Any Bread, Cake or Pie?: Walter Greenwood’s Hungry Thirties

As a contrast to his blogs on the privileged Evelyn Waugh, Emeritus Professor Chris Hopkins writes about hunger in Depression-hit Salford.

Walter Greenwood (1903-1974) is mainly remembered for his novel, Love on the Dole (1933), subsequently adapted into a very successful play (1935) and then a film version (1941). That novel certainly has references to the severe deprivation of Salford people in the nineteen-thirties. The working-class intellectual, Larry Meath, often thinks about the systematic problem people have even when in skilled work:

Forty-five bob a week … so that you might have a hovel for shelter, an insufficiency of food, and five bob over for to clothe yourself and the missis in shoddy.

Love on the Dole, Vintage edition in kindle version, p. 150; all subsequent page references are to this edition.

Other characters know the truth of this experientially, if not in the abstract, and that things have got even worse since unemployment has bitten since the Depression in 1929. Mrs Hardcastle laments that with her husband and son both out of work, she cannot pay off the instalment she owes on her son Harry’s suit, since ‘there ain’t a bite of food in house for their teas’ (p. 164). At the novel’s protest march against cuts to the dole and the meanness of the Means Test regulations, the marchers carry placards saying, ‘Not a Penny off the Dole’ and ‘Hands Off the People’s Food’ (p.201). This sustained sense of not having of enough to eat is there throughout the novel, in a low-key way: it is part of the tragedy that it is what the people of Hanky Park have come to expect and accept as best they can.

However, Greenwood also wrote a story a few years later which focused wholly on the experience of hunger during the thirties, and especially on a very hungry child. The story was called Any Bread, Cake or Pie? and he wrote it in nineteen-thirty-seven for a new collection of short stories called The Cleft Stick (with illustrations by the artist Arthur Wragg, Selwyn & Blount, London, 1937).(1) The central character in the story is called Harry Waring, and in all conventional ways he is presented unsympathetically. He has learnt to fend for himself, and has become the ‘cock’ (that is champion fighter) of his whole school. Inside and outside school, his first instinct is always to use his physical strength and aggression to get what he wants. That is presumably what life in Hanky Park has taught him. His main ambition is to leave school, which he can do in two months’ time, when he is fourteen, so that he can become an apprentice at Marlowe’s engineering works, and ‘maybe then, when he was earning real wages … his days of hunger would be over’ (p.183). Nearly all his dreams, apart from being paid by Marlowe’s, are equally about food. He remembers a café where he had a memorable feed funded by the contents of a purse he found, If that happened again, he would have ‘steak and some onions; then a thick chunk of cake and some ice-cream … aye and some cigarettes and then I’d go to the pictures’ (p.188). He wishes he were older so he could rob shops with the help of a gun. He even tries to manufacture another found purse incident, except that this time he steals one from a woman’s pocket, only to find it contains only three ha’pence and a bundle of pawn-tickets. He cunningly thinks that if he returns it to the address on the pawn-tickets, he might get a reward greater than the three ha’pence. Alas, this goes wrong when the woman’s husband answers the door, grabs the purse and slams the door.

All he can do is to continue to use his wits, his lack of scruple, and his muscle to try to get more to eat:

YOUNG HARRY WARING WAS RAVENOUSLY HUNGRY. HE ALWAYS was hungry. He had sat all the afternoon in the classroom with that awful feeling of emptiness distracting him from what the teacher had been saying. He had been rebuked for inattention, but he did not care. For two pins he felt he would have bashed the teacher who was a small weedy individual whereas Harry was ‘cock’ of the school: he could fight and beat any of the other boys, and to be admitted to membership of his gang in North Street was a much-sought-after-privilege.

Walter Greenwood, Any Bread, Cake or Pie?, p. 183.

Harry is clearly not alone in having to look after himself and in being an under-fed growing child – he searches for food with his small gang of other boys, and that group meet many other boys all out on the streets seeking any chance to eke out their inadequate diet at home. Harry is a bully, and thinks nothing of thieving from shops (he manages to eat some raw bacon scraps he grabs from a grocer’s), and from other (also ill-fed) boys, to assuage his constant hunger. The boys have learnt that they can sometimes beg uneaten scraps of ‘bait’ (packed lunch) from the men who are in work by chanting ‘bread, cake or pie’ outside Marlowe’s works when the hooter signals the end of the working day. However, today is Thursday and the pickings are likely to be poor – the remains of the weekend joint have been eaten in sandwiches earlier in the week, and ‘today the most you could hope for was a few pieces of bread and butter, dry from having been immured all day in the pocket of a jacket hung up in the engineering shop’ (p.187). One boy is lucky and is given a package by a man leaving the works – the boy is sharing it out when Harry steals the whole package and runs off with it: ‘it tasted good. Beef-dripping sandwiches with plenty of salt on. But it only put a keener edge on his appetite’ (p.187).

In his efforts to get food at Marlowe’s he misses tea at home, but returns asking if his tea has been kept for him. His mother has done her best, but is pre-occupied with finishing the washing job which will bring in some money:

She answered that his ration was in the cupboard, that he would find tea in the pot, but that there wasn’t any milk left. He found two thick slices of bread and margarine on a plate. He ate them sulkily … .

Walter Greenwood, Any Bread, Cake or Pie?, p. 188.

At the end of the story when all his strategies have given him only a few scraps, we leave him at night-time and see him not so much as a selfish bully – though he is that due to his circumstances and upbringing – but as the hungry child he also is, weeping from hunger: ‘His head sank on to his crooked arm, and he began to blubber unrestrainedly: “I’m ‘ungery … I’m ‘ungery …’ (ellipses sic, p.193).

The illustration is on unnumbered pages between pp. 184 and 185 of the story (photograph taken by the author from the copy of the book in his collection).

Here is the double-page illustration which the Sheffield-trained artist Arthur Wragg (1903-1976) drew to go with the story. It is a phantasmagoric, expressionist illustration which shows in one scene the contents of Harry’s day as it is reflected in his mind – a scene full of images of his travels through Hanky Park since his dawn paper-round, and of the food he has wanted, but has not been able to eat: eggs and bacon, pies, fish and chips. The dejected figure at the centre of the image is the defeated Harry, cock of the school, but still very hungry, and weeping for hunger.

Chris Hopkins’ blog about Walter Greenwood is here.

NOTES

Note 1. For the only published article discussing this work by Greenwood and Wragg see: Full article: ‘The Pictures … Are Even More Stark Than the Prose’ (Sheffield Telegraph, 2 December 1937): word and image in Walter Greenwood and Arthur Wragg’s The Cleft Stick (1937) (tandfonline.com). Note 2. Harry’s inability to concentrate at school due to hunger should be something only from history, but recurrent reports from teachers and a report sponsored by Kellogg’s suggest that it is an issue which has returned. See R2_Kellogg_A_Lost_Education.pdf (kelloggs.co.uk) (2013) and reports in the Guardian such as this one from 2019: Tired, hungry and shamed: pupil poverty ‘stops learning’ | Education | The Guardian.

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