You know the saying: “You can take the girl out of the council estate, but you can’t take the council estate out of the girl.” Well, it’s true. I grew up in a neat redbrick council house in Ellesmere Port, an industrial town on The Wirral, with a car worker Dad and cleaner mum, and after thirty years living away, it’s still home. Like most, I’m pretty sentimental about my childhood. Though my memoir piece, A Brief History of Industrial Action in Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers (ed. Kit de Waal), reminds me of the difficult realities of working class life. It focuses on the dark days of car industry strikes in the late seventies and early eighties, a time that almost broke us all.
Mine was only one of the thirty four pieces included in the Common People anthology, and from the response of reviewers and audience members at literary events, they are stories people longed to hear. Many times after a reading I’ve been approached and told: “This was my life, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to read about it in a book.” So, making sure all kinds of people are represented in literature is not just important to writers, but to readers too. I know from being a teacher for almost thirty years that, sometimes, connecting with a book, or a character can change a life. But literature can only be transformative if it is a reflection of real lives and real histories. Making sure that writers – and others in the publishing industry, for that matter- are from all kinds of backgrounds is essential in a changing cultural landscape, if we want to secure the future of books.
The other thing that comes up when I read from Common People at festivals is whether I still have an authentic working class voice now I’m a graduate and a teacher. It’s a valid question. And I am always careful not to respond in a contentious or partisan way, because at the end of the day, being working class is simply what I am; my very existence is not a political statement. I have a certain approach and a certain awareness that comes directly from my upbringing: it’s in the bone.
So, how has being working class affected me as a writer? Well, I don’t particularly write about working class characters in my fiction, although a working class sensibility will always come through in my work. Then, there’s obviously been a time issue because of a lack of financial freedom. I’ve worked full time all of my adult life. But of course, this is true of many writers, no matter what their background. I think the main effect being working class has had on my writing is one of psychology. Can I really be a writer? Isn’t that for other people with other kinds of lives? I didn’t know anyone who wrote for publication as I was growing up. Neither did I know anyone who worked in the publishing industry. I’d only been to London – where publishing is centred – once on a school trip. And even going into a bookshop to browse seemed a little alien. You have to see it to be it, as they say, and I never saw any one being a literary success.
Certainly, the Common People Project has gone some way to addressing my feelings of marginalisation. I attended Penguin Write Now Live at their headquarters in The Strand, then the New Writing North Fiction Salon at Hachette on Victoria Embankment. I mixed with agents and publishers, and everyone was warm and human. They talked passionately about books and writing – and quite quickly, I didn’t feel like an interloper. A wall had come down, even after all these years, and finally I could see things from the inside.
It’s taken a long time to get to the point of not feeling like an uninvited guest. Yet, I’m still very proud of my working class background. Like any writer I feel I have a lot to say, but because of my background it took a long time to find the confidence to be heard.