The Writing Class

Sitting on a bus yesterday, I began to tune in to a conversation between two women.  Initially my interest was piqued by the name of the child who was the subject of their discussion.  She appeared to be called Tirana.  Perhaps the rest of the family includes Bratislava, Talinn, and Ljubljana? But I digress.

Let’s set the scene.  The lower deck of a bus. An array of passengers of many colours. And two young white women, both seriously overweight, both with baby buggies and bags of shopping.  These women were talking about Tirana in bellowing tones.  Had I wanted to avert my attention it would have been difficult.  I was tempted to put my fingers in my ears merely to protect against the danger of ruptured ear drums.

So I listened, and watched. A little boy threw his bottle out of the buggy onto the bus floor, and when mum picked it up and handed it straight back to him, I did my middle class flinch at the lack of care for basic hygiene.  The women’s voices rose, not shriekily, but with a throaty, aggressive power.  I began to think of something someone said (I don’t recall who) during the general election campaign last year – that politicians are frightened of their voters.  Being in the presence of these women might easily have felt quite scary.  For they embodied, perfectly, the modern stereotype of the white working class.

This was a kind of irony in passenger form, for I was on my way to a discussion of literature and social class, more specifically, working class writers and writing.

It was easy enough for the panel to describe the narrowness of London publishing culture, the apparent lack of interest in working class stories, the burden of representation, to re-appropriate Hall’s term, placed upon the shoulders of ‘working class writers’.  These are the whinges, which I often echo, and with good reason, with which we are familiar.  The gatekeepers of our literary culture are pale and posh.

But were we looking at the question the wrong way around?  How do working class people experience and consume ‘culture’?  What do they read? What would the women on the bus say?

The answer to that question is, I think, very complex.  We have a problem in this country with the education of those who will not go into higher education, but most people are still literate.  They read, they watch TV, they go to the cinema, they consume stories, and they tell stories. If anything, the role of narrative in our culture, including our political culture, has never been stronger (and more suspect – but that’s another question).

Who buys books in supermarkets, and charity shops, and at car boot sales? Well, I do, sometimes.  But so do many working class people.  Sitting in the session on working class writing last night, I remembered my mother, when I was a child, buying second hand books from a stall in the Rag Market.  When she read them, she returned them to the stall, and got a refund to put towards the cost of a ‘new’ book.  She read romances, historical bodice rippers, but also anything that got into the news in some way, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to The Godfather.  She was recognisably ‘tuned in’ to literary culture.  I’ve no doubt that the same sort of thing happens now.

There’s also a deliberate refusal in the literary world to take seriously, at a critical level, working class reading choices.  Across the country there are regional best-selling writers whose greatest fans are usually working class women.  We should be interested in fiction that seems to speak directly to lived experience, rather than ignoring its power and reach.

Nor is there just one way to be working class.  Gender and ethnicity play a part, but in ways which are fluid.  I’m particularly interested in the immigrant experience, as my parents were immigrants, and I live in a city of immigrants.

Immigrants are usually the young, the curious, the adventurous  It takes guts to move from the familiar and to try to start again in an unfamiliar place and language.  When I sit in the library I hear many accents and languages.  When the library service in the city looked at library usage by council ward, it was the lowest income, but most diverse wards that had the highest library usage.  Sadly, the white working class periphery had the lowest.  When I see parents taking their kids to the library on a Saturday morning, they are often clearly migrants.  They are our working class, too, descendants of the autodidacts of old.

So what might I have learned if I had talked to the two young mothers on the bus?

Their loud conversation, aggressive in tone, was actually rather sad.  They were discussing an educational issue with a real and anxious engagement.  One of them said, at one point, “I really need some help with this, but I don’t know who to talk to.”  The ‘bad mother’ passing a dirty juice bottle to her toddler was probably doing his immune system a favour, in contrast to the neurotic middle class parent who imprisons her child in a sterile, antibacterial isolation ward of a home.  These women on the bus are part of our shared culture.  They consume stories, whether in magazines, on soap operas and TV drama, in box sets, or, no doubt, in books.  And they have their own stories to tell.

We must open our ears, and hear their voices.

And the moral of this story?  Go by bus!

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