politics

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.

Never mind Article 50, won’t someone think of the environment?

Acres of coverage today for the ‘news’ that the UK is leaving the EU. We knew that already, it will take ages to sort everything out. Ultimately not much will change. Meanwhile outside the arena of UK navel-gazing there are some changes being made that deserve a bit more coverage. Trump tinkering with energy and environment policy matters to all of us because whatever trading bloc we do or don’t belong to, climate change is something we need to be doing something about. We don’t get to opt out of European temperature rises because we’re no longer in the EU, and Trump doesn’t get to build a wall round America to keep extreme weather or rising sea levels out.

29570143

Read my review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140. Then read the book itself. Then think about what you can do to make a difference.

Week 12: In which I am both witty and political

This was the week leading up to the first Newsjack deadline of the season, and by season I mean time of year not series. Newsjack is a BBC radio comedy sketch show with a completely open submission policy, meaning absolutely anyone can send in a sketch or one-liner as long as it relates to the week’s news somehow. Traditionally I dip a toe in the comedy water by sending one-liners to the first couple of episodes, before I work myself up to a sketch later on. None of them have been successful so far but I entertain myself (and occasionally OneMonkey) while I’m writing them, so it’s not all wasted effort. This week has been tricky as reality has largely moved beyond satire, which hasn’t left much to write about. I’m persevering, however.

I did try to ignore the whole Presidential circus but I didn’t quite manage, thanks to Twitter and Radio 4. I unfollowed a few people on Twitter because I couldn’t stand any more hourly updates on Trump. I’m British, I don’t tend to follow American politics, in the same way I don’t follow French or German politics. I keep half an eye out to get fair warning of anything that might have global ramifications, but honestly I’ve never even bothered to watch all the rigmarole of a new PM arriving at Downing Street, I’m certainly not going to watch a foreign leader getting sworn in.

In my attempt to avoid too many news bulletins this week I may also have missed the point of the women’s march. I was genuinely moved and amazed to see so many people take to the streets, but I’m not entirely clear on what they were there for, or rather they didn’t all seem to be there for the same thing. From the people I follow on Twitter and a few things I caught in the Guardian and on the BBC I picked up the following reasons:

  • because no genuine feminist would stay away;
  • to point out they didn’t vote for Trump;
  • to reclaim public space as safe for women;
  • to protest gun crime;
  • to protest racism;
  • to promote gay rights;
  • to state that their son has been brought up in a civilised way;
  • to point out they are a man who’s been brought up in a civilised way;
  • because all their friends are;
  • because it’s Saturday (OK that one might be a King Missile reference to lighten the mood).

Maybe I missed the ones protesting at the women who’ve been killed in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria etc at least in part due to the (apparently sainted and beyond criticism now) Obama administration, and the ones protesting at Britain and America’s close alliance with that staunch defender of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia. Maybe I was too busy noticing all the loud, comfortable, Western women in pink hats who were shouting a host of different messages. But hey, if we could get that many people behind an actual campaign, say to alter a policy or stop a war, I think they could change the world.

Ken Livingstone entertains Ilkley

An hour in a surprisingly less than packed King’s Hall with Ken Livingstone and we learn that (to summarise) pretty much everything that’s wrong with Britain can be blamed on Thatcher, bankers, and tax-dodgers, and most things wrong with politics (and in particular the Labour party) are Tony Blair’s fault. Which I think we already knew so it was a largely convivial evening among friends, marred only by interviewer Ruth Pitt’s insistence on asking several questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of the Remain campaign. The referendum is long over, time to deal with the aftermath not endlessly dissect the handling of it.

Except as Ken pointed out early on, politicians need to learn from history, so perhaps dissecting it is a good thing in principle, just not in a relatively short interview. He also pointed out that because scientists tend to speak in cautious terms, politicians don’t tend to listen to them, and not many politicians have a scientific background so they remain technically unguided on many science-based issues (climate change is his biggest worry in this regard). In one of many memorable phrases of the evening (several of which it’s probably not a great idea to repeat) he said that when he was young, politicians were old, ugly and dull, concentrating on policies. Thanks to Blair (naturally) it’s all focus groups and telling people what they want to hear, with many MPs going from university to advising an MP to becoming one themselves. “They’ve never run stuff,” he complained – few ex-councillors, trade unionists, even small businessmen compared with say 30 years ago.

Ken Livingstone partly ascribed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn (which came as a surprise to him) to the anger of working class voters all across the Western world, veering either to the left or the right but not sticking to the centre: both Trump and Sanders in America, Podemos in Spain, Marine Le Pen in France for instance. He reckons that if Corbyn wins the 2020 election (which Livingstone believes he can) it will be the most significant election since 1979 and could/should herald real change. He did also point out that some of Corbyn’s ‘extreme’ policies were considered perfectly reasonable by previous governments (not only Labour!) and some of his own far-fetched GLC ideas of the 1980s are now accepted by the mainstream (like gay marriage, which was eventually introduced by a Tory government, unthinkable 40 years ago). He gave us an insight into long-running media smear campaigns and what dissenting voices have to put up with. It’s enough to put you off getting involved in politics in any way.

I’m not an uncritical fan of Ken Livingstone, though we share many political views. While I hadn’t heard of Jeremy Corbyn until he stood for the Labour leadership last year I’ve known about Ken for most of my life (you’d have to ask Big Brother for a rough estimate, but I think it’s since the days of Michael Foot) so it was interesting to go along and see him this evening, being largely amusing and laid back, making serious points, and not being afraid to speak his mind, as usual. And anyone playing the ever-popular Ken Livingstone Hitler Bingo would have scored in the first five minutes. If I was part of the Labour top team I think I’d consider measuring him up for a gag.

New story (don’t mention the referendum)

It’s National Flash Fiction Day today, so the Flash Flood is on (and judging by the ferocity of the rain this could soon be true outside as well). I had a story called King of All I Survey released as part of it this morning, and though it’s about being the outsider and the scapegoat, it’s got nothing to do with the EU referendum (promise).

Readers with good memories may recall that back in March I was reluctantly veering towards a Leave vote and looking for reasons to stay in the EU. I never found any beyond the university funding I’d already mentioned, and when I thought about the EU Commission and the fishing policy, TTIP and the way Greece was bullied it all pointed one way. On Thursday I voted to Leave.

I don’t often do out and out politics on here (most of you are interested in books and writing, I imagine, and don’t necessarily agree with or care about my left-wing leanings) but I briefly wanted to say, particularly to all the international readers, that Brexit is a lot more complicated than the mainstream media would have you believe, the Leave voters are not a homogenous mass, and it will all be fine.

We all get tribal and defensive at times, but we belong to many intersecting tribes at once and it depends which one we feel is under threat as to which one we feel strongest about at the moment. So international socialism might get trumped by national interest, workers’ rights in your own country then win out over party allegiances (hence I railed against the official Labour Remain campaign) etc. Right now it looks like it’s time to band together with anyone who’s being reasonable and be a stronger voice than the racists, xenophobes and unpleasant little loudmouths making some people’s lives a misery. Hope not hate.

You may now return to your reading…

Bradford’s Buzzing: a weekend at the literature festival

This weekend OneMonkey and I went to a few events at the second annual Bradford Literature Festival (which a friend of mine this week suggested should really be known as a festival of ideas as there’s a lot of current affairs programming in it). The events covered authors talking about writing (and reading, and the power of libraries),  political discussion facilitated by academics, a social history of coffee and Islam, and how the historical King Arthur may well have been based in York. Quite a contrast, and a nice illustration of the variety on the programme (though as another friend complained yesterday, there isn’t enough science or philosophy). The city centre itself was packed, helped no doubt by the dry, mild weather which broke out into sunshine occasionally. A long way to go perhaps, but it feels like Bradford is on the up.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

Variety, as embodied by my Bottle o’ Bangles

Writing and Adversity was a panel of three writers. Andrew McMillan is a poet from South Yorkshire with a noticeable accent, which is refreshing (I don’t run across many successful poets though, maybe none of them sound as posh as I expect). Melinda Salisbury writes high fantasy for young adults, where the main teenage character is a ‘real’ girl who’s easily manipulated and sometimes a coward, not one of these carbon copy sword-wielding heroines. Jerry Pinto from Mumbai has written all sorts and sees himself primarily as a poet but was talking about the autobiographical novel Em and the Big Hoom which took him 25 years to write, inspired by his mother’s depression. They talked about writing through and about adversity based on work with ‘challenging’ children or young offenders, and their own writing drawing on their own lives.

Trying to take unobtrusive notes during an event means I’ve jotted words and phrases that struck me but not necessarily who said them, so apologies for the largely unattributed nature of this. Nevertheless, among the ideas that were thrown around by the panel were:

    • How do you know your story is worth telling if your sort of person is never represented in books? (Which became a short diversion into diversity in publishing)
    • There is a certain amount of arrogance needed to write for others to read: you are saying this is worth your money, more importantly this is worth taking some part of your short life to read.
    • Non-fiction doesn’t require plausibility, but if you turn your experiences into fiction you have to come up with plausible characters, which can make you cut half of what made those people interesting to you in the first place.
    • If you want kids to read, ban books (Jerry’s dad banned the buying though not the reading of books and they therefore attained status as illicit items).
    • If you want adults to read, don’t try and tell them reading is a great improving, moral endeavour. It’s another flavour of having fun, like dancing.
    • The personal must become universal as you write it, the more honest and specific you are, the more general appeal it has (Andrew doesn’t enjoy writing, often finds it painful but then that emotion comes through to the reader).
    • There is a difference between Poetic Truth and What Really Happened Truth (Andrew quoting an Irish poet whose name I didn’t catch) and sometimes you can pin down the former without having to rigidly stick to the latter.
    • If you want to know who you are, write something. Writing can help you come to terms with something even if you never show that writing to anyone else. It can allow you to look back and say it wasn’t that bad, here’s the moment of beauty in it. Jerry also mentioned a kind of distancing, being able to revisit the memories of his mother slashing her wrists again, and cleaning up the blood and calling the police – attempted suicide still a criminal offence – by telling himself he’s writing fiction and his job is to get words down on the page.
    • Art comes in the calm aftermath of the storm, what you write in the middle is too raw. You have to take out some of your own pain to leave a gap in which the reader inserts their own painful experiences. Catharsis occurs for the reader when they bring this pain to the reading and find release.
    • Writing about the bad stuff can be seen as either exorcising demons, or losing a part of yourself. However, the sea feeds the iceberg even as other bits of it are breaking off (i.e. you’re continuing to build up other experiences and store up new bits of yourself)

 

A thought-provoking hour and a half. As was the next event, but that was on quite a different topic.

Leaving aside what I think of the word ‘mainstreaming’, the Mainstreaming Hate Speech discussion was about the rise of the far right in Europe (though it was pointed out that it’s not only happening in Europe. And I don’t just mean Donald Trump). Three Professors, a diplomat, a local author and the head of an NGO, plus a roomful of thoughtful and interested people who were let loose with a roving microphone for half an hour. Could have been chaos but it was well chaired and polite, with a whole host of interesting points made (and AA Dhand was in the audience, Bradford pharmacist by day, noir author appearing in The Observer in his spare time). I did make some notes but as some of it strays into contentious issues and I don’t guarantee I’ll represent it accurately I’m going to take the easy way out and skim over most of it. As with the earlier event I’ll throw a few topics out there that came up:

  • The far-right doesn’t create ideas in a vacuum, they’re echoing what’s in society.
    All societies are tribal to some extent, and are suspicious of The Other.
  • Bigots shouldn’t be banned (e.g. NUS no-platform): let them speak then expose and hence humiliate them in front of society (OneMonkey kicked off the round of applause at this point).
  • Interact with people who aren’t like you, don’t walk away from people who don’t share your views (I find this one hard, personally). Bring things into the open and discuss them. Build bridges, talk, stop living in your own culture’s cocoon.
  • Protesting has its place, but if shouting and screaming wouldn’t stop you being an activist it won’t stop your opponents either.

 

They talked among other things about the misguided Prevent strategy, media portrayal of Muslims, and what it means to be a British Muslim. Mention was made of one of my favourite news stories of recent years, where the mosque in York invited the lads on the far right demo inside for tea and biscuits. How very British, everyone said (though I wonder if it’s really How very Yorkshire).

Tea

Tea, still nicer than coffee despite being a relic of imperialism

Tea may be very British but coffee is from the Yemen, apparently (the plant is originally from Ethiopia but as I understand it the drink originates in fifteenth century Yemen). OneMonkey doesn’t even like the smell of coffee let alone the taste, and I only occasionally break out the jar of (Fairtrade) instant, but we do like a bit of history, so The Muhammadan Bean: The Secret History of Islam and Coffee sounded like a treat. Abdul-Rehman Malik was a most enthusiastic and engaging speaker with a love of coffee that added sparkle to his talk. We got a sprint through fatwas, riots, sieges, the spread of coffee via medieval universities in the arabic world, and coffee houses in seventeenth century London. I love the idea of Turkish coffee houses with storytellers, musicians, chess-players, and the democratising effect of rich and poor mingling to enjoy their (apparently affordable) drink. I’m really looking forward to his BBC Radio 4 documentary (also called The Muhammadan Bean) this autumn.

dragon

Finally we went to Pennine Dragon, a talk about King Arthur and historical evidence pointing to him being Arthwys, a 6th century king based in York. OneMonkey (proud Geordie) was disappointed that he wasn’t from the north east, but slightly mollified by the idea that Avalon might be a place on Hadrian’s Wall. Simon Keegan didn’t claim to be the first to notice Arthwys, but earlier historians as he put it ‘say oh yeah there’s an Arthwys who lived at the same time as King Arthur but it can’t be him, he’s northern’. I’m not going to rise to that one, I’ve had a lovely informative weekend and it’s time to settle down with a cup of tea.

The Establishment by Owen Jones

Owen Jones is northern, a socialist, and he writes for The Guardian. I even agree with his viewpoint a fair amount of the time (both in this book and in his articles). I should have loved The Establishment, but unfortunately I didn’t – something about the way it’s put together got my back up and made me start picking his arguments apart. If it does that to a comrade (yes I am using that in a slightly tongue in cheek way), how far will it go towards persuading an adversary?

The premise of the book is that a small, influential band – the big players in the commercial world, the media, the City – bypass democracy by having a quiet word with our elected politicians so they can have things their own way, no matter what the people want. In essence there is (so the theory goes) a prevailing ‘establishment’ viewpoint and to rock the boat is to invite reprisal, from being missed off someone’s Christmas list to being hounded by an unsympathetic and less than straightforward media. In many ways reading The Establishment (subtitled ‘and how they get away with it’) was like having a concentrated dose of Private Eye (and will be familiar territory to Eye readers) but with added sensationalism that fell somewhere between That’s Life and Our Tune. For me (and maybe I’m hard-hearted) the laying-it-on-thick sentimentality of the section about one woman’s loss of a son at Hillsborough undermined the very real tragedy of that day for her and her family, as well as the important point Jones was making about the shocking behaviour of the police and media.

When it comes to the webs of power and the shadowy connections between politicians of all stripes, corporate interests and high-profile journalists there are things that should be pointed out more widely, there are definitely things to worry about, and there are things I think shouldn’t be allowed (Gordon Brown’s wife apparently being high up in a financial PR firm when he was PM and had recently been Chancellor, for instance). Some of it comes across here as a bit conspiracy theorist though: this MP was seen having dinner with a family friend who works for this big firm who would benefit from a change in the law! The scandal is not that this group of people who went to school or university together, or worked together in their first jobs, are still friends now that they’ve diversified into government, lobbying, the BBC etc (I’d be more worried if they claimed not to be) but that so many of the influential jobs in the Westminster-media bubble are filled by such a small pool of candidates from such similar backgrounds.

The book sometimes got a bit repetitive (maybe in some cases he was just trying to ram a point home) and while it’s clearly been a long time in the making, with copious research and a long programme of interviews with influential people, it felt like the end product had been thrown together in a hurry, with the same sentence appearing in two consecutive paragraphs or a sentence both beginning and ending with ‘in 1994’ for example.

Where the book is stronger is the ‘Conclusion: a democratic revolution’ chapter. This is where the author’s passion comes through in a coherent argument about why anti-establishment types need to present a proper alternative, not just rail against what’s there now. I wonder how different this (and several arguments earlier in the book) would have been if there was the slightest hint that Jeremy Corbyn might be about to become Labour leader.

In short, while I applaud the intention, this book just didn’t do it for me. I’m not saying don’t read it (I still learnt a few things from it), but I recommend that you read some Owen Jones articles from The Guardian, read some Private Eye, and if you want to know about vested interests and spin, read the marvellous novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey or, even better, A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett (which I’ve written about here).