Sunday, 19 May 2013

A Bunch of Tea Leaves

The 1941 film ‘Love on the Dole’ was adapted from Walter Greenwood’s play of the same name.  Although set in the worst of the depression in the early 1930s, there is obviously a wartime propaganda element to the film, as it was made in the darkest days of World War Two.  Permission to make the film – withheld for the 1930s, was granted as it showed a nation that will always fight back, no matter how low circumstances take us.

Opinion on how realistic the play and film is seems to be divided.  Some saw it as a marvellous depiction of the working classes while others found it mawkish and the characters too one-dimensional.  I think there are relevant arguments on both sides, and would summarise the film as an early, naïve attempt at one of those kitchen-sink dramas which were to reach their zenith twenty years later.

Whether the scenario is a wholly accurate representation of life in Salford in the 1930s or not, I found one aspect which I am sure the film does depict quite faithfully.  That is the scenes where a group of women gather together in one of their houses to dabble in occult activities.  If there is one thing that history shows us about human nature, it is our tendency to retreat into superstition when times get tough.  From making offerings to fertility deities to make the crops grow, to believing in a heaven which is a reward for battling through this mortal hell, it is human nature to retreat into some kind of fantasy to give ourselves reason to carry on.  This group of neighbours in ‘Love on the Dole’ are looking for a light at the end of their pawn shop and hunger-riddled tunnel.  They need a reason for their lives and more importantly, a reason to continue living it.  Rationally, the only certainties they have are poverty, sickness and death.

And so, the women read the tea-leaves, which hint at that old chestnut – a dark stranger on the horizon.  Well, wouldn’t it make it easier to get out of bed in a morning if someone had told you that one of these days something different and exciting will happen?  They hold a séance and have a chat with their loved ones – the people that they miss, and find comfort in both the fantasy of an afterlife where they will see them again; as well as a humanisation of that which they least understand. ‘Love on the Dole’ showcases the activities that went on in order to “read the future”.  It also shows that those women who were considered to hold the talents necessary to do this had kudos.  The ringleader in this activity is shown to have a higher standing in her small society.  Cultivation of these talents – presumably passed down from mother to daughter – could be a profitable activity.  Perhaps this also might have been used as an explanation for a personal problem or ailment that lack of access to medical treatment rendered a mystery. 

My great-great-grandmother has gone down in family history as being our own witch.  All we know is that she had the “sight”.  And that she also had a lot of headaches.  As her direct descendant down the female line I should probably be cultivating this “sight” myself! Rationally, she probably got migranes and saw strange things during the course of them – as some people do.  I would imagine, if she was an attention seeking drama queen (a bit like me and definitely like my youngest daughter) then she would play on this – even make a shilling on the side and if she could milk it enough then why not?  Times were hard and entertainments few.  It would be easy for us to mock those women from the viewpoint of our rational and so called sophisticated society.  But would I have done the same?  Definitely. 

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