Recent piece for Red Pepper magazine (print).
Dale Lately talks to Nathan Connolly, Lee Rourke and Gena-mour Barrett about their new book “Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class”
DL. Nathan, I’d like to start with you. As the editor who put this collection together and contributed an essay yourself, could you tell me a bit about the genesis of Know Your Place.
NC. So in 2016 in the wake of the EU Referendum our publishing company Dead Ink saw a tweet from Nikesh Shukla, the editor behind The Good Immigrant book, a collection of essays which aimed to give voices to the BAME experience in the UK. His tweet basically said that someone should do the same thing, but for class – a “state of the nation book of essays by writers from working class backgrounds”. And something clicked. We just thought: that needs to be published. And you’d think that someone, somewhere would be doing precisely that. But they weren’t.
DL. You’re right, you would assume that the mainstream would already be doing things like this. But I think you’ve been aware for a while how little the mainstream seems to connect with the +working class.
NC. When I started out in publishing I went down for jobs in London with well-known publishers and was basically told: unless you can intern for free in London you basically stand no chance. There’s no way I could do that. Neither could most of the people I know. So I thought fuck it, came back up north, and just started my own publishing company.
DL. You make it sound so simple! And you were doing it without the support networks and social capital that many middle class kids in the same position would enjoy. I guess that’s why you feel this book’s important – to give a voice to people like yourself. That being said, you’ve got an incredibly diverse set of voices here, far from any single stereotype of the working class. Through the prism of “class” these essays actually explore race, LGBT, even the country / city divide – I really liked the essay that reminds us that “working class” is very much a rural thing too, something we tend to forget. Is this diversity an attempt to explore the intersectionality between class and lots of other aspects of marginalization?
NC. What you got recently in the wake of Brexit and Trump was literally thousands of pundits across the media claiming to understand the voices of the “working class”. But the vast majority of these pundits – 43% in British publishing for example – come from comfortable backgrounds and are privately educated. Even in today’s supposedly meritocratic age, so much is written about the working class but little is written by the working class. When I raise this point people say “What about Orwell”? – but Orwell was an ex-public school boy slumming it in Whitechapel. There’s a real crisis of representation going back decades, even centuries, that badly needs to be addressed. So yes, it’s important not only to record the voices of the working class but also how diverse they are.
DL In that spirit, then, I think we should open this debate out. All three of you have contributed essays to this collection. Can I ask what motivated you to write on this subject? And have you experienced any resistance from the publishing industry on the basis of your class background – snobbery, prejudice?
LR. For me I fell into writing as a “bad habit” – there were no social and political reasons behind it. For me to even be here feels like a strange thing. In some ways I don’t even really know how it happened. It’s not like I had some kind of working class drive to better myself. And to be honest it’s a hard slog. What you realise when you actually become a writer or work in publishing is that the whole industry is such a conveyor belt of marketable commodities.
GB. Yeah. With me, writing was something that I actually originally almost tried to avoid doing! I went to a school that frowned upon anything that wasn’t rewarding financially. It groomed us to becoming lawyers and doctors. When I told my careers adviser I was thinking about journalism they were almost shocked.
DL. Perhaps that attitude is reflected in the publishing industry itself? I think it was the writer Sukhdev Sandhu who once described a certain strand of London-based writing as “desiccated bibliophilia” – that is, novels that see perhaps the most multicultural city on earth solely in terms of a very white literary history, largely written by middle class white people for other middle class white people. How true do you think that is?
LR. I’ve been a writer for a while now, and I really don’t meet that many writers like myself. I used to work in publishing and all my editors were very middle class. I just couldn’t escape the feeling that I shouldn’t be there. I don’t know if you’ve experienced the same Gena-mour...?
GB. Partly. I certainly agree about the feeling that “working class” seemed to mean something very specific. Before I got involved in this book I felt it was something that didn’t seem to
encompass my own experience – because everything I’d been shown about it had been controlled by one singular narrative.
DL. Gena-mour, your essay is about not only class but a particular feature of what used to be associated with being working class – living on a council estate. I really responded to that! Right from when the Kingsmead estate formed a backdrop to A Clockwork Orange to the recent use of a rough estate – I think it was the Heygate – as the Channel 4 ident, we’ve seen this casual demonization of the grit and griminess of the estate. It’s almost a Pavlovian reflex: concrete equals grit equals gangs equals danger. But your essay was a really refreshing riposte to that.
GB. Yeah. I was keen to mount a defence of council estates. I think in a way it’s partly a product of being young – and the nature of having a space that is way more communal, and everyone does things together, you don’t have your own garden, your own space. There’s this myth that living on an estate is something shameful and I wanted to challenge that.
DL. In a sense you graduated to the British dream of the small suburban house but you seem to have actually disliked it; you could no longer lie in bed and hear your friends playing outside and feel comforted by this sense of wider community.
GB. Yes. The British dream – that ideal – feels like a very white ideal. When we were moved to another estate, as I talk about in the essay, things were much more isolated. Suddenly we felt racial tension we hadn’t felt before. And how does that feel for someone who’s not only working class, but black working class? – that’s what I wanted to explore here.
DL. So had you actually felt more comfortable back on the estate? Because that challenges a lot of dogma about council estates from both sides of the political spectrum.
GB. I did back then. Do I feel like that now? I’m not sure. But at the time the estate felt like a place that was way safer. It was more of a level playing field. The estate almost felt like a support system, a kind of family. They certainly shielded me from the death of my father. I felt it was a community that helped to raise me.
DL. It almost confirms the work of early sociologists like Willmott and Young and their work north of the Thames – in the face of economic adversity you get these strong kinship and social ties. I think an interesting dimension to this debate is that now, of course, many of these traditional working class communities are disappearing as the old council estates are cleared. Gentrification is a huge factor now.
GB. Absolutely, and it’s something I see a lot. I was born and raised in south London and I still live in the general radius – and it’s interesting to see those communities being broken down. And it literally is communities they’re breaking down. In Kidbrooke I’ve seen the entire destruction of a very big estate I used to know. I’ve no idea where those people have gone. And they’ve been replaced with newbuilds and something that looks like a shiny new community but has a completely different feel. But I wouldn’t want to say it was always a rosy picture. I mention in the essay the turd waiting for us on our doorstep when we were moved to a newer estate later on. It doesn’t make you feel very welcome. And then another time when my mum got a new car and some people shouted down from the balconies sort of accusing her of selling out.
DL. That’s another really interesting thing to explore, and all the essays in this collection touch upon it. You mention here a kind of reverse snobbery. Nathan, I’d like to ask you about that. Many of the essays you’ve chosen for this collection explore a kind of guilt they feel at “rising” up into middle class professions like writing and publishing. Since the rise of that Blairite dictum that idea that “we’re all middle class now” we’ve sort of tried to sweep class under the carpet – but how far do you think a person is bound by their class origins? Can they “transcend” class in the Blairite fashion?
NC. It’s a difficult question to answer, but I’m wary of this sort of angle. I mean, I went to university. That makes me not working class, right? But we were a single parent household. And we were on and off benefits at times. There was a lot of stuff that people from comfortable homes didn’t have to deal with. And now I work in publishing, is all that meant to count for nothing?
DL It’s easy to see how those arguments can play into the hands of the right. Since it’s so hard to define class, is that why you made one of the criteria of this collection that the contributors had to “self-identify” as working class?
NC. There's no way to categorise it with solid lines and as soon as you try you end up in a bigger mess that you started with. Also, I think there's something a bit insidious about being strict with your definition. It becomes self-selecting and what you end up with is some sort of Socialist Worker image of the working class which nobody actually lives up to. Dave isn't working class because he went to university. Jenn isn't working class because her mum was a manager. Liam isn't working class because he failed to meet his production quota this month. Are we going to say that Shelagh Delaney wasn't working class because she ended up writing for the BBC? Technically you could, but it would be ludicrous. If someone loses their ability to be working class the moment that they press the boundary then you consign the working class to be a monolithic bloc of faceless factory workers who are not allowed their own voice. You're saying only the middle class can represent them.
GB. I think it’s something that Nathan actually picked up in the Literary Fiction podcast – when you progress, do you lose that ticket of authenticity? In the case of my family I think we were trapped between two worlds – progressing into a world where we felt we weren’t good enough, because we weren’t middle class, towards a world where because we’d progressed so far, we almost were encouraged to feel better than the people we started with. I have friends who feel that now I’m living this middle class lifestyle I think I’m better than them. When I began at the grammar school one of my friends – on my first council estate – actually said “You talk white now”. It was beyond resentment. But at that school I was called a chav on my very first day! I think this stuff’s very complex.
LR. This idea of changing voices really strikes a chord with me. Where I’m from most of my family think since me entering writing and publishing, my voice has changed. And it has. But when I’m down here [London] I’m still thought of as the northerner! I’m from a very tough inner city part of working class Manchester. And I’ve just had to lose certain parts of my accent over the years simply because the people I mix with professionally don’t talk like that.
DL. I got that! When I moved to London for university I’d have this bizarre thing where I was perceived as some kind of flat-capped broad northerner, while I’d always been seen as a snob back home. It was almost like there was no place for me anymore. It was a kind of limbo almost.
LR. Yeah. It’s a limbo. Which in a way I kind of like – because it suits me to be detached in a way, a little bit outside society. But it’s very real. A lot of working class writers talk about that limbo. Zadie Smith wrote a wonderful essay about this in a collection called Changing My Mind. When she said that it really struck a chord with me. It’s all about changing your voice – the need to change and adapt.
DL. I was fascinated by the essay in the book which explores how many working class kids undergo some kind of emotional breakdown when they go to university. I certainly remember this myself studying in London alongside oligarchs and aristocrats. The sheer distance between us produced this kind of dizzying social gravity. And this Blairite pretence at a meritocracy – it’s nonsense, and actually quite damaging because it invalidates many peoples’ experience of meeting those barriers.
LR. I think there’s a sort of deep trauma in society from precisely this lack of representation that we’re discussing. If you look at books being published it’s a very white middle class kind of affair, there’s no kind of even spread. This is very much what I felt when I entered publishing. In my experience there’s also an expectation from a working class writer to write a gritty realist drama and bring a certain set of psychological tropes to it. And for me that’s anathema. It doesn’t interest me. I’ve never really been interested in serving up what’s expected of me.
DL. In other words, there’s an extent to which working class life has not just been ignored by the mainstream but actively exploited. My area in east Manchester has been used for this kind of poverty porn and I’ve even encountered TV producers on the end of my street casting for locations! I’d like to ask Gena-mour about this expectation to conform to a stereotype. Did you feel you were being asked to be, in a way, the voice of the council estate?
GB. To be honest with you, it didn’t feel like something I had to get off my chest and proclaim. It’s just the way you’ve lived. I haven’t gone around with a label on my head saying ‘I grew up here’. But it’s exactly like you were saying Lee – even when you do meet people who’ve come from that kind of background, they’ve at least been moulded to suit the expectation of what someone would look like – coming from a very privileged educational background, which I myself have had, coming from a grammar school and a Russell group uni. So there’s a problem there – that even when the mainstream feels like it’s giving a voice to someone from an ethnic minority or working class background, how much actual access are you giving them?
DL. That’s interesting though. Because you’re almost painting yourself as someone who’s already differentiated yourself from the people you grew up with, or at least been divided from them in a different social and professional loop. Does that make representation a problem?
GB. In what sense?
DL. I mean, do you feel that that means you can only really represent a certain section of the working class – the ones who managed to successfully jump through those hoops, educationally speaking?
GB. Oh definitely. I can’t pretend that I’ve been through what many of the people on my estate have been through. That’s not to belittle my own struggles, but I can’t act as if I’ve experienced as much educational adversity as someone who went to state school and then tried to become published. There’s a big cultural side to all this too. Because I went to good schools I learned how to modify my voice, use different language in different situations and so on – and that’s not something you really learn at state school. There’s still a lot of people outside who didn’t have those opportunities knocking on the door and not being listened to.
DL. Because they don’t have those social cues.
GB. Because they don’t have those social cues, yeah.
DL. It almost goes back to Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital, doesn’t it? It always struck me that schools and universities are really factories for manufacturing middle class people. The more you conform to middle class norms the better you’ll do. Nathan, one of your contributors, Abondance Matanda, describes how because black working class families didn’t traditionally feel part of the mainstream art world, they ended up curating their own lives; they turned their homes into living galleries. It’s like a quiet voice of defiance: “we want to be remembered.”
GB. People want to be heard. If you look at things like this independent anthology, at the Good Immigrant, the rise of these independently funded projects – these things didn’t happen by accident. There’s obviously a need for it. Unless these big publishers pay attention, it’s going to happen anyway.