Not as fluent in English as I thought

Ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Yorkshire. I use a smattering of dialect, but not nearly as much as I used to, and unless you know me well you’re unlikely to hear the strongest version of my accent. I write in English, as you can see, and being a native speaker I thought I was pretty fluent. Until I started doing a deep edit of a couple of short stories during an online course.

The exercise was about getting specific. Cut the adverbs and use the most fitting verb. Ditch the abstract notions and make them concrete. Here’s what I wrote as my experience of working through the story I’m focusing on the most, which is set in the 1980s on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales:

I had (I think) almost nothing properly abstract and only one adverb (breathing heavily). I wondered how much is to do with this story being in a working class Yorkshire setting so I feel free to use more evocative and precise phrases like he clattered down the stairs, he brayed on the wall, the radio wittered. I’m going to investigate another story where I’ve used a more middle-class voice and see if I’ve used ‘standard English’ i.e. a smaller vocabulary and hence relied on adverbs more.

And you know what? I had.

As I suspected, the middle-class voice story I was thinking of has: talking quietly and earnestly, walked more slowly, ran quickly away, held tightly [several times!], coughed loudly. Not to mention a couple of ‘very’ and some abstract notions like feeling better, being kind or afraid. Wow.

Now, either I was having a bad day when I wrote the ‘middle-class’ story (and every subsequent time I’ve gone through it) or I have some kind of block when I’m writing in a posh voice.

I’ve talked about code-switching before (not least when I wrote about accent at No Writer Left Behind) but I always thought I was pretty good at it. My vowels sound northern (u and a are dead giveaways) but I didn’t think translating the odd word (something/anything/nothing instead of summat/owt/nowt, for instance) was seriously stifling my creativity. But all that is in spoken English, and thankfully I don’t get to go back through conversations at work to see how large a vocabulary I’ve used.

Written down, it’s there to go over later. Written down, it also has to follow rules about what gets written in books, ‘proper English’. Do I self-censor because I think words like clattered or brayed aren’t allowed in written English (slang? impolite? common?), or because I think they’re not universally understood (dialect? old-fashioned?), or because I think they’re not used by the kind of person with the voice I’m trying to write in?

It’s an interesting situation, it’s shown up my assumed fluency in switching and made me stop and think. Maybe what it comes down to is if I’m consciously writing ‘northern-normal’ – what to me is the default – then as long as I can imagine me or my Nana saying it, it’s fine, but for the middle-class, the BBC accent, I have to be able to imagine someone reading it from a book on Radio 4, and that imposes a whole mass of constraints which I’m clearly not comfortable with navigating.

I think my conclusion is that I should take my own repeated advice and write more in shades of my own voice.

Under-represented writers finding their way

I’ve been working through the new Route-map for under-represented writers from Carmen Marcus this week (if you recall, it’s over on her blog that I wrote about embracing my accent). It’s even harder than I thought it might be, for some of the reasons she mentions in her explanations.

I want never gets. That was a common phrase in our house, too. And ‘making do’ is only to be expected when you’re being brought up by your Nana, who learnt to manage her own household in the 1940s. I’m still frequently to be heard saying There’s nowt wrong with this one, which is how come I’ve been writing at a laptop with a periodically blue-tinged screen for nearly 2 years, that often requires careful jiggling to be able to read it. This mindset, as Carmen notes, leads to wants being automatically labelled as indulgence. So imagine how hard it is to list your wants and needs as a writer (ssh, ordinary people aren’t writers…).

I used to believe my dad that you can’t be working class if you’ve been to university, which meant me and him were different from the rest of the family. In a way, we are – we’re the quiet, shy, bookish ones (though Big Brother manages that well enough without a degree) – but mostly we’re pretty much the same. It’s only by acknowledging the influence of your background that you can work to overcome it. Similarly it’s only by acknowledging the deepest needs (confidence, the need to feel like you’re not being laughed at by those in the know) that you can figure out where to head next with your writing career. It’s no good going to some swanky agent event if you spend the whole time in the toilet because you overheard someone comment on your pairing brown shoes with a dark suit and now you can’t face anyone. (Tip: never wear a suit to anywhere that matters, if you don’t normally wear suits. Dress to your own rules and no-one can judge if you’re doing it ‘right’ except you.)

So what have I been delving into and enlightening myself with, using Carmen’s breadcrumb trail? Well, starting with a list of what you’ve done so far is an excellent boost for the journey ahead. We should all do this periodically to remind ourselves, I think. Importantly this was about activity, not achievement, so while I didn’t count up yesterday how many acceptances I had in 2018, I did note with surprise that I’d made 49 submissions. In one of the worst years of my life, when it felt like I was barely functioning at times, I count that as a major success. I also noted that things that had taken me well out of my comfort zone (like writing a radio drama with a friend then performing it on live radio) were the things I was most proud of and had turned out brilliantly. Maybe if it feels like it’s going to be difficult I put more preparation in? Or maybe my strengths lie in places I don’t generally acknowledge. Mentoring would definitely take me out of my comfort zone, and every time I’ve thought about it the little voice in my head goes What have you possibly got to offer? but maybe now is the time to give it a go.

I tried not to agonise over my top 5 inspirational writers. Write down the first five that float to the top of your mind, I thought. Number one? Douglas Adams, naturally. And Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Anthony Trollope and, interestingly, Stuart Maconie. I listed King, Pratchett and Adams as my favourite authors on my UCAS form in 1995 (I remember a bizarre conversation with – as I recall – Tom McLeish about the science of the Discworld, when I visited Leeds University), and Trollope’s been one of my favourites for at least the last 15 years. But what on earth do they have in common? I decided it was probably language that didn’t feel writerly (harder to spot with Trollope, but if you make allowances for the era he’s writing in…). They’re easy to read, chatty for the most part, implicitly or explicitly narrating a tale directly to you, the reader, with asides and interesting facts. There’s room for passion, erudition, weirdness, but all so naturally and simply laid out. Whereas I waffle, and use too many parentheses, and rarely cut to the chase. I have a feeling there is much for me to learn here.

Then there’s the list of jobs, and what skills and experiences they gave you. There’s the one I won’t specify that taught me how to have a smoothly professional relationship with a close colleague you loathe in almost every respect. There’s being a research student for 2 years, that gave me a good grounding in living with anxiety and self-doubt (definitely useful as a writer). There’s a couple of them (particularly one shop) where I learnt to let the back-biting and petty jealousies wash over me – and even though I mainly spend my social media time in a lovely supportive corner of Twitter I get glimpses of that kind of thing now and then.

All that was before I even got as far as Step 2, which I’m struggling with as it’s the wants and needs bit. I have to articulate these things, commit them to paper (and those that know me well, know how I hate to ‘waste’ paper, so writing this list in a notebook took some doing. In fact I avoided all my nice writing notebooks and went to serviceable spiral-bound A4 left over from a project) and then potentially, scarily, share them.


My serviceable, as yet blank, hierarchy of writing needs

So, having managed to write down my top 10 writing goals as the 10 writing goals I’m frightened of, believe aren’t for me or are beyond me (did I mention needing confidence?), I think I need to take a break and get some inspiration elsewhere. I’m going to start by re-reading other people’s writing experiences at No Writer Left Behind.

If you want Step 1 of Carmen’s route-map, you can find it at The Bookseller, who also had an interesting survey of working class people in the book trade this week. Step 2 is at Carmen’s blog, where Steps 3-5 will follow, I believe. And if you’re interested in all this kind of thing, you might want to listen to Monday’s Breaking The Class Ceiling on Radio 4, which includes another vocal working class writer, Natasha Carthew. (No, I don’t think classism should be a ‘thing’, for a start it’s impossible to define, but it sounds like an interesting programme). See you next month.

Class and the BBC

Monitoring the class background of BBC employees strikes me as an over simplistic and probably counter-productive way of aiming at greater diversity in journalism, though I do agree that the BBC’s viewpoint does seem overly narrow (London-centric and middle class) at times.

In his Alternative MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival, Jeremy Corbyn has apparently suggested that the BBC should analyse the social class of its workforce. None of the reports I’ve read about the event this week say whether he set out how this should be done, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Apart from the research that suggests there are now seven identifiable class groupings in Britain rather than the familiar upper-middle-working, how easy is it to spot where the boundaries lie and at what point does someone move from one to the other?

At university I met a couple of people who’d been to state school (at which they’d learnt Latin) and came from, as far as I could tell, solid middle-class (certainly wealthy) backgrounds. Would they tick a diversity box because of their school? At my fee-paying school I knew people on assisted places (like me) and scholarships. One girl, whose strong accent our English teacher used to complain about, was from a single-parent, unquestionably working-class, household that had no previous brushes with higher education. Would she be overlooked in the diversity game, seen as privileged like the chap who pointed out in The Guardian that though he was seen as a ‘public school Oxbridge type’ when he worked at the BBC, he’d achieved success from a poor background via grammar school? Are we intending to punish people for their achievements?

I find the obsession with widening access to Oxbridge annoying and wrong-headed, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t do your utmost to get more working class teenagers in there, and then say anyone who’s been to Oxbridge isn’t who you’re aiming your diversity scheme at. In my opinion, it’s not so much where you studied as what your attitude is and whether you notice that not everyone in Britain’s having the same experience. My dad argues that once you go to university you’re no longer working class, and while I agree with him that you might have moved away from your origins to a degree, you haven’t necessarily moved towards anywhere in particular. Spending time with family and keeping in touch with old friends should keep you in tune with your roots even if you don’t fully fit there any more, giving you an awareness of issues that someone who’s fully distanced themselves (or was never there in the first place) won’t have.

I don’t like quota systems, whether they’re for female candidates in Labour’s internal elections or working class employees at a publishing house or the BBC. Unfortunately they’re easy to measure and they’re visible. Those in charge can be seen to be tackling some perceived deficiency, without anyone necessarily digging any deeper into how much good the policy is doing. I would be among the first to say that background matters, and that the BBC (and The Guardian, and probably other national news outlets that I don’t engage with) suffers from a lack of diversity, but unless they’re going to devise a questionnaire asking whether your childhood treats included tinned fruit and Blackpool Illuminations, and what your siblings and in-laws do for a living, instead of just asking which school you went to, I don’t think class-monitoring is the way forward.

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

I went to see Stuart Maconie talk about this book at last year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, an event which was entertaining and informative, and far too short. I finally got the book out of the library in January and it’s one of those that halfway through, I wished I’d bought it instead.

In October 1936 a couple of hundred unemployed men from Jarrow on the south bank of the Tyne marched to London to hand in a petition to parliament. The background is complex, but after the closure of a shipyard (added to other national problems) there was seventy percent unemployment in the town, and the men were asking for a proposed steelworks to be situated near them to provide new jobs. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and they weren’t the only men to march at that time, to highlight unemployment. For some reason, however, possibly to do with embedded journalists, a coincidence of date with the first BBC TV broadcasts, and being accompanied for part of the way by fiery local MP Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Crusade (as it’s usually known) has lingered in the collective memory.

Or it has in some parts of it, at least. Stuart Maconie is something crucial in the Ramblers’ Association, as well as being an author and popular BBC presenter, so looking for a challenging walk in the autumn of 2016 he realised recreating the Jarrow marchers’ route would be perfect, and would allow him to ask people along the way what they knew about the crusade and what it meant to them, eighty years later. Not much, was the most common answer, though he did run across pockets of memory and enthusiasm.

You either like Stuart Maconie’s style or you don’t, and I do – it’s largely chatty and friendly (jovial, even) but there’s a vein of politics running through it (he describes himself as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain”) and he does get angry at the state of the country both now and in the time of Jarrow. I got angry too, reading it. There is a chapter for each day of the march, but in among the curry house recommendations and pop culture trivia sparked by towns and villages he passes through, there is enthusiastic historical and geographical information about the route. He also brings in snippets of history or broader context where necessary, and takes the odd bus or taxi detour if there’s somewhere of relevance nearby.

The book is as much about people as places, and he chats to lots of locals in pubs and on Twitter as he’s on the way, and gets their take on the area (and Britain) now as well as their thoughts on the original march. There are also interesting encounters in local museums, with the Dean of Ripon cathedral, and two MPs (Tracy Brabin and Kelvin Hopkins). As all this took place only a few months after the EU referendum, it’s got Brexit running through it. Maconie voted remain, but he shows a good understanding of why so many of his northern neighbours didn’t, and a frustration with the metropolitan elite who still don’t get it.

I don’t agree with all of his analysis (and I certainly don’t agree with all his musical views), but I think this is an interesting, well-meaning book. A worthy successor to JB Priestley’s English Journey in fact, which he mentions a couple of times himself. If you know quite a bit about English working class history, you might not learn any new facts (other than the possible name of the dog accompanying the Jarrow Crusaders, though that seems to be disputed) but by explicitly using the contrast of then and now it makes you think about contemporary events and circumstances in a different light. Aside from that it’s an entertaining travelogue through some less than obvious holiday destinations like Luton, Bedford, Barnsley and Darlington.

But I thought that was normal

A fledgling writer has based some fiction on a real incident, or used a semi-autobiographical character, or their own or a friend’s reaction to or behaviour in a particular situation. They share it with their writing group, an online writers’ forum, or a critique-buddy and the response is a resounding no. No, I don’t buy that. No, people just don’t do or say that. No, I’ve never met a character like that in my life. So, do they say thanks for pointing out something that’s not working, or do they admit the truth behind the supposed fiction and let the group realise they’ve just invalidated this writer’s life?

Truth is stranger than fiction often enough, and the events of one outlandish night may well not wash as a story, but I’m not talking about that kind of unique event. I’m talking about the kind of thing that in the writer’s world is everyday or logical, some details they used to make a story more authentic. The kind of thing that, when the reaction is ‘normal people aren’t like that’, can hurt.

I’m not a fledgling writer any more but as I said in January on No Writer Left Behind it took me a while to stop writing middle-class characters speaking BBC English, when I wasn’t in SF mode. I’m still not sure of myself when I write fiction that’s closer to home, not based on people I’ve observed from afar. I still end up believing (sometimes) that everyone (else) in 21st century Britain has a car, a TV, a smartphone and a dishwasher, all women are on the pill, everyone goes on foreign holidays, and they all have a circle of friends they’re in constant touch with and see every week. So I find myself writing characters who fit those expectations, but then every so often I write something that for me seems more real, with a stronger connection to me or my family. The characters are usually some combination of hard up, lonely, anxious, socially inept and are not fitting in.

And I share the story and get responses like this:

  • Nobody does that.
  • Why would anyone think that?
  • I just don’t understand why he’d expect that to happen.
  • But surely he’d just… (this one often involves spending money or owning several of something, i.e. buy another or use the spare)
  • I’ve never met anyone who…
  • Who on earth is that sad/lonely/downtrodden/anxious? It’s over the top, it doesn’t ring true.
  • Why would she still be friends with that person? She’d just turn to her other friends instead.
  • I don’t see why that’s such a big deal.

They range from the trivial (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, someone from the south-east asking who on earth has a washing line these days, to which I replied: everyone round here) to the deeply-felt and upsetting. A few years ago when The Nephew was a teenager he was seriously ill, and because I’m old-school British (emotionally stunted) I faced the prospect of him dying without my ever having made it clear how much he means to me. I’m not his only aunt, but he is my only nephew and since I have no children he’s basically it as far as my connection to the next generation goes, the only person to pass things on to, whether that’s knowledge or my record collection. Also, he’s a nice lad with good (that is to say, my) musical taste. Thankfully, he pulled through and of course other than buying him more books I haven’t taken any steps towards showing my fondness. However, I did write a story in which a childless poet has one niece (though he’s not her only uncle) who means the world to him and he realises he ought to tell her, if only by writing her a poem and sending it to her. Someone I knew from an online writing community read the story and emailed me with feedback: the poet seemed a bit sad and pathetic, why would he fixate on this niece who doesn’t see him as anything special, what’s so special about the niece? So not only did I think my story had fallen flat, I also felt judged. Perhaps I should add that I can think of plenty of instances in my extended family where the childless have a particular fondness for a niece or nephew (who they may well leave most or all of their belongings to) without necessarily seeing them often, so at home I don’t feel particularly unusual.

Recent questioning of details in a story undergoing critique made me think about all this again, as I stayed silent rather than defending behaviour I see replicated across friends and family, and the rest of the group clearly found odd. As long as a writer is writing their deeply personal story in isolation, it’s fine. Once they share it, it starts to matter who they share it with – if they’re working class and it’s being looked at by a middle class group, if they’re rural and being judged by the urban, or from an immigrant family and no-one who’s reading it is, then you get the possibility of this mismatch and disbelief. Class, upbringing, income or disability can all make a difference and if the writer feels judged or out of step, it’s easy to be discouraged or decide to write about the visible characters, the ones you think everyone’s expecting to read about.

I find it hard to imagine anyone pays four grand for a handbag, or twenty grand for a watch, but I see these items in lifestyle features in The Guardian so I assume the relevant people must exist somewhere. If you never see evidence for particular sets of people you’re not likely to find them plausible in fiction, so I can see (I think) how the ‘no’ happens, but we need to find a way to break the cycle and make the invisible visible, so that the next batch of fledgling writers can look around and say yes, I thought it wasn’t just me.

Embracing the Accent by JY Saville

This is a post I wrote this week for a new blog telling the stories of working class writers – I can recommend following it if you’re at all interested in writers or class experience.

Mine, inevitably, is about accent and dialect and is illustrated with a photo of my Nana and her sister.

No Writer Left Behind

Who would have thought the Daily Telegraph would play so prominent a role in the resurgence of my accent? It was during Louise Doughty’s year of writing a weekly column about short stories for them, when they ran a monthly writing competition and hosted a sort of discussion and exercise forum on their website. The Short Story Club had been running a couple of months already when someone (probably my mum) told me the Telegraph was having a writing competition. I entered, but only lurked on the fringes of the online club until May when I plucked up the courage to join in.

At school, we were warned that regional accents were looked down on. Anyone who wanted to get on in life needed to speak in standard English and preferably received pronunciation.

Speaking with an accent was akin to dubious sexual practices: try not to do it at all…

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Literary fiction and why I avoid it

I can be something of a snob sometimes, particularly the inverse snobbery of the chippy northerner. I dismiss entire author lists as a bunch of poncy southerners and expect to leave it at that – why would I need to provide further explanation or analysis? I’m not saying it’s a great character trait, but I do admit to having it. However, listening to Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme Where Are All The Working Class Writers? some of the people she spoke to talked about middle class literary novelists having a different mindset from someone with a working class background, and also about the concept of not seeing your own life reflected in fiction in bookshops and thus being put off reading it. I wondered if some of my antipathy towards literary fiction was grounded in that feeling.

I have never read any Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Will Self or Julian Barnes. Not because of the author (well, maybe in the case of Will Self) but because none of their books have appealed to me. It’s not just old white men though, the same goes for Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy. In fact I had a look at the Booker Prize longlists 2010-2017 and I have only read one of the books on them; for the other 103 books I hadn’t even read any books by the author. That one book was surprising, it was Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, shortlisted in 2011. A novel by a Canadian author, with characters and settings from America, France, Germany and mainly set in the late 1930s and the second world war, it could be argued that Half Blood Blues is less connected with my mindset or reality than anything by McEwan et al, yet not only did I choose to read it but I really enjoyed it. Is it just that the usual suspects are neither familiar nor exotic enough?

I have read and enjoyed five AS Byatt novels, and there’s no getting away from their classification as literary fiction. Does the fact that she’s originally from Yorkshire, and each of those books is partially set in Yorkshire, make that much of a difference to me? (Probably, though I’ve enjoyed plenty of Ben Aaronovitch and Robert Rankin books set in London)

It can’t be a complete aversion to a stratum of life: I’ve read plenty of upper/middle class novels by PG Wodehouse, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Trollope. Each of those has humour though, often laugh-out-loud, and even though Trollope is Victorian Literature now, he was a popular novelist in his day. None of them are highbrow.

I don’t want to read the same kind of book all the time (hence Anthony Trollope, sci-fi, crime, fantasy, PG Wodehouse, historical fiction, etc) so even if some of it had some connection to my life, most of it wouldn’t and it can’t be that reflection of life that I’m looking for. Most of what I read, however, has what you might call plot.

I’m reaching the conclusion that what puts me off literary fiction is the label as much as anything else. I see a novel under that heading and I expect it to be full of dull wealthy people, sighing and arguing and having affairs and mid-life crises, probably in a place they don’t describe because Everyone has been there (except I probably haven’t), and really nothing much happens and nobody laughs. I read the synopsis with all that at the back of my mind and a description I might be half-interested in without that bias puts me off immediately. So yes, it’s mainly personal prejudice, and it’s yet another argument for not splitting the fiction in bookshops and libraries into all the fiddly sub-categories.

To the far north, in search of Penguins

Major excitement (and writing vaildation) this week as I found out I’ve been lucky enough to get a place on the Penguin Random House WriteNow insight day in Newcastle. This means, among other things, I get to talk to an editor about an extract of the semi-rural fantasy novel which they’ll have read in advance. I’m sure you can imagine the walking on air/dancing on lino that’s been going on here. Penguin books had a similar status to the BBC when I was growing up so even without making the trip north, meeting anyone or getting any further along the route to mentoring, I feel like I’ve won the pools and been anointed with the sacred oil of authorhood, extracted from the typewriter keys of earnest 1950s writers in suits.

Back in June I rather cheekily asked if from a London perspective their criterion of being ‘socio-economically marginalised’ meant that simply being northern was enough (and since then there continues to be evidence of the north-south divide, such as in premature death rates) but to their credit they gave me a considered answer:

They also said they’d consider applicants as eligible “If you define yourself as working class/ from a working class background”. We can argue about class till the cows come home, whether going to university catapults you into middle class territory regardless of accent, outlook, or what your sister does for a living, but there’s no denying my background, my roots, and the words I write with a loud northern working class voice (just look at the class tag here on the blog, for a start).

As Mark the artist pointed out while congratulating me, this surely highlights the importance of being true to yourself. On the face of it a combination of politics and urban (semi-rural) fantasy set in northern England in the wake of Brexit doesn’t sound like it would have mass appeal and I’ve worried a few times that I’ve sunk so much time and energy into a novel that no-one will be interested in. Yet that’s the novel I sent them an extract from and a synopsis of, and that someone has presumably seen potential in. The lesson to take away from this is: write with passion and originality, and you’ll get there (somewhere) eventually.

Working Class Writer? Class, Education, Politics and the Arts

You can’t say the post title didn’t warn you what’s been on my mind lately. Some of it’s pre-election frustration and my disbelief at, among others, the bring back grammar schools brigade, because of course none of their children would ever be relegated to the non-selective school, in the same way presumably that their children will never need to use a library (or the NHS) so it’s ok to wreck them for everyone else. However, the topic of working class writers has been bubbling under again, partly via Dead Ink crowdfunding a book of essays on the working class called Know Your Place and some Twitter discussions that arose from that.

Name some working class writers, came the challenge. The names of various successful novelists were bandied about, but did they count? They were in varying degrees superficially middle class (wealthy, university educated). Did they think of themselves as working class any more? Would society let them get away with it if they did?

Non-British readers will no doubt be puzzled at this point but despite attempts to declare the UK a classless society (aka we’re all middle class now) class still matters here, it still has a major effect on your salary (even given similar levels of education), your educational opportunities in the first place, and even health prospects. So yes, it’s more complicated than it used to be (the BBC identified about seven social classes a couple of years ago) but it’s still there casting a shadow over most people’s lives.

Which brings us back to the working class writers thing. If someone grows up in a working class family, goes from their comprehensive school to university and graduates with a decent degree, does that automatically make them middle class? Well, Nathan Connolly who runs Dead Ink would argue no, as in this piece he wrote last week. That would be to deny the background and the upbringing that shaped them before they arrived at university. On the other hand it’s hard to argue with any conviction that you’re working class when on the face of it you’ve got a salaried graduate job and can afford an avocado whenever you fancy one, however much your attitudes, politics, outlook may align with siblings or cousins that didn’t head down the higher education path. There will undoubtedly be accusations of false claiming of credentials, like the outbreak of Mockney a few years ago. Kit de Waal, celebrated author and outspoken champion of working class writers suggests embracing the dual identity with no excuses and no shame, but you need to be pretty confident to do that (another trait that graduates from working class backgrounds are said to lack).

Where are all the working class writers then (as Kit de Waal asked last summer, in fact)? Are they looking at the quinoa in their cupboard and simply not feeling comfortable with calling themselves working class any more? Some will no doubt have intentionally left the working class behind via education, though the long tradition of self-education in the working class shows that the two don’t have to go together. Some may well be plugging away under the radar, not shouting about their class background and not writing anything that highlights it. The rest, however, are probably struggling to get a foot in the door because of lack of contacts, cultural capital, or money.

In Nathan Connolly’s piece from last week that I linked to earlier, he mentions setting up Dead Ink because he couldn’t afford the unpaid internships in London that were apparently essential. So many fields in the arts seem to rely on unpaid internships (and in London too) it’s no wonder the arts are dominated by people with money behind them (there’s an interesting paper called Are the creative industries meritocratic?, which you can access here). I was told in passing last week that I was at a serious disadvantage trying to get involved in the arts without a car – getting to performance venues (and home at the end of an evening, when any public transport is likely to have thinned out or stopped), school visits, distributing leaflets/brochures or attending meetings with publishers/agents/promoters. It may well be true, but that’s another obstacle if you don’t have money behind you. I know a couple of people who have a driving licence but no car, but without even trying I can think of 10 more in my immediate family/closest friends who’ve never learnt to drive in the first place (with maybe 8 or 9 who drive and have or share a car).

In conclusion then, working class writers might be out there but are probably struggling. When the only people who get a voice are the wealthy, we’re in a bad way so we need to fight for libraries, fight for a level playing field in education, and build a flourishing cultural hub outside of London (Northern Powerhouse, anyone?). By the way, the Labour manifesto mentions banning unpaid internships. I’ll just leave that thought with you.

It’s not my gender that’s the problem

It’s not like I never get involved in women-only publications or events. I reviewed female-author books for women-only SF purveyors Luna Station Quarterly for a while, and I’m taking part in the York International Women’s Festival in March. However, I do that in the spirit that I would enter a competition open only to residents of the UK, or a scheme for Bradford council-tax-payers: I fit the criteria, criteria are sometimes arbitrary. I don’t do it because I think women are somehow special or a homogenous mass. ‘Women’ is too big a group for lumping together: the larger the group the greater the diversity within it, and the less use it is for any practical purpose.


Class (social background, social capital, and contacts) and/or wealth are much more important as enablers or hindrances to getting on than gender is, particularly in writing. Let’s talk about competition entries first.

While it’s true that there are many free to enter writing competitions out there, pretty much all of the big prestigious ones (and many of the smaller ones too) cost money. Before I continue, I should point out that I expect first-readers, judges, administrators and all the rest to be paid properly for their time, and I understand that there are overheads to be covered, as well as the prize money. It doesn’t change the fact that it costs, for example, between £8 (flash fiction) and £10 (short story) to enter the Bridport Prize, £8 for the Bristol Short Story Prize, £10-£12 to enter the various Cinnamon Press competitions, £17.50 for the most recent Manchester Fiction Prize, or £25 for the Bath Novel Award.

In terms of special concessions to female authors, confidence is often cited. Women are not as likely to submit manuscripts to agents or publishers as men. Women are not as convinced of their greatness as men. I’ve met some pretty arrogant and overbearing women for whom this will not be a problem, and I also know plenty of shy, self-deprecating men. Social background comes into the confidence issue in a big way: if you’ve ever felt the slightest hint of ‘not for the likes of us’ you will feel it in the face of publishers and agents. Think your vocabulary might not be as vast as it ‘should’ be? Have an idea that everyone in publishing is a posh woman called Pippa who’s never caught a bus in her life? Now bear that in mind as you prepare to fork out most of this month’s disposable income in writing competition fees…

I was shocked recently to read a £3 reading fee described as less than the price of a coffee or sandwich. Now £3 is not a vast amount to me for a fee like this, though even the small amounts add up – it was the comparison I didn’t like, as though it was perfectly trivial for everyone. I would not pay £3 for a sandwich or a cup of coffee (I have paid £3 for a really fancy hot chocolate, and felt guilty about it later). When OneMonkey and I go out for a meal it costs us £20-£25 in total, probably because we don’t buy alcohol or a starter and are both vegetarian, but still that’s the sort of thing you’re up against. Do we pay for a treat we can both enjoy, or the entry fee to a writing competition I have little chance of winning? You’d have to be massively confident (or single-minded) to enter the writing competition if you didn’t have much spare cash.

Then there are writing retreats, editorial and critiquing services, workshops and conferences, writing groups. Not all of these will charge a fee (and some have low income concessionary rates) but even travel costs to events can be prohibitive. I saw a 3-day conference advertised recently, the price seemed high but considering you were getting 3 days probably not too bad, it was just over an hour away by public transport (we don’t have a car) but adding in the 3 days of travel costs nearly doubled the total price of attendance so I decided against it. Again, if you’re lacking confidence, and perhaps don’t know anyone else who writes or thinks writing is a worthwhile thing to do, you’ll think twice about spending the money.

Books cost money (though the Guardian still thinks describing books around the £10 mark as stocking fillers is reasonable), libraries are closing down and don’t always have the books that you need. Research resources that are a matter of paying to use the online database from the comfort of your own study for the better off, might be a stumbling block for others. Even carving out writing time is harder if you can’t afford a babysitter or an after school club, or haven’t got a spare room to shut yourself in with a notepad and pen.

I once went to a writing workshop where the tutor began by saying writing was (financially) accessible to everyone because all you needed was paper and a pen. Rubbish, I thought. As a hobby, maybe, but not if you want to be a writer. If you want to be a writer, you need to type up your work on a computer and in some cases still print it out and post it off as a hard copy. Unless you’re exceptionally talented you need guidance and tuition (in person or via books) and preferably someone to read through your final drafts to give you an opinion, which might have to be an editorial service if you don’t hang around with other writers much. You need the money to enter competitions or pay the increasingly common ‘reading fees’ for magazines (or buy a book from the indie publisher before you can submit your own manuscript – I get why they want to do that, but I’m not buying a book I’ve already read from the library just so I can send them my work and then probably not even be one of the ten people they publish next year). You need the confidence that you’re not just throwing all this money away. This is not a women-only problem.


Dangerous Northern Women

I’ve been writing a bit of non-fiction lately (I mean apart from this blog, and the usual book reviews). Some of it is now up at the Dangerous Women Project in the form of a piece about the Bradford Female Educational Institute and its worrying policy of actually trying to teach working class women stuff, back in the 1850s when that really wasn’t cool (I know – Bradford, education, working class history and northern women all at once!). You can read it here:

I was planning to tell you all about the project in advance, but I didn’t want to seem like I was crawling while my piece was under consideration and I didn’t realise it would be up so soon after acceptance, so I never did. Suffice to say I recommend having a good look round the site, there’s a lot of different topics which all have something to do with the idea of being a dangerous woman, pushing boundaries in some way.

If the image had been freely available, I would have liked the drawing from this 1856 magazine page to illustrate it, but sadly it wasn’t to be.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.

Reading habits and class

A survey by Booktrust this week appears to reveal a class divide in reading habits. No real surprise there, education generally exhibits some form of class divide and there’s no obvious reason this would be different. I haven’t seen the survey itself, only articles on the BBC and Guardian websites (and public comments thereon), but it does seem quite a small sample, it’s not clear whether they include e-books in their definition of books (doesn’t sound like it, oddly) and I would argue about cause and effect. As well as the class definitions they use. However, it does lead me to a few observations.

One is that this kind of survey (particularly the bit about the numbers of books owned by different types of household) should tell the powers that be all they need to know about why closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I suspect they know this already, sadly.

Another is that class or income don’t go hand in hand with reading habits, it’s attitude that matters. All three of my grandparents that I knew were avid readers, library users, and encouraged my reading as a child. Though not all of them would have admitted it by the time I was on the scene, they were all working class and had different levels of formal education, gained by different routes. Presumably the common thread was that they saw, or came from families who saw, education as a good thing and reading as a perfectly reasonable pastime. It’s not likely that anyone will choose to read for enjoyment, however well-off or middle-class they are, if they know they’ll be looked on as odd by the people around them.

Thirdly, and this is where the now-obligatory mention of Richard Hoggart appears (see my post about The Uses of Literacy here), who says reading a book is the be-all and end-all? The articles about the survey mention (the horror!) that The Youth prefer social media and the internet to a book. Now unless I’ve missed the popularisation of truly sci-fi technology whereby images are beamed direct from the internet to a teenager’s brain via subcutaneous wi-fi nodes, surely they will be reading during (some of) this web-surfing. Does reading the latest unauthorised biography of a teen pop sensation in hardback require more thought and effort than reading daily update articles on the same topic? Don’t they read blogs (obviously not this one as it’s not cool enough… Having said that, I’m sure I have some followers who at least claim to be under 21), gig reviews, wikipedia?

Fourthly, has anyone looked at the benefits of reading per se? I’m in the middle of a MOOC on The Challenges of Global Poverty from the economics department at MIT and I’m rather keen on the idea of randomized control trials at the moment, but has anyone systematically looked at how all this book stuff helps? Does reading absolutely anything (fiction, magazines, recipes, blogs) exercise the mind in some fundamental way, or is there something specific to reading longer texts (a novel, a biography), and does listening to the audiobook have the same effect? Or is it all just correlation – households with lots of books tend to be populated with people who will (when they’re not reading) have a serious conversation with each other, provoking thought even in the member of the household who would honestly rather be playing World of Warcraft?

There was a fifthly, but I got distracted by OneMonkey and the prospect of a cup of tea so (as you all sigh with relief) I’ll raise that cup of tea to the memory of Tony Benn, and shut up.

The North, the working class novel, the iplayer

For those of you with a passing interest in Northern working class culture and writings thereon (and let’s face it, on this blog it’s a definite benefit) there are a couple of rather interesting radio programmes on the BBC iplayer and they look like they’re available for quite some time yet.

The first is Beyond the Kitchen Sink, which I must have missed last year when it was on as part of the British New Wave season. It does make the occasional reference to other programmes from the season, which I don’t think are still available, but it’s an enjoyable documentary in its own right. For just short of an hour, Paul Allen talks about the plays and novels of the mid-fifties to sixties which brought working class voices to the fore. There are archive contributions from the likes of John Osborne, David Storey, Stan Barstow, and clips from the film and radio adaptations of their work. A much more intelligent treatment than the BBC TV documentary from September 2010 with an overlapping focus (which I reviewed here) it asks questions like why were the writers mainly northern, mainly men, and why did it appear to be a brief trend. A suggestion for part of the answer to the last question is that writers following in their footsteps went into TV rather than writing plays or novels, which brings me neatly to the next programme.

Bingo, Barbie and Barthes: 50 Years of Cultural Studies is a dreadful title for a thought-provoking two-part documentary on the origins and legacy of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies which Richard Hoggart founded in 1964 after he’d written The Uses of Literacy (which I’ve written about before). It features interviews with co-founder Stuart Hall who died recently, as well as other cultural studies academics past and present. It’s interesting to note how far removed cultural studies now seems to be (particularly in the popular imagination) from Hoggart’s intention but I do think that at its most incisive it can tell us a lot about the state of our society, for instance by examining the prevalence and format of TV talent shows or Downton Abbey or celebrity gossip magazines.

If any of that’s put you in the mood for some Northern writing and you haven’t sampled it already, you could try my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women. Some of it even has a working class setting…

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that in the wrong hands (i.e. those of anyone not born into northern working-class families) it could become a kind of anthropological study of peculiar speech, attitudes and customs, a kind of sneering affirmation of superiority on the part of the reader. When I read it, I found myself thinking ‘that’s a bit harsh’ occasionally, then realising I’d said almost the same thing plenty of times myself, usually for OneMonkey to reply ‘that’s a bit harsh’ – but for me, as for Richard Hoggart, there’s a mixture of exasperation that comes from looking closely from the outside, and affection for and/or understanding of the relatives and family friends looking back.

Hoggart set out to write a textbook about mass culture, by which he seemed to mean newspapers (newly-sensationalised), magazines (with pin-ups and short attention-span), cheap paperbacks (badly-written and full of sex and violence) etc and the habit of reading among a class of people who had more education as a basic background than their predecessors, but didn’t appear to be much better off for it. He then wrote the first half of the book (a summing up of recent or current attitudes in the northern urban working classes) to set his ideas in context. He seems to wander off-topic a fair bit and I must admit I didn’t follow all of his arguments, which is due in part to some of the contemporary references. I can say now a Sun-reader, a Guardian-reader, and conjure up in my own and other (British) people’s minds an idea of the sort of background or attitude I mean by that (it will be stereotypical, and in many instances unfair, but it’s a handy shorthand and a useful generalisation in some contexts, including as advertising targets, which Hoggart also covers) – but I have no idea what The Listener was like or who it was aimed at, I know nothing about any of the radio programmes he mentions (TV hadn’t really taken off at the time) and even the distinction between types of paper-shop is lost on me. However, there is enough of endurance there that I get the general gist.

OneMonkey has noted how many conversations in the last couple of weeks I’ve chipped in with ‘it’s funny you should say that because in this Hoggart book…’ and I do find it fascinating (and also quite depressing) that so little has changed in some areas; in the introduction to the 2009 edition Lynsey Hanley (a politically informed writer a couple of years older than me) says ‘no reader two generations younger than Hoggart should gasp in recognition at his descriptions of growing up…Yet, despite the social and economic transformations that have taken place since its publication in 1957, there are thousands who do.’

Talking to OneMonkey about this book reminds me how different our views are on this kind of thing. OneMonkey sees the worth or value of culture as largely subjective (I’m not sure I agree, but I’d be hard pushed to say where worth lies – see my occasional disparaging comments on Dickens and Shakespeare), and if hard-working people with jobs that give them little satisfaction want to come home and read easy to digest escapism about sex and adventure, who am I to say that’s trash? Not everyone wants to read history textbooks for fun, or even multi-layered novels with complex characters. And anyway, some of the sci-fi and fantasy I read would be seen as trash by those with even greater intellectual snobbery than me. OneMonkey also argues, and here I do agree with him, that it’s not a class divide any more (if it ever was) – the middle classes watch X-Factor just as much as anyone else does, it’s just that they’re more likely to have some kind of hypocritical guilt going on. In the same way, they’re more likely to use the argument ‘at least I read’. Why is it intrinsically more worthy to read a cheap paperback romance than to watch with keen interest a BBC4 programme on human rights, for instance? They read, therefore they don’t have to examine their reading-material or opinions because they’re automatically better than you. Dangerous thinking.

Maybe what it comes down to is a misplaced emphasis, or one that’s no longer relevant. It’s thinking that matters (if, like Richard Hoggart and I, you think any of this matters), not reading, surely. If you never read a book or magazine from one year to the next, but listen to the radio, watch TV or discuss things with friends and colleagues and think matters through for yourself (even if you argue yourself round in the end to the position that everyone else you know holds) isn’t that better (by which I mean more indicative of some hope for humanity) than reading the papers every day, accepting what they say, and parrotting back their opinions when asked for your own (and I’m as guilty on occasion of quoting Private Eye or The Guardian as other people are of quoting papers I’m sniffy about)? Of course you may think that it doesn’t much matter either way, most people have no real say in major aspects of their lives, and deep thought and political awareness just lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. But if you’ve reached that position by weighing it all up for yourself, then we’re both happy. In a manner of speaking.

Historical education, a restrained rant

Reading Saville last week prompted me to dig out from the To Read cupboard a book I’d found in a charity shop a while ago and never got round to: Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden. A 1960s book by former working class grammar school boys who’d moved on to academia, it’s a study of 88 working class pupils who passed A-levels at Huddersfield grammar schools a couple of years either side of 1950, assessing their passage through school to their various destinations and trying to make sense of why so many of their contemporaries fell by the wayside. Maybe it’s not everyone’s idea of an enjoyable book for the morning commute but I have Big Brother to thank for that (there’s a surprise) – 16 or so years ago I saw him with a copy of Friedrich Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England in his hand (which of course I later borrowed), went and read my dad’s copy of The Road to Wigan Pier, and that was that.

On a detached level as someone who’s interested in history, statistics and the West Riding of Yorkshire (so you can imagine what it’s like when they’re all together in one volume) it’s a very interesting book, raising as many questions as it answers (and it never pretends to answer many, I think the idea was to prompt people into further studies). Some of the attitudes and circumstances are recognisable from Saville, set in the educational background of the 40s, and some are still discernible in some of my contemporaries, educated in the late 80s and 90s. It’s depressing and frustrating to think that over those 50 years (and before and since) so much talent has been wasted (or conversely that so much mediocrity has been encouraged into high places by excessive coaching and the supportive wallet of a loving parent) and so many unnecessary obstacles created; one point that was noted was that middle class families in Huddersfield knew how to play the system and overcome bendable rules whereas the working class families often accepted any knockback as final.

Despite all the rhetoric, some things never change and educational opportunities in England are still not equal and universal. An article in Friday’s Guardian reported findings that state school pupils reaching university are slightly more likely to get a good degree than peers taking the same course but coming from a private education. Possible explanations are that the extra coaching and special treatment at school leave the privately-educated teenager less well equipped to deal with the realities of university, or that, to put it simply, if you’ve got to university without all the privileges of a private education you must be pretty clever. It’s all politicised, I know, and nothing is ever that simple, but amid all the current arguing over graduate tax, tuition fees and all the rest of it, it makes me want to either tear my hair out or send copies of books like the Jackson and Marsden one to all the squabbling politicians (not that they’d read it). The next book I dug out of the cupboard was The Rise and Decline of the English Working Classes 1918-1990 by Eric Hopkins; I must be in that sort of mood.

Saville by David Storey

I couldn’t resist this novel: first, the title, and second, it’s a West Riding novel by the author of This Sporting Life, which I still haven’t read. Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976, and if you believe the review from The Times it’s “mesmerically readable”. Which in some sense must be true, because I did get to the end despite not engaging with the main character.

The novel itself looked a treat, a 555-page door-stopper which is one of only about three books I’ve bought new this year, and I was looking forward to reading it. It is the story of Colin Saville as he moves from a working class background in the 1930s, via the scholarship exam and a place at grammar school, into a no man’s land of discomfort in the 50s, caught between two classes. At least I think it takes us as far as the 50s: one of my main complaints (and it may just be that I wasn’t picking up all the clues and hints) is that it was hard to know how much time was passing between events; how old is Colin’s younger brother when his bringing home a girl causes an argument, for instance (12? 16?)?

Despite Colin being the main character, who links all the other characters and whose actions we follow, I never felt I had any insight into him – he seemed more like a prop, a marker to show us where to look. Until about page 200 Colin is essentially monosyllabic and it’s easy to forget that he’s there at all; even afterwards we seem to observe him from a distance with few clues to his thoughts or attitudes, so that several of his later actions seemed (at least to me) to come from nowhere, a surprise that I couldn’t explain, such as a sudden fight with his brother. Events seem to have no purpose or to go nowhere, fairly major characters walking off the page and it only becomes clear that they’ve gone for good when you’ve reached the last page without their getting another mention. Colin’s published poetry is introduced and dealt with in a couple of sentences: at no time is it suggested that he’s attempting to publish poetry, the publication has clearly happened at some time in the past, when it’s mentioned, and nothing further comes of it. I’m not saying I only like novels with neatly interlocking sub-plots, heavy foreshadowing and no loose ends, but it did feel rather aimless at times.

The aimlessness may well have been intentional, a metaphor for Colin’s life. Son of a miner, pushed hard in his schoolwork by his father so that Colin didn’t have to follow in his footsteps, Colin has the dubious privilege of attending the grammar school in the nearby city, mixing with boys from a different (middle- and upper-class) world. He follows the path of least resistance, working hard and playing rugby not because he wants to but because other people want him to and he seems to have no opinions of his own. Later he drifts into relationships and activities and the final section could have come from any gritty northern novel of its time, the aimless young man and his empty extra-marital sex.

The author was born in Wakefield (in and around which Saville appears to be set) and moved to London; this is reflected in the novel and may be part of what I didn’t like – an underlying assumption that the only answer to being sensitive and artistic in Yorkshire is to move to the capital. Saville seems to be a good portrait of a pit village childhood of the 30s and 40s, and the portrayal of the outsider at grammar school (not middle class enough) and the outsider within the family (too middle class) was good, but it’s a long and dreary book, and crucially there’s an underlying resentment. I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend it.