In his essay, ‘The Storyteller’, Walter Benjamin distinguishes between two generic traditions of story-telling, symbolized by two contrasting occupations: the peasant and the voyager.footnote＊ ‘If one wants to picture these two groups through their archaic representatives’, he wrote, ‘one is embodied in the resident tiller of the soil, and the other in the trading seaman.’footnote1 One told the stories of the village, its people and its history, whilst the other brought stories from lands where people lived different lives according to different customs. Both traditions complemented each other. Benjamin’s distinction remains valuable in contemporary arguments about finding cultural forms and processes which enable the balancing of the local and particular with the national and international. This is one of the most pressing contemporary political and cultural problems and currently finds its most developed expression in the controversies surrounding the achievements—and also the limitations—of the recent and widespread growth of local peoples’ history projects.footnote2 This distinction is also useful to employ when looking back at one of the most energetic
For when we think of the working-class writers of the 1930s who made a permanent and popular impact, we think of the writers who took as their political and aesthetic ambition the project of describing the life of the communities they lived in, usually employing a literary technique most easily summarized as ‘documentary realism’. The writers and books of that period whose names and titles are still recalled today would include for example, Walter Brierley with Means Test Man, B. L. Coombes with These Poor Hands, Willy Goldman with East End My Cradle, Walter Greenwood with Love on the Dole, Lewis Jones with Cwmardy and We Live, and John Summerfield with May Day. (Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scot’s Quair is, I personally feel, a quite singular and separate achievement in that decade.) All of these books were essentially literary documents rooted in the continuity of class and place. Not surprisingly they emanated from communities with strong local identities often occasioned by the predominance of a single local industry. Brierley was a Derbyshire miner, Coombes and Jones both worked in South Wales pits (though Coombes had experienced one dislocation of place in the move from Herefordshire to South Wales as a teenager in search for work); Greenwood wrote from the experience of life in industrial Salford; Goldman of life in the Jewish East End, and Sommerfield about the tightly-knit working-class districts of riverside London.
In such books the communities in which they are set are whole worlds in themselves and little reference is made to events, places and peoples beyond them. Continuity of employment, even in the same pit or factory as the father, is one kind of ambition either realized or thwarted by the recession and large-scale unemployment. Continuity also of family life along the old patterns is also often represented as an ideal, sometimes achieved but often disrupted as liaisons go amiss and become the major sources of drama in the novels. The desire to affirm the significance of the everyday life in the pit villages and industrial towns of what was still ‘Unknown England’ was encouraged by the developing oppositional aesthetics of that period. The poetry of Auden, Spender, C. Day-Lewis and MacNeice explored the imagery of the derelict industrial north. Literary and journalistic figures like Middleton-Murray, John Lehmann and George Orwell were always keen to commission documentary
But such experiences of class were by no means universal. For as many people brought up in single industry communities, with strong local traditions, there were as many for whom class was experienced as the dislocation of the generations, the rootlessness of city life, a succession of casual jobs and the constant search for employment—often involving moving from town to town. There was also often extreme psychological isolation. Such people, or at least the men among them, might have found some of their feelings and experiences represented in the work of three Liverpool-Irish writers of the 1920s and 1930s—George Garrett, James Hanley and Jim Phelan—who, with the exception of Hanley, have been largely forgotten. Yet for a time they were clearly developing a quite different tradition of working-class or ‘proletarian’ literature, not unconnected with the fact that they were all completely displaced from settled working-class communities. Like Benjamin’s other archaic representative of a different story-telling tradition, Garrett, Hanley and Phelan were all seamen.
Phelan and Garrett certainly knew each other and met from time to time between voyages to have a drink and talk about books and writing. In his autobiography, The Name’s Phelan, Jim Pheland recalled such meetings: ‘One of the most enlivening experiences of those days was that I met Joe Jarrett (George Garrett) twice, in the intervals of his sea-going. He too had become a big, broad-shouldered fellow, was very certain of himself, and we behaved like two schoolboys when we met. To my surprise, he thought and spoke of himself as a writer, although nine-tenths of his time was spent in the stoke-holds. Some of his stories were published, and one or two long poems—we drank the money down Bootle dock road.’footnote3 Hanley knew of them but never met them, but they could hardly have been unaware of his writings since his first novels published in the first half of the 1930s were all set amongst Liverpool-Irish dockside families or featured the same kind of men at sea. They were also all at different times contributing stories and articles to magazines like The Adelphi, New Writing and Left Review, and so would have been aware of each other’s work.