Love on the Dole

First published in 1933, Love on the Dole might be a work of fiction but it is also a great piece of social history. Set in Salford in the wake of The Great Depression, it reflects the grinding poverty of the working classes living in the industrial slums well before the NHS, a fair benefit system, health and safety legislations, and opportunities for further education. The novel follows the coming-of-age stories of Harry and Sally Hardcastle, their struggle to survive, their hopes and dreams, and the reality of becoming an adult in a world where class distinctions set firm boundaries, and men and women had clearly defined roles. Harry has plenty of ambition and a good work ethic but circumstances conspire against him and eventually his faith in hard work is crushed with a dead-end. Only love and blind hope keeps his head above water. His headstrong, independent sister becomes involved with Larry Meath, a self-educated Marxist, but Larry isn’t a well man and Sally is forced to consider other, more lucrative rivals for her affection.
Although the storyline is perhaps somewhat predictable, this is an incredibly compelling read down to the depth of character and the constant, relentless hope that Harry and Sally might in the very least grasp some kind of a lifeline before the last page. And although the denouement is satisfactory it is also equally depressing; but this is a powerful piece of fiction and anything else would have been out of step with the raw reality Greenwood had already created. There are many secondary characters throughout and sometimes I felt they slowed the flow a little, but the writing is good and the dialogue completely authentic. I’m a northerner and understood the nuances, but this aspect might be hard going for those not familiar with such strong, northern dialect.

The Catcher in the Rye

52566051._SX318_SY475_Narrated in first person, this short novel is an intense snapshot into the thoughts of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield as he goes underground in New York on a discovery of self. Traumatised by two events in his short life, Caulfield is heading for a breakdown. He isn’t convinced that preparing himself for the adult world is something to aspire to and feels the education system is predisposed to those intent on commercial success and crowd-pleasing popularity. He’s aimless, drifting, forgetting to eat, unable to connect to anything or anyone other than his young sister; almost to the point where I wondered if he was mildly autistic. Fun and imaginative one moment, depressed and despairing the next.
Caulfield seeks truth, beauty, and reality but sees only the false and the phoney, the critics, the bullies. What he really wants to do is save the innocent from falling, and from the horrible truth of growing up in an ugly world.
I found this novella completely absorbing.


To Kill A Mockingbird

‘Shoot all the Bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.’  Set in 1930’s Alabama the language and writing style of this novel initially took some effort to become engaged. And dare I say it, some of the opening scenes were a little tedious? There, I’ve said it, but then something slowly grabbed my attention and I was there, in the long slow heat of a developing drama. The story is narrated through the eyes of nine year old tomboy Jean Louise Finch (Scout) who lives with her older brother, Jem. Both children are being raised by their widowed father Atticus, a lawyer and a man of some standing and integrity in the county of Maycomb.
Atticus is defending a black man against the accusal of raping a white woman. To say the odds are stacked against Tom Robinson is an understatement. And the fallout of the trial witnessed through the eyes of Scout and Jem, highlights the stubborn longstanding ignorance and prejudice of those times and beyond.
Slivers of description threaded through the narrative are vivid and the rest of the cast spans every strata of society; the upper class white women taking tea and cake down to the servitude of the lower-classes, and those who dare to step into both worlds. Then there’s the mysterious Boo Radley, the steadfast Miss Maudie, the slippery, no-good Ewell family, the morphine-addicted, acidic Mrs Dubose, the Finch family’s black cook and mother-figure Calpurnia – who often serves as a bridge across the divided communities. The respective warts and good deeds of these characters are always exposed, the consequences of their actions fully played out. Atticus advises his children to always try and understand what life is like in another person’s skin, in the hope that any hatred will never destroy their faith in human kindness and understanding. There’s a strong, simple social message in this story and it’s still relevant today.


The Citadel

Andrew Manson takes up his first post as a newly qualified doctor – in a Welsh mining town. The tight-knit communities of the Welsh valleys present Manson with plenty of daily challenges, not only with regard to the poor sanitation and the spread of disease, but in opposition to those who suspect his honesty and outspokenness. His refusal to take the line of least resistance lands him in trouble with some of the established members of society, but he does make a good friend in Philip Denny, and meets his future wife in Christine Barlow, the local, equally idealistic school teacher. Manson is offered a better position in a larger town, but once again when his integrity does not allow for unscrupulous dispensing and money-making schemes, Andrew and Christine are forced yet again to move on. Andrew’s research into lung diseases takes the Manson’s to London, but Andrew misses front-line diagnosis and he soon takes the plunge in buying a run-down surgery.
Frustrated at not earning enough money to live on, Manson’s principles begin to fray at the edges, and when lucrative ways of making easy money from wealthy patients and private clinics begin to take-over from his everyday surgeries and pioneering work, his standards begin to slip. Christine is unhappy with the change in her husband, dislikes the city, and cares nothing for fur coats and fancy furniture. When matters come to a crisis point and Manson is in danger of losing everything, he’s forced to examine everything he holds dear.

Astonishing to discover that this novel written in 1937 and set in 1924 inspired the creation of the NHS. There are many enlightening passages and ideas which clearly illustrate the need of trustworthy medical care for all, regardless of social standing and the ability to pay.
Manson is deliberately challenging, and I enjoyed the journey of his development through the stages of his career. As a work of fiction it didn’t have the huge impact of The Stars Look Down, but this is a straightforward novel written in a biographical style and because the author was a medical professional, full of interesting facts and plenty to say. 

The Dreaming Suburb

Jim Carver returns home from the front to find his wife passed away and seven children on his hands. His socialist leanings clash with the ambition of his eldest boy who is determined to better his lot since the artful, ruthless Archie has an eye on owning a chain of grocery shops. His eldest daughter mothers his two sets of twins, and daughter Judith, until they also flee the nest.
Mrs Firth’s religious and controlling rod of iron over her husband and children eventually breaks down when her husband discovers the kindness of another woman, and begins an affair. Handsome, gentle creative Esme Fraser is bewitched by the spirited and sensual Elaine Firth, but she rebels against her repressed upbringing and after a boring job in a Welsh seaside town, runs away to join a circus. Esme’s childhood sweetheart, the girl next door, Judith Carver, is heartbroken by his betrayal. And spinster Edith Clegg who looks after her mentally ill sister, finds life much improved when musician Ted Hartnell arrives to lodge with them.

This was right up my street (or avenue). A richly detailed, nostalgic slice of suburban life. The lives of ordinary people, their relationships, their hopes and dreams. Set between the two world wars, this novel covers a period of significant change and makes for an interesting social commentary. It’s a linear story in so much that the structure, like life, is ongoing rather than forming a neat circle with all ends tied in a ribbon. But there is a natural ebb and flow, the acknowledgement of good and bad times, the roots of which evoke a strong sense of realism.
My overriding criticism is the use of similar character names – around 7 or 8 – whose names begin with the letter E. However, I thought the diverse, colourful cast hugely entertaining and well-characterised and I’m pleased to see there is a sequel.