Earlier this week I listened to a fantastic Radio 4 programme, Where Are All The Working Class Writers, hosted by Kit de Waal and produced by Mair Bosworth. The programme is still available on the BBC iPlayer and incorporates a number of writers chatting about how working class identity informs their writing. It led me, via the poet Andrew McMillan’s Twitter account, to discovering that Kit, Andrew and a number of other writers had contributed to Know Your Place (Dead Ink), a collection of essays about the working class by the working class.
I really recommend listening to the Radio 4 programme (which can also be downloaded as a podcast here) and getting hold of a copy of KYP which, I hope, will be available as a paperback soon as the hardback is a little pricey. Check your local library first, perhaps?
Anyway, these two things pushed me toward writing about something I’ve been wanting to/avoiding for a while now…
I lived in a council house as a kid, passing only four GCSEs (a U in English Literature), serving a City & Guilds carpentry apprenticeship and obtaining no further qualifications beyond my NVQ3 (Bench Joinery). All of which is pretty unremarkable considering my working class background and where I grew up but seem almost exotic to a lot of people that I now meet as the Founding Editor of the fantastic Lunar Poetry Podcasts. Even today someone at a reading group almost choked with surprise when I mentioned my background was in carpentry and could they please clarify what they’d meant about the structure of a creative writing degree course.
I’m not going to go into how common it is for people to completely disregard the amount of time, dedication and hard work that goes into becoming a skilled Joiner as it would take too long, plus, wind me right up! It is, however, important to point out that some people choose careers that involve manual labour because they want to rather than it being the only path available to them.
Ever since I started LPP inOctober 2014, I’ve fought the urge to focus solely on interviewing writers from working class backgrounds. (I believe, strongly, that they need more opportunities to be heard and that established platforms should be doing far more to support and promote w.c. writers.) But making LPP w.c.-centric would have been problematic and not only because I don’t feel in any way qualified to be defining what it is to be w.c. outside of my, relatively, small circle of family and friends. It would have also been problematic because it would have suggested that we are somehow different and in need of a special arena to talk in. As if we’re unable to hold our own alongside those that had grown up with more opportunities and we can only engage in dialogue with ourselves.
It’s nonsense (or bollocks) that w.c. folk can’t occupy the space that middle class writers do so it must also be true that they deserve a space within the discourse around their art form too. I feel like this series is going as well as any independent podcast focusing on poetry could do and I’ve proven that someone without any academic background can lead or facilitate important literary discussions, yet I still feel uncomfortable if I’m in a conversation with a group of writers that I know all have MAs or PHDs. I feel out of place. I feel like I’m going to be found out. I feel like I shouldn’t be there. I feel like I’ve blagged it and time is running out.
I am, however, getting better at telling myself that the middle class/academics that put me on edge are just better at manipulating conversations and ensuring the focus never strays from their area of expertise. I don’t know when the bastards learn this but it can make you feel really bleedin’ stupid until you realise – it’s.just.people.talking… The way we learn to communicate growing up w.c. doesn’t prepare us to engage in that way and leaves us with two choices. We either bend to fit in or we stick two fingers up and do our own thing.
The identity of LPP owes much more to zines than it does to literary journals. Rightly or wrongly I felt that the only way I’d get the opportunity to be involved in conversations about writing was if I started something myself. The first 76 episodes were produced very cheaply and published on YouTube (the only free platform for that amount of audio content) with black and white graphics and no real firm plan as to how it would all pan out. I’d never met anyone that worked in radio so self-publishing seemed the only option.
I’ll get onto this later but as an adult I’ve worked with a lot of visual and performing artists but still didn’t have any idea how literature or publishing worked. That was until 2015 when Elephant and Castle in south London, where I lived, seemed to tip under the weight of gentrification and it felt like middle class media types were everywhere. Even on East Street! I can remember talking to a woman who worked as (something??) and laughing/crying inside as she couldn’t get her head around how I didn’t know anyone at Radio 4 that could just get some of the LPP interviews on air, or how about – buying a houseboat to live on while I had a crack at a production internship. They’re only £5000!! I went for pie and mash to remove the aftertaste of her advice.
I’d never seen that kind of money and was under no delusion that I would any time soon. Growing up w.c. you know that money only comes in when you work for it and I’ve never had a salary that would allow me to save that much. There are no handouts or gifts. We know our place, especially when daring to try to live in zone 1 in London and work in the arts.
In 2016 I’d finally worked through enough shit in my head and reached a point where I felt I could apply to Arts Council England for a Grant for The Arts and I still feel incredibly lucky that my first attempt was successful. (The feeling of luck still overrides the sense of achievement of having produced something deserving of funding). What is interesting is comparing that original application to one I completed last month for a very similar project. My first attempt is almost apologetic in tone, brimming with an unwritten acknowledgement that I was obviously wasting the panel’s time. It was not my place to be asking for money, that pot of cash had not been set aside for the likes of me/us and that as soon as they were done assessing the application I would most definitely fuck off out of their way so that they could get on with the business of funding the off-spring of their friends.
I will never forget how much effort my ACE advisor put in to convince me (and many others) that we were deserving of that funding too. Though, it did take getting the funding, completing and surpassing the funded project, being shortlisted for a British Podcast Award and signing a series-archiving agreement with the British Library before I started to sound like I felt like I deserved a place at the table too.
Not that I feel completely at home. For instance I still haven’t approached any serious poetry festivals about putting on podcast related events as I still haven’t completely shaken off all of my insecurities about drowning in that type of academic environment. Luckily, I have a healthy relationship with what I believe is the most exciting literature festival in the country, Verve Poetry Festival and we’re currently finalising the details of our involvement for February, 2018.
It’s taken me over 20 years to start getting my head around accepting and embracing the contradictions that come with growing up w.c. and choosing to work in the arts. For example, I’m very happy for LPP to exist slightly on the fringes of the UK poetry scene as it gives me more freedom to speak to a wider range of writers but I’ve also been working extremely hard on archiving the entire series with the British Library’s Sound archive, which couldn’t really be more establishment, could it? For the successful working class writer, sometimes getting published or the chance to study at a post-graduate level is just the start of another dilemma; how do they then retain their w.c. identity?
There is a lot of pressure on w.c. writers, poets (artists in general) to be gritty, honest or real in their practice as this fits into the middle class’ narrative of what it is to be w.c. – miserable, angry and vulgar and while we may be all of these things to varying degrees we are also creative, funny, polite, caring and loving. I do worry that part of the BBC’s/media’s current obsession with slam poetry is heavily tied into these stereotypes and that the often traumatic nature of the storytelling at these events feeds into this accepted narrative, even actively rewards it with points, trophies and tv appearances.
The absurd, surreal and avant-garde is off limits to the w.c. writer. I’ve felt, keenly, the guilt attached to wanting to write about subjects purely for the enjoyment of the words or performance. That it was not honest enough to be a true reflection of me. The w.c. are occasionally let in but when they are they’re almost never allowed to play. I do find myself wishing that I could actually have a bit of fun when I’m writing but can’t escape this pressure I’ve put on myself, real or not, to have a proper fucking job and to not spend all my time pissing around with poems.
It’s no accident that I’ve settled so comfortably into an artistic role that involves a lot of bloody work and the promotion of the writing of others over mine. I’m not complaining, by the way, LPP is the best thing I’ve ever done, I just don’t want to kid myself out of facing up to feelings of guilt and shame.
I worked in art galleries for many years, during my twenties, (tellingly) as a technician and played a vital role in a number of major international exhibitions. Even with this acknowledgement I still carried a tape measure into meetings with curators and museum directors in case I was ever asked so what the fuck are you doing in here? and I could point at it in the same way that they would continually (metaphorically) point at their MA certificates(?). The tape measure was my pass.
The guilt (brilliantly!) works the other way too. I still can’t seem to write freely about being a kid and not having a phone at home, moving into a council house after the family home was repossessed or not being able to afford the subs to train with the same football team as my friends. This might seem to contradict the idea that w.c. writers can write about any subject they choose but I’m not choosing in the instance, I’m avoiding the memory of the guilt. Just like a lot of working class artists around my age are having to come to terms with the fact that they’ll never be as w.c. as their parents and don’t feel like they fit in at home just like they don’t at some bullshit networking event.
I’m lucky (possibly) that I went to school until I was 16, unlike my dad who left at 14, I had the option of university and had I wanted to get on the property ladder when I was younger I could’ve done and stayed there. All of these things though pulled me further from the familial identity I’d grown into as a child and adolescent, an identity that I’m now trying to reflect (or not, but deliberately if not) in my own writing.
The biggest achievement for Know Your Place is that the editor Nathan Connolly has managed to show how complex, varied and dense working class identity is. We are not two dimensional characters from miserable soaps, we’re bloody brilliant. We just don’t always realise it.