Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers, edited by Kit de Waal
Publishing has a serious class problem as one of the most socially exclusive of all creative industries, says Dave O’Brien in the epilogue chapter of this anthology of working-class writers. He quotes Office for National Statistics figures from 2014 indicating that almost half of all authors, writers, and translators working in the British publishing industry are recruited from the most privileged socio-economic groupings. It was a timely and necessary small step, then, to address this lack of diversity with this excellent and wide-ranging selection of short prose and poetry from writers of working-class origin. Some are established, well-known figures, such as the broadcaster and social historian Stuart Maconie and the poet Tony Walsh, while for others, such as Eva Verde, the anthology marks their publishing debut.
This variety of experience is also reflected in the diverse mix of style, tone, and subject matter. As with any anthology there will be some chapters, writers, and elements that resonate more powerfully with the reader than others, but the overriding sense conveyed by reading through the collection from start to finish is that of a rich patchwork sewn together by Kit de Waal’s very astute and well-judged editing job. Her own contribution, “The Things We Ate,” is a skilful and tightly-wrought evocation of hard times and cultural crossings via a stream-of-consciousness recall of childhood food memories: factory bags of broken biscuits and squashed crisps, but also West Indian food, and soda bread from “Nana’s Irish oven.”
Many of the contributions are similarly succinct, offering powerful and emotional insights, often into the writers’ personal backgrounds and experiences. In the process, they bring into sharp relief themes and subjects rarely given the spotlight afforded to them by this collection. A recurring topic is the dichotomy between working-class life and culture and the expectations of the literary world, encountered in the process of becoming a successful writer. For Cathy Rentzenbrink, it’s there in her English teacher’s negative reaction to her youthful expertise in ladies’ darts, which is seen as conflicting with her appreciation and understanding of The Bell Jar. For Emma Purshouse it surfaces in her wistfulness for now-forgotten skills honed during a “misspent youth” playing holiday camp pool tables. Indeed, there is sometimes a sense of grief permeating these chapters, as if whole worlds and senses of belonging have been lost. This is due not only to the apartness required to observe and write about the lived experience of working-class people, but also to the move up from a working-class context into a world that is predominantly privileged, in which the question “Which school did you go to?” is not expected to elicit the name of a provincial comprehensive.
This clash of socio-economic cultures brought about by social mobility is starkly captured by Irish writer Lisa McInerney in her contribution “Working Class: An Escape Manual,” with its ironic statement that “all a working class person has to do to become middle class is to be good at something.” The refreshingly wide range of stories and backgrounds represented in this collection is very welcome, providing a salve to the divisions that have been fostered between different groups within the working class, and strengthening common bonds and a broader understanding of working-class experience, as recently advocated by Observer columnist Kenan Malik (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/14/divided-britain-ethnic-pay-gap).
This crowd-funded publication represents an important attempt to level the literary playing field for working-class writers, subject matters and experiences. Though there are strong and recurring themes of memory and nostalgia, they never become overly sentimental in any of the pieces. Instead, the writing in this book summons up a world too often ignored, its stories untold and its voices never heard. We need to hear more of these voices, and with this anthology Kit de Waal has set an example for others to follow. While the limitations of opportunity and access suffered by these writers come across strongly in this collection, it also makes clear that readers are being denied the richness, quality and depth that working-class writers can provide. --Steve Cox