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On The Parish

George arrived back home at the end of the 1926 General Strike to witness ‘Strikers and Policemen playing football together’; a metaphor for everything returning ‘to normal.’ Britain was a country with a deep residue of imperialism and a conservative hatred of organised labour. The repercussions of the failure of the  strike led to a 1927 Act of Parliament that introduced further wage cuts, and benefit cuts for those deemed to be ‘not genuinely seeking work’. George managed to ship out for three months, but this and other short runs, counted for no more than five months work over the next thirteen years.

In the early 1920’s he had written for journals associated with the Red International of Trade Unions. In the 1930’s, during this long war of attrition, he maintained his wry humour and honed his skills by sticking to the pen. He left his plays behind and embarked upon a series of short stories and critical reportage that soon brought him his first publishing success.

He was far from inactive but took a role more closely aligned to advocacy and civil rights than the mass organisational work of the 1920’s. He was involved with The Fellowship of Reconciliation, writing for their magazine and trying to minimise conflict between Catholics and Protestants. His reputation as a fighter stood the test of time during his three year absence, and in 1928 he campaigned for election in the Brunswick Ward as an independent candidate, standing as The Man Who Can’t Be Bought, The Man Who Led the Unemployed, The Fighting Candidate and The Seamen’s Champion.

These were hard times. In 1922, when he was leading the Liverpool contingent of the Hunger March, a million people were unemployed. Between 1929 and 1932 this rose to over three million. However, such was the impact of the defeat of the General Strike that the rise in unemployment was met with despair rather than militancy.  Treks across the country to the Imperial City had long since turned into crusades, or in Garrett’s words, ‘conducted tours’, rather than marches. They echoed the resigned mood of the times.

Garrett, however, wrote himself into things. The development in the 1930’s of new magazines – The Adelphi, New Writing, and Left Review, coupled with the Mass Observation movement, signalled a new interest in working class writers and gave George his chance. As a result, between 1934 and 1938 he had thirteen short stories published. His key themes were justice and identity, of puncturing pomposity and celebrating often small, individual victories during this depressed period. This was his high water mark. Novelist and critic, Sylvia Townsend Warner, commented favourably upon his technique as the ‘art of the artlessness’.

His first story, fittingly titled ‘First Born’, was published in June 1934 by John Middleton Murry’s The Adelphi magazine. It was published under the pseudonym Matt Low, a play on Matelot the French word for sailor. First Born, and three other of the thirteen stories, are attributed to Matt Low. This may well have been to avoid losing benefits, although it seems that George also enjoyed playing around with identity, from his subterranean days in American as a Wobbly.

But it was a major struggle to write living with five young sons in a cramped tenement. He had to get out to find a place to be on his own, but Garrett’s nature was such that he could never turn people away. He complained he could not even escape to the library to write as he was constantly accosted by other unemployed men seeking advice and assistance over claims for relief. He chaired the Seaman’s Defence League and was constantly besieged for support about relief, or for reports on seamen who have gone missing. They had no thought for his own problems, he glumly noted. That he not only managed to get anything written but saw his work published alongside some of the major literary figures of the day, Isherwood, Auden, Orwell and DH Lawrence, is testament to his skill and determination.  

When George Orwell came to Liverpool in 1936 to research ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, he was introduced to Garrett as someone who could show him the working conditions and effects of poverty in Liverpool. They sat up all night discussing books and politics. The following day Garrett took him to the docks to witness how men were hired‘like cattle.’ Orwell spoke very highly of George in his ‘Wigan Pier Diaries’.

Unfortunately Garrett didn’t share the same opinion of Orwell.He regarded ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ as ‘one long sneer’, commenting to his editor, John Lehmann, that ‘a book like that could do a lot of damage’. Lehmann himself, recognising the difference between Orwell’s middle class sensibilities compared to Garrett’s handling of working class life, noted, ‘Garrett’s needle of sensitivity does not quiver so violently as Orwell’s who hates and despises all the things that Garrett does but knows them in a far less familiar way.’

Lehmann, publisher of New Writing, and a great supporter of Garrett, wanted him to write ‘his book’ - a different view of unemployment of the 1930’s. His support for Garrett to complete the work flows through every page of their correspondence. But so too does Garrett’s frustration at the conditions he was condemned to live and work in. They began to overwhelm him. From slum to tenement housing, with five children of his own, a family of eight next door and nine on the floor above, the cacophony of noise competed only with the constant threats and intimidation of the Unemployed Assistance Board (UAB), who regularly knocked at the door to ensure he was ‘genuinely seeking employment’ and eligible for benefits.

The noise, his failure to find space of his own in which to write, and to gain enough financial support for him to escape the tentacles of the UAB, had disastrous consequences. In 1938 he conceded to JohnLehman that the year beforehe had finally broken down and spent time in hospital, ‘good for little more than the loony bin.’ Sadly, in the eyes of Lehmann, George had ‘dropped out of the writer’s movement’.

But this was far from the end. After he recovered he left behind his stories the way he had his American drama of the 1920’s,to return to a more collective endeavour and play a leading role in setting up Merseyside Left Theatre, later to become The Unity Theatre.