Hanky Park was unbeautiful. Hanky Park and all that it stood for to which they had to return. North Street, smoke, bricks and mortar, seas of slates, Price and Jones, Sam Grundy, Mrs Nattle and her companions, swarms of dirty children. A goading, incredible, awful fact for which there was no explanation. Except that money would solve the problem; with this they could prolong their stay here as long as the money lasted; lacking it they had to surrender themselves to Hanky Park once again.
It is a bleak life, living in Hanky Park. The main employer is Marlowe’s, some factory of some sort. It is where Harry is desperate to be. He who currently slaves away at the pawn shop, working Saturdays even. Envious of the men who work the machines, who slouch off to work at the factory.
“And there, majestic, impressive, was the enormous engineering plant itself; there, in those vast works, the thousands of human pygmies moved in the close confines of their allotted sphere, each performing his particular task, an infinitesimal part of a preordained whole, a necessary cog in the great organization.”
And finally he does it, he gets his apprenticeship, signing away the next seven years of his life. And he gets money and gets a girl and things seem all fine and dandy.
Fast forward several years, his apprenticeship over. And since he’s no longer a boy and would have to be paid a man’s wage, is laid off – new boys are coming in, as are new machinery that hardly require more than a touch of a button.
Harry is on the dole. Trying to get work anywhere is impossible. His girl wants to get married, he doesn’t know what to do.
Life in Hanky Park is bleak, difficult, unfulfilled, but there is a sense of community as the neighbours help each other out when they can. It is painful to read of their time at the pawnshop – on Monday mornings there is a line waiting to pawn off whatever they can, from clothes to bedsheets. On Saturdays – pay day – Hanky Park shines with prosperity:
“No scratching and scraping today; kitchen table littered with groceries; sugar in buff bags; fresh brown crusted loaves; butter and bacon in greaseproof paper; an amorphous, white-papered parcel, bloodstained, the Sunday joint; tin of salmon for tomorrow’s tea; string bag full of vegetables; bunch of rhubarb with the appropriate custard powder alongside.”
I happened upon this book while browsing my library’s Overdrive catalogue for books to read for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I was intrigued by the synopsis, as well as the fact that I hadn’t heard of Walter Greenwood or this book, which was later adapted into plays that ran both in the US and the UK, and even made into a movie, and was apparently a big commercial and critical success.
When reading classics, I’m always a bit apprehensive. Would it be too heavy? Too hard to read? Too tedious? Especially since it’s a book that hardly seems to be mentioned when the ‘classics’ are discussed (not that I really discuss classics).
But it was such a good read. The dialogue is at times tricky and needs to be sounded out loud in order to be understood. But everything else was completely absorbing. It often takes me ages to read a classic, the e-book languishing on my virtual bookshelf for weeks. This one I read in a matter of days.
Greenwood takes us into the minds of his characters, into their homes and their daily lives. His details of life in 1930s England are striking and vibrant. Work at the factory isn’t exactly difficult but it is mundane and they are being exploited.
Greenwood wrote this story when he was unemployed, as a response to the whole unemployment crisis. He had left school at 13 to work as a pawnbroker’s clerk, just like Harry does at first. It’s no wonder that the Guardian wrote about this book when it was first published in 1933: “We passionately desire this novel to be read; it is the real thing. Mr Greenwood is a Salford man… he has been on the dole. He knows and he can tell.