class

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.

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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.

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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.