A seasonal Amazon worker USA
The following was written as a comment on facebook about the Tim Lott article on the Guardian published this week. This sparked some interesting comments on the notion and as Lott specifically flags up Sillitoe and this now a City of Literature I thought it might be worth expanding on.
The comments are more revealing than the article. I was born on a farm and moved to a council estate (lucky enough after sleeping on floors my family were rehoused) in 1966. I have always seen myself as working class and have written about it. I don’t think you lose that and I am not any less working class now than I was then. I do however from the age of 17 have many instances where I was told I was ‘rough’, uncultured, brash, awkward, not nice..by middle class people when it suited them. This usually occurred when I stood up on principal to being labelled or demeaned because of my background. I would be famous now if middle class because I would have learnt to keep my mouth shut and ‘do the right thing’. I never have and I never will and it has cost me jobs (the latest a case in point even academia is rife with classism) and affected my artistic production but it has never stopped me and never will. As my father said if a job’s worth doing it is worth doing well. I worked 8 years as a ‘minion’ (their words) at Oxford University in the same Colleges and system as Jeanette Winterson et al attended…..I could not be seen let alone heard during that time and that why I in Nottingham. If I stayed in Oxford I would be dead..literally.
There are some strange reactions in the comments including some vituperative remarks about Sillitoe himself which seem worth mentioning. He did in fact spend most of his life living in London but I don’t think that precludes him writing about the working class he came from. It would be like someone telling me I cannot write about Oxfordshire. More cutting was the accusation of demeaning the Radford area and its folk as villains which as I worked on Radford Road isn’t as far from the truth as it should be. In fact that road is statistically one of the highest reported crime areas in the country due to a high turn over of dwellers, students and a drug problem that has never gone away. Again attacking Sillitoe seems to be shooting the messenger and not addressing the problem something Nottingham good at.
Stanley Middleton isn’t mentioned which a shame as he probably wrote about the suburban aspirations of ‘decent folk’ ( i.e. people who work rather than the ‘working class’) just as well and lived all his life here but does that make him a better writer? As for modern day writers in Nottingham addressing ‘working class’ values it hard to say. David Belbin and John Harvey both address working-class story-lines but does that make their work ‘working class’ or them for that matter? Further more does it matter? Michael Eaton and Stephen Lowe both address working class subjects but I would never describe either as working class. As my dad would have said they wouldn’t know one end of a shovel from the other. Rosie Garner is definitely working class and lived all her life in Bestwood so I guess she would be happy with the label. Mulletproof Poet addresses his upbringing directly in his writing but aligns himself with The Sleaford Mods as much as Sillitoe. Nicola Monaghan in her original format ( she has since re-booted as a Horror Story/Thriller novelist Nikki Valentine but that another story) used working class to brand her first novel The Killing jar very successfully but having explored the hell of her estate upbringing (allegedly …I remain unconvinced there wasn’t a fair amount of decorative drugginess added to spice up the tale) she has not pushed that particular angle since. As an academic lecturer ( therefore now middle class according to some people’s logic) she now may find that to do so brings accusations of hypocrisy as many suggested in commenting on Lott’s original piece. To succeed then is to betray your background? That unjust in my opinion but unless a working class writer remains in poverty how do they avoid that catch 22. I am unemployed technically now but it not the same as being a 17 year old with no prospects. I am comfortable for the time being and can survive. Can I then say I still working class?
Which brings us to Nottingham’s most famous son..the rose with thorns. D.H.Lawrence. Definitely from the working class in Eastwood but hell bent on putting as much distance between himself and this ‘provincial’ city as he could. Never did any manual labour but wrote about it beautifully. Leant heavily towards right wing and fascist ideas after marrying into the Richtofen family. Treated badly certainly but no worse than others suspected of German allegiance and ended up a virtual exile because of it. A working class writer. Yes. A fascist. Yes. Uncomfortable truths abound. I do not buy into the ‘he was misunderstood’ approach. When he wrote his eulogy to Hitler he knew what he doing. A Moseleyite through and through.
WORKING CLASS HERO?
Can one be a truly ‘working class’ writer then? My opinion is yes one can.
Even in writing that line I baulked at using ‘one’ it reminds me of Oxford.
We carry our childhoods with us and we never lose them. they form our core values and our outlooks. I will never vote Conservative. I will never support fox-hunting. I do not like right wing people and neither did my family. My parents bought their council house off Thatcher because it was a good deal …did that make them any less working class? The estate I grew up on is unrecognisable now and a dormitory suburb for London with high prices and no community. That was part of the Thatcherite policy to enable purchase, profiteering and movement. Slum landlords have divided the small council houses into multiple occupation flats. The working class are still there but speak many languages, have no organisation to speak for them, and work horrendous shifts to pay sky-high rents for cramped rooms. That is what working class writing should tackle now. It is below the radar of old notions of working and class and some working class people are actively exploiting that underclass. Again an unfortunate truth.The exploitation of land and capital continues by whatever means allowed.
The white working class communal world I grew up in has been smashed but it does not mean I cannot write about it or posit it as an alternative to what we have now. That is not naive lefty fantasy – that is fact. That certain middle-class writers would rather avoid that unwelcome truth says more about the state of Britain now than what existed then. Sitting around in book groups reading Hilary Mantel and eating cake is very nice for the idle rich but how many question how or where their nice cheap Amazon paperbacks are printed or who actually prepared and served that delicious cake? Many hands hold up our middle and working-class lifestyles now. We are all beneficiaries of our comfortable western capitalism..all of them unseen hands….in foreign parts mostly. Cheap labour and exploitation is at the heart of all capitalist processes. Forget that and you have forgotten you are working class. Hands define manual labour. Hands also write. Some writers only know writing and have never encountered the other.
My definition of a ‘working class’ writer is anybody who has experience of both. Working and writing. These days the literary world is clogged up with people who know only one and lecture those who have experience of the other endlessly…
Tim Lott has ‘soft hands’ as my Dad would say….they be manager’s hands.