"For a writer, a place like Salford is worth its weight in gold. It's got everything a writer could ever want... It's alive...the whole place is alive... I think it's a fabulous place. And the language is alive, it's virile, it lives and it breathes and you know exactly where it's coming from. Right out of the earth." Shelagh Delaney describes her Wondrous Place.
"It's a bit crap if you're so parochial that you're only allowed to write about humbugs and chippies. Sheffield may not be very sexy. But, then again, it is, because that was where I grew up, and where all my sex was had. I didn't have sex in London for about two years. I had lovers block. I couldn't get it on. But, in Sheffield, when it's hot, you can feel the sap rising, and everything seems as if it's got something to do with sex, as if the whole city has sex on its brain." Jarvis Cocker on his Wondrous Place.
Andy Field is an artist whose work Andrew Wilson has recently introduced us to. He creates ‘interactive encounters for unusual contexts’, is co-director of a company called ‘Forest Fringe’ and writes regularly for The Guardian. Here’s a link to his website. His work’s very interesting and imaginative – immersive, warm, playful – but his thinking and writing about theatre’s equally inspiring. Common sense arguments which achieve a kind of poetry. Here’s two examples - there are many more on his site:
I wish we could feel freer to copy each other To reincorporate and reuse Create intricate patterns of reoccurrence A radical and generous ocean of ideas in constant circulation
Like the idea of oratory Old stories remembered and re-spoken Or Old rhythms and choruses and drum loops Reused, remixed, reincorporated
Or even like an internet meme An idea or a behaviour or a performance Repeated beyond the point of absurdity, becoming something else entirely Building into impossibly dense, incredible, nuanced patterns A one-note joke becoming slowly with a near-ridiculous global effort a thing of genuine beauty
An exploration of our complicated relationship to each other Rather than an attempt to get ahead of the crowd.
(An extract from ‘A Short Talk About Going Round In Circles’.)
What do we mean by ‘politics’. The root of the word is polis – the body of people that make up the city state. We are the politics, the network of communities and interactions that constitute our daily lives – the great, shifting ocean of people that make up this country. The way that we choose to bring people together and for what purpose are deeply political decisions. Theatre is a form of community and consequently an important expression of the way we as a society choose to live. As such, theatre is always political, whether it intends to be or not. Indeed, sometimes the politics embedded in how we make theatre can be quite contradictory to that espoused from the stage.
Experimental theatre is very often engaged with these kinds of understandings of what politics in theatre is. It is a politics that does not wear its rosette on its sleeve, but is instead embedded in the form of the event itself. It is implicitly an exploration of how and why we choose to come together – an attentiveness to the political decisions embedded in our everyday actions and interrelations. A theatre that doesn’t just talk about society but embodies it in the structure of the event, in the relationship between the audience and the performers and the surrounding world. It is a theatre that at its very best invites us to experience that world in a different way.
(An extract from ‘We Are All Politics’)
Finally, we found this recent article that Andy wrote for the Guardian, which cheered us up no end! In it he advocates that blog writing, and the manner in which this is done, can embody and be an extension of the work, rather than just as a form of publicity, or an explanation, after the work has been created. We see this is VERY important to our work and how this blog should function and we’re very keen to explore ideas that will enable us to go much further - didn’t realise we were being so cutting edge!
Author William Nicholson complains that comfortable, middle-class people are no longer legitimate subject matter for serious fiction. Can he be right?William Nicholson was in his 50s by the time he got around to writing his first novel in 2004. Before then he worked in TV drama, and on Hollywood screenplays including Gladiator. He also wrote books for children. But adult fiction turned out to be harder than expected.
“I wanted to write about my own world and I felt that I couldn’t,” he says. “And I puzzled about this. Why did I feel that my world, which is comfortable, middle-class, well-educated people living in the countryside, was illegitimate subject-matter for serious fiction?”
Nicholson spoke about his experiences, including his rejection by a publisher who said he wasn’t interested in women who drive 4x4s, at a festival in Devon earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Scottish writer Alan Warner was making the opposite argument. Writing for the Guardian in praise of Ross Raisin’s second novel, Waterline, which describes the descent into homelessness of a widowed former Glasgow shipyard worker, Warner wrote of a “sly, unspoken literary prejudice” against working-class lives and characters.
While the upper-classes remain perennially interesting to publishers and readers alike, is it affluent middle-class or working-class characters who are being squeezed out of literary fiction? Or can both Nicholson and Warner be right?
When I phone him, Nicholson is quick to qualify his remarks. “I’m not daft, I know the middle classes dominate our culture,” he says from his home in Sussex. But when he began reading Jonathan Franzen‘s hugely acclaimed novels about American family life, he decided Franzen’s compassion for his characters was missing from British fiction. It is true that there is no obvious equivalent to Franzen’s success with The Corrections and Freedom in Britain. The tragic grandeur with which he invests the lives of his middle-class Americans does not have an obvious counterpart in a modern-day Middlemarch set in Harrogate or Morningside. But British fiction has become so diverse it is difficult to usefully generalise about it.
Every publisher’s list includes American writers, novels from former colonies, Scottish and Irish authors. The UK-administered Orange prize just went to the Serbian-American first-timer Tea Obreht, while hits of the summer so far range from Alan Hollinghurst’s country house intrigue The Stranger’s Child to Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, the Cambridge-educated daughter of Nigerian immigrants who now lives in Berlin.
In contrast, while crime and thrillers are international, with writers like Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown becoming global bestsellers, there is a strong domestic market for home-grown romantic and women’s fiction that is very much concerned with love and marriage in the shires. Nicholson’s frustration is partly that his work is corralled for marketing purposes into this bracket. Subject-matter, rather than form or style, have caused his books to be classified as more commercial than literary.
He has some supporters. Last year Viv Groskop called him “one of our most underrated novelists”, while fellow novelist Jojo Moyes wrote an article this week admitting that she, too, suffers pangs of self-consciousness about her privileged characters, and suggesting that perhaps the “drama played out over the scrubbed pine table” has had its day.
But looking at the most recent crop of fiction, it seems clear that middle-class lives of various kinds still dominate. This week David Nicholls‘s hugely successful comic novel One Day, about young professionals growing into older ones, sold its millionth copy, and next month opens as a Hollywood film. As Alan Warner suggests, it is Raisin’s new novel that is the more unusual work than Nicholson’s, in dealing with a downwardly mobile unemployed man on the brink of disaster. Raisin, who is 31 and trained to be a restaurant manager before studying creative writing, says the characters that interest him “do tend to be ones who are involved in some kind of struggle, and I’m certainly interested in what happens to communities when the fulcrum of that community is taken away – like an industry dying.”
He suggests the lack of representations of working-class life is an English thing, and that Scottish and Irish fiction are broader. There has been no equivalent south of the border of James Kelman’s powerfully influential use of Glasgow vernacular, while Scottish writers including Irvine Welsh and Warner, and Irish ones, including Roddy Doyle and William Trevor, have all written novels about what it means, and how it feels, to live nearer the bottom than the top of society.
There are exceptions. David Peace, who grew up two streets away from the 60s writer Stan Barstow in Ossett in the West Riding, has carved out a successful niche melding hardboiled American crime fiction with the northern working-class tradition with which he grew up. His trilogy about the Yorkshire ripper was recently adapted for TV. ( For a great interview with David Peace click here) Nicola Barker won the Impac prize for her weirdly wonderful Wide Open, a tale of misfits and missed connections set in Essex.
Those who write about working-class life tend to be working class themselves. But as academic Ian Haywood points out, “the term working-class writer has always been something of an oxymoron because at the point at which this writer gets published, they must have moved away from their original circumstances.” By the time Alan Sillitoe published his 1960 classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he was hanging out in Mallorca with Robert Graves.
Inevitably, as the writer’s economic position changes because of their education, their life experience changes, too. Livi Michael, who wrote three novels based on her experiences growing up on a council estate in Ashton-under-Lyne near Manchester, says that once you become an author, “your class position is rather peculiar. I don’t feel that I could write now with any authority about people living on big council estates, so I was looking for something a bit different.” She gave up adult fiction and began writing for children. (For a a fab interview with Livi Michael, click here) Similarly, Pat Barker wrote three novels about the gritty northern neighbourhood she grew up in, then moved on to write about the first world war.
Just because a writer has a comfortably middle-class life, and writes stories set in big, posh houses, does not make them uncritical observers of English society. Far from it. But the experience of writers such as Livi Michael, who was sent by her publisher on tours with Scottish writers for lack of English contemporaries with anything in common, does suggest that the intense draw of literary London is not conducive to attracting voices and talents from different backgrounds, who might offer alternative perspectives. Michael’s first novel took years because she didn’t want to write it in standard English. Catherine O’Flynn, whose 2007 Birmingham shopping centre debut What Was Lost became a bestseller, almost didn’t find a publisher at all.
London novelist Tim Lott points out that the huge cultural and ethnic opening out of English literature over recent decades – with writers such as Andrea Levy documenting the struggles of first-generation West Indian immigrants – is in contrast to the lack of fresh entrants from white working-class backgrounds. “It’s not a closed culture but it’s a very close-knit culture, and people are very highly educated.” He suggests a book prize for writers from poor backgrounds – the criteria could be that no one in the writer’s family has ever been to university – and says it is a disgrace that there are so few books about ordinary people’s lives. Owen Jones, who struggled to find a publisher for his recent book, Chavs, points out that as many people now work in call centres and supermarkets as once worked in the mines. “Ten million people in this country live in social housing and I can’t think of one sympathetic representation. On TV you get grotesque caricatures. I think we need a revolution in literature, a new generation of angry young men and women.” Jones believes that novels remain important, that what is represented in them matters, even though only a tiny fraction will ever have the reach and impact, achieved in part via Hollywood, of Nicholls’s One Day or Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
Whether the novel can become the vehicle for a whole or more rounded view of life in Britain seems doubtful. Fewer people than ever can afford to work as full-time writers, and many of those who do choose to work in film and television.
But perhaps the form of the novel itself is part of the problem? Haywood points out that one of the last writers to break through to the Booker prize shortlist with working-class credentials, Magnus Mills, did so in 1998 with a novel, The Restraint of Beasts, that was “not realistic, but Kafkaesque and dystopian … maybe if we’re going to rejuvenate the genre, we need to be a bit more imaginative about how we define it.”
This essay originally appeared in The Guardian on Friday 15th July 2011. The version that appears online received a very interesting comment from someone calling themselves ‘Classmyths’. I thought it would be helpful to include it:
The issue really is that there is a lack of any ‘Tales of Ordinary Sanity’.
What agents and publishers will say, and they may be right at least in commercial terms, is that what sells is dysfunction. Take the working classes first; here you generally get horror stories or fairy tales that encapsulate a life of struggle. My problem with this is that they generally make for grim reading – both of Raisin’s novels whilst good, are grim and there are other more contemporary examples (take Helen Walsh’s Once Upon a Time in England). All of which add a new dimension to Owen Jones’ demonization of the working classes in that there can be no tale of ordinary sanity when it comes to such experience.
To a lesser extent the middle classes in England also tend to be caricatured as dysfunctional. For example, Ian McEwan’s portrayal of Michael Beard in Solar is a metaphor of shallow crumbling middle class. Writing about the American comparison with the likes of Franzen, Sebastian Faulks view was that if he said, ‘I’m going to write about a family who make luggage in Leicester.’ People would just laugh.” So there are few tales of ordinary sanity, whether English or middle/working class. This may be down to the fact that a) readers just want to see how characters deal with adversity or want to read fish and chip paper stories or b) that the challenge to write about the mundanities of life is beyond many writers and so they tend towards the horror story or fairy tale.
Main Image: from Clio Barnard’s excellent verbatim documentary about the life of writer Andrea Dunbar, The Arbor.
This is taken from Matt Edgar’s personal blog, which, if you haven’t already, we strongly urge you to visit. A link to the site is on our blog roll.
As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I moved offices in Leeds earlier this year from Holbeck Urban Village to Clarence Dock. The stark contrast between the two areas has set me thinking about a city’s built environment and how it can make a difference to people’s lives.
First some context for those who don’t know Leeds so well. Both districts are to the south of the city centre. Both played important roles in the city’s commercial past. Holbeck, at the terminus of the Leeds to Liverpool Canal, was a manufacturing district rich in textiles, engineering and pin-making. Clarence Dock was, from 1843, the city’s main dock. By dock I do not mean a place to charge your iPod but rather, in the archaic sense of the word, a big basin of water in which ships stopped to unload and take on goods.
Both areas have been developed in the past 15 years. Therein lies the difference.
The designers of Holbeck Urban Village have deliberately reused as much as they can, breathing new life into even the humblest old buildings. Where new build has been more practical it follows original street patterns to create small, interlinked public spaces with pubs and cafes. New media businesses pump pixels in the Round Foundry complex where once Matthew Murray‘s men cast steam engines.
Holbeck was a magical place for a historian to work in a high-tech business. I self-indulgently imagined that the world-changing importance of Industrial Revolution pioneers like Murray, his mentor the flax magnate John Marshall, and pin king Colonel Thomas Harding could rub off on my own work as a spinner of mobile internets. I was not alone. In the last few years Holbeck has inspired many others to create art and literature based on its multi-layered history. Granary Wharf now boasts Candle House, one of the best of the rash of new tall buildings, not to mention its own urban storyteller.
A mile down the River Aire, Clarence Dock is a different story. Cleared for redevelopment earlier in the Nineties but only recently completed, it seems there is literally nothing of the Dock’s historic fabric left above ground level, though occasional warning signs hint at something more interesting below the waterline. Compelling though it is on the inside, the Royal Armouries Museum is an alien arrival. Before it came to Leeds, it was meant to go to Sheffield where its magnificent Hall of Steel would presumably have had more resonance.
Clarence Dock is all bread and circuses, the ultimate blank canvas for the retail spectacle. I took the boys down there a couple of weeks ago for a canter round the Armouries and to watch the Dragon Boat races where teams of workmates rowed for charity in vessels emblazoned with their logos. A good time was had by all, and in a good cause, yet there was a randomness, disconnected from any sense of why the water was there, or how it played a part in the life of the city.
The history of the Dock is acknowledged – literally beneath the visitors’ feet - on dockside flagstones. These words seem to add insult to injury, like sticking plasters applied to a gaping wound of the collective memory. A paving slab that says “20 Tonne Crane” is not the same as a 20 tonne crane.
I don’t mean to knock everything that’s happening at Clarence Dock. The “ghost town” tag seems overblown. And I don’t know enough of the back-story. Maybe not a single building was fit for reuse. Maybe every crane had rusted beyond repair, even as a heritage totem pole. But it seems to me that at Clarence Dock, Leeds has squandered a huge amount of its narrative capital.
By narrative capital I mean this. When a building is first made it belongs to the builder, the architect and their paymasters. They alone can tell stories about why and how it came into being in its pristine form. But over time, the balance tips in favour of the place’s users, its neighbours and even to passers-by. Their stories become the building’s stories and the building’s stories become inspirations, symbolic of the city’s authentic character. Past achievements become our achievements to be equalled and bettered. Shared memories of past sins and humiliations can be just as valuable.
In the part of the city where I live, there is a Victorian police station. A few years ago the police sensibly moved out to a corrugated fortress with ample car parking. Local residents came together to campaign to turn the redundant building into a community centre. They lost the battle but got a half-happy ending when some new-build flats were developed nearby with a space for community arts. The new-built space is great, yet a world away from what would have been had they won the old police station. It would have been less convenient, messier, but more truly owned by the community from day one. The old police station had accumulated narrative capital which the new arts space will take years to put by.
Just about the most shocking offence against cultural life is the burning of books. Totalitarian regimes burn books to erase traces of dissent, not just to prevent transmission but to deny the existence of inconvenient ideas. To destroy a book is to destroy a story and to destroy a story is to rob human life of a little piece of its meaning. I know that buildings are not books. For one thing they take up more space. But I do believe there’s a parallel that should give us pause for thought before destroying places high in narrative capital. It’s not the long-dead architect’s freedom of expression that’s impoverished but the story-telling and meaning-carrying capacity of the whole community.
A rich environmental fabric makes a city resilient. By all means tug at loose threads, patch it up and reuse it as has happened in Holbeck. But it seems a wanton waste for any city to cut a clean swathe as big as Clarence Dock.