRNS in World War Two, which I have discussed in a fairly recent book chapter: ‘Re-presenting Wrens: Nancy Spain’s Thank You Nelson (1945), Eileen Bigland’s The Story of the Wrens (1946), Vera Laughton Matthews’ The Blue Tapestry (1948) and Edith Pargeter’s She Goes to War (1942) for British Women’s Writing 1930 to 1960: Between the Waves, Liverpool University Press, 2020.
Note 2. The Royal College of Surgeons provides a concise but full biography of Robert Ollerenshaw in its Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows database: https://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/client/en_GB/lives/search/results?qu=ollerenshaw&te=ASSET .
Note 3. See some of the relatively few histories of midwives for discussion of the term and of the history and perceptions of the role of handywoman: Jean Donnison, Midwives and Medical Men: a History of the Struggle for the Control of Childbirth (London: Historical Publications Ltd, 1988; first published, by Heinemann Educational Books, 1977); Anne Borsay and Billie Hunter (eds), Nursing and Midwifery in Britain Since 1700 (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012), and Billie Hunter and Nicola Leap, The Midwives Tale – an Oral History from Handywoman to Professional Midwife, especially the chapter devoted to handywomen, pp. 19–43.
Note 4. As Greenwood explained in an interview in The Guardian with Catherine Stott, ‘Dole Cue’, 2 April 1971, p.10).
Note 5. These white ‘haloes’ around the dark figures are unusual in Wragg’s fifteen illustrations for The Cleft Stick – for the story images only one other figure is thus outlined in ‘light’, the ‘knocker-up’ Blind Joe, who is unlike these three characters a servant of the community and a victim of poverty who dies in the workhouse. In addition the frontispiece figures of a praying working-man and woman who look like medieval or renaissance church reliefs or tomb effigies, and thus have religious resonances, have this halo effect. See The Cleft Stick, frontispiece, and the story ‘Joe Goes Home’, pp. 107-9 [double-page illustration between pages 108 and 9].
Note 6. In her chapter ‘Midwifery, 1920-2000: the Reshaping of a Profession’, in Borsay and Hunter’s Nursing and Midwifery in Britain since 1700, pp.151-74, p. 152.
Note 7. See the novel of Love on the Dole, pp.106-7, and 254 for the relevant passages, and for some discussion see Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film, 2018, pp. 72-7.
Note 8. I have written elsewhere about sailor-suits in the short stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner. See for an open access version of my essay the Sheffield Hallam research archive: https://shura.shu.ac.uk/8640/3/Hopkins_Sylvia_Townsend_Warner_WW1_Compass_Article_revised_June_2013.pdf .
Note 9. Quoted in Remember, Remember! The Selected Stories of Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Marion Shaw, introduction pp. xi and xii, Virago, London, 1999. The first quotation is from a 1922 letter to Holtby’s friend Jean McWilliam included in the 1937 memorial volume, Letters to a Friend, edited by Alice Holtby and Jean McWilliam, Collins, London, 1937, p.119. The second quotation is from the same volume, p. 220.