A writing life cut short by poverty.
There is a passage towards the end of Ten Years on the Parish where George Garrett describes an unemployed classical pianist he once knew, conducting an invisible orchestra in the middle of the street:
His clothes were dirty and threadbare. His eyes, bulging and blood streaked seemed overbig in his bearded face ... 'My hands are the wheel that is steering the Universe', he declaimed. 'One twist and I can destroy mankind, and all these people passing.' The other man patted his shoulder. 'That wouldn't do you much good', he said. 'You'd destroy yourself as well.' The pianist's face set. 'You're wrong, friend', he declared. 'I am the indestructible. I am in control.' The tram-driver clanged his bell. The pianist had to be led on to the pavement and left there, his hands still gripping the imaginary wheel that was keeping the Universe from disaster.
Like something out of Gogol or Lear, it is a terrifying portrait of the destruction of a human being by economic forces. And it's a good example of the heightened documentary realism which the author employed to write about unemployment on Merseyside in the 1920s and 1930s.
George Garrett (1896-1966) was a seaman, a Wobbly, a communist, an NUWM organiser, a Hunger Marcher and a NUS activist. He was also a playwright, actor and remarkable short-story writer whose work was published in the late 1930s in Left Review, The Adelphi, New Writing and Penguin New Writing.
The novelist and short-story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner once compared him to Defoe. New Writing editor John Lehmann admired his 'remarkable powers of unsentimental and lively description'; 'in comparison with Orwell's his descriptions are more robust: the needle of his sensitivity does not quiver so violently'.
Orwell met Garrett in Liverpool when he was writing The Road to Wigan Pier and appears to have liked him. Garrett, however, hated the book, which he thought 'a terrible hotch-potch'--'From beginning to end it is one long sneer ...
A book of that type can do a lot of damage. That it should appear as a "Left Book" gives it added danger.'
Garrett's models were Eugene O'Neil and Gorky rather than the sentimental naturalism of Zola, Dickens or Orwell. He was not interested in voyeuristic depictions of the working class as helpless authors of their own suffering. This, for example, is Garrett's account of the police assault on an unemployed demonstration outside the Walker Art Gallery in 1922:
Suddenly hundreds of foot-police rushed out of the sessions court and adjacent buildings, batoning heads right and left. The frightening confusion of the crowd was worsened as the mounted police galloped up and rode full charge into them, trampling and scattering in all directions ... Inside the Art Gallery, more police caused pandemonium. Men yelled aloud as they were batoned down. Others dashed around panic-stricken. A few desperate ones dropped from an open window into the side-street and got away. Those attempting to follow were struck down from behind. The police closed all windows and doors. There were no further escapes. Batons split skull after skull. Men fell where they were hit. The floor streamed with blood. Those lying in it were trampled on by others who were soon flattened alongside them. Gallery workmen were battered too. The police had gone wild.
Although extracts from Ten Years on the Parish have previously been published in selections of Garrett's work edited variously by Alan O'Toole, Jerry Dawson and Michael Murphy, this is the first time that the whole of the MS has been published. The editors are to be congratulated for putting the book into print, with a helpful apparatus of notes.
The book also includes the fascinating correspondence between Garrett and John Lehmann from the late 1930s, when Lehman was doing his best to encourage Garrett to write in the most impossible of circumstances, until, 'half-lunatic' with poverty, he gave up writing.
These days working-class life is culturally visible only in the urban pastoral of the soaps and the scandalised voyeurism of reality television. Discussion of class is usually elided with other categories like geography (North and South), ethnicity (white working-class), gender (Rita, Sue and Bob Too), educational attainment (Brexit) and social mobility (Left Behind).
But in the second half of the 1930s London editors and publishers were interested in working-class writers like Garrett who were able to describe the worlds of work and worklessness from the inside.
'Bitter was the disappointment,' John Lehmann later wrote, 'when the writer one was trying to keep going had to throw in his hand before any work was sufficiently complete to make a proposition for a publisher. If George Garrett, Liverpool seaman and heroic battler against impossible odds, should by any chance read these words, I should like him to know how much I have always regretted that he found it impossible to go on with what he had so vigorously begun ...'.
Andy Croft is a writer, editor and poet based in the north-east of England. His books include Red Letter Days, a history of British political fiction of the 1930s.
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|Title Annotation:||Ten Years on the Parish: The Autobiography and Letters of George Garrett|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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