According to French writer and sociologist Didier Eribon, “If you write about the working class you have left it,” though he also said, “You can never escape your social class, even if you believe you have.” This anthology of memoirs, essays and poems by working class writers has a lot to say about that conundrum.
After a blistering opening poem by Tony Walsh (aka Longfella), Irish novelist Lisa McInerney tackles the conundrum head on. McInerney debunks assumptions about class identity and who can make art — “as if aesthetics is all that separates social classes” — taking us through the minefield of growing up with notions, or ideas, “above your station”. And in a vibrant account of working as a receptionist in her mother’s brothel in Leeds, Kate Massey makes clear that rather than having had to “overcome” the circumstances of her upbringing, she was socially and culturally enriched by it.
Most of the contributors look back at the joys and tribulations of working class family life: an eye-opening trip to the Lake District for a city-dwelling black girl; the grim living conditions of an injured rural labourer father; community life on a pre-Right-to-Buy council estate; the social role of the lift in a multi-ethnic tower block. Contrary to assumptions, it is women writers who treat us to accounts of growing up playing pool or darts and going to the football or flapping (unlicensed greyhound racing).
While class is generally treated in terms of identity, related to, or even determined by, the level of education, a final essay uses National Statistics Socio-economic Classification categories to discuss the dearth of published work by working class writers. It points the finger at the preponderance of “middle class” people working in the publishing industry. A Marxist definition would, however, classify many of them as working class (albeit not those in positions of power).
Those old enough will remember strikes in the publishing industry, such as the one at Pergammon Press in the late 1980s over union recognition. The NUJ Chapel in Open University publishing where I worked had a strong collective tradition of solidarity with striking signal workers, hospital cleaners, and others.
NUJ Book Branch may have been severely weakened, but that potential is still there. And while the biographies of contributors to Common People show that creative writing courses now provide a route to publication for a few working class people, those who can manage without earnings from jobs, alongside other workers, will be very rare indeed.
While you won’t find a Marxist perspective on class, culture and literature in Common People, it does offer a moving, enjoyable tribute to the strength of community, companionship and, above all, humour of working class lives. It’s a book to dip into that will chime with those who’ve had notions above their station.