The introduction to this collection of essays exploring what it means to be, or have been, working class begins with the question I also began with: Who exactly is working class these days?
Are you still working class if you’ve been to university? If you have a good job? If you studied the arts or, more specifically for this collection, English or creative writing? Or, as Nathan Connelly – the book’s editor and founder of its publishing house, Dead Ink – puts it: ‘Is it something as simple as Costa coffee and avocados for lunch that makes you middle class?’
Many ‘soft traits’ of working-classness are highlighted in Know Your Place (a beautiful optical illusion of a title, which can be read either in the tone of a pointed authoritarian finger or that of a determined fist held tightly over a heart). These traits – the often overlooked psychological fallout of working-class childhoods – if not explicit in the essays, are humming along in the background: doubt, unworthiness, a feeling of not-belonging in later life.
It’s a book that, if you identify as working class, unrelentingly resonates. Undefinable notions you might have had about your past, your character, the world around you, are all here in this army of voices. As I turned the pages, my inner monologue was repeatedly drumming its inner fist on my inner table, saying, yes, that’s it, that is exactly right.
The essays in this collection are personal, lyrical and, occasionally, highly narrative: life histories and anti-apologies for the hesitations of former selves. There is an accessible, un-academic feel to the book; no frills, just the brutal truth. Educated but genuine. As Connelly states, ‘most of everybody’s life is about waking up, going about your day and then going to sleep again. And that too is political.’ It feels political. What may normally be dismissed as anecdote, or reserved for asides to close friends are here given wider context and audience. Confessions such as Laura Waddell’s, ‘For many years, I’d eat plain pasta with margarine and salt, suspicious of sauces whose herbed depths seemed mysterious and not for the likes of me,’ are unlikely to be offloaded in a job interview or executive meeting.
Many of the writers speak of a necessity to hide one’s roots, to ‘smooth out one’s words’, elongate vowels, or (as in Sian Norris’ essay) simply sit-through an awkward silence as someone assumes the only reason you’re a writer is because your father is an academic. The 23 essays contained herein are all manifestations of the same cultural violence – a belittling, a silencing – and often one that is further amplified by other forms of exclusion from the dominant discourse, be that race, gender, sexuality, immigrant heritage, Northernness.
There are some wonderful individual moments in this book. Kit de Waal tells of watching BBC weather as a teenager: ‘after the presenter had covered the cold in Lancashire and the rain in Kent he smiled and pointed at Switzerland. “At least we’ll have some snow on the slopes for half-term.”’ Or, in Waddell’s The Pleasure Button, where she says, ‘Comedians sometimes laugh at the unsophistication of food in Glasgow… what they are really laughing at are the poor.’ Some of these sentences hit like a punch in the gut, like a stomach in turbulence rising to the pit of a throat. And then you realise it is everywhere – all of the time. Your class is written all over you like a shaved eyebrow after one-too-many beers on a wild night out.
From Sylvia Arthur’s ‘downplaying everything about myself, from the way I spoke to what I read, [whereas] at UCL, by contrast, everything was amplified – accents, achievements, aspirations,’’ to Ben Gwalchmai’s ‘my own family wanted me to be a good student but later feared that I’d “swallowed a dictionary,”’ this cast-outness of the educated working class is what, to me, this collection highlights the most. With the authors having self-identified as working class (and let that phrase feel as awkward as it is), it is a specific type of story we find again and again in these pages, not quite rags to riches, more rags to the world of media or academia to not having any idea if you’re wearing or saying the right thing in a room full of strangers who might turn on you at a moment’s notice if you drop a T or admit to having never heard anyone say hors d’oeuvres out loud.
These are lives lived in battle, balancing a wealth of contradictions (Lee Rourke: ‘we are outsiders looking in on ourselves looking out’), trying to ‘get ahead’ but not realising the potential loss of access to your past that this social mobility also contains. I was at a beer festival in Lancashire once and I remember arguing with the bar tender for a good fifteen minutes trying to convince him that this is where I grew up, this is where I was born. Often when you leave, you are not allowed back in. Education can be a one-way process. And, unfortunately, as these essays make obvious, once outside there are still plenty of other closed doors to navigate.
That being said, this collection is also a celebration (of heritage, of community, of place). A declaration of proud ownership of these multiple identities. An ability to adapt, to traverse worlds, to be one thing and at the same time another. To be open to so many experiences that others might dismiss (see Gwalchmai’s Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold). To both belong and not-belong. This inbetweenness is what makes us interesting; the ability to change masks, to take people by surprise.
This is an important book, but it feels like this is only the tip of the conversation. It makes me want to join in, to talk back, to sing with the chorus. I imagine an Everyday Sexism-style website, ‘Working Class Confessions’ where we share those difficult moments. I’ll offer one of my own because it is too hard not to (this book feels like a party to which I am invited): age 17, working as a cashier in a supermarket, green vegetable coming at me on the conveyor belt. I had to ask the well-dressed lady before me if it was a cabbage or a lettuce before I could scan it in. Working-class children are playing catch-up before they even know they’re competing.
And I’ll end with the hopeful and rallying call of Durre Shahwar Mughal: ‘I see my presence in certain spaces as a necessary disruption.’
Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class / Nathan Connolly (Editor) / Dead Ink / 15 Sept. 2017 (Paperback)
Lydia Unsworth’s fiction and poetry has appeared in Ambit, Pank, KillAuthor, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, The Forge, Rainy City Stories, Sentence: Journal of Prose Poetics, etc. Her debut collection of poetry, Certain Manoeuvres, is available from Knives Forks & Spoons Press. Recent winner of the 2018 Erbacce poetry prize, her second collection, Nostalgia for Bodies, is forthcoming from Erbacce Press. Based in Manchester / Amsterdam. Twitter: @lydiowanie
>> In the mood for more news, reviews and interviews? Head to the blog.
Vaguely literary things we’ve been enjoying
I’m a big fan of audiobooks – a great way to enjoy stories when it isn’t possible to pick up a book – and Librivox has a great catalogue. The works on offer are out of (US) copyright and are free to download, though they do advise you to check the copyright status in your own country before downloading. Anyone can volunteer to record (either solo, or as part of a collaboration), and there’s a friendly and knowledgeable bunch of people who help with things such as ‘proof listening’. I read for them a few years ago and had great fun collaborating on Pliny’s Natural History and some of James Boswell’s work. Reading aloud does make you consider the text very closely, I’ve found. — Elaine
A blog I’ve been reading for ten years – indeed, since it started! – is People Reading. In each post, Sonya Worthy snaps a photo of someone on the street reading a book. She then interviews them briefly and finds out what they’re reading and why. It’s one of my favourite sites on the internet. I’ve discovered gems I would never otherwise have found, such as God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène. People are always presented as readers first and foremost; she rarely delves into their private lives, unlike more modern sites such as Humans of New York. It’s lovely to see so many people out and about reading.
FutureLearn works with unis and cultural institutions around the world to create courses on some pretty interesting topics – all for free – from the comfort of your laptop or smartphone. They’re super accessible and are a great way to intro yourself to or brush up on subjects when you’re short on time and juggling other projects. I’m currently enjoying their course on Hans Christian Andersen with the Uni of Southern Denmark. Next up on my list is their Shakespeare course run by my old uni lecturer Jonathan Bate.
>> Check out the VLTWBE archive here.