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 periods of working-class writing, the 1930s, because by doing so it becomes clear that most recent attention to the writing of that decade has been focused on just one of the traditions—the local—at the expense of understanding attempts to create a different aesthetic of working-class experience based not on place and continuity but on dislocation and transience.

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 reporting by workers of their conditions; and, of course, Mass Observation developed the particularity of place and time to the extent that the degree of detail became self-parodying. (In his report on ‘The Pub and The People’, one Mass Observer spent an evening in a Bolton pub counting how many times the spittoon was used each hour by different customers smoking different cigarettes and drinking different drinks!) Family life, then, was portrayed as the natural cell of the working-class community, and the permanent continuity of place and employment were the buttresses needed to ensure that family life continued as it should.

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.

Now whilst the links between these three men were so tenuous that one cannot properly regard them as having formed a conscious ‘school’ of proletarian writing, one should neither try to understand their work only as the separate achievements of three different writers who happened to be at work in the same city during the same period. There are many similarities of theme, technical experimentation and acknowledgements of literary influences that make it possible to read their work together with greater insight than if read separately. Apart from the fact that all three had worked as seamen, they all shared a very deep interest in the expressionist drama of Ibsen, Strindberg and O’Neill which led them to explore non-realist forms of fictionalizing working-class life (which Hanley has continued to do up until the present day, sadly without the recognition his work deserves).

James Hanley was the first of these writers to be published. His first novel, Drift, came out in 1930. He was born in 1901 in a Merseyside Catholic family and went to sea at the age of 14. He remained at sea for nine years, an avid reader by his own account all the while, and when he returned to life on shore permanently he settled with the idea of becoming a writer. Drift explored many of the themes to which he—and Garrett and Phelan—returned to time and time again. The novel tells the story of a young boy, Joe, who refuses to follow his father into work as a seaman on leaving school, and is shown to be less than enthusiastic about any kind of work at all. Already this represents a break from the pervasive notions of continuity of experience which characterize the major tendency of working-class novels in the 1930s. Joe is determined to find a different way of life to that of his parents, relations and neighbours, whom he regards as permanently trapped in a fixed cycle of exploited labour as well as emotionally under-developed as a result of living under a terrible religious tyranny. Joe experiences Liverpool not as a free and easy seaport town where material poverty was compensated for by communal solidarity, but as an expressionistic nightmare: ‘And always ascending towards the heavens the clouds of smoke and grease and steam. The city was heaving up its guts. There it lay like some huge beast. Meanwhile Joe was tramping along in the direction of the river. The pavements were aflood with life. And the cold tang of dawn—one saw it in the pinched blue faces. On they swept. Swarming miraculous life. The human ambulance, a mighty phalanx sweeping down, down, down.’