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‘Class Is Permanent’

July 28, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

Andrea Dunbar by Susanna Wyatt

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.

‘My Mother On A Seat Outside…’

July 22, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process



My cultural touchstone is My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital by Peter Sansom. It’s a poem that tells the story of the death after an accident of Peter’s mother’s first husband, the man she was  married to before Peter’s father. After the accident it takes the man “days to die” in hospital, but on the last day, prompted by a “sixth sense”, Peter’s mother and her sister, who are “young women, girls they call themselves”, get up too early for the bus and walk for twelve miles to the hospital to visit him outside the normal visiting hours, setting off in the dark and arriving in the daylight. When they get to the hospital though it is still very early and Peter’s mother and her sister are too shy (“young women, girls they call themselves”), despite being grown women with children, to cause a fuss, or ask for special treatment by “bothering anyone so early.” So instead they sit and wait on a bench outside, while inside:

her husband

dies on a ward already awake

that she might have visited after all.

It’s a great poem, and my favourite poem. Every time I read it I find something new both in how it is written and what it means and connects to. But what I think connects it to the north is literal. It was written by Peter Sansom, who lives and works in the north. Peter has been writing, editing and publishing poetry in Huddersfield and Sheffield for more than 25 years, and he is the editor of a poetry magazine called ‘The North’ , which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. ‘The North’ isn’t about The North though, it is about whatever is printed on its pages, poems written in and about anywhere in Britain, and the world. But Peter’s skill, energy, learning and generosity created a centre of poetry reading, writing and publishing in England that was located first in Huddersfield then Sheffield. His skill and generosity as an editor and creative writing teacher has probably helped thousands of new writers to find their voice over the last 25 years, not least Simon Armitage, who learned how to write, and wrote much of his fantastic first book ‘Zoom!’ in creative writing workshops run by Peter. I don’t know if those thousands of writers share a northern voice – I can see that  they might do, drawing on common experience – but I do know that having a centre like that in the north was a lot more convenient to get to on the train. Peter would have created ‘The North’ if he’d lived in Southampton. I just thank my lucky stars he went to Huddersfield Poly and stayed in the town for the next 20 years.

Whether we have one or many centres is something that maps directly onto the political, economic, social and cultural geography of Britain, and that question connects My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital with what I almost chose as my cultural touchstone, which is Access Space’s graphic novel Grow Your Own Media Lab . Access Space is a media lab in the centre of Sheffield that re-uses second hand computers, along with open source software, to make a welcoming space for sharing knowledge and skills, and for using technology creatively: “networked technologies only truly empower when they enable people to create. To do this without boundaries people may need to repair, re-engineer and re-imagine technology”.

Grow Your Own Media Lab is the story of a place, and a way of working, and it has influenced people in the UK and worldwide, not least Brazil, to set up their own media labs following the same principles. It only takes half an hour to read, cover to cover, and even if you aren’t planning to open a media lab, it’s a great introduction to technology as a space for what Lisa Roberts from We Love Technology  calls “creative misuse”, a space that anyone can play around in. Once you’ve read it, even the copyright notice at the start will be a revelation, and how many books can you say that about? Grow Your Own Media Lab, like My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital, says that we can have as many centres as we want, we just need to make them.

‘Someone Should Tell Her Mother…’

July 22, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

She Answered The Door Topless

The poem by Gaia Holmes ‘Someone Should Tell Her Mother She’s Taking Drugs’ to me epitomises the cultural landscape of growing up in a West Yorkshire town. There has always been a duality and underriding tension between the hippie settlements of parts of the Pennines and the traditional working class culture of these mill towns. Gaia presents this with great perception and wit in this poem about a woman on her street and the impression she leaves on her nosy neighbours. The poem uses great breadth of imagination to describe what the woman’s onlookers may be thinking of her, externalising the interior world of the onlooker to illustrate their perceptions of her – projecting their own notions and concepts of what happens behind her closed door:

‘Up in her attic she conducts a choir of split-tongued harpies.They sing the Psalms backwards, set car alarms screaming and town dogs barking’.

It deals with notions of outsiders and prejudice in an insightful and refreshingly humourous way. The poem could describe any street in middle England but the tone of the poem and the humour to me presents a northern sensibility. I think it is certainly quite culturally specific in dealing with the hippie/working class tensions around West Yorkshire.

‘The North Is Not History…’

July 7, 2011 in PROJECT BLOG, R&D Process

Richard Milward by Sarah Lee

To mark the relocation of some of its departments to MediaCityUK in Salford, the BBC announced last week a season of programmes celebrating “the culture, history, life and architecture of northern cities”. Writing as a northerner, I find both the relocation and the programme plan heartening.

But if the BBC had moved Broadcasting House, or Television Centre to the North, that would have been even better – akin to the puckish ploy of Tony Benn, who as a cabinet minister in the 1970s displayed a map of Britain upside down on his office wall. Where the visitor sought London, the supposed focal point, he or she would have found the North, which at the time still signified industry, trade unionism, working-class cohesion, nonconformism and other qualities dear to the heart of Benn. Today, the industry and associated society has gone, written off by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and northernness is slowly dying.

The northern voice, for example, is dying. It was determined by a communal existence, and so was not attention-seeking, but economical to the point of terseness; it was informed by industrial hardship, and so it was melancholic. The recipe involves putting these things together, then adding a dash of humour and surrealism. What you end up with is the northern droll. Les Dawson, from Manchester, was one: “There was a knock on the front door. I knew it was the mother-in-law because the mice were throwing themselves on the traps.” In the 1950s, radio shows of the baleful Al Read, Salford-born sausage manufacturer and comedian, a wife asks her idle husband, “Are you going to cut that grass, or are you waiting ’til it comes in the ‘all?” The Liverpudlian Ken Dodd is still at it. He called the millennium the “aluminium”, and took aim at the number one metropolitan folly of our times: “Have you been to the Aluminium Dome? They’ve got an exhibition there that shows you how VAT works.”

In his book, Lancashire, Where Women Die of Love, Charles Nevin argues that the once omnipresent northern droll was in practice always Lancastrian, and it’s true that one of the last drolls still plying the trade is Morrissey, who is Mancunian. But another is Alan Bennett and he’s from Leeds. Unfortunately Bennett is pushing 80 and Morrissey lives in Italy, and the dominant tone in British entertainment and life in general for years has been the London tone: loud, brash, cocky; the barrow boy rather than the industrial worker, the cabbie rather than the train driver. It’s the eclipse of Michael Parkinson by Jonathan Ross, of Emmerdale and Brookside by EastEnders which, incidentally, celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. Ugly people scream abuse at each other amid terrible decor. I suppose it’s a formula that couldn’t fail, and its equation of entertainment with strident individualism has lead naturally to the sadism of reality TV, itself a reflection of an atomised society more southern than northern.

The triumph of the City has been the triumph of London. Once, the arrogance of a City gent might have been tempered by a short walk from his workplace to King’s Cross station, where he would have seen the coal trains arriving and unloading endlessly, and he would have known that the softness of his existence depended on the hardness of the North.

If the City gent had then walked a little way west along the Euston Road, he would have come to the twin stone lodges that flanked the Euston Arch. The Arch is in pieces now, although there are plans for its reconstruction, but the lodges remain, and here are carved the names of the towns accessible from Euston (albeit sometimes with a few changes of train).

Forty years ago, those names would have triggered a series of chastening associations in our educated City gent’s mind. Preston – that was Coketown in Hard Times. Manchester – cradle of industry, depicted as Milton in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Stoke – The Potteries, Arnold Bennett territory. Nottingham – lace, mining, D H Lawrence. Huddersfield and Bradford – textile towns, combined into “Bruddersford” by J B Priestley in The Good Companions.

And Bradford was also Dufton in Room at the Top by John Braine, one of the last phase of northern books, those of the 1950s and 1960s attesting to the collapse of the social rigidities associated with industrialisation.

Most of those place names today will signify little more than football teams to many people. When James Alexander Gordon reads the classified football results at 5pm on a Saturday, it sounds to me like a beautifully modulated roll call of the dead. And, of course, many of the best players and managers are foreign, and the names of the stadia often occlude their geographical location. Newcastle, now playing at’park, have floated off into the ether. Where Sunderland once played at Roker Park, they now play at The Stadium of Light, which is at once pompous, boringly generic and copied from the name of the home ground of Benfica.

Where Middlesbrough played at Ayresome Park, they’re now based at the Riverside Stadium, located in a wasteland on the banks of the Tees where once stood the centre of world iron-making. (Incidentally, I think the BBC should look again at MediaCityUK. I prefer the brazenness of “Salford Media”).

Last year, Faber and Faber published Ten Storey Love Song a novel by Richard Milward set in contemporary Middlesbrough. A woman I know who works for New Writing North, one of the too-few organisations promoting northern writing, said, “It caused a terrific fuss up here.” Well no wonder. The northern novel with a contemporary setting hardly exists, and is not much discussed insofar as it does, whereas if you write a book set in Africa or India you’re heading straight for the Booker shortlist. The troubles of the North are not fashionable troubles.

When was the last time anybody set a novel in (to take just the Bs) modern-day Bury, Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton, Bradford or Bingley? Then again, what’s the difference between any of these places and Luton? Globalisation, Americanisation, homogenisation of high streets, the rise of the internet have all combined to abstract us from the physicality of our geographical settings – and the North was all about geography. We celebrate diversity of race, but not diversity of place. Most of us live in a sort of notional Los Angeles, and so the northern rain, the redness of the house bricks, the lumpishness of the landscape, seem anomalous, faintly perplexing in the way they insistently reassert themselves whenever the computer screen is switched off.

Oh, I left out centralisation. It’s incredible to think that an apprenticeship in local government was the standard prelude to a ministerial career. Think of Joseph Chamberlain, high flying beneficiary of the “Birmingham Machine”. I once wrote a historical novel set in Halifax in the early 20th century. I gathered from back numbers of The Halifax Courier that the leading celebrities of the town (as proud and independent as a little city state; a place where you could post a letter in the box on the tram at midnight) were the mayor and the councillors. Today, for all the talk of localism, neither of the main parties wants to resuscitate local government.

Let me acknowledge that I don’t believe I would have been suited to life in a factory or a mill. Given a choice of workplace, I would always go for somewhere a bit less dark and satanic. But I think I would prefer a senior position in a factory over one in a call centre or a coffee shop. A resident of Manchester recently told me that “We live in the city that invented industry, and however much it changes, that pride is in our DNA, and it’ll be there for ever.” I don’t know about that. Wherever northern cities are talked up, as in the glossy magazines available on the trains heading that way, the emphasis is always on new eateries, but I think we have all got over the novelty of being able to buy a croissant in Cleckheaton.

The ruling principle is a sort of vacuous cosmopolitanism. In York a few years ago I went into a restaurant – a kind of noodle bar – where clocks on the wall told you the time in Paris, New York and… possibly Beijing. But no clock told you the time in York. The other aspect of northern life pushed in the magazines is youth culture, and that’s the big thing that happened in Manchester in the post-industrial era: the rise and fall of the Happy Mondays and their bell-bottomed mates. It’s not enough really, much though I love the Stone Roses.

Northernness is not quite dead yet, and its distinctive tone has been taken on by the immigrant communities, but it is living on borrowed time. The BBC should be a spur to its revival, as should any incoming government. We need its virtues – its matter-of-factness and communality – now more than ever. And we don’t want to be a nation of EastEnders, do we?

Andrew Martin, The Independent, Sunday, 14 February 2010


Main Image: writer Richard Milward by Sarah Lee.