Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 17 Apr 2024

Living  by Henry Green

I’m fascinated by the way in which some authors become famous and feted while others, just as skilful and just as compelling, don’t. It’s even more intriguing when the author, like Henry Green, is thought so highly of by fellow authors. Green’s real name was Henry Yorke and he died in 1973 and was writing extensively in the inter-war years and immediately after the Second World War – but I really knew very little about him until my later years. In fact I was only really familiar with his name because I worked in a bookshop and his terse book titles were eye-catching – Living, Loving, Party-Going, Caught, Back etc. – but I never really felt moved to read one.

In the course of doing some research into British working class writers, the name of Henry Green crops up frequently. Sebastian Faulks has written eloquently about how daring and important Green’s early novels were in terms of giving ‘proletarian’ literature a creative voice and so I thought it was time to give him a go and I plumped for Faulkes’ favourite Living.

Published in 1929, Living  is set in industrial Birmingham and focuses on a slice of time in a steel works. Green introduces us to a group of skilled labourers, foremen, middle managers and the factory-owning family. Whilst it is clear where Green’s sympathy lies, his work isn’t crude propaganda – his workers are flawed, limited and make bad decisions; his factory owners are self-important, hedonistic and chinless but imbued with a sense of industrial and public responsibility.

There is no high drama in the book – you could say that in terms of storyline nothing much really happens. The factory owner dies and the works pass into the hands of the next generation; workers are laid off on the basis of their old age; two would-be lovers run off to emigrate but get no further than Liverpool before their relationship falls apart. And the lack of big action is entirely the point – this is meant to be real life; Living.

I really liked his portrayal of the relationship between shop foremen and middle management – a relationship built on toadying, self-seeking and ultimate treachery. Green really understood this layer of working life and he was able to see the way in which the workforce inadvertently nurtured spies in their midst. The core working class family didn’t, however, come to life for me. There was something formulaic and stereotypical about the grumpy autodidact, the young girl who longed for a baby, the drunken semi-criminal and the inadequate worker frightened to establish his own identity. It was hard to see them as real people – they lacked a sense of back story or aspiration – and although Green clearly wanted to make the point that living for them was a day-to-day business and had no sense of future, this made their characters flat and mechanistic.

Equally, the factory owning family fails to become really three-dimensional. This thread deals with a family in transition from an old Victorian patriarch to the next generation. His son, who is socially inept and incapable of finding himself a suitable wife,  sees himself as a more hands-on capitalist who will no longer need to rule from afar through the auspices of middle managers. Green seems to suggest that the old patriarch who was the custodian of the factory ethos recognises that his world and the values he represents have had their day and he effectively wills himself to death in a way that is rather puzzling and unsatisfactory.

Almost certainly the most striking thing about this book is the attempt to do something daring with language. In this sense it is quite clearly influenced by the emergence of Modernism and the willingness of novelists to try to use unconventional language structures and disruptions in plot continuity to try and capture the fragmentation of real life. Green’s dominant tactic is to try and reflect working class spoken language with all its slang and disrupted sentence and mutations of grammar. He often drops the use of the definite article from his sentences and this gives a sharp edge to the reading – a staccato rhythm that has to be tuned into – and which never quite becomes a comfortable mechanism in my opinion. Coming from Birmingham myself I never really see the  mannerisms of working class language I grew up with or that my parents would have recognised from their lives. What he does achieve is a rather generic ‘northern-ness’ which is non-specific – which is surprising given that he did spend time living in Birmingham himself.

Overall, an interesting experiment but ultimately not, for me, a successful one. I can see the audacious spirit behind this work but I can also understand why it failed to break through into the wider public consciousness.

Paperback copies are available at affordable prices but the first edition hardback is punishingly expensive.


Terry Potter

April 2024