‘Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers’: Birmingham Literature Festival 2019 (10/10/2019)

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Members of CCLC attended a Birmingham Literature Festival event celebrating the recent publication Common People, an anthology of 33 working class writers, edited by Kit De Waal and published by Unbound.

The four authors present read segments from their published works in the anthology. Lisa Blower spoke of childhood in Stoke-on-Trent and ‘always being ten pence short’ for a 99 flake. Lynne Voyce captured her parents’ disdain for Thatcher’s ‘connies’, and detailed the ‘dark depths of the 1980s when the battle for workers’ rights hadn’t yet been fought and lost’. Emma Purshouse recalled sneaking a peak at pool players, while pretending to pick away at a candle, studying the deliberated steps around the table until a skinhead asks if she fancies a game. Stuart Maconie reeled off the poetic titles bestowed upon his Wigan council estate – Dryden House, Coleridge Place, Milton Drive – which set the scene for adolescent snogging, drinking, and not-so-minor acts of violence.

The snippets that were read aloud adhered to the brief each writer had been given – to present an ‘unapologetically celebratory’ working-class narrative. The discussion that followed, however, proceeded to complicate the idea of a singular ‘working-class’ type of writing. Host Jonathan Davidson suggested it was easier to define by what it wasn’t – ‘shooting grouse on the Scottish moors’.

Purshouse and Maconie spoke of accents and the fears of mispronunciation growing up, where the fruits of your reading can be undone by the patronising correction – ‘you’re not saying that right’. Vicky Spratt has written on the same issue:

When I did, eventually, get a job as a journalist an older, posher male colleague corrected my pronunciation in front of the entire team in my first week. He did it instinctively, authoritatively and without thinking. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. I have no doubt he won’t remember this incident. I, however, will never forget it

Maconie commented how even well-intentioned remarks like ‘I love the way you say that’, open up a space of condescension, of denoting difference. To counter this Maconie advocated walking through the gilded halls of publishers and broadcasters with a swaggering arrogance, to make a space for yourself in these places, even when you’re not of them.

Blower spoke about the predefined roles for working class voices, and being asked to ‘tone down’ certain aspects of your writing. Maconie echoed this criticism of typecasting, noting that if you hear a regional accent on the radio it will most likely be a comedy or social commentary rather than a drama. The frequent caricaturing of working classes in the media highlighted the importance of resistance from writers who honestly portray the complexities and distinction of these voices.

There was an absence of discussion on the intersection between class and race (an issue Arifa Akbar has astutely explored), perhaps due to the time constraints of the event. Nonetheless, the particularly retrospective direction of the writing and discussion (which was also part of the writing brief), left spaces open for writers such as Reni Eddo-Lodge, who argues, ‘We should be rethinking the image we conjure up when we think of a working-class person. Instead of a white man in a flat cap, it’s a black woman pushing a pram.’ The anthology’s editor Kit De Waal has also said that ‘nostalgia is bollocks’, and has argued against monochrome narratives:

Working-class stories are not always tales of the underprivileged and dispossessed – these are narratives rich in barbed humour, their technique and vernacular reflecting the depth and texture of working-class life, the joy and sorrow, the solidarity and the differences, the everyday wisdom and poetry of the woman at the bus-stop, the waiter, the hairdresser.  

Almost 80% of people working in UK publishing who see themselves as working class feel that their background has had a negative effect on their career, with the London-centric biases of the industry recurrently emerging as a major impediment. The Common People discussion emphasised the variation in working class voices, and the need for this variation to be more widely heard and represented, particularly across publishing, broadcasting, and journalism. Even as we witness growing diversity across these forms of media, it is apparent that the editorial positions of power still too often lie in the hands of the old guard.

Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers (2019) is published by Unbound.

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