libraries

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.

What was read where last year?

Libraries. Data. Data on library books. You know I can’t resist. I was excited (yes, really) to find the top 100 most borrowed books in UK libraries 2015/16. A couple of years ago I wrote about the top 10 most borrowed books at Leeds Libraries and wondered whether there was much variation in different areas, so imagine my delight when I saw the regional breakdowns.

Since they’re the places where me and my immediate family use libraries, I immediately delved into the lists for the North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber and it looks like my earlier musings may have had some foundation. The Yorkshire list has way more instances of Barnsley author Milly Johnson’s books (3 in the top 10) than the national list, where she first appears at number 12. In the North East her most borrowed book is at number 72.

Interestingly, the UK number 1, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, is at number 3 in the North East and number 7 in Yorkshire. Even more interestingly, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, seventh most borrowed book in the UK, is at number 42 in the North East and isn’t in the top 100 at all in Yorkshire. Both of those books seemed to be constant in the books pages (and beyond) of national newspapers, discussed on arts programmes and the like. Did everyone up here buy the books instead of borrowing them, or are we more resistant to hype, or does the media frenzy only ever reflect metropolitan tastes? Discuss.

I haven’t read either of them, in case you wondered, but nor have I read any Lee Child or Milly Johnson. In fact you have to go down to number 13 on the Yorkshire borrowing chart to find an author I’ve read (Michael Connelly) and the only book of his I have read, I wasn’t that keen on. It turns out I haven’t read a single book on the Yorkshire list, the North East list, or the whole UK list. How unlike me to have minority tastes.

Week 14: In which I reach for the stars

It’s been submission central this week and as well as a batch of short stories to magazines I’ve entered the Orion Books Hometown Tales initiative I mentioned recently, and the Northern Writers’ Awards, and applied for a writing gig.

Hometown Tales has two sets of dates depending which website you get the T&Cs pdf from: deadline 31st January, hear by 31st March; deadline 30th June, hear by 31st July. The auto-reply email I got when I sent my submission in didn’t give a closing date but it did say I’d hear by September. Your guess is as good as mine, but if I get anywhere with it you can guarantee you’ll hear it here first.

It’s the second year I’ve entered the Northern Writers’ Awards and it’s the second time I’ve wanted to rewrite my personal statement as soon as I’ve committed it, despite multiple rewrites along the way. I’m not the only member of Ilkley Writers to have entered, and I know someone who was wishing they could rewrite their synopsis less than 24 hours after hitting Submit. There’s always next year.

Scarier by far is the fact that I applied to be writer in residence in a library, this week. Libraries again, eh? Anyone would think I was obsessed. Oh, wait… Seriously though, libraries are important and we forget that at our peril. If you haven’t been to your local library recently, make the effort and get there soon.

Meanwhile, I’m off to weep into my tea at the demise of Black Sabbath.

Week 13: Slightly delayed

A day late with this week’s update as the main event of the week was on Monday afternoon, when three of Ilkley Writers ran a free creative writing workshop at Seacroft library. We were a small but enthusiastic group and with the help of Peter Spafford we got some short pieces recorded which we’ll slot into our live programme in the Writing on Air festival.

As the programme (which we’re calling The Borrowers) will have the theme of libraries it was good to produce some of the content in the library, and we even had a couple of librarians in the group. Writing exercises involved words and phrases gathered by opening a selection of library books at random. It was fascinating to see the different directions two writers can go in despite having some or all of the same trigger-words.

Other than that, I have a new review up at the Bookbag, for an enjoyable historical novel (Paris, 1880s) called To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin.

Week 7: Libraries and summaries

I had to restrain myself in the library this week, which took a lot of doing. In fact I went directly to the shelf I was hoping to find book two of a series on, picked it up and took it to the counter. I know from painful experience that when my back is almost feeling better, carrying a thick hardback book for a couple of miles is a bad idea (you would think I could have worked that out without needing empirical evidence), so thankfully the second book in William Horwood’s Hyddenworld series is much thinner than the first, and was a paperback. Proper epic fantasy with prophecies, immortals, Anglo-Saxon artefacts, and some great characters. And available in the library.

For some reason, whenever I spot a fantasy novel that looks interesting, it turns out on further investigation to be part two (or sometimes part seven) of a series. Volume One is not a concept my local library seems to handle well. However, such is the charm of libraries – the random availability, the not knowing whether the book you want will be there or not (yes I have come across the concept of catalogues, and inter-library loans, but they take half the fun out of it). Like a lucky dip for reading material.

It seems entirely fitting, then, that Ilkley Writers (for whom last week I wrote a summary of our 2016) are proposing a radio programme about randomness and libraries, for the Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival in a few months. We might be pre-recording part of it in an actual library, which is quite exciting. My week has been spent getting into the serious discussion and planning stages with Andrea and Roz (it’s the same trio that did the programme last year), and thinking about unusual libraries. It’s a hard life…

Fathers Day, a note of thanks

PaternalElbow

My dad’s leather-patched elbow, with which he has nudged me into all sorts of literary and musical exploration

Sometimes I’m too tired to avoid the cliche up ahead, so here’s a Fathers’ Day post about my dad, without whom… (well, without whom I wouldn’t be here, obviously, but I mean apart from that).

  • When I had measles, aged 9 or 10, he read a good chunk of The Lord of the Rings to me, because he’s not one for taking age into account (thankfully). I struggled with it when he handed it over once I was feeling better, and it took me another few years to go back and finish it, but the spark of interest was there.
  • He likes Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, and he thought I might too (and as we now know, my entire writing career such as it is can be blamed on Douglas Adams)
  • He likes Anthony Trollope, and he thought I might too (can you see a pattern emerging here?)
  • He assiduously collected PKD novels in the years when they were hard to come by, scouring the second hand bookshops of West Yorkshire and Cumbria, and shared them. When I’m finally happy with my SF noir novel, Sunrise Over Centrified City, he’ll get to see where all that ended up.
  • He let me read the Maigret novels he got out of the library, when I was still on a children’s ticket (it’s that not accounting for age thing again. That also got me using big words quite early on – learn fast or have no idea what he’s talking about…)

If you’ve been around here for a while you can see the shape of my reading habits in this list. And if you really have been around for a while you probably know some of the musical ones too (all the bits that aren’t Big Brother’s fault. Both of them deny all responsibility for the hair metal). I am still resistant to Roxy Music, however.

Thanks today to all the dads that read to their kids, take them to libraries, buy them books (whether or not that involves keeping a list tucked in their wallet of which books exist in a series and which ones said child hasn’t read yet) and generally enthuse them about reading. Better than a kickabout in the park any day.

Popular authors, some vague musings

Looking at the top 10 list of fiction borrowed most often from Leeds Libraries in 2014, a few thoughts scudded across my mind (nothing too deep, I’m sleepy and full of cold right now). One was that they’re mostly authors who’ve been around for a long time (John Grisham, JK Rowling, Ian Rankin), another was that there’s a hefty dose of crime and thrillers on there, and the third was that there are a couple of authors with a Yorkshire background (Kate Atkinson, Peter Robinson). Which got me wondering how this sort of list varies across the UK – do crime novels with a local link prove popular everywhere? Are there places where you can see the influence of the Richard and Judy Book Club, for instance, or where it’s all Booker Prize longlisters and recommendations from the Guardian review section? How does it match up with book-buying habits (are we getting the Hmm, not sure but let’s see what all the hype’s about out of the library, and buying the ones we think we’ll treasure)?

As I don’t have the answers to any of that (though I’d be interested if anyone else does – have I missed a similar top 10 list from Dorset library service this week?) I’ll merely note that I did read 3 of those authors last year (Peter Robinson, Kate Atkinson, and Michael Connelly) though not the books mentioned, and all borrowed from the Library of Mum and Dad rather than Leeds.

My most-read authors of 2014 are (and this will tell you more than you need to know about me, I’m sure):