This year there’s been various Twitter threads about working class writers. I’m one of those – from a council estate in Leeds. I’m proud of this background, even though my schools were nothing special and there weren’t any jobs when I left. But I was always aware of writers from the working class because our local ones were published by the blockbuster firms and they were interviewed by the Yorkshire Post. I knew about the poets too – Tony Harrison, Ted Hughes, and incomers who worked at the university like Geoffrey Hill. Keith Waterhouse was local, Barry Hines wasn’t far away. We studied these writers at school, so nobody was in any doubt that working class writers existed. Some traded on their background, others didn’t. But their names were common currency and their works were available.
Nobody curated them; anthologies weren’t micro-managed on their behalf. Project grants weren’t held by someone else while the little working class writers jostled and begged for attention. The working class writer got published, performed, written about. BBC/ITV producers were available, and newcomers could send their work in direct to the regional centre. You didn’t pay for expensive courses which promised a fast-track towards publication, routes which cut you out because you were on the minimum wage. You didn’t have to know anyone when you started off. The conditions were therefore right for a working class person to get a foothold on Parnassus. Lots of routes in, from different angles; not much financial outlay needed.
Now there’s social media call-outs and projects for ‘working class writers’, because apparently there aren’t enough of us. We must be rare, or not intelligent/successful /ballsy/in the know enough to get on. Perhaps we haven’t realised that only certain types of people can become writers, and it’s not us. And of course, we need an expert to show us the way, we’re not able to handle it ourselves. And hopefully we write about raw real life and people having fights in pubs, not pitch-perfect mood pieces about divorced architects. How exciting we must be, with our unusual working class habits. And hopefully we’re so grateful that we don’t realise we’re being exploited, that the brief run of special access will end as soon as the grants are gone.
If you’re a struggling new writer, you sometimes have to balance your need for progress with this willingness to be put in a category. I minded this very much back in 1985, and it just made me more determined to be a poet on the route I was following. My best incident involved being told by a writer-in-residence that I was a typical ‘northern clown figure’ because of a student drama workshop I’d just been in. Overnight, I decided: ‘right, I’m taking those serious poets on at their own game’, and it pretty much set my direction for the next 20 years. I obviously appeared like one type of thing on the outside, and ‘the experts’ thought I was that type of thing, yet my brain told me I was something else.
Now of course, I don’t care. But it mattered back then, and being categorised due to my accent and background was simply not on. It’s no accident that more comedians come from the ‘working class’ – it’s one of the traditional ways they get noticed for their creativity. But surely, access to an arts career has moved on since the early 1900’s. Surely all this access to technology and part-time jobs, grants, projects, and higher education has levelled out the playing field for those of us who didn’t have the playing fields at prep school. I’d like to think so – but when I attended a litfest recently, there was a row of carefully intense posh people on the stage while I sat in the audience listening to them. The signal was clear: these were the spokespeople on behalf of Literature as far as that festival was concerned. I could have been a character from Dickens sat there, pressing my nose against the bookshop window. The problems persist, and if you’re not writing in the blockbuster genres, it’s like chipping your way up a mountain with a slot-headed screwdriver. If I was a new ‘working class’ poet I would be clinging to those promises put about by special project advocates. But I’m older and I’ve learnt. I want the same projects the other poets are into, not special ones devised for my class and background as others see it.
Meanwhile in the real world, remember there’s always more of us than there are of them. It must be true therefore, that a greater number of people with backgrounds like mine are doing their writing and succeeding at it. So I’d like to think we’re all out there, like the ironic points of light in the Auden poem, holding up our torches so that other working class writers can see where we are.