working class

how to write the working classes

The following was recently published on Queen Mobs Tea House.

How to Write the Working Classes by Peter Raynard
(somewhat after Binyavanga Wainaina)

The collective noun for the working classes is ‘These People’, never ‘The People’ or ‘My People’; use of the latter terms will get you the sack for empathetic tendencies. Terms such as rank and file or blue collar are too political, whilst plebeians and proletariat outdated. Chavs has become common parlance, but only use that term to show how they are described by others. Try to maintain objectivity in this regard, as ridiculously hard as that may be.

saggy-trackyIt is essential to make the reader believe there is but one type of working class person; they can be of a different age but they must look related, ideally inbred. The main type will be a saggy clothed, got a loyalty card from Sports Direct, Union Jack pale-faced male who claims he can trace his ancestors back to Neanderthal times, which in reality is just before the Second World War when his great granddad ran off with a Polish woman – but don’t talk about that obviously. Always have them accompanied by a muscle shaped dog, preferably tight-leashed, with a 70s punk rock sell-out dog collar, white drooling jaw, and a ravenous appetite for the calf-muscle of an outsider, which is basically anyone born within a mile of their ends.

female-chavWith females, try to find a young heavily made up woman in her late teens, early twenties at most, with a neck tattoo and a ciggie hanging from her botoxed lips. She must be pushing a pram, if possible with a brown skinned baby inside wailing its lungs out. Even better if she also has slightly older offspring biting at her heels.

When trying to find one of them to interview, go to a Saturday market on a rainy day where the salt-of-the-earth traders shout ‘cum an’ ‘av a lookpand a bowl’ or similar sounding unintelligible  whooping noises, in order to get you to buy their rotting fruit and veg. When approaching them try to speak in their tongue by swearing and commenting on the weather. Begin with the question, ‘how’s business?’ which actually means much more than in the literal sense. That is your ‘in’. Then go onto questions like, ‘do you think there are too many immigrants living in your back garden?’ or ‘how would you feel if your daughter came home with a Caribbean man who claimed he was a rapper?’ Similarly you could ask how they would feel about their son coming home with a gay bloke, who happens to be ‘a coloured’, and is a lawyer or a doctor. Get the camera man to zoom into their yellow teeth as they speak, then pan down to the blue blur of tattoos that sail across their wrinkled forearms, which they got when drunk at sea.

Once you’ve ‘got them’, ask if you could have a look at where they live. This will not only give you a cheap entry but also a safe one. Tell them that you come from a working class estate yourself and that you often go back to visit your withering ancestors. When describing the environment make sure adjectives like concrete, boarded up, brutal, dank, bleak, pepper your sentences like a well-seasoned steak. Highlight the fact that pie and mash shops are all but extinct, although their cultural appropriation is in train from bearded hipsters.

Get them to heap blame on the metropolitan elites (like yourself), who they feel rule over them like hand-me-down warlords from Henry the VIII; politicians will be the main target, but feel free to engage them in wider diatribes against big business, estate agents, and middle-class teachers who try to get their children to learn foreign languages.

However, never, ever bring the Royal Family into this part of the conversation. Reserve that for when you move them into nostalgia, about how life was much better in the good market-traderold medieval days, even though many of them died before the age of five and none of the adults had their own teeth; why do you think they like soup so much? Then move on to Brexit and listen to the range of opinions on this newly found independence, from ‘we can now take our country back’ to ‘we can now send them back’. Pretend to take copious notes at this point to induce a feeling they are finally being listened to.

Ask them about any problems with the estate but direct it towards people; e.g. where five or so years ago you may have inquired about a paedophile problem or the prevalence of ASBO kids, your focus must now be on Muslims, or people with an Arab or South Asian appearance, however vague. Get them to use their senses to describe the stink of the immigrants’ food; then go on to ask them what their favourite meal is when they’ve been out for a gallon of pints with mates – if you’re lucky they’ll say a ruby murray and bingo you’ve got them on the contradiction train. Talk also about the noise from the immigrant’s string-whiny music and the wailing from the wild amount of kids they have. They’ll probably go onto to how these families jumped the queue to get their council house in which they cram so many generations, some have to live behind the wallpaper.

Never refer to any musical or other cultural interests they may have themselves, although it will be very surprising if you found such interests. The only exception will be if they know someone’s second cousin removed who got to the regional semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent with their rendition of God Save the Queen whistled entirely through their left nostril (the other one will have a ring through it). Of course, they may talk about their pigeons or how they collect Nazi memorabilia, but don’t pursue this because you’ll end up in some rotting smelly shed, being offered a roll up and a mug of quarry brown tea.

Finally, before leaving, slip a score (that’s a twenty btw) into the palm of their hand like a Priest’s Vaticum bread, give ‘em a wink, and say it’s been real. Rush off home to submit copy and then furiously shower yourself as if you’ve just been raped.

The Hatred of Poetry and Social Realism, and the Love of the Poetry of Social Realism

I have just read The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner. Lerner’s thesis is that poetry is hated because it can never live up to its ultimate aim of conveying the universal truth. “Poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.” It is impossible for a poet to translate their thoughts into a poem that achieves universality. In the words of Socrates, “Of that place beyond the heavens none of our earthly poets has yet sung, and none shall sing worthily.”

Lerner uses the cliché of the creative dream where you have some kind of enlightened idea, only to see it dissolve when you wake. “In a dream your verses can defeat time, your words can shake off the history of their usage, you can represent what can’t be represented.” But then life gets in the way, with its ‘inflexible laws and logic.” And so he concludes: “Thus, the poet is a tragic figure. The poem is always a record of failure.”

He ends the book quite cheekily and somewhat grandly with, “All I ask the haters – and I, too, am one – is that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bring it to bear on poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences – like unheard melodies, it might come to resemble love.” It is essentially that comment you got from that teacher you were sure hated you; “not good enough, try harder.”

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Charity*

Putting aside my initial reaction that Lerner should maybe lower his expectations a little, I feel there are comparisons in his argument to the ideals behind social realism and portrayals of the working classes. Social Realism began as a movement of artists and photographers in the early 1900s (peaking in the 1920s & 30s); it was a counter to the idealistic and one sided bourgeois depictions of life at the end of the 19th century. It was hugely important and is one of the lesser regarded aspects of modernity. It exposed the harsh realities of working class life with endemic poverty and consequent poor health and high rates of mortality. It challenged the aesthetic in order to change the system. You could argue that the New Deal and the Welfare State were positive policy reactions to the exposure of social realism. (more…)

Conversations with a Taxi Driver, Falmouth by Tania Hershman

Politics? Bollocktics!” said the taxi driver when I told him I was studying the subject, back in ‘92; he then went on to berate a history of politicians in a way that made me believe he must be a ‘student’ of the game himself. His words could apply to a general feeling towards the people’s representatives some twenty four years later.

rsa cabbiesWhen I used to wait for my sons to come out of school, I was one of only a few men in the playground amongst the mothers and other female carers. There would be the ‘odd’ stay-at-home father like me, a granddad or two (usually with the wife), but the other men were mainly Bengali taxi drivers, whose shifts gave them the flexibility (or burden) to pick up their children. A study by the RSA showed that most taxi drivers do the job for their family, and thus for the money, as do most working class people.

Theirs is tough job, especially at night when the back of the cab may be filled with laughter, alcohol (aka motion) sickness, heavy petting, fighting, etc.. In Scotland, the advice given to one new driver was not to wear a seat belt, as you were likely to get strangled if the passenger decided to rob you. At the same time the liberalisation of the market with mini cabs and Uber, means it is a far more precarious occupation financially. Imagine spending three years doing ‘The Knowledge’, only to see the market allowing any person with a banged up motor to call themselves a cab driver.

Taxi drivers also spend a lot of their time waiting; hoping that the next fare doesn’t want to simply go half a mile up the road (only about a third of their working time is paid for). “When you get one [low-paying fare] after another, after another, you know your day’s wiped out.” But when the wait is over, their job is not just driving but also conversing with the punter, whether voluntarily or as part of the service. The one stereotype I do like of a taxi driver is them having an opinion about everything, whether they know what they’re talking about or not. They are not an uneducated group who ended up taxi driving because there was nothing else going for them. One bloke even won Mastermind one year.

IMG_2839Poets have often taken an interest, as they do with most things, in taxi drivers. Michael Symmons Roberts wrote a poem recently for Carol Ann Duffy’s Guardian poems on climate change (taxi drivers are ambivalent about it, as you can imagine when measuring it against their own income). And Tania Hershman does the same in Conversations with a Taxi Driver, Falmouth when ‘informed’ about Mirabella’s Mast; “the world’s largest, he tells me,/holds inside its vastness: stairs. Nor more scaling/rigging, a civilised ascent.” I like this taxi driver because although he wishes to impart his knowledge of the giant yacht, he also likes the mystery (i.e. not knowing) of its height. “Mirabella’s mast, he/tells me, is made of lead, MIRABELLA - From the Mastand we don’t know, he/says, why it is so tall. Just because it can be.” He then goes on to speak with pride about his son who’s in the army and is responsible for driving a General. This allows our passenger to imagine a link to the yacht and a relationship of power. “I imagine, as we go, the son, inside Mirabella’s/mast, leading his General by the hand.” This is a fascinating short poem because it leaves a lot to the imagination, allowing us to drift with our thoughts the same way a taxi driver must do when waiting on their next fare.

 

Tania Hershman is the author of a poetry chapbook, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open (Southword, 2016), and two short story collections: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books, 2012), and The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, Dec 2014). A third short story collection and her debut poetry collection are forthcoming in 2017. Tania is curator of ShortStops (www.shortstops.info), celebrating short story activity across the UK & Ireland, and is working on a hybrid prose/poetry book inspired by particle physics for her PhD in Creative Writing. www.taniahershman.com

 

Conversations with a Taxi Driver, Falmouth

Mirabella’s mast, the world’s largest, he  tells me,
holds inside its vastness: stairs. Nor more scaling
rigging, a  civilised  ascent.  Mirabella’s mast,  he
tells me, is made of lead, and we  don’t know, he
says,  why  it is  so  tall. Just because it can be. A
son, he tells me, drives around a General; he’s an
army man. David,  he says,  David is  treated well.
I  imagine, as  we  go,  the son, inside Mirabella’s
mast, leading his  General  by the hand. Where is
my  command? says the old man. Here, whispers
David.

Friday Night Kings Head by Julia Webb

glasgow menIn the late 1940s, my father and his friend (both aged 14) were sitting in a pub in Glasgow. Two middle-aged drunk men were sat at the bar; they were well known local gang leaders from the notorious thirties. One of the men turned to other: “I dare you to stick this glass in my face,” he said in a fading act of bravado. “No, I dare you to stick it in my face,” replied his sparring partner. So the first man did. Blood burst from his face and the stools went over. But instead of going at each other, they left together to seek out the nearest hospital (Try reading No Mean City for more on Glasgow in the 30s).

Pubs used to be (still are?) notorious for churning out drink-fuelled violence, which often took place in queues – a queue at the chip shop or taxi rank with a ‘you pushing in mate’, or ‘you looking at my missus’, etc. But pubs have long been the social hub for the working classes that didn’t just involve fighting or getting so pissed you start dancing with a table. As I have written before, when featuring Daniel Sluman’s poem Barmaid, my friend married the barmaid in our local and many of my lifelong friendships were forged there. The pub was divided into three parts – the bar, the smoke, and lounge. The bar was where all the older men went after work, and where they would take their girlfriends or wives at the weekend. The lounge was for families. Then there was the smoke, where at one end the oldies gathered (we called it the death end), then the other end where we were – a panoptican of faces spread round the pool table. There were very few women. In fact there wasn’t even a women’s toilet for many of the first years I went. They would have to go round to the smoke or lounge; this meant going outside, which in the wet cold winters was not an attractive option.

Sadly, pubs are in decline. I don’t really put it down to the smoking ban, it was more a result in the rise in property prices, the financial crash in 2008 resulting in the heavy debt of the pubcos who sold the pubs on. Ironically, they are often turned into residential dwellings, with only 10% remaining as pubs. At the current rate of closure (around 30 a week), there will be no more pubs by the middle of the century.

julia authorBut let’s forget about the pubs’ demise for now and engage in a bit of nostalgia with Julia Webb’s funny and riotous poem, Friday Night King’s Head. This is a pub you would love to go to, if only to be a fly on the wall. “Some girl is pulling another girl’s hair and screaming, and some other girls are in the loo skinning up, and Andy is trying to force his way into the Ladies with his watery eyes, wet lips and flat cap.” Pubs are more than their insides, especially in the summer, when people spill out into the car park, the garden or the wall. “there’s a row going on outside, a Cortina is revving its engine, and someone is laughing, it sounds like a tree full of monkeys, but when you go outside it’s just the usual crowd sitting on the wall around the tree smoking.” (more…)

I was mad in ’85 by Adam Steiner

Back in 2006, it was reported that Tony Blair received a request from the Kazahkstani President (that notable bastion, I mean bastard of human rights) to ban Sacha Baron Cohen’s film Borat, as President Nazarbayev felt it didn’t show his country in a good light. The film wasn’t banned in the UK, but was in Kazahkstan. However, by 2012 and with Blair reaping money by advising the country on its economic development, the country’s foreign minister, thanked Borat for boosting tourism.

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Grimsby Dock Tower*

Baron Cohen is up to his old tricks again, and this time it’s personal, well classist. In his new film Grimsby, he plays Nobby Butcher an out-of-work father of eleven children, whose brother just happens to be a Bond-like secret agent (The Brothers Grimsby – get it). As you can imagine, the Grimbarians are not happy. Although meant to be a ‘comedy’ it is once again a film made by an Oxbridge-educated that demonises the working classes by playing the feckless card. He does try to redeem himself at the end by claiming, “We are scum, but it was scum who built hospitals and fight in wars.”

For our purposes today, however, Cohen has made the mistake of dissing a town. ‘Yes, we know we live in a shit-hole but it’s our shit-hole, and no outsider needs to confirm such a state of affairs,’ is how it goes. There are a number of lists, both serious and not, that rank towns and cities; most notable I guess being the annual crap towns that once had Hull (Grimsby’s Humber neighbour), next year’s European city of culture, at the number one crap spot. But it is a more complex set of contradictions that make up the place that we live. People want different things from a town, and it is not always a hate it/love it axis on which you judge the place you live.

ASAdam Steiner’s poem “I was mad in ‘85” reflects this dilemma in the metaphor of a failing personal relationship. As Adam says, his experience was drawn from” the physical environment of Coventry over the last couple of years. It is a strange and challenging place; the combination of the encircling ring-road, old building preservation and the latest phase of reconstruction makes being here a strongly divisive experience you love to hate (like Dylan Thomas’s ‘Ugly, Lovely Town” of Swansea’ “… an ugly, lovely town … crawling, sprawling … by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea-town was my world.”) At once the rising scaffolds and ring-road subways seem insurmountable barriers to change but also jilted ramparts from which to try and make a positive stand about the place and its future – I enjoy that sense of thwarted romance.” (more…)

Hall of Mirrors, 1964 by John Burnside

One of the stupidest things I have done (sorry Mum), which was brilliant, was walking through Coventry’s fairground at night, about one hour after dropping the freshly picked ‘magic’ mushrooms from the ‘Common’ land next to it. For those of you who have partaken in both activities separately, I hope you can imagine the heightened synesthetic experience that engulfed me.

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Image by Sam Leighton*

I never liked the fair (maybe that’s why I did the mushies); I was too scared to go on the major rides, a poor shot with my gammy eye for the different shies, and the music was invariably shit. The main thing I found interesting were the people who worked the stalls and rides. This was before I had any knowledge of their history and what now has become a somewhat jaundiced and discriminatory view of their ‘ways’ (sic).  They were outsiders that owned this island of fun which lit the sky for a week and echoed across the city; one lad stood out, covered in Man United patches, with straggle grease hair, he spun the waltzers with the girls in, or deftly stepped between the dodgems cars to keep the traffic flowing. All of course in the days when health and safety were the antithesis of the fun and therefore ignored.

JOhnBurnsideFairgrounds have been part of the ‘bread and circuses’ of poor and working class amusement since medieval times. I think for everyone they evoke personal memories of their childhood and a shifting sense of history. This is certainly the case in John Burnside’s darkly evocative poem Hall of Mirrors, 1964, where “the perfumes that passed for summer/in towns like ours/touched, now, with the smell of candy floss/and diesel.” But this is not ‘a fairground so much’ and the colour that one associates with a fair is outshone by his mother who is wearing, (more…)

Blooding the Enemy by Marilyn Longstaff

There is much, probably too much, written about class and who the working class are. But class remains important; as the great academic Richard Hoggart said back in the late ‘50s’, “Class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves…We shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.” And academics continue this work, most recently with Professor Mike Savage and team who completed a major research project ‘Social Class in the 21st Century’. They outline seven categories of class, with ‘precariat’ being defined as the ‘bottom of the pile’.

I have it easy, as for my purposes, as I see the working classes are those who lack wealth and/or power – it is a broad church; maybe not as broad as the 99% versus 1%, although that has its place (by the way, Savage et al., estimate that the super-rich now account for 6% of the population – good to know they are sharing the wealth a bit more, eh!). But I do think it stretches into areas and professions not always seen as part of the means of production. (I am certain many poets would relate to this, given their average income, and the extent to which they wield power).

One such profession I would argue is teaching. Many teachers come from the communities they work in, their starting pay is below the average wage, and does not rise a whole lot more above £40k. Yes, they are not poor by ‘precariat’ standards, but neither do they earn similar amounts to other middle class professions in finance, engineering, or health care. Then in terms of their power, or influence, they are strapped in to the national curriculum and all the measures of performance they have to meet. Yet, they know their students more than other professionals, know their needs beyond education, and are such an important part of society’s development as a whole.

Marilyn Longstaff

Image by Simon Veit-Wilson

Teaching is tough, and Marilyn Longstaff’s poem, ‘Blooding the Enemy’, highlights what teachers, have to face, where bullying may not only be between children. “The pig king has entered my classroom/late as usual./He’s been fighting again.” I really like the way Marilyn, inverts the use of the word ‘know’ in a teaching setting. “They know/it’s my first year of teaching, know/I’m no Ursula Brangwen,/know//I didn’t show who was boss/in the beginning.’ (more…)