Why are so few novelists from working class backgrounds? A recent BBC Radio 4 programme saw novelist Kit de Waal reflect on her own life and trajectory, taking the listener on a journey around the country to find out what the barriers really are to working-class representation in British literature today.
Below, Bel Greenwood uses Kit’s journey to reflect on her own working-class origins, and how they sit against the middle-class world of publishing.
I can remember really looking forward to reading Maggie Ferguson’s biography of Michael Morpurgo. I wasn’t even going to wait for the paperback version to come out. I had read his stories to my own child and watched him passionately defend the human rights of Palestinian children. I admired him, but I felt a familiar disappointment when, yet again, Michael Morpurgo was revealed to be a former head boy of a Canterbury public school who leads the late Queen Mother around the grounds, ex-Sandhurst, and related by marriage to Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books. I can remember thinking, how typical. Of course, Michael Morpurgo has talent, lots of people have that, but not everyone has such a route map. Frankly, if you are a working-class writer you really don’t have much of a map at all.
I am very conscious of the need to avoid being ‘chippy.’ As if holding any resentment about inequality is a character flaw and my perception of the publishing industry as elitist, and poorly representative of where I come from isn’t valid. But it is now being acknowledged by the publishing industry itself that working-class writers and stories are missing and some in the industry want to remove the barriers to writers from my kind of background. Hence BBC Radio 4’s documentary, ‘Where are all the Working Class Writers?’ A passionate, personal take by Kit de Waal, who published her first book at the age of 55.
Is it so different for someone like me and someone like Michael Morpurgo? Plenty of middle-class people refuse to accept that there is any difference. But of course, there is. It isn’t only financial hardship, lack of time or a writing shed that gets in the way. It’s confidence, self-belief, having a face that fits, a happy sense of entitlement, adopting a way of speaking that is taken more seriously. Learning the alien skill of a networking session, finding a sense of belonging without any idea of the codes that tie people together.
She couldn’t believe that someone like me would know about an Italian-Jewish 19th-century artist
I was born into a large family at the back of the old Arsenal Football Stadium in London. When I was five my father ran away. I don’t think he managed a single maintenance payment and my mother was left pregnant with her fifth child, on benefits in the late 1960s. It was tough, and we were very poor. I can remember us all sitting around making pajama trouser strings in the front room and was often kept off school to help with the washing. My mother remarried a milkman with itchy feet and we moved 14 times in 12 years. I went to 8 schools, in secondhand shoes, and on free school meals, we were easy fodder for bullies. Years later, a wealthy friend, son of lawyers, asked me why life was always a battle. No one where I grew up would think to ask that question.
Having been at comprehensives and a secondary modern, I ended up at a grammar school where the headmistress asked me if my father drank, after all, he is working class – he is also teetotal except at Christmas. I was one of two working-class pupils in the sixth form and became a Communist and played truant in response.
In those years, I can remember visiting the home of an artist whose work resembled Modigliani. I pointed this out, and she responded, ‘Oh, you know who Modigliani is?’ She couldn’t believe that someone like me would know about an Italian-Jewish 19th-century artist who lived in France. I couldn’t help thinking, why shouldn’t I know as much as anyone else? Thank Goodness for public libraries, my gateway into a bigger world where art could belong to anyone.
Why am I writing this? Because the perceptions and expectations of others feed the perception and expectations of ourselves. My mother’s ambition was for me to work in Woolworths. It took me years to get to university, the first generation in my family to do so. Even then I did it as a single parent in a city of strangers, excited but unsure how to belong, and frankly, without Arts and Humanities Research Board funding of my MA, it simply wouldn’t have happened. I am grateful for that support and aware of what a rare chance I have been given. But it’s still hard not to feel like an imposter. In my early adult life, I spent years listening to intellectual bores who I was convinced must be more right than me because of their class. Thankfully, I have outgrown that – but the shuttle diplomacy between my working-class origins and the middle-class world of publishing continues in an atmosphere of self-doubt and hope. Now more than ever we need to tell the right stories and I believe we need a range of voices to do the telling, anything less will only ever give us a dangerously partial view.
About Bel Greenwood
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