Rating 4 stars
Book 2 in my 10 Books of Summer reading challenge.
Common People is a book I pledged for on Unbound in 2018. It grew from a radio documentary by Kit de Waal called “Where Are All the Working Class Writers?“, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in November 2017.
As well as securing high profile, established authors like Malorie Blackman, Louise Doughty, Lisa McInerney and Anita Sethi, de Waal as editor commissioned a search through regional writer development agencies for new working class voices to be included in the anthology. The clearest new voices for me were Loretta Ramkissoon, Riley Rockford and Eva Verde. For each of these writers, Common People is their first appearance in print.
Each essay is an individual reflection on what it means or doesn’t mean to be working class. Some also focus on what it takes to become a writer. They join together to present a picture of how it feels to be working class, particularly in the privileged world of publishing.
Some of the essays are opinion pieces, others are memoirs, each writer finding their own way to express what their class means to them.
Lisa McInerney’s escape manual is laugh out loud funny in its sardonic tone, picking apart the assumptions made about working class people and whether they can be writers.
Jill Dawson, whose books I’ve never read but will now look out, pays homage to the way literature saved her life, and how hearing Ted Hughes perform his poetry on a school trip to the Yorkshire Playhouse made her realise she wanted to be a writer. She pays this back by visiting comprehensive schools and young offenders’ institutes to show working class kids today that they can write, too. It’s a way of being championed by Arts Emergency – the belief that the arts are for everyone, not just those with the money or comfortable background to access it.
Other essays explore the diversity of working class experience, that it’s never just about the things the media want it to be about. That you can aspire to higher education and the opportunities that brings for better paid, less manual work and still be as working class as those whose lives fit better with the flat definition of working class.
Some writers suggest that class is meaningless, that it’s imposed on us so that we can be demographically categorised for polls and surveys. But many of us buy into it, finding meaning and identity in it. Other writers talk about the experience of gaining an education and being viewed differently as a result, either with surprise that someone like them is educated above a certain level, or with patronising admiration for having pulled themselves up.
The final essay is an academic monograph on socioeconomic classification based on occupation, such as the NS-SEC used in the UK, and how it intersects with class as an expression of identity. The writer, Dave O’Brien, shows how technical measurement of class and cultural expression of class can be used to explain how and why some industries are highly socially exclusive.
I fudge how I fit because of how education has changed my chances in life. I say, “I’m from a working class background but I’m probably middle class now,” apologetically, as though there’s something wrong with me for not fitting into a box. I don’t really want to be either. I could say something like my parents were the first generation in their families not to work in the cotton mills or factories of our town, but that wouldn’t be accurate. Going back through my family tree, there have always been variations in how people earned a living. From coal miners, domestic servants, soldiers and a painter (trade, not artist) to railway workers, cotton mill operatives, weavers and a pub pianist, there has been variety in the flavours of working class life. My parents stayed on longer at school, because post Second World War society had recognised the benefits of not sending children to work before the age of 15. My dad took on an apprenticeship and became a draughtsman, then a salesman, was briefly a school caretaker and ended his working life as a company cashier. My mum worked in libraries her whole life, rising to the post of senior library assistant, but never became a librarian. We were comfortably off. My dad bought our house, going without a car for a while in order to pay off the mortgage. We had a week’s holiday in Wales every year. We didn’t have many luxuries, but what luxuries we had were high quality and lasted. A stereogram, an automatic washing machine, a tumble dryer. We rented our television. Is it odd that I think these were luxuries? I was clever enough to pass the entrance exam for a private school and get a bursary to help cover the fees. My mum took a second job as a cleaner to make up the difference. I became aware that, while we were comfortable, there were other families so comfortable that they didn’t think twice about what they had. I was made to feel working class at that school, because of my mostly second hand uniform, my accent, my lack of foreign holidays. In her essay, Cathy Rentzenbrink relates her mum’s memory of being discussed by her Grammar School teachers: “She comes from a working-class family but they have middle-class values.” As Rentzenbrink wonders, what did that mean?
Author Annabel Banks recently wrote about her own experience of being a working class writer and how accent can be a reason for people to judge you. It’s a piece that would be at home in Common People.
I think that school experience is why I don’t want to be any particular class. The girls from middle class homes made me feel different, like my class was a thing to be pitied for. And why would I want to be part of a class that seemed to value nothing but status and privilege?
A few of the essays talk about the places we live as signifiers of class. Terraced houses before they became sites of gentrification. Council houses and tower blocks. Loretta Ramkissoon’s piece about a tower block in London is my favourite essay in the whole collection. Her writing made real to me an experience I’ve never had – that of living in a vertical community centred on the lifts that ferry residents up and down and are the meeting places for catch ups. I googled her, looking for other things that she might have written since, but she doesn’t seem to have been picked up by a publisher yet.
There are other aspects of working class life that I didn’t experience, such as socialising in the local pub or working men’s club. I had friends whose families did that, but my dad wasn’t one for going out. There are essays in the book that speak of the joy of being good at pub sports like pool and darts, the writers getting across the tension and the thrill of competing. Emma Purshouse’s account of beating burly bikers at pool adds feminism to the mix. Similarly, there are sporting experiences outside the pub, such as going to the dogs or the football, that are embraced by working class people in a way that other sports aren’t.
Riley Rockford’s essay reveals the way different classes eat at different times, eat different things. I knew about courses and cutlery thanks to school dinners (called lunches), but I remember the first time I had dinner that wasn’t a midday meal, and how much later in the evening than my usual tea it was. It was at a school friend’s house, with dinner the prelude to a sleepover. The whole experience felt like torture, from the inquisition about my background from my friend’s mum as we ate, to the awkward expectation the next day that I would ride my friend’s horse, something that amused her and her mum no end. I wasn’t invited back. I wouldn’t have gone if I had been. Our friendship, largely based on my being good at maths and therefore of use as a friend, quickly cooled.
A few of the essays are by writers of colour, their skin colour incidental to their class. Eva Verde’s piece brings home the brutality of racism in an affluent Essex town, where Verde’s difference from her white siblings led to assumptions that she was the paid help as well as being chased and beaten with a stick by a boy calling her the N word, being called pubic-head by her female classmates, or nicknamed Divine Brown when a white boy showed interest in her, and only being asked to read the ethnic characters’ lines in English lessons. It was reading Toni Morrison’s books, found in libraries and second hand bookshops, that convinced Verde that she could be a writer.
I gave a gasp of recognition as I read Adam Sharp’s memoir about his dad Colin. I realised that I had read about Adam’s parents in the book his dad wrote about Martin Hannett, and I recognised that there are different ways to tell the same story. I’d come away from Colin Sharp’s book thinking well of him, despite his heavy drug use and its impact on himself and others. I came away from Adam Sharp’s essay with a different viewpoint on the harm addiction can do, particularly when former addicts brush it aside.
Both Dawson and Verde give nods to finding literature and writers that helped them feel recognised. This anthology had the same purpose, in publishing the myriad voices of working class writers, drawing on life experiences, lifting those voices and experiences above the dominant words of affluence and privilege.