REVIEW: Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers, ed. Kit de Waal (pp.308)

‘Working-class stories are not always tales of the underprivileged and dispossessed’. In this anthology, Kit de Waal joins thirty-three writers in ruminating on what ‘working-class’ means in contemporary Britain.

Published at the beginning of May, Common People couldn’t appear more timely. Within the last few weeks, multi-prize-winning author Pat Barker cast scepticism towards the ‘fashionable’ efforts of publishers, such as Penguin, to increase the amount of working-class and ‘regional’ voices in publication. Whilst it is always productive to probe the motives of publishers (and any authority, for that matter), one cannot help but find Barker’s attendant statements about working-class literature to be anything but myopic.

For Barker, working-class writers ‘suddenly became old hat‘ after the brief but enormous popularity of kitchen sink realist writers Alan Sillitoe and John Braine. Of course, this assertion comes with the circumscribed assumption about what working-class writing is: gritty, industrial, post-war narratives from the gregarious outer-London (throw in some Bovril, supped from a tin-pail, and you’re on to a winner). Barker assumes that since those Angry Young days, working-class writing is no longer popular or fashionable, despite the publication of ‘classic’ contemporary working-class writers such as Janice Galloway and her The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989); a solipsistic, claustrophobic narrative across time in which that ostensible fulcrum of working-class existence, the ‘kitchen sink’, becomes a protective but suffocating prison for a bereaved woman in Thatcher-era Scotland. Moreover, despite the halcian days of working-class fiction being supposedly long-dead, this didn’t prevent James Kelman from winning the Booker Prize for his How Late it Was, How Late (1994). Working-class writing has never stopped being needed, wanted, and radical.

Nevertheless, for Barker, the recent decision by the London-publishing-bubble to try and provide platforms for working-class and ‘regional’ voices could only be a ‘fashionable’ attempt at post-Referendum appeasement. One may argue, however, that it is far more likely that publishers are simply responding to the demands of the market: people want to read about lives which resonate with them. And, with almost one thousand backers, the successful, crowdfunded publication of Common People via Unbound illustrates that working-class writing is in demand, ‘fashionable’, and popular. It also shows that if the status quo don’t provide platforms for working-class voices to be heard, they’ll go elsewhere and they’ll be heard anyway. It is unsurprising, then, that publishers are initiating, albeit (too) slowly, a long overdue gear-shift via their diversity schemes.

People like me can write books. People like anyone can write books. You have to learn to like the sound of your own voice; you have to trust that your perspective is interesting because it is yours, that you are seeing the world through your own eyes and can use your own words to describe it.”

Cathy Rentzenbrink, ‘Darts’, in Common People, p.81.

Perhaps the principle appeal of Common People lies in the sheer variegation of its polyvocality. One may criticise the anthology for containing stories of such brevity – with so many contributors, the reflections embedded within are often less than ten pages in length. Yet this quality pointedly asserts one of the anthologies greatest strengths – its destabilisation of the prevailing, monocultural treatment of the working-class. In placing an array of eclectic reflections in close succession, de Waal delivers a collection motivated by agonistic pluralism – that is, a conflicting, contrary, but nevertheless unified whole: in Common People, divergent annals of the affectual and material experiences of being a member of the working-class abound.

Lisa McInerney’s delightfully acerbic ‘Working Class: An Escape Manual’, Katy Massey’s ‘Don’t Mention Class!’, and Chris McCrudden’s ‘Shy Bairns Get Nowt’ all proffer perceptive accounts of the labile and contested nature of what ‘working-class’ means, and the form and function of the status quo in keeping its foot firmly on the windpipe of workers’ self-identification. Contradistinctively, Stuart Maconie’s ‘Little Boxes’ offers a seductive paean to the streets which ‘made me’ (p.54). ‘Keats Avenue, Eliot Drive, Blake Close, Milton Grove… We lived among poets. We fought, drank, and snogged amongst literary giants’ (p.41). For Maconie, whilst conscious of the unjust privilege of the elites, growing up on a Wigan council estate ‘didn’t do me any harm’ (p.54) – rebuffing predominant narratives of a class wholly self-pitying and deprived; dissatisfied with their origins. Conversely, during the start of the anthology, Tony Walsh recapitulates the ever pertinent ‘us vs. them’ in his rousing call-to-arms ‘Tough’:

They don’t like it when our stories rise above the kitchen sink

They don’t like it when we learn, remember, organise or think

They don’t like it when we’ve knowledge so they price us out of college

But it’s tough, we’ve had enough and we are coming

Tony Walsh, ‘Tough’, in Common People, ll.7-11 (p.1)
Revolution! Yes Tony, yes!

Further adding to a sense of contrast and nuance, Adelle Stripe and Anita Sethi’s vignettes move away from the working class of England’s metropolises and depict experiences of rural life. Stripes rumination on the bleakness of the moors and the place of her father within it bears strong contrast to the liberating property of the Lake District for Sethi, otherwise imprisoned by the urban landscape of Manchester – revealing England’s pastures green as markers of both revelry and resignation.

Alongside these tales are too many superb entries to adequately do justice to here (buy the book!!): Paul Allen’s formative years on a libidinous building site; Cathy Rentzenbrink’s place as the dart-loving literati of Snaith; how Jill Dawson’s experience of Ted Hughes led her to becoming a writer-in-residence at comprehensive schools; Riley Rockford’s disorientating impostor’s syndrome during a formal dinner at a famous graduate school; and, by far my favourite contribution, Adam Sharp’s ‘Play’. Sharp’s musing – in a mere nine pages – proffers a compelling and affecting account of filial frustration towards a father who refuses to be exactly that. Sharp doesn’t make a pointed or self-conscious attempt to prove his working-class credentials. Rather, with indomitable sensitivity, he delivers a tale of searing honesty that ends with a satisfying – merited – fuck you. Similarly, Alex Wheatle’s letter to his younger self, ‘Dear Nobody’, personifies the various competing pressures within a tortured youth’s psyche, with a vulnerability that can’t fail to endear to all of us who look back in anger at how the working-class are indoctrinated into making an enemy of their futures; of failing to see their worth. And, with the poesy and acuity, but without the ornate and indulgent solipsism, of Elizabeth Smart, Julie Noble’s ‘Detail’ adumbrates the tentative ease in which love enraptures, does, and undoes, proving to be the perfect, intimate swansong for a collection crowded by the manifold pains and pleasures of common people.

My advice is to always, to any member of the working class, get smart, read as much as you can, and find out who’s using you. I did. What’s wrong with you?”

John Lydon, ‘Russell Brand’s revolution is idiotic’, Guardian, (3:11-3:20)

In a rare moment of lucidity and non-cringy candour, Lydon offers timeless and invaluable advice – advice which all of the contributors to Common People have followed. The anthology offers a variety of perspectives from an educated, often autodidactic class; a class as complex in its inner conflicts as it is in its outward resistance – thoroughly undercutting the assumed circumscriptions made by the likes of Pat Barker. One cannot help but feel a tentative excitement and curiousity about the stories that my own generation will pen – in which council houses have not proven to be such pervasive anchors for the proletariat experience – and how this will further complicate portraits of the working-class. And, in the digital epoch and gig economy, perhaps they will illustrate a class far more alienated, far more angry, and far more radical.

The collection closes with a sobering essay by Dave O’Brien, in which he unpicks publishing’s ‘serious class problem, as…one of the most socially exclusive of creative industries’ (p.278). The statistics are as incendiary as they are insightful: the ONS Labour Force Survey found that almost half (47%) of all authors, writers, and translators in Britain began from the most privileged rungs of the social ladder (p.278). Whereas, 12% are from the working-class (p.279). However, despite relative gender balance, the study omits consideration of who retains power within publishing. For, it is evident that women are often excluded from those prestigious roles within the creative professions – such as commissioning. Publishing, too, proves to be pointedly more white than other industries and, as O’Brien reminds us, these statistics don’t offer a holistic picture: who is being excluded from these calculations?

Understandably, then, Kit de Waal’s edited anthology, delivered by the crowd-funded people power of Unbound, proves a much needed breath of fresh air. It would be false and jejune to declare that, for Penguin et al., their days are numbered and they may soon find themselves overwhelmed by the power of outsider publishing – where there are platforms far more willing to provide opportunities for those voices that people most need – and want – to hear. Yet, edifying publications such as Common People are certainly a thorn in their side, and deliver a clear indication for why there needs to be change – a largely untapped, fecund pool of talent and experience lives within and amongst the working class. Yet, regardless of the future direction of publishing – and that of working-class literature – Common People stands tall as a hopeful beacon: that we will stand up, we will be counted, and we will be heard.

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