ScotLit 19, 1998 |
A 1930s novel by a Scottish writer; theme, the contemporary Great Depression and the hardships of a workless Glasgow; near the beginning, the sentence: ‘It was one of those days when you felt God had forgotten the city.’ Would you like to guess the author and title? George Blake’s The Shipbuilders, perhaps or James Barke’s Major Operation? No, it’s Hunger March by Dot Allan, published in 1934, predating Blake’s and Barke’s better-known treatments of Depression Glasgow in 1935 and 1936.
All three are novels of social concern. The Shipbuilders and Major Operation are sometimes called ‘proletarian fiction’, but it’s not so simple. While Barke was proud of his descent from Galloway farm-workers, several critics (including himself) have pointed out that Blake was hardly a child of the proletariat, and the same could be said of Dot Allan.
She was born in 1892 in industrial Stirlingshire, only child of an iron merchant. Her maternal grandfather was founder of the Vale Paper Works in Denny. By the time she begins to appear on the literary scene we find her, still a young woman, living in the west end of Glasgow with her widowed mother. She remained there, never marrying, until her death in 1964.
Contemporaries describe her as small, soft-voiced and retiring, hostess of elegant afternoon teas. During both World Wars she apparently abandoned writing for nursing and charity work. She does seem an unlikely figure to have written a Glasgow proletarian novel, and indeed that’s not exactly what she has done in Hunger March. What she did do may lead us to consider the relationship between her fiction and her life.
We should first sketch Allan’s writing career as a whole. The stereotypical west-end lady, the daughter at home, is surely a dilettante writer? Yet by 1926 Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) had mentioned her work in his influential Contemporary Scottish Studies:As belonging to the new Glasgow school may be mentioned Miss Dot Allan with The Syrens (some of her more recent work in the form of short sketches has reached a much higher level) …
Grieve does not specify which sketches have impressed him, but Allan was writing a lot; sketches, articles and short stories were regularly published in a range of newspapers and periodicals. This was not a hobby, but – albeit freelance – a career.
In 1921 Allan published her first novel. As Grieve indicates, The Syrens, romantic and slightly clumsy, is prentice work. In some of her later novels, indeed, there’s an uneasy feeling that she’s still searching for her own voice. Allan’s contribution to the currently popular genre of realistic tenement stories, The Deans (1929), isn’t a great success, possibly because she had never lived in a tenement. She is much more at home in Deepening River (1932), the leisurely tale of four generations of a shipbuilding family in Glasgow, and in John Mathew, Paper-Maker (1948), closely based on her own family history. (Her grandfather the paper-maker was called John Luke.) These books take a ‘managerial’ point of view, unusual in Glasgow fiction; we may class them, perhaps, with George Blake’s ‘Garvel’ novels and Guy McCrone’s Wax Fruit.
Allan published only some ten novels in all in a writing career which spanned nearly forty years. Her work found popularity and critical approval in the 1920s and 1930s. (Her post-war novels seem to have sunk without trace, the time out for charity work doing no good for her career.) Among these earlier novels is Hunger March.
Hunger March ought not to remain entirely forgotten in a Scottish publishing scene which has rediscovered so much equally flawed – for it does have its faults – but significant work. Though undoubtedly a ‘Glasgow novel’ – the city is unnamed, but clearly recognisable as Glasgow – it tries to steer clear of parochiality, opening with a prologue which makes that very point. The hunger march of the title, one of many during the Depression years, is seen as one of a series of events dating from earliest antiquity. Allan cites the tale of Joseph and his brethren and the story of Jesus with the loaves and fishes. ‘The meanest hunger marcher today … is walking in the shadow of God.’ That is the big picture, in Allan’s view.
To considerable effect, the action is confined to a single day, the day of the great hunger march. Intending to present a complete overview of the city, Allan chooses both working-class and middle-class characters, whose stories interweave through the day. Like Blake and Barke, she explores a ‘two cities’ theme: the middle classes don’t care about the workers – sometimes don’t even notice them – while the workers intend to make them notice. We focus in turn on the failing merchant Arthur Joyce; his cleaner Mrs Humphry and her longterm unemployed son Joe; a young clerk facing dismissal; a (now very dated) ‘society beauty’; and a charismatic revolutionary Nimrod, as observed by middle-class radical Jimmy. Again like Blake and Barke, Allan copes better with some of these strands than with others. If she doesn’t quite manage in Hunger March to get the whole of Glasgow into one novel, she is not alone among Glasgow novelists.
The Mrs Humphry/Joe story is perhaps rather determinedly ‘Glasgow’, but the mother-son relationship has moments of sensitivity. Mrs Humphry’s incessant blathering about the glories of work brings the unemployed Joe to such a pitch of frustrated rage that he nearly brains her. But he )or Allan) stops in time, and the moment is a turning-point for the characters.
The novel moves to its obligatory scene of violence in the Square and an epiphany for the young reporter, Jimmy, a credible enough character, though Nimrod is a bit larger than life. But Allan is probably most comfortable with the employer Mr Joyce, on the survival of whose business the fates of many of these characters depend. The symbiotic relationship between employer and employee, a feature of both The Shipbuilders and Major Operation, is no less significant here. Allan sees the future of firms like Joyce and Son as the future of Glasgow. Arthur Joyce has vowed to carry on, rather than winding up his business before it collapses and retiring in modest comfort. Recognising how his workers would suffer if he gave up, he is racked with responsibility and guilt.
But Hunger March is not a hymn to middle-class virtues. A telling scene occurs while the great march is converging on George Square in early afternoon. The marchers are idly watched by leisured shoppers and lunchers. In one of the famous Glasgow tearooms we overhear a comment by a lady customer: ‘It shouldn’t be allowed. I’m sure and I don’t know what the world is coming to!’ In a corner of the room a young waitress silently agrees, but – as Allan economically indicates – with quite a different implication to her thoughts.
As we have seen, Dot Allan, by upbringing and outward social status, is the lady at the table, but she sympathises with the waitress. She is registering an indictment of the prosperous middle class to which she herself belongs; an attitude which recurs in her writing.
Among other good reviews which Hunger March received on publication, the Times Literary Supplement found it ‘honest and inspiring’. There is something, however, a little odd about this review: ‘Mr Dot Allan has adopted an ingenious and effective technique for his story Hunger March…’
The reviewer has assumed (presumably from reading the book) that the author is a man: an interesting misidentification. Perhaps, even as late as 1934, it isn’t the kind of book that women are expected to be writing? Has Allan managed to break free of the persona of a middle-class lady (which does appear in some of her sketches) and write as she could write, unhampered by any conventions about ‘women’s writing’? These questions call for further investigation, particularly because, some years earlier, Allan had considered these very conventions in her second novel, Makeshift (1928), even less well known than Hunger March.
Makeshift opens with a condemnation of middle-class ladies so pointed and bitter that the reference in Hunger March pales in comparison. The prologue introduces the child Jacqueline, whose adolescence and adulthood are the theme of the book. Her mother, a dressmaker working at home, is embittered about the state of her marriage. her husband is a sea-captain and his ship is her rival, the mistress to whom he rushes off eagerly after every leave. She thought marriage would be wonderful, but:’Second best!’ she raved. ‘That’s what my life has been made up of, Jacqueline; makeshift all the time … I’ve missed it somehow; but there’s more in life than that.’
Her lady clients treat her with disdain, not even paying their bills, on which income she and Jacqueline depend. At last she slashes a customer’s dress material into shreds, realises what she’s done, goes into her room, and gasses herself. Nothing here for the comfort of Dot Allan’s neighbours in Kelvinside.
Jacqueline, the ‘second best’ cry in her ears, grows up, begins to write, and feels the first stirrings of ‘sex consciousness’. The phrase is awkward, but there is honesty and frankness in Allan’s description of Jacqueline’s sexual feelings, and of her awareness of the same urge in men. Makeshift is as outspoken for its time as Catherine Carswell’s Open the Door!
After a closely-observed scene of sexual harassment by Jacqueline’s boss, and more conventional romance with Owen (who is then rather melodramatically stabbed to death), Jacqueline is called home to keep house for her widowed uncle, and begins to go out with William, the bailie’s son. She is moved by unexpected passion (to William’s surprise, not to say alarm), but accepts his proposal almost entirely from fear of becoming a ‘surplus woman’ like her alcoholic colleague Miss Price. ‘Would it be all right? At the back of her mind she knew that it wouldn’t.’ When writing friends drop in before the wedding, William is annoyed.What the blazes did the man mean jawing away about Jacqueline’s poetry, puffing up the poor kid she could write? Write? Hell! Didn’t he realise she was going to be married – married?
Shades of Carswell’s The Camomile, and Allan treats no less thoughtfully the problems of a woman writer in 1920s Scotland, which (as in Carswell) can only be solved by taking the train south.
Were they, to some extent, Allan’s own problems? She did not take the night express to Euston, but stayed in Glasgow, caring for a frail mother. Some of her writing is fairly run-of-the-mill – what you might expect from a middle-class woman writer of her place and time – but Makeshift and Hunger March transcend such expectations. We can postulate, but pending further research cannot prove, tensions in her life and work between what she ‘ought’ to write and what she wanted to write, what she was doing in genteel Kelvinside and what she wanted to do. Meanwhile Hunger March and Makeshift ought to be rediscovered – as the work of Blake, Barke and Carswell has quite recently been – and studied in the context not just of Glasgow fiction, but of Scottish women’s writing.
Copyright © Moira Burgess 1998