Over the last 18 months, I’ve noticed a lot of comments and discussions particularly on Twitter about working class writing and how this is an area within publishing that is still under-represented.
Kit de Waal, author of My Name is Leon (2016) and The Trick to Time (2018), has become a kind of working class champion talking at various events about the missing literature on our bookshelves. Kit left school at 16, in the mid 1970s and says “No one from my background – poor, black and Irish – wrote books. It just wasn’t an option.” In her essay ‘An Open Invitation’, published in Know Your Place (2017), Kit says, the more marginalised you are, the less likely we’ll hear those voices.
And what Kit says, is very true. On a personal level though, I found myself reading articles and wondering why I was keeping schtum when usually I’d be in there contributing. I realised that being brought up in the system and not identifying with my Irish w/c family or any family come to that, meant I was confused. I also had many mothers and fathers throughout my time in care. From 0-16 years of age, I was looked after by middle class social workers/carers English, Scottish, Welsh and Afro-Caribbean. I had piano and ballet lessons. And yet, I was stared at, ridiculed, stigmatised for being in care. My working class friends in their council homes with their mums and dads were definitely on a higher social strata than me.
My Anglo African-Celt sister was adopted by white m/class parents; she trained as a teacher and would describe herself as living a middle class life with children attaining an all star education. When I think of who I am, I get in such a pickle and often describe myself as a Heinz 57* kid. Anyway, I dislike labels. Why do I even need to be classified?
When the Guardian in one of its ethical conundrums asked: How should we define working class, middle class and upper class?
There were some interesting and funny answers that included the size of the television you bought. J. Nieman from Muswell Hill, where I grew up had this to say:
“THE difference between the classes is in their relationship with society’s institutions. The working classes do what the system sets out for them. The middle classes invent, operate and belong to the system. The upper classes tolerate the system but know the right people to speak to if they feel the need to bypass any part of it. The underclass (often overlooked) don’t have any relationship with the system at all.”
As far back as 2008, Nick Jackson, in the Independent, when discussing why a rising number of care leavers are now going to university, said “Young people in care and those at university can seem to belong to very different worlds. The lazy assumption is that university creates the management class, care the underclass. Until now, there has been very little crossover between the two.”
I’m still not sure who I identify with and it’s often said I see the world through the looking glass. What I do know though is how I feel, whether it’s in a university setting or a working class pub setting (if there is such a thing anymore); I still feel like an outsider. Though I want to be part of the conversation. I want to hold up my fist and say up the Working Classes and f*ck the government (the second part of which I do quite often and especially today!) as the two often go hand in hand. But another part of me is quite happy not to have any relationship with ‘the system’ at all. Does this mean I do actually belong to the underclass? I feel uncomfortable aligning with any class. I’m more attune with humanity and all that that entails.
Last year, Kerry Hudson, Kit de Waal and Alex Wheatle attended an event at Oxford Brookes where they discussed the problems they’ve encountered in being working-class writers, the creative responses they have formulated in their writing of working-class experience, and the wider issues of publishing and literary culture in relation to working-class writing and authorship.
I asked Alex Wheatle: Does your care experienced past mean you can or can not identify with being working class? And how does that look?
Alex replied: “It’s an interesting question, and not easy to answer. I guess by definition, being a ward of a local council is working class – you can’t get anymore working class than that.”
This was not something I had thought of. And I’m still not sure how I feel about this or if I even understand it.
Yesterday, I saw a comment from Lemn Sissay which encouraged me to finally put this blog together:
“There’s a lot of talk of ‘working class’ writers at the moment. Rightly so. But I was beneath them. The ‘working class’ were the lucky ones.”
And I admit, I got this. I got it big time.
And then another apple in the wagon hit me or was it a brick in the wall, I’m about to start work at the University of Oxford. I will be hobnobbing. Am I about to join the upper echelons?
I have no definitive answers. Despite my allusions to grandeur, despite being a home-owner, despite undertaking a PhD – am I really just an underclass girl at heart? I’ll conclude with one of my favourite quotes:
I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.” – The Prisoner (1967)
*Heinz 57 is a shortened form of a historical advertising slogan “57 Varieties of Pickles” by the H. J. Heinz Company located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. It has come to mean anything that is made from a large number of parts or origins. [Wikipedia]
Connolly, N (2017). Know Your Place. Manchester: Dead Ink Books
de Waal, K (2018) ‘Make room for working class writers‘. The Guardian, 10th Feb 2018
Ethical Conundrums (2011). How should we define working class, middle class and upper class? The Guardian, 2011.
Ferguson, D. (2018). ‘Tracy Beaker is back… as a single mum fighting to make ends meet’, the Guardian, 10 March 2018.
Jackson, N. (2008) In the loop: Why a rising number of care-leavers are going to university, the Independent, 31 July, 2008.
Lemn Sissay’s memoir My Name Is Why is published August 27th.
Common People is a collection of essays, poems and pieces of personal memoir, bringing together sixteen well-known writers including Kit de Waal, Alex Wheatle, Paul McVeigh, and others from working class backgrounds with an equal number of brand new as-yet-unpublished writers from all over the UK.