I’ve just finished reading Love on the Dole. It is a novel which describes the experiences of a family living in a community in which work is extremely scarce. The novel deals with their trials and tribulations in trying to find and keep work and also in trying to navigate the benefit system. The novel also shows how this challenging environment impacts on their relationships with lovers, friends and family. Oh, yes and the novel was originally published in the early 1930s, but if you are anything like me you’ll be able to spot some connections with our 2010s reality.
The novel follows the stories of Harry and Sally a brother and sister from Salford from the point at which they leave school (c.14) to their mid-twenties. Love on the Dole is probably largely remembered as a “social document” through which we can experience the otherness of the 1930s. However, this is unfair as the novel works as a story above all else. While some of its value undoubtedly resides in the way in which it realises the environment of 1920s & 1930s Salford, it also engages you as a story. You will want to know what happens to Sally and Harry and you’ll be cheering them on, despite an awareness that even if they transcend their situations their fellows will not. It is this ability to focus on the humanity in the underclass that is Love on the Dole’s real achievement. Sally and Harry are not a “social problem” rather they are people who are doing the best they can with a difficult situation.
The experience that Greenwood paints is one of constant deprivation. People can’t find a job, if they do, they can’t get enough money. Life is defined by a lack of the basic necessities: no food; no clothes; no furniture; no home. Pleasures, such as they are, result from booze and fags and the occasional winning gamble. It seems to me, and others are welcome to correct me, that the appearance and possibly the experience of poverty has changed from the 1930s. The existence of some kind of welfare state (however, beleaguered) obviously has something to do with that. But, so does the ready availability of cheap commodities. For Harry a new suit is a near impossible dream, even with access to credit. For the Primark generation it is possible to look like a decent approximation of the rich on very small amounts of money. So we don’t see people shambling round the streets dressed in patched up rags any more. Similarly the availability of “basics” ranges in most supermarkets puts food in most people’s bellies most of the time.
Of course it is more complex than this and my argument is not that there isn’t still absolute poverty playing out in the streets of (broken) Britain. The existence of food deserts, poor public transport, high petrol prices and arbitrary benefit traps ensures that it is possible to find the modern equivalents of Harry and Sally. However, at the moment we are probably still aware of a strong distinction between the underclass and the working class (even if they call themselves middle class these days). The story of Love on the Dole is essentially one about the membrane between the working class and the underclass, and what it shows is that it is very easy to slip from working into absolute poverty, but very difficult to slip back again. The current policy rhetoric about the underclass largely ignores this and prefers to treat the underclass as a dangerous other, with little or no connection to the rest of society.
The appearance of poverty in Love on the Dole is different, but what is very similar is the feeling of precariousness. Harry and Sally are aware that what little they have is built on very shaky foundations. You don’t need to have holes in your clothes to feel that. How many pay checks could most of us survive without? Credit cards and mortgages ramp up the precariousness of our lives and mean that while we may be able to project the semblance of wealth, we are in fact on the cusp of poverty. To pull a phrase out of history we have no stake in the means of production, we are merely wage slaves whose subsistence depends on our ability to sell our labour. This abilty to earn money by selling our labour depends partially on our employability skills (what we can do) partially on our career management skills (how effectively we can manage our interaction with the labour market) but a hell of a lot on the situation in which we find ourselves.
Love on the Dole is impressive because it demonstrates the centrality of context to the pursuit of the good life. In the novel Sally is able to use her skills to position her family favourably within the context. But, the real hero of the novel is Larry who seeks, but fails, to renegotiate the context itself.
There is much food for thought here – especially given the number of times that commentators compare the current economy to the 1930s. Well worth a read..