Yet these are minor troubles and do not spoil a story that reminds us what an inspiration Delaney has been to many – including Morrissey who said: “at least 50% of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney”, and Jeanette Winterson, who likened Delaney’s work in the 50s to “a lighthouse pointing the way and warning about the rocks underneath” – and Selina Todd herself, moved to write this splendid and illuminating book.
This book is not a period piece describing life in the bleak dark Fifties, after which female writers emerged into the light. Todd presents a warm but balanced view of a woman who made her own choices. Her work benefits from excellent digging in the BBC archives and many detailed interviews, which have to compensate for a lack of documentation (the notoriously private Delaney destroyed most of her own papers). Todd’s conclusion is that the dearth of working-class writers today is not due to a lack of talent but results instead from obstacles to realising it. She finishes with references to working-class women writers who came to prominence later, such as Andrea Dunbar, whose career was influenced by Delaney.
“Whatever happened to Shelagh Delaney?” journalists were asking as early as 1963.
Selina Todd gives us as good an answer and as full a picture as we’re likely to get – because Delaney loathed being pigeonholed or pinned down. She couldn’t stand reporters’ disbelief that a 19-year-old should know where the brothels were in Salford or that a young working-class woman should be more intelligently self-aware than most Oxbridge graduates... The occasional soft-pedalling is more than balanced, however, by Todd’s vivid portrayal of Delaney as a young woman fiercely alive in her time. As a social historian, she demonstrates the many factors, other than sheer talent and determination, that went into the “making” of Shelagh Delaney. This was Britain’s great post-war, social-democratic moment. For Delaney, as for countless working-class children of her generation, the unprecedented feeling that society was prepared to invest in her future was life-changing. With Finney and Osborne, the Beatles, David Hockney – the list goes on – she was part of the new wave of working-class talent that during the Fifties and Sixties transformed every area of creative life, from theatre and literature to art, music and fashion.