From the festival programme:
In 2017, Dead Ink Press published the pioneering anthology Know Your Place in which working class writers addressed the issue of class inequalities head on. Authors from the anthology, and elsewhere, discuss class and writing.
Chaired by Matthew De Abaitua, the panel for this discussion included one writer from the excellent Know Your Place. Due to a no show, festival co-director Alex Pheby stepped in at the last minute to join Yvonne Singh and Shiromi Pinto. The discussion covered much interesting ground. None of the four authors are now working class but, growing up, all experienced class issues. My daughter and I ended up discussing this event more than any of the others attended. I may write my own post on class in due course to process the thoughts provoked.
Yvonne opened the event and read her story, More Than Just a Dreamland, from the anthology. Yvonne is a journalist, writer and editor. Her parents are from the Windrush generation. She applied to Know Your Place because she wished to counter the grim stereotypes of the working class, to write something joyful. Her story is set around a British beach. Such places are derided by some yet they hold happy memories for so many. Yvonne had to work her way through university. She first became aware of class at this time.
Alex was asked what role class played in him becoming a writer. He writes about the mentally ill and told us their weirdness cuts out the bullshit by which we live our lives. Alex grew up on a council estate in Basildon. His family then moved to Worcester where, due to his accent, he was considered posh. He passed the 11+ exam and ended up at a public school. Here he was called a gypo – a derogatory term. He experienced a sense of displacement.
Matthew asked about class mobility, what is left behind, identity. Shiromi grew up in Canada and finds class issues baffling. When invited to join the panel she was asked what class she would be and didn’t know. She has the experience of an immigrant coming from an aspirational working class family who moved to improve their chances. Her parents left Britain for Canada as they wanted to leave behind the racism and difficulty of class mobility. They desired greater opportunities for their children.
Matthew asked what working class means now. Yvonne talked of a survey that suggested there were seven classes, the lowest being precarious due to the gig economy. Like the others on the panel she accepts that she is not working class but that is her background.
Matthew quoted Orwell: “he does not act, he is acted upon”. Working class people have no agency.
Yvonne agreed. Many people now feel they cannot shape their future. Housing is out of reach and the older generation do not understand the younger’s lived experiences today.
Alex talked of the post-Thatcher attempt to undermine the infrastructure of support – unions, libraries, society. We now live in a strange form of individualism.
Yvonne mentioned that when she goes back to visit her working class acquaintances she feels a type of imposter syndrome.
Alex told us that his family were very left wing, Marxist. He doesn’t feel that he belongs to that. Whatever he is, his kids are middle class.
Matthew then read from his book, Self & I, about a period when he was working as a security guard on the Liverpool docks while a student. His mentor was an older guard who expressed annoyance when talking about students, asking what is the point of English Literature? The man bought himself a can of coke each day as a treat. Money was tight and coke was not a necessity, it was a rare luxury item that he allowed himself. When Matthew worked for Will Self it was at times almost a Pygmalian type relationship.
Matthew asked the panel about Grenfill and austerity.
Yvonne could only attend university as she received a full grant. She still had to work.
Alex, a university lecturer, told us that the obligation to work impacts on students’ ability to write. With the abolition of grants, more students have to work. Some also need to juggle childcare. They leave with huge debts. When that generation gains power in the future they may cancel these debts. What impact will that have on capitalism? Vice Chancellors wish to improve their institutions’ standings in league tables so raise entrance criteria. This cuts down on the diversity of students affecting all of their experiences.
Shiromi mentioned that Canada has always had university fees. Students graduate and go on to wait on tables in an attempt to clear their debts.
Matthew asked if the panel feel antagonistic towards literary fiction.
Alex talked of the English literary world being one of privilege, centred around Oxbridge and white, English males. Agents look for mirrors of their experiences and this affects who they choose to represent. There is a supposition that if a writer is incapable of gaining entry to Oxbridge then they don’t deserve representation. This attitude is complicit in its continuation.
Yvonne pointed out that fiction exists to tell other people’s stories. It is therefore a shame to limit it to one type, to close doors.
Shiromi moved back to the UK as a student. She was considering becoming a writer but couldn’t see anyone who looked like her being selected. They were all Oxbridge, an incredibly narrow field. Independent publishers offer a lifeline but the industry as a whole is exclusively a certain type. It is dispiriting.
Matthew suggested commercial fiction acts as a censor.
Questions were invited from the audience, the first being if inspiration were drawn from working class music.
Yvonne said yes. Pulp’s Common People tells a great story. Punk poetry can inspire. It is now harder though in all the arts. She suggested that the sciences were more egalitarian than the arts (not my daughter’s experience as a medical student – unlike her, her peers are mostly private school educated).
A teacher at a comprehensive school mentioned Gove’s Baccalaureate and how it has cut the focus from arts subjects, that they are no longer encouraged. This will lead to the gap getting wider. There is no immersion for students in the arts, no encouragement.
Alex talked of an entire group of people looking around for people who fit within their personal taste boundaries. This structural prejudice may not be deliberate. In going with gut feeling people can end up racist, sexist. Literature is chosen for what is expected to sell. We should be looking for something we don’t know, for new voices.
A question was asked, how much does reader demographic affect what is written?
Shiromi told us that agents do this, not thinking about broadening readership.
Yvonne talked of the limitations of market forces and perceived safety.
An audience member suggested that in the 70s and 80s when women weren’t being published they set up their own presses. It was suggested that writers consider alternatives, ways around the problem of Oxbridge.
Alex told them they were preaching to the converted and need to go out and evangelise.
Matthew suggested that the working class may have internalised passivity, telling themselves that, ‘they need to sort it out’, never seeing themselves as the they. He repeated that the working class have things done to them. They lack agency. Their experience of opportunity differs. A new model needs to emerge.
The event had run over time and had to be drawn to a close. It was a lively and thought provoking discussion, and a fine way to round off my attendance at Greenwich. After a quick thank you to Alex for his part in organising such an excellent festival my daughter and I headed back to our digs to mull over all that had been said.