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Walter Greenwood, Standing Room Only (1936)

By Erica

Book Review posted by Chris Hopkins. Walter Greenwood is best remembered (indeed often only remembered) for his first novel, Love on the Dole (1933). This review is one of a series of blogs where I will try to start reviving a fuller memory of his literary career through introducing the other novels he wrote after Love on the Dole (Reading Group colleagues have already posted about The Cleft Stick, 1937 and Only Mugs Work, 1938). Standing Room Only or ‘a Laugh in Every Line’ was his third novel, and surely refers, in a comic mode, to Greenwood’s own transformation from unemployed man into professional writer. The Times Literary Supplement reviewer thought it:
A pity that he has been lured from Manchester and Salford; his previous books have made him a name as a chronicler of contemporary life . . . but in his new book he deserts reality and gives pictures of a world in which he is as little at home as his hero Henry Ormerod. (Leonora Eyles, 18/7/1936, p. 598)
Actually, the novel does not simply abandon Salford, for much of it is set there, including much of its exploration of the world and business of the theatre, which was by no means alien to the life of the two Cities. What the reviewer seems to mean is that this novel does move on from the Salford which she would want to see again – a Salford which only symbolises urban-working class poverty. The idea that Greenwood ‘deserts reality’ presupposes that Hanky Park is the only reality to which such a working-class writer can have access. While lamenting what the book is not about, the comment that the novel ‘gives pictures of a world in which [Greenwood] is as little at home as his hero Henry Ormerod’ does almost catch what it is actually doing. Standing Room Only engages in its own way with the question of what might happen to working-class writers after they have achieved their first success.

Henry Ormerod is clearly based to an extent on Greenwood himself contemporary readers would surely have recognised this. Henrys works as a draper’s assistant and his ambition to be a playwright is scorned by his mother and would–be-wife Edna, who jointly regard it as both unachievable and a delusion which distracts him from fulfilling the roles of satisfactory son, fiancé and breadwinner. ‘It’s only wasting your time. You’ve got to be educated to write plays’ (Jonathan Cape, 1936, p.27 – all the following references are to this edition, but there is also a Howard Baker reprint of 1970 which may be easier to get hold of, and which has the same pagination).

Henry Ormerod (like Greenwood, who sent the typescript of the novel of Love on the Dole to two publishers simultaneously) has sent his play to two different theatrical agents – who happen to be long-time rivals. However, one, McPherson, accepts the play not so much because he is impressed with the play’s original genius as that it suits his plans to manipulate a wealthy patron into backing a play as a vehicle for a starlet in whom he is interested. The other impresario, Henry Ellis, is motivated by rivalry and through taking at face value information gleaned from his sneaked glance at the flattering acceptance letter which McPherson has sent to Henry Ormerod. In fact, McPherson has a reader’s report on the play which suggests that the play has some potential, but will also need rewriting: ‘This could be made into a highly diverting play’ (p.35). His rival Henry Ellis takes the same view, feeling it needs the attention of a ‘play doctor’, whose job it is to work up submitted play scripts into a satisfactory form for commercial production. The play doctor theme recalls, and is presumably based to an extent upon, Greenwood’s own experience with the adaptation of the novel of Love on the Dole into a play – since he was, indeed, not sole author of the play-version of what was indisputably his novel (he co-authored it with the already successful playwright Ronald Gow – by no means a ‘play doctor’, however). In the novel, Henry Ormerod’s play is taken over by the producer, Mr Ellis: ‘Here’s my offer. Fifty pounds down for six months’ option on the play … providing you’ll agree to collaborate with one of my play doctors’. (p.59). Thus Henry loses control of the text of his play and also of its finances, with everyone taking far more money out of it than he does (even his father, returning from touring his music hall act, insists on being Henry’s agent, on taking his five percent commission and, in short, on offering his ‘lifelong experience in matters theatrical’ – p.81).

Henry is, in return, transported to London’s theatre-land and a world of apparently Hollywoodesque glamour and intrigue. Meeting his Salford acquaintance, the former amateur actress, Dilys Richmond, who is to be cast as the leading lady in his play, ‘He breathed the faint perfume which hung about her: it was delicious; he eyed appreciatively, the set of her shoulders and the blonde knot of hair done stylishly at the nape of her neck’ (p.124). However, he soon finds that class issues are not left behind just because he is now an ‘author’ – three other men, a stage star, a Knight and a Lord are also interested in Dilys and he feels they have many advantages over him (Greenwood has some fun with his fellow working class-writer Walter Brierley from Derbyshire, author of Means Test Man, 1935, by naming his knight ‘Sir Walter Brierley’). Despite Henry’s romantic interest in Dilys, it quickly all becomes too much for him – the constant intrigues, the financial advantage everyone seems to expect to extract from the play – and soon the most comforting word he can imagine is ‘home’: ‘The moment Henry sat down in the train he felt happier: it was as though he had left London far behind’ (p.250).

In the end, Henry agrees in a moment of inattention, so glad is he to be home, to marry Edna. However, he lacks any real commitment, and their new, suburban home, funded by the weekly royalty cheques from his play, which is at last bringing him some money too, is not what he meant by the word ‘home’. The truth is that he now feels he fits in nowhere, something summed up by the car which Edna insists on:
That ‘thing’ stood as a barrier between him and his old friends. Before its arrival they had been uncomprehending of the significance of his new profession: it did not mean anything. He had used the tramcars and buses as themselves and had stood with them in the queues for these vehicles. He now had a vehicle to himself …Sometimes he passed a group of his friends as they stood chatting at the street corner. … he secretly yearned to join them again in those carefree evenings at the theater or cinema. (p.285 )
There is misogyny here in blaming Edna for Henry’s own ill-considered decision to run away from London, but clearly the end of the novel laments Henry’s sense of exclusion from his origins.

Standing Room Only seems a reasonably successful comic novel about what might happen to a provincial working-class author who is taken up by the numerous agents who are part of the processes of publication and performance, though it does have a distinctly down-beat ending. Henry’s story is unlike Greenwood’s in that nothing follows his play: ‘Another play? He hadn’t an idea in his head. A one-play man with a now barren mind’ (p. 285). Perhaps Greenwood was reflecting on what might have happened had he been a one-novel author – as, ironically, posterity has tended to see him. The Time Literary Supplement reviewer was not the only one to be disappointed – Ralph Straus in the Sunday Times felt that satirical material critical of what went on behind the scenes of commercial theater overwhelmed the ‘amusing episodes’ in the novel (9/8/1936, p. 8). However, the Chief Librarian of the Wellington Public Libraries in New Zealand, for example, thought it had ‘all the qualities which made Love on the Dole such a success’ and chose it as his Book of the Week in a newspaper review in 1936 (Evening Post, Wellington, 24/10/1936, p. 28). It is significant that he ended his review by emphasising that Greenwood’s writing provided ‘entertainment of the best kind’, seeing comedy as no impediment to self-improvement or literary value. Greenwood, though he called Standing Room Only an ‘entertainment’ rather than a novel, would surely have agreed, since all of his novels, including Love on the Dole certainly seek to offer entertainment as well as moral seriousness. Some of the contemporary reviewers clearly disagreed about the balance between the two elements in Standing Room Only, but it is a novel worth reading for its reflections on the status of a working-class writer and his or her relationship with some of the institutions through which writing is distributed and mediated.

(This blog draws on material in chapter 3 of my forthcoming book, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film – A Case Study, Liverpool University Press, 2018 – Chris Hopkins)

Walter Greenwood, Standing Room Only (1936)

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